Home Heating Costs Don't Bother Bill Tolle, a Canny Collector of Solar Energy

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For Bill Tolle, winters, not weekends, were made for Michelob. Six years ago the inveterate tinkerer and retired electronics technician devised a solar energy collector which consists of 1,400 empty beer cans. As a result, the oil tank in his four-room home in Hamilton, Ohio has been filled only once in the past four years.

Prompted by the Arab oil embargo and an ad for a solar collector made of aluminum cups, Tolle (pronounced toll), 70, came up with the notion of converting empty beer cans into solar collectors in 1975. He dispatched his retired schoolteacher wife, Dorothy, 66, "into all these beer joints collecting cans," recalls Bill. "People who didn't know us might have thought we were drinking quite a bit." Tolle then cut the 1,400 cans in half, nailed the 2,800 cups to five 4-by-8-foot panels and painted them black for maximum energy absorption. He covered the panels with translucent plastic and propped them up against the house's south side. Underneath this lean-to is a concrete thermal storage bin filled with gravel.

Now, when the temperature in the Tolle house drops below 72°, a thermostat-triggered furnace blower forces hot air from the collector into the house's heating ducts. Otherwise, the blower forces heat into the storage bin for distribution at night and on cloudy days. Tolle estimates that the entire system cost only $800. "I don't know exactly how much I've saved," he says, "because I haven't bought oil in so long I don't know what it costs."

A do-it-yourselfer since his farmer father died when he was 9, Tolle was a radio technician on a Navy gunboat during World War II and fixed "everything from the ship's chronometers to the captain's fountain pen." During the '50s he worked in an electronics plant, and since then he has dabbled with solar water heaters, hybrid electric cars and the dream of owning property with a 75-foot waterfall—so he could generate his own electricity. "If he'd patented these things years ago," says Dorothy wistfully, "we'd be millionaires today."

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