Solar Heating

Green your home with a solar heater

Households powered by solar energy have left the pages of science fiction to become a viable option for many forward-thinking families. As a clean, renewable energy source, solar power is gentler on the environment and on your wallet, since many states offer tax credits when you own a solar heating system. In the midst of an economic downturn and rising fuel costs, solar heating could be the solution for the next generation of homeowners.

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Active and Passive Solar Heating

A solar heating system absorbs radiation from the sun to create thermal energy for heating water, pools and living spaces. Residential homes can use active solar heating (which requires solar collectors, a storage unit and a heat transfer system) or passive solar heating (which incorporates absorption materials and other accommodations into the home design), both of which are often paired with a backup system, such as a gas furnace or a heat pump.

Active systems can use an air or liquid-based method of collecting the energy and typically generate more heat because they do not rely on natural circulation. On the other hand, passive heating is achieved by non-mechanical means, using features like stone floors, expansive windows and strategically placed solar heating panels, while heat circulates naturally or with the help of a fan. Active solar heating is used more often in residential settings, as it operates efficiently even in less-than-ideal conditions.

Solar Heating in Hot Water Systems

In addition to space heating, solar heaters can power domestic hot water systems by active and passive means. Active solar water heaters function by direct circulation (transferring heat to water as it is pumped through the collectors) or indirect circulation (using a heat-transfer agent to heat water), while passive heaters use integral (collecting heat and storing water in the same unit) or thermosyphon (circulating when warm water rises to the top of the storage tank) systems.

Direct active heating and integral passive heating are both prone to freezing, and are therefore used primarily in warmer climates. In all cases, look for detailed system controls that will assist you in tracking and regulating the temperature.

Using Solar Heating in Your Home

Even if you are enthusiastic about setting up a home solar heating system, local regulations, zoning laws or homeowner's associations can hold up the process. Before making any firm plans, research local laws and apply for any special permits that may be required for installing solar collectors on rooftops.

Your preliminary research should also include an assessment of your home's energy load. If the system will not be used for at least 40 percent of your heating needs, it is probably not a worthwhile investment. To get the maximum efficiency and longevity, consider combining active and passive heating methods, or use small room air collectors that don't require storage if a full system isn't necessary for your home.

A quality contractor will guide you in choosing the size, efficiency and layout of the solar heating system, as well as explain required maintenance in the future. Once the heating system is in place, you will undoubtedly see the difference in utility bills and breathe easier knowing your energy costs won't suddenly skyrocket.