Using recycled materials, Ward Miner designed and constructed two 4-foot by 8-foot solar collectors that likely will cut his heating bill in half in March and April. During December through February, with fewer sunny days, he estimates the solar collectors saved between one-third and one-sixth of his heating bill. The main component of each unit is 300 recycled soda and beer cans.

Much of the push toward energy independence sees solutions through corporate models - from Cash for Clunkers and mega wind farms to incentives for nuclear and "clean" coal. But one lifelong science buff sees a solution in recycled cans.


That notion emerged from the problem-solving mind of Ward Miner, a laid-off tool and dye maker from East Peoria, Ill.


His wife, Niki Miner, said, "We're children of the '60s. We don't trust corporations. We're always looking for ways to be more independent."


By his own estimate, Ward Miner has come up with inventions or improvements that have earned his corporate employers millions.


After open-heart surgery and several strokes, Miner, 61, is currently on disability. He's home, thinking and tinkering. Lately, he's been thinking a lot about the back of his home's unobstructed southern exposure.


Using recycled materials, Miner designed and constructed two 4-foot by 8-foot solar collectors that likely will cut his heating bill in half in March and April. During December through February, with fewer sunny days, he estimates the solar collectors saved between one-third and one-sixth of his heating bill.


Total investment for each unit was about $200, Miner said.


The main component of each unit is 300 recycled soda and beer cans.


"Aluminum cans," his wife called from the next room.


Ward Miner doesn't drink enough beer to generate any significant BTUs, so he recruited beer-drinking friends to donate to the cause.


He cuts out the tops, punches three holes in the bottoms and spray paints the cans using flat black grill paint that withstands temperatures up to 1,200 degrees. The cans are stacked end-to-end forming a continuous 7-foot tube that builds solar heat as the air moves up the column of cans.


Miner, who earned a perfect score on the science portion of his ACT test at Illinois Valley Central High School, said lots of solar panels can get a temperature variance of 60 degrees. He can get a 140-degree variance.


His panels take in air from the basement, which is a constant 60 degrees. The air rises in the columns of aluminum cans as it is heated by the sun. When the air hits 110 degrees, two $30 vent fans kick on and blow heated air into the dining room.


"We've gotten temperatures of 180 degrees rolling into the dining room. I could get 200 degrees," Miner said. "If we know it's going to be a sunny day, we turn off the furnace. The house might get a little warm during the day and a little cool at night, but it's comfortable."


If the dining room is 72 degrees, the living room is about 71 degrees, he said.


Miner calculates that running two electric vent fans costs about $2 a month.


Aesthetically, the panels are not too obtrusive. The black recycled aluminum cans are covered with Plexiglas and mounted on a standard 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of particle board. The sides are covered in white vinyl fascia. The units are mounted on the south-facing rear of the house at a 57-degree angle.


On Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, the units switched on at 10:30 a.m. and off at 3 p.m., Miner said, noting that by mid-March, the units are on at 8:30 a.m. and switch off at 4:15 p.m.


"The heat is really gentle. No draft," said Niki Miner. "I walk around in socks and a T-shirt, and it's comfortable."


Her husband said, "What really blows my mind is hearing people who purchase solar panels saying they'll get their investment back in 10 years. I got my money back in a couple of months. These units work great. It's free heat using recycled materials."


Equipping a home with commercially produced solar panels can cost thousands of dollars, but those panels generate electricity versus just heat. Federal incentives and reduced prices have shrunk payback time on many units from 22 years to 16 years, according to a recent article in The New York Times.


Miner said snow rarely accumulates on his panels because of the pitch. Since they are at ground level, it's easy to wipe off any snow that does happen to build up, but generally solar heat melts any accumulated snow, he said. He considers the panels virtually maintenance-free.


"Sometimes we go all day without using the furnace. Once this house heats up, it retains heat," Miner said. "On the coldest day, it was 7 degrees outside, and I was getting 145-degree air coming into the house."


Miner is pondering the coming hot days of summer.


"I think we can reverse this. We can pull cool air from the basement and blow it into the dining room," he said. "This thing really blows my mind. The crazy thing is, it's just old aluminum cans."


Clare Howard can be reached at choward@pjstar.com.