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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Harnessing Savings from the Sun

The decision to install a solar hot water system on his honey house was made long before going eco-friendly was in vogue, but it has well and truly paid off, Heaphy Honey owner Keith Tomlinson says. After 15 years of using the installation, the Tasman beekeeper believes more honey houses could cut costs and be more eco-friendly by harnessing the water heating powers of the sun.

For many beekeeping businesses the drop in honey prices in recent years are taking a toll and so apiarists should be looking at a range of ways to cut costs, Tomlinson says. At Heaphy Honey, which he has grown from 200 hives when he bought the business in 1985 to about 800 now, reducing waste and unnecessary costs has always been a core philosophy though.

“We have been eco or conversation minded since I started the business. At that stage it was motivated by economics. I simply had to save every dollar I could,” Tomlinson says.

Heaphy Honey was also registered as an organic honey producer until 2010, when varroa reared its head. Re-registering will be considered if an organic varroa treatment plan, currently in the works, proves successful.

The business is owned in partnership between Tomlinson, his wife Nancy-Jean Bell and Lars Moeltgen who carriers out the day-to-day beekeeping along with one other part time staff member. It is located on the outskirts of the Kahurangi National Park, with Takaka the nearest township, 30 kilometres away.

Due to the location of the business base and their beehives, getting honey boxes to a contract extraction facility was becoming increasingly uneconomic and so Tomlinson decided to install his own extraction facility, complete with solar water heating system, in 2006.

“We built our own honey house with underfloor heating and got some pretty good high quality European solar hot water panels and plumbed them into our hot water supply. I built my own house and did the same sort of thing and we pay hardly anything for power. The biggest use of power is for heating water and this system will boil the water unless we use it. It is incredibly efficient. I also use hot water to heat the hot room, for anywhere in the extracting room where we might need it, and it doesn’t cost me a cent. It is absolutely brilliant.”

Heaphy Honey’s solar water heating system, an “incredibly efficient” way for beekeepers to heat water for extraction facilities says owner Keith Tomlinson.

The water is heated in copper pipes coiled inside two solar panels located at ground level alongside the building, with it then pumped into the shed and distributed to each of three circuits – underfloor, hot room or extraction room – via a pipe and valve system with no computer needed. A 350-litre hot water cylinder with coils acts as a heat exchanger.

The simplicity of the system appeals to Tomlinson as it makes diagnosing and fixing any problems easy. All up it cost him less than $2000 to install, not including his labour, with the solar panels picked up for $700 each when a North Island business sold up. For an easy cost saving comparison, the similar setup on their house results in an average power bill of $30 a month.

“It’s cheap, affordable and it pays dividends straight away. If you have another use for the hot water you could just disconnect the hot water panels and put them on your house for winter if you want.”

The business also makes use of the hot water for melting out wax frames in a large water bath at 60 to 80 degrees.

For beekeepers who extract their own honey, solar water heating makes sense because the systems provide the most hot water when it is needed most, in summer, Tomlinson adds.

Heaphy Honey owners Keith Tomlinson, left, and Lars Moeltgen, have always taken an eco-friendly approach and in the current economic climate it is paying off, Tomlinson says.

The Heaphy Honey owner says he is “gobsmacked” by the waste and inefficiencies he sees in beekeeping businesses and in general. However, for Heaphy Honey to persevere through five different decades and associated fluctuating honey prices, plus their geographic isolation, means they have had to adapt a mantra of waste-minimisation and efficiencies to make the business a viable concern.

“This was all done before the manuka boom when I was struggling to make ends meet. With kids and a family to support you have to get maximum use of your resources to make a dollar. Now of course it is very fashionable to be eco-friendly, but I have been there a long time. I did it for different reasons, but I am really glad I did it,” Tomlinson says, adding “I would like to take a lot of credit for what I’ve done, but really it just made sense at the time and also turned a dollar.”


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