In this post, I'll give you an overview of solar water heating basics so you can decide if this green home option is right for you.
In my life B.C. (Before Children), I received my Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in renewable energy. After graduation, I worked for a company that operated the world's largest flat plate collector solar water heating (SWH) system and did solar water heating installations.
When we built our current home, we added a solar water system shortly after the home was completed. It's been providing us with hot water since 2006. (We also have passive solar heating in our current home.) Basically, I've had solar water heating in my life for over 20 years now, living in an area where you might least expect to see it (Wisconsin).
- Why use solar water heating?
- Indirect Versus Direct Solar Water Heaters
- Passive versus Active Solar Water Heaters
- Parts of a Solar Water Heating System
- Things to Look for in a Solar Water Heating Installation
- Related Articles
Why use solar water heating?
After heating and cooling, water heating tends to be one of areas where people use the most energy. Estimates range from around 15% to up to 40% of energy usage, with the high end coming from old, inefficient electric heaters.
A solar water heater uses solar energy from the sun to heat some or all of your water. At its most basic, this can be done with a dark container left out in the sun.
Friends of ours camped out on their property while building their home, and set up an outdoor shower with 50 gallon barrels painted black on a platform above their shower area. Another variant of this are the solar camp shower bags that can be filled and hung in a sunny location to provide hot water while camping (or during an emergency situation).
In our case, our solar collectors preheat water for our domestic hot water and for our in floor radiant heating. On sunny winter days, the passive and active solar cover the bulk of our heating load.
Heating a swimming pool is a great application for solar water heating, because pool usage is heaviest when the sun is most abundant.
The first book on the list is from a fellow Wisconsinite, one of the first solar peeps I encountered in the area, Bob Ramlow.
Indirect Versus Direct Solar Water Heaters
Solar water heating systems can be classified in several ways. One of the main classifications is Direct or Indirect.
Direct systems heat the water that is being used. There is no heat exchanger. These systems work best in warm weather areas, because they must be drained when temperatures get below freezing. (Direct systems that are drained during cold weather are called, not too surprisingly, Drain Back Systems.) These systems are also prone to hard water buildup if the water running through them is high in minerals. These are also known as open loop systems.
Indirect systems heat a fluid (generally an antifreeze mix) and transfer heat from that fluid through a heat exchanger to the potable water in the storage tank. These are a must for year round operation in cold climates. Because you don't introduce new fluid into the collector, they are less likely to get mineral buildup. The down side is that these will generally be more expensive because they have more parts. These are also known as closed loop systems.
Passive versus Active Solar Water Heaters
Passive solar water heaters rely on natural convection to move the cold water from the bottom of the collector to the top as it is heated.
Active solar water heating systems have circulating pumps that move the fluid around (normally a polypropylene glycerol mix).
Parts of a Solar Water Heating System
All solar hot water heating systems need a way to collect the heat. Options range from a black painted tank or a black tank in an insulated box (batch heaters), to flat plate collectors and insulated tube collectors.
- Batch heaters combine the collector and storage in one unit.
- Flat plate collectors have fluid piping connected in parallel (typically copper tubing) with metal fins painted black to increase the absorption area, all inclosed in an insulated box.
- Insulated tube collectors are individual tubes with fluid pathways and fins inclosed in what is basically a thermos. No air around the absorbers = no air flow = superior insulation. If we were to expand our system, I'd want these collectors, since they have the lowest amount of heat loss in cold climates.
Where the heated water is stored.
- Batch heaters store the water right in the panel, tank, or storage tank attached to the top of the panel.
- Flat plate collectors and insulated tube collectors have a separate storage tank.
Depending on the type of system, it may or may not include the following parts.
In indirect systems, the heat from the solar panels is transferred to the domestic hot water via a heat exchanger. This heat exchanger may be located inside the storage tank or outside the storage tank.
Inside the storage tank generally improves heat transfer, because it maximizes the amount of water surface area in contact with the heat exchanger, but it there is ever a problem with the heat exchanger, the entire tank and heat exchanger combination needs to be replaced.
With an external heat exchanger, they can often be plumbed into a standard electric water heating tank with the heating elements removed, which reduces costs, but they may not be as efficient as an internal exchanger.
Our current system has an internal heat exchanger, our last system had an external heat exchanger.
In indirect systems with an AC pump, the controller tells the pump when to turn off and on. This is also commonly referred to as a differential controller, because it looks at the temperature differential between the panels and the water in the storage tank.
When a set temperature difference is reached (when the panels get hot enough), the pump turns on. When the panels cool down, the pump turns off.
Indirect systems may have an AC pump or a DC pump. AC pumps are typically powered by the electrical grid. DC pumps are almost always powered by a solar electric (photovoltaic) panel. As mentioned above, AC pumps are turned off and on by a controller.
DC pumps turn on automatically when the solar electric panel generates enough power to turn on the pump. When sized correctly, the fluid in the panels should be hot enough to effectively transfer heat when the pump has enough power to operate.
At our last home, the solar water heating system used a DC pump and solar electric panel. Our current system uses an AC pump with controller.
The solar installer who worked on our current system indicated that he had seen significantly better performance in our cold temperatures with the AC pumps, because the DC pumps didn't have enough power to move the fluid well when it got cold and slushy.
Temperature and Pressure Gauge
Most systems with inside storage will have one of these gauges near the storage tank so you can easily see at a glace the current conditions of the system, and make sure that it is properly pressurized.
Water, even water with antifreeze mixed in, will expand and contract as it goes through different temperature and pressure ranges. To give the excess volume of fluid somewhere to go in closed loop systems, a tank with a bladder that expands and contracts is plumbed into the loop.
Temperature and Pressure Relief Valve
As extra protection, many systems place a temperature and pressure relief valve at the top of the collector(s). If the panels are left sitting in the sun and get dangerously hot, fluid will be vented outside the house to avoid damage inside. There may also be a T&P relief valve on the storage tank.
There are many variations of the equipment, but you always need to collect heat and store heat. You can buy parts and assemble your own, get an entire kit that's ready to install, or hire a contractor to install a system for you.
Things to Look for in a Solar Water Heating Installation
Make sure your solar system is installed correctly
Back in the 1970's push for solar, many contractors installed sub par equipment, and did it poorly. One of my first solar jobs was to repair non-functioning systems in the Orphan Solar Program.
You can't take short cuts or the system either won't work right or will have a very short lifespan. When these puppies leak, they can make a really big mess, so it's not generally a project for an unskilled homeowner (unless you're doing something very simple like seasonal pool heating). Also, improperly mounted panels on the roof can cause major roof damage and even structural failure. Water is heavy, and roof penetrations should always be properly sealed. Whether mounted on the ground or roof, you want to make sure your panels are very secure, so they don't act like sails when a good windstorm kicks up.
Work with quality equipment
The SRCC (Solar Rating and Certification Corporation) tests panels and systems to verify that they deliver the energy they promise. If your equipment isn't SRCC rated, at least make sure it comes with a warranty. Solar water heating equipment must withstand some very extreme temperature and pressure ranges.
Not all material will stand up to the punishment. Some homeowners have tried to save money by running standard PEX tubing from the collectors to the house. Instead, the tubing ruptured under normal (for solar) operating conditions and had to be replaced.
Look for an installer with references
If you hire an installer, make sure they know what they're doing. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) offers entry level knowledge assessment, professional certification, and company accreditation programs to renewable energy professionals throughout North America.
There are also a variety of local training programs in some states. Your system will be a significant investment, so make sure you work with someone you trust.
Take advantage rebates and incentives to reduce your system cost
DSIRE is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Depending on your location, these incentives may help you to dramatically reduce the cost of your solar water heating system. It pays to take a look.
Given that this article is already getting quite long, I'm going wrap things up here. Hopefully this has given you a basic overview of how solar water heating works.
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Last Updated: Jan 2020