Harvest the Sun with Solar Water Heaters

Solar water heaters are a smart, efficient way to save energy and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels.

| March/April 2012

  • Closed-loop solar water heaters are appropriate for areas where temperatures sometimes dip below freezing.
    Illustration Courtesy Energy Savers

Barb and Joe Gordon were delighted the day they had a solar hot water heater installed on their suburban Chicago home, boosting their energy independence and helping to create a cleaner world. Now when they use hot water, they take pleasure in knowing it is heated by the sun. The Gordons estimate that their 64 square feet of solar collectors heats 70 percent of the hot water the family of four uses annually, requiring their backup natural gas hot water heater to fire up infrequently.

Conventional hot water heaters are responsible for up to 25 percent of a home’s total energy use, so a solar hot water heater can significantly reduce a house’s carbon footprint and energy bills. In most residential installations, a separate solar hot water storage tank feeds a conventional natural gas, electric or propane hot water heater, which serves as a backup if needed. This ensures the home will never be without hot water—even after a few cloudy days. When quality components are used, systems can last 20 to 30 years and require little maintenance. Three main types of solar collectors are typically used for residential applications.

• Flat plate collectors are insulated, weatherproof boxes that contain a dark absorber plate covered with a sheet of glass.

• Evacuated tube panels contain rows of glass tubes connected to a header pipe. Their high efficiency makes them ideal for high-temperature or space-constrained applications.

• Integral collector-storage systems, also known as ICS or batch systems, feature one or more black tanks or tubes in an insulated box. After passing through the solar collector, preheated water continues on to a conventional backup water heater. These systems should only be installed in mild-freeze climates because outdoor pipes are prone to freezing.

Installing a Solar Water Heater

To determine if your home is a good candidate for solar water heating, also known as solar thermal, first determine your property’s solar exposure. It’s ideal to have unobstructed midday sun throughout the year, but remember that the panels don’t have to be mounted on the roof. They can be mounted as an awning, on the garage, or even in the yard, though this may add to the installation cost.

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Using a solar water heater is a fantastic method of attaining a hot water supply in an economical way at no cost apart from the initial set up of the system. The dominant cost comes from the water tanks in a solar setup, but the rewards in lowered hot water bills can easily equate for this cost. I recently installed one in my home and it has been a fantastic addition since. I also used solar panel heating for the central heating system in my home, so it all links in nicely with us being eco.

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