Using the sun to heat domestic hot water is the most practical application of solar energy at this time. While vast improvements to design and a reduction in the cost of photovoltaic cells are making other solar systems very practical as well, heating water for your home is the easiest and least expensive way to get involved in a solar energy solution for your home.
The DIY solar hot water heaters of today are as equally effective as hot water heaters powered by more conventional power sources, namely: gas and electric. A solar hot water panel can heat your home’s water to temperatures of up as much as 140° F.
Generally, there are two kinds of solar hot water heater – passive and active. Both collect radiant heat from the sun into a solar hot water panel, and both can serve much of any household’s hot water needs, while at the same time, both can cut back considerably on energy costs.
An active system circulates water (or other heat-transferring fluids) through a solar water pump, while a passive system circulates the liquid(s) through use of a process called natural convection.
Whichever type of solar hot water heater system one uses, both utilize certain similar components, most notably: a collector and a storage tank.
The most common type of collector is a “flat plate” solar hot water panel – a weatherproof, insulated box made of aluminum or other metals that holds, beneath one or more transparent covers, an absorber plate.
When sunlight streams into the box, its heat passes through the transparent cover or covers and is soaked up by the dark plate which then transfers that collected heat through the heat-transferring fluids that flow through or past it.
A more expensive but often more powerful alternative to the flat plate solar hot water panel is a concentrating collector. These have the potential to produce much higher temperatures than flat plate panel solar water heater systems, although on cloudier days they can actually be less effective than their more economical counterparts.
Though storage tanks are not a required component of solar hot water heaters, without them one can only utilize the solar power available in that given moment. With a storage tank, on the other hand, the solar water heater preheats the water and the tank maintains its temperature until the hot water is needed. A typical storage tank will hold enough heated water to provide for a single day’s supply.
There are both 1- and 2-tank solar hot water heater storage tanks, the first housing its own backup electric heating element to reheat cooled water on cloudy days and during the nighttime, the second feeding into a conventional electric or gas water heater.
If you’re considering installing a solar hot water heater of your own, you may be able to get a free energy audit to determine the potential cost savings you could reap. Whether you conduct one yourself or have it done for you, the energy audit must take certain factors into consideration, including:
1. The ease or difficulty you’ll have routing ducts or pipes from the ground floor or basement to the roof;
2. Whether sections of the wall will need to be opened up;
3. If there’s room on your ground floor or in your basement for a storage tank and how you’ll be able to load it in (ie the width of stairwells and doorways) and set it in place;
4. If your roof is accessible enough to install a panel on it and, if not, whether you have an appropriate site on the ground to put it;
5. How well and how sturdily you can fasten your collector’s supports to your roofing materials (for example, clay tile and slate can be more difficult to work with);
6. How well you’ll like the aesthetics of the system once it’s in place.
To achieve better results with your solar water heater:
7. Aim the solar hot water panel “true south” (as opposed to compass south);
8. Tilt it upward at a right angle to the sun;
9. Avoid shade (particularly between 9 am and 3 pm when the sun’s rays are usually hottest);
10. Always have a backup system in place for periods of excessive use and for off-peak solar accessibility hours.
A solar hot water panel installed properly should perform well for 15 to 20 years. And a solar water heater requires far less maintenance than its more conventional counterparts.
You might think that it would be extremely difficult to build a solar hot water heater, however it is not at all. All you need are the right instructions by your side and a little time and money. And by a little money, that is exactly what I mean. Many people are astonished by the small initial outlay that is required when you are prepared to build your own solar hot water heaters. In these times of increasing environmental pollution and rising energy bills, it makes more sense than ever before to become a part of the solution to the global energy crisis and take responsibility for at least a part of your energy needs.
Even for those people who are dedicated to building or buying a dedicated solar electricity system for their homes, constructing a solar heating system makes perfect sense as a first step. If you can heat your water with the power of the sun, you will have less need for a large and cumbersome electrical system and can get the size and scale of your photovoltaic panels right from the very beginning. There is a fantastic ratio of savings for the initial money spent on a solar heating system, and for only a few hundred dollars on materials and a little on professional instructions you can be enjoying the benefits of solar hot water heaters for years to come.
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