Company shines light on inexpensive uses of solar energy

Jon Chesto

Even with an increasing amount of tax incentives available, installing solar panels can be a pricey way for a typical homeowner to harness the sun’s energy.

Bruce Rohr, a Canton resident who is president and a co-owner of Practical Solar in South Boston, has found a less expensive approach. Instead of lining up panels on your roof, Rohr wants to put mirrors in your backyard.

The mirrors, which are part of a device known as a heliostat, don’t generate their own electricity, but they can be used to direct and focus the sun’s light and heat into colder or darker parts of a house. Rohr said his company aims to develop ways that its heliostats can be used to heat water as well.

“Everybody is focused on replacing the electricity from the utilities,” Rohr said. “We’re saying, here’s something a little more simple: How about heating your home with solar energy?”

Practical Solar sells each heliostat structure for $995, and an electronic control system that can manage multiple heliostats for $385, Rohr said. The devices are controlled by a computer to carefully track the sun’s progress in the sky, positioning the mirrors at the most advantageous angle for capturing and redirecting the sun’s rays.

The company doesn’t sell the pole for the heliostat or the mirrors. Rohr said customers can buy them from companies near their homes for less than the cost to ship the items. And, they are easy to assemble.

Rohr, who is trained as an electrical engineer, said that he began actively marketing the heliostats last month. He said he expects the four-person company will be profitable by the end of the year, and he plans to plow those profits back into research and development.

For the past four years, Rohr has leased about 800 square feet for his company in The Distillery, an old brick industrial building on East Second Street in South Boston that houses a number of artists’ studios and other small businesses. Rohr said that when it’s time to expand, he plans to stay within the building.

For now, the bulk of Rohr’s customers are homeowners, although Rohr hopes to expand into commercial and industrial uses.

Bill Stroud, one of Practical Solar’s first customers, said he saw a big difference after he installed a heliostat in his backyard at his hillside home in Milton last fall. The device directs sunlight into what was once a dark area of the house just inside the front door.

“What used to be a cold, dark area is now pleasant, warm, comfortable and bright,” said Stroud, who works as a building manager at The Distillery. “It is now an area where I can have plants growing, whereas before it was just lifeless.”

Jon Chesto may be reached