Solar water heaters, sometimes called solar domestic hot water systems, may be a good investment for you and your family. Solar water heaters are cost competitive in many applications when you account for the total energy costs over the life of the system. Although the initial cost of solar water heaters is higher than that of conventional water heaters, the fuel (sunshine) is free. Plus, they are environmentally friendly. To take advantage of these heaters, you must have an unshaded, south-facing location (a roof, for example) on your property.
These systems use the sun to heat either water or a heat-transfer fluid, such as a water-glycol antifreeze mixture, in collectors generally mounted on a roof. The heated water is then stored in a tank similar to a conventional gas or electric water tank. Some systems use an electric pump to circulate the fluid through the collectors.
Solar water heaters can operate in any climate. Performance varies depending, in part, on how much solar energy is available at the site, but also on how cold the water coming into the system is. The colder the water, the more efficiently the system operates. In almost all climates, you will need a conventional backup system. In fact, many building codes require you to have a conventional water heater as the backup.
First Things First
Before investing in any solar energy system, it is more cost effective to invest in making your home more energy efficient. Taking steps to use less hot water and to lower the temperature of the hot water you use reduces the size and cost of your solar water heater.
Good first steps are installing low-flow showerheads or flow restrictors in shower heads and faucets, insulating your current water heater, and insulating any hot water pipes that pass through unheated areas. If you have no dishwasher, or your dishwasher is equipped with its own automatic water heater, lower the thermostat on your water heater to 120°F (49°C). For more information on ways to use less energy for water heating, contact the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse (EREC—see Source List at the bottom of this page). You’ll also want to make sure your site has enough available sunshine to meet your needs efficiently and economically. Your local solar equipment dealer can perform a solar site analysis for you or show you how to do your own. You can also contact EREC for more information.
Remember: Local zoning laws or covenants may restrict where you can place your collectors. Check with your city, county, and homeowners association to find out about any restrictions.
Solar Water Heater Basics
Solar water heaters are made up of collectors, storage tanks, and, depending on the system, electric pumps.
There are basically three types of collectors: flatplate, evacuated-tube, and concentrating. A flatplate collector, the most common type, is an insulated, weather-proofed box containing a dark absorber plate under one or more transparent or translucent covers.
Evacuated-tube collectors are made up of rows of parallel, transparent glass tubes. Each tube consists of a glass outer tube and an inner tube, or absorber, covered with a coating that absorbs solar energy well but inhibits radiative heat loss. The air is withdrawn ("evacuated") from the space between the tubes to form a vacuum, which eliminates conductive and convective heat loss.
Concentrating collectors for residential applications are usually parabolic troughs that use mirrored surfaces to concentrate the sun's energy on an absorber tube (called a receiver) containing a heat-transfer fluid. For more information on solar collectors, contact EREC.
Most commercially available solar water heaters require a well-insulated storage tank. Many systems use converted electric water heater tanks or plumb the solar storage tank in series with the conventional water heater. In this arrangement, the solar water heater preheats water before it enters the conventional water heater. Some solar water heaters use pumps to recirculate warm water from storage tanks through collectors and exposed piping. This is generally to protect the pipes from freezing when outside temperatures drop to freezing or below.