Beccles entrepreneur’s invention helps drive down solar water-heating costs

An entrepreneur has launched a device aimed at making solar water heating more affordable.

Tom Seppings, of Beccles, has created the SolaPlug, which aims to make the heating of water cheaper and also easier to fit.

The invention is a flanged adaptor which connects solar heating panels to an existing hot water tank, meaning that the cylinder can be kept rather than scrapped.

Mr Seppings, whose family run dried flower business Winter Flora, in Weston, near Beccles, said he came up with the idea when he undertook a plumbing course in installing solar heating in 2007.

The graduate of engineering science used his passion for renewable technologies, together with his degree and new skills to see an opportunity in the market.

Mr Seppings noticed through the course that a lot of plumbing work was required to install the technology and that the benefits were not big enough for many people to be able to afford it.

He said: "Environmentally, solar water heating makes perfect sense, the main obstacle has been the high cost of fitting it into existing homes."

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He added: "I looked at ways of making it cheaper. Fitting a new tank is a third of the cost so I looked at alternatives.

"I came up with the flanging arrangement and did some research and I was amazed no-one else had done it. It was almost too good to be true."

Mr Seppings applied for a patent in August 2007, but did not start working instantly. Instead he has carefully grown his idea.

He said: "Somebody told me don't grow too fast, you need to get the product right. It's not just having the idea it is fine-turning."

In 2009 he had a prototype ready and his display at the Ecobuild exhibition at Earls Court, in London, created a great deal of interest.

"There was amazing interest with people queuing up to look at it, and that gave me confidence to peruse it further," he said.

Since then he has continued to work on prototypes to refine the product and has had to get standards changed so that it becomes eligible for grants.

It is now recognised by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme and is eligible for the Renewable Heat Incentive/government heat subsidy.

In total Mr Seppings says the price of the installation of solar water heating falls from more than �4,000 to around �3,000 with the SolaPlug.

He hopes to have 300 created this year from his base in Weston and expects demand to grow. His firm does install complete solar systems, but the product is also available from specialist solar merchants, Plumbcenter and PTS.

The saving and ingenuity of the product has seen the invention recognised by the Rushlights Awards, which praises developments from companies in the cleantech industry.

SolaPlug was highly commended in the Solar Award category earlier this year. The business has also been nominated for the WWF Green Game-Changers Innovation of the Year prize, at BusinessGreen's Leaders Awards 2012.

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