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Frequently 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:

Installing and Maintaining the System
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:

 

 

 
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