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Solar PowerFrequently Asked Questions :: Solar Water Heating

(source EERE)

Q: How do solar water heaters work?

A: Solar water-heating systems can be used in any climate, and the fuel they use-sunshine-is free. These systems include storage tanks and solar collectors. There are two types of solar water-heating systems: active, which have circulating pumps and controls, and passive, which don't.

Most solar water heaters require a well-insulated storage tank. Solar storage tanks have an additional outlet and inlet connected to and from the collector. In two-tank systems, the solar water heater preheats water before it enters the conventional water heater. In one-tank systems, the back-up heater is combined with the solar storage in one tank.

Q: What types of systems are suitable for homes?

A: Three types of solar collectors are used for residential applications:

  • Flat-plate collector
    Glazed flat-plate collectors are insulated, weatherproofed boxes that contain a dark absorber plate under one or more glass or plastic (polymer) covers. Unglazed flat-plate collectors-typically used for solar pool heating - have a dark absorber plate, made of metal or polymer, without a cover or enclosure.
  • Integral collector-storage systems
    Also known as ICS or batch systems, integral collector-storage systems feature one or more black tanks or tubes in an insulated, glazed box. Cold water first passes through the solar collector, which preheats the water. The water then continues on to the conventional backup water heater, providing a reliable source of hot water. They should be installed only in mild-freeze climates because the outdoor pipes could freeze in severe, cold weather.
  • Evacuated-tube solar collectors
    Evacuated-tube solar collectors feature parallel rows of transparent glass tubes. Each tube contains a glass outer tube and metal absorber tube attached to a fin. The fin's coating absorbs solar energy but inhibits radiative heat loss. These collectors are used more frequently for U.S. commercial applications.

Q: What types of active solar-water heating systems are available?

A: There are two types of active solar-water heating systems:

  • Direct circulation systems
    Pumps circulate household water through the collectors and into the home. They work well in climates where it rarely freezes.
  • Indirect circulation systems
    Pumps circulate a non-freezing, heat-transfer fluid through the collectors and a heat exchanger. This heats the water that then flows into the home. They are popular in climates prone to freezing temperatures.

(Image: EERE)

Q: What type of passive solar water heating systems are available?

A: Passive solar water heating systems are typically less expensive than active systems, but they're usually not as efficient. However, passive systems can be more reliable and may last longer. There are two basic types of passive systems:

  • Integral collector-storage passive systems
    These work best in areas where temperatures rarely fall below freezing. They also work well in households with significant daytime and evening hot-water needs.
  • Thermosyphon systems
    Water flows through the system when warm water rises as cooler water sinks. The collector must be installed below the storage tank so that warm water will rise into the tank. These systems are reliable, but contractors must pay careful attention to the roof design because of the heavy storage tank. They are usually more expensive than integral collector-storage passive systems.

(Image: EERE)

Q: How do I select a solar water heater?

A: Before you purchase and install a solar water heating system, you want to do the following:

Q: How do I install and maintain a solar water-heating system?

A: The proper installation of solar water heaters depends on many factors. These factors include solar resource, climate, local building code requirements, and safety issues; therefore, it's best to have a qualified, solar thermal systems contractor install your system.

After installation, properly maintaining your system will keep it running smoothly. Passive systems don't require much maintenance. For active systems, discuss the maintenance requirements with your system provider, and consult the system's owner's manual. Plumbing and other conventional water heating components require the same maintenance as conventional systems. Glazing may need to be cleaned in dry climates where rainwater doesn't provide a natural rinse.

Regular maintenance on simple systems can be as infrequent as every 3-5 years, preferably by a solar contractor. Systems with electrical components usually require a replacement part after or two after 10 years. For more information about system maintenance, see the following:

When screening potential contractors for installation and/or maintenance, ask the following questions:

  • Does your company have experience installing and maintaining solar water heating systems? Choose a company that has experience installing the type of system you want and servicing the applications you select.
  • How many years of experience does your company have with solar heating installation and maintenance?
    The more experience the better. Request a list of past customers who can provide references.
  • Is your company licensed or certified?
    Having a valid plumber's and/or solar contractor's license is required in some states. Contact your city and county for more information. Confirm licensing with your state's contractor licensing board. The licensing board can also tell you about any complaints against state-licensed contractors.

Q: What other ways can I improve water heating energy efficiency?

A: After your water heater is properly installed and maintained, try some additional energy-saving strategies to help lower your water heating bills, especially if you require a back-up system. Some energy-saving devices and systems are more cost-effective to install with the water heater.

Q: How can I protect a solar water heater from freezing?

A: Solar water heating systems, which use liquids as heat-transfer fluids, need protection from freezing in climates where temperatures fall below 42ºF (6ºC).

Don't rely on a collector's and the piping's (collector loop's) insulation to keep them from freezing. The main purpose of the insulation is to reduce heat loss and increase performance. For protecting the collector and piping from damage due to freezing temperatures, you basically have two options:

  • Use an antifreeze solution as the heat-transfer fluid.
  • Drain the collector(s) and piping (collector loop), either manually or automatically, when there's a chance the temperature might drop below the liquid's freezing point.

Using an Antifreeze Solution
Solar water heating systems that use an antifreeze solution (propylene glycol or ethylene glycol) as a heat-transfer fluid have effective freeze protection as long as the proper antifreeze concentration is maintained. Antifreeze fluids degrade over time and normally should be changed every 3-5 years. Since these systems are pressurized, it is not practical for the average homeowner to check the condition of the antifreeze solution. If you own this type of system, have a solar heating professional check it periodically.

Draining the Collector and Piping
Solar water-heating systems that use only water as a heat-transfer fluid are the most vulnerable to freeze damage. "Draindown" or "drainback" systems typically use a controller to drain the collector loop automatically. Sensors on the collector and storage tank tell the controller when to shut off the circulation pump, to drain the collector loop, and when to start the pump again.

Improper placement or the use of low-quality sensors can lead to their failure to detect freezing conditions. The controller may not drain the system, and expensive freeze damage may occur. Make sure that the sensor(s) have been installed according to the manufacturer's recommendations, and check the controller at least once a year to be sure that it is operating correctly.

To ensure that the collector loop drains completely, there should also be a means to prevent a vacuum from forming inside the collector loop as the liquid drains out. Usually an air vent is installed at the highest point in the collector loop. It is a good practice to insulate air vents so that they do not freeze. Also make sure that nothing blocks the airflow into the system when the drain cycle is active.

Collectors and piping must slope properly to allow the water to drain completely. All collectors and piping should have a minimum slope of 0.25 inches per foot (2.1 centimeters per meter).

In integral collector storage or "batch" systems, the collector is also the storage tank. Placing large amounts of insulation around the unglazed parts of the collector and covering the glazing at night or on cloudy days will help to protect the collector from cold temperatures. However, water in the collector can freeze over extended periods of very cold weather. The collector supply and return pipes are also susceptible to freezing, especially if they run through an unheated space or outside. This can happen even when the pipes are well insulated. It is best to drain the entire system before freezing temperatures occur to avoid any possible freeze damage.

See Heat-Transfer Fluids for Solar Water Heating Systems to learn more about the different types of heat-transfer fluids.

For more information about residential solar systems, see:

Q: What heat transfer fluids are used in solar water-heating systems?

A: The following are some of the most commonly used heat-transfer fluids and their properties:

  • Air

    Air will not freeze or boil, and is non-corrosive. However, it has a very low heat capacity, and tends to leak out of collectors, ducts, and dampers.

  • Water

    Water is nontoxic and inexpensive. With a high specific heat, and a very low viscosity, it's easy to pump. Unfortunately, water has a relatively low boiling point and a high freezing point. It can also be corrosive if the pH (acidity/alkalinity level) is not maintained at a neutral level. Water with a high mineral content (i.e., "hard" water) can cause mineral deposits to form in collector tubing and system plumbing.

  • Glycol/water mixtures

    Glycol/water mixtures have a 50/50 or 60/40 glycol-to-water ratio. Ethylene and propylene glycol are "antifreezes." Ethylene glycol is extremely toxic and should only be used in a double-walled, closed-loop system. You can use food-grade propylene glycol/water mixtures in a single-walled heat exchanger, as long as the mixture has been certified as nontoxic. Make sure that no toxic dyes or inhibitors have been added to it. Most glycols deteriorate at very high temperatures. You must check the pH value, freezing point, and concentration of inhibitors annually to determine whether the mixture needs any adjustments or replacements to maintain its stability and effectiveness.

  • Hydrocarbon oils

    Hydrocarbon oils have a higher viscosity and lower specific heat than water. They require more energy to pump. These oils are relatively inexpensive and have a low freezing point. The basic categories of hydrocarbon oils are synthetic hydrocarbons, paraffin hydrocarbons, and aromatic refined mineral oils. Synthetic hydrocarbons are relatively nontoxic and require little maintenance. Paraffin hydrocarbons have a wider temperature range between freezing and boiling points than water, but they are toxic and require a double-walled, closed-loop heat exchanger. Aromatic oils are the least viscous of the hydrocarbon oils.

  • Refrigerants/phase change fluids

    These are commonly used as the heat transfer fluid in refrigerators, air conditioners, and heat pumps. They generally have a low boiling point and a high heat capacity. This enables a small amount of the refrigerant to transfer a large amount of heat very efficiently. Refrigerants respond quickly to solar heat, making them more effective on cloudy days than other transfer fluids. Heat absorption occurs when the refrigerant boils (changes phase from liquid to gas) in the solar collector. Release of the collected heat takes place when the now-gaseous refrigerant condenses to a liquid again in a heat exchanger or condenser.

    For years chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants, such as Freon, were the primary fluids used by refrigerator, air-conditioner, and heat pump manufacturers because they are nonflammable, low in toxicity, stable, noncorrosive, and do not freeze. However, due the negative effect that CFCs have on the earth's ozone layer, CFC production is being phased out, as is the production of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC). The few companies that produced refrigerant-charged solar systems have either stopped manufacturing the systems entirely, or are currently seeking alternative refrigerants. Some companies have investigated methyl alcohol as a replacement for refrigerants.

    If you currently own a refrigerant-charged solar system and it needs servicing, you should contact your local solar or refrigeration service professional. Since July 1, 1992, intentional venting of CFCs and HCFCs during service and maintenance or disposal of the equipment containing these compounds is illegal and punishable by stiff fines. Although production of CFCs ceased in the U.S. 1996, a licensed refrigeration technician can still service your system. You may wish to contact your service professional to discuss the possible replacement of the CFC refrigerant with methyl alcohol or some other heat transfer fluid.

    Ammonia can also be used as a refrigerant. It's commonly used in industrial applications. Due to safety considerations it's not used in residential systems. The refrigerants can be aqueous ammonia or a calcium chloride ammonia mixture.

  • Silicones

    Silicones have a very low freezing point, and a very high boiling point. They are noncorrosive and long-lasting. Because silicones have a high viscosity and low heat capacities, they require more energy to pump. Silicones also leak easily, even through microscopic holes in a solar loop.

See Solar Water Heating System Freeze Protection for more information about liquid heat-transfer fluids.

Q: Are there any disadvantages to using solar energy?

A: The energy in sunlight can be used for many purposes, including heating water for a building or swimming pool. And using solar energy has many environmental and life-cycle economic benefits. However, solar energy heating or solar electric products often have higher first costs than other, similar products do. This means it will probably cost more initially to purchase and install a solar system than it will to purchase and install another kind of heating or electric system. Still, in nearly all cases, you will recover your initial costs through substantial fuel savings (as shown in lower utility bills) over the life of the product. Many solar systems last 15 to 30 years.

Q: Do solar water-heating systems require a backup system?

A: Solar water heating systems almost always require a backup system for cloudy days and times of increased demand. Conventional storage water heaters usually provide backup and may already be part of the solar system package. A backup system may also be part of the solar collector, such as rooftop tanks with thermosyphon systems. Since an integral-collector storage system already stores hot water in addition to collecting solar heat, it may be packaged with a demand (tankless or instantaneous) water heater for backup.

For more information about solar water heating system components, see the following information:


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