Q. I want to use solar energy to cook some foods, such as steaming rice, veggies, etc. because my kitchen gets very hot. Is this feasible? Can I buy a solar cooker or do I have to try to build one myself?
On a clear day, the heat from the sun can easily create enough cooking energy to steam vegetables, rice, etc. and even bake cakes, potatoes and roast meats.
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It is not difficult to build an efficient solar oven yourself from just scrap boxes, paper and aluminum foil. Also, ready-to-use high-quality solar ovens are available.
Cooking with free solar heat saves energy, but it also lowers your electric bills in another way. By not cooking indoors and adding extra heat and humidity to the room, your electric costs for air-conditioning are lower. A solar oven manufacturer told me a woman reduced her electric bills by $40 per month by cooking with solar.
I have used a Tulsi-Hybrid solar oven for the past three years and it works great. I just unlatch the top and tilt it up. It has a mirror on the other side to reflect more of the sun's heat into the oven. A double-pane glass top over the black insulated oven chamber traps the heated air inside similar to a greenhouse.
This is a hybrid model with electric backup heat for cloudy days. It comes with four stainless steel-covered cooking pans with special black solar-absorbing painted tops and bottoms. It generally takes about 90 minutes to steam brown rice as compared to 60 minutes on the stovetop.
Most of the ready-to-use solar ovens are designed to collapse into an easy-to-handle unit. This makes them ideal for camping or storage. Extra reflector sides can be attached when they are open to provide additional solar heat.
If you would like to build your own solar oven with your children, there are many plans available online. One of the simplest designs uses a large and a small cardboard box. Put the small box in the large one.
For insulation, fill the gap between the two boxes with crumpled up newspaper. Cover it with a clear plastic (acrylic works well) top and face it directly toward the sun. For more heat, wrap aluminum foil over stiff cardboard and position it to reflect more heat into the box.
The following companies offer solar cookers, kits and plans: Clear Dome Solar, www.cleardomesolar.com; Reflections, www.solarovens.net; Solar Cookers International, www.solarcookers.org; Sun BD Corp. (Tulsi), www.sunbdcorp.com; Sun Ovens International, www.sunoven.com.