Solar water heaters

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(The following text is derived from the United States Department of Energy's description of Solar Water Heating technology.)[1]

Solar Water Heater

One of the most cost-effective ways to include renewable technologies into a building is by incorporating solar hot water. A typical residential solar water-heating system reduces the need for conventional water heating by about two-thirds. It minimizes the expense of electricity or fossil fuel to heat the water and reduces the associated environmental impacts.

Solar Water Heating for Buildings Most solar water-heating systems for buildings have two main parts: (1) a solar collector and (2) a storage tank. The most common collector used in solar hot water systems is the flat-plate collector. Solar water heaters use the sun to heat either water or a heat-transfer fluid in the collector. Heated water is then held in the storage tank ready for use, with a conventional system providing additional heating as necessary. The tank can be a modified standard water heater, but it is usually larger and very well insulated. Solar water heating systems can be either active or passive, but the most common are active systems.

Active solar water heaters Active solar water heaters rely on electric pumps, and controllers to circulate water, or other heat-transfer fluids through the collectors. These are the three types of active solar water-heating systems:

  • Direct-circulation systems use pumps to circulate pressurized potable water directly through the collectors. These systems are appropriate in areas that do not freeze for long periods and do not have hard or acidic water. These systems are not approved by the Solar Rating & Certification Corporation (SRCC) if they use recirculation freeze protection (circulating warm tank water during freeze conditions) because that requires electrical power for the protection to be effective.
  • Indirect-circulation systems pump heat-transfer fluids through collectors. Heat exchangers transfer the heat from the fluid to the potable water. Some indirect systems have "overheat protection," which is a means to protect the collector and the glycol fluid from becoming super-heated when the load is low and the intensity of incoming solar radiation is high. The two most common indirect systems are:
    • Antifreeze. The heat transfer fluid is usually a glycol-water mixture with the glycol concentration depending on the expected minimum temperature. The glycol is usually food-grade propylene glycol because it is non-toxic.
    • Drainback systems, a type of indirect system, use pumps to circulate water through the collectors. The water in the collector loop drains into a reservoir tank when the pumps stop. This makes drainback systems a good choice in colder climates. Drainback systems must be carefully installed to assure that the piping always slopes downward, so that the water will completely drain from the piping. This can be difficult to achieve in some circumstances.

Passive solar water heaters Passive solar water heaters rely on gravity and the tendency for water to naturally circulate as it is heated. Because they contain no electrical components, passive systems are generally more reliable, easier to maintain, and possibly have a longer work life than active systems. The two most popular types of passive systems are:

  • Integral-collector storage systems consist of one or more storage tanks placed in an insulated box with a glazed side facing the sun. These solar collectors are suited for areas where temperatures rarely go below freezing. They are also good in households with significant daytime and evening hot-water needs; but they do not work well in households with predominantly morning draws because they lose most of the collected energy overnight.
  • Thermosyphon systems are an economical and reliable choice, especially in new homes. These systems rely on the natural convection of warm water rising to circulate water through the collectors and to the tank (located above the collector). As water in the solar collector heats, it becomes lighter and rises naturally into the tank above. Meanwhile, the cooler water flows down the pipes to the bottom of the collector, enhancing the circulation. Some manufacturers place the storage tank in the house's attic, concealing it from view. Indirect thermosyphons (that use a glycol fluid in the collector loop) can be installed in freeze-prone climates if the piping in the unconditioned space is adequately protected.


  1.  "NREL: Learning - Solar Photovoltaic Technology"