Solar Water Systems - Helpful Installation Tips

Build your own solar hot water systemSolar water systems are a cost-efficient way to provide any home with large amounts of hot water.

How do solar water heaters work?
The systems employ solar collectors and well-insulated storage tanks. Water is circulated from and into the tank, through the heated solar collector. In some climates, the collector will be enough to heat the water to the needed temperature. In other climates, the water can be preheated to a certain degree, and then heated further by a conventional water heater. There are two main types of sun-powered heaters: passive (with no electrical or mechanic devices) and active (with pumps and controls).

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Solar Collector Designs:
  • Flat plate collectors (glazed insulated boxes with dark absorber plates under glass covers, or unglazed units with dark absorber plates without a cover; often used for pool water heating);
  • Integral active collector storage units (black water tanks or black tubes in insulated glazed boxes, usually installed in a mild-freeze climate; often used in conjunction with conventional water heaters);
  • Evacuated tube collectors (rows of parallel glass tubes with metal absorbers, frequently used for commercial applications).

Active Solar Water Systems:

  • Direct circulation systems (use of pumps to circulate water through the heated collectors and back into the home; it works well in mild-freeze climates);
  • Indirect circulation systems (use of pumps to circulate a nonfreezing heat transfer fluid to heat the water through a heat exchanger; popular in freezing-prone climates).

Passive solar water systems are less expensive and more reliable than active systems. However, they are usually also less efficient.

Passive Solar Water Systems:

  • Integral passive collector storage systems (work best in temperatures below freezing and suit households with considerable hot water needs);
  • Thermo-siphon systems (reliable but heavy systems, where the collector is installed underneath the water tank, allowing warm water to rise into the storage tank and cooler water to sink)

If you want to implement solar water systems for water heating, note that you will probably also need a backup (conventional storage water heater) for cloudy days.

Purchasing and Installing
Before purchasing and installing a solar water system for water heating, you may want to follow these tips:

  • Evaluate your area's solar resource;
  • Estimate the size of your system;
  • Determine the energy efficiency of your system;
  • Compare system costs;
  • Check into the local codes and regulations.

Installation and Maintenance
Can you install these systems on your own? Yes, you can, because some systems are very easy to install. In order to properly install your system, you will need to consider your local climate, solar resource, requirements of your local building code, safety requirements, and other important factors.

However, note that in some jurisdictions you will be required to use the services of a professional contractor with a valid solar contractor's license or valid plumber's license. You can contact your local authority for more information, as well as you can confirm licensing with the contractor licensing board in your area (this is also where you can inquire about any complaints filed against licensed/unlicensed contractors).

Once the system is installed, it is quite easy to maintain. In general, you may be required to clean the glazing and check that the system is functioning properly.

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