Solar companies in California are expecting a boost now that projects are eligible for rebates.

The California Solar Initiative Thermal Program was started in 2007 and offered rebates for residential projects and solar hot water heating systems, but didn’t provide rebates for commercial pools.

“Adoption of solar pool heating for commercial pools has been fragmented,” said Roy Heine. “Market penetration has not been strong.”

The founder of Irvine, Calif.-based Suntrek Industries has more than 20,000 solar swimming pool heaters among his completed projects, but to date only approximately 1,000 of them are commercial. Now the company is lining up eligible solar pool projects at housing complexes and hotels.

Legislation for the commercial pool rebates went into effect in January 2013, but suffered from delays – and contractors waited to get started on projects. The rebates were available in January with some hiccups, but now the rebates and the online tool to calculate a project’s rebate are live.

However, the program’s delays equaled caution for Ameco Solar, based in suburban Los Angeles.

“We have a few projects that we bid, but I wanted to wait,” said Patrick Redgate, company president and CEO. “We’ve been in business 40 years, and we didn’t last this long by being premature. Now that the program pretty much is going, … we’ll be able to put together [a number of projects] and hopefully get them going.”

To be eligible for a rebate, projects must meet certain requirements from the program administrators – Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas Co. and the Center for Sustainable Energy – plus contractors need to complete a one-day qualification training.

Aztec Solar Inc., based in Sacramento, previously has done commercial solar pool heating projects for schools and community pools, and expects these types of projects to be more popular now because of the rebate.

“It should increase [the number of projects] dramatically,” said Ed Murray, president. “We should probably be doing 20 or so this year, I would guess, where we did maybe eight last year.”

The rebate will reimburse pool owners for a significant amount of the project cost, about 50 percent by most estimates. The program is tiered, meaning the first eligible projects will get the most reimbursement. The first tier is a rebate for $7 per annual therm displaced. From there, it moves to $5 per therm and then to $3 per therm. The CSI Thermal Program has $300 million total available for rebates, and it’s not yet broken down for a specific portion earmarked for commercial pool projects.

With commercial pool heating projects being eligible, organizations that previously wouldn’t have considered solar thermal projects will, including homeowners associations, hotels, schools and municipalities.

“We’ve done a number of commercial jobs over the last 40 years in pool heating throughout the state, and there aren’t too many solar companies that can claim that,” Redgate said. “We want to take advantage of our capabilities and our reputation.”

The rebate also will dramatically increase the return on investment. Where it might have taken more than a decade for some pools to completely pay off the project with energy cost savings, now that could be half the time or less.

“There’s no better time than now to add a solar pool heating system for a commercial pool,” Heine said.