Maybe it’s time we learned more about our biggest planetary neighbor - and took advantage of some of its energy bounty.

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Fact one: The Sun bestows enough energy upon the Earth every second to meet the needs of the entire world’s population for an entire year.

Fact two: Buildings are energy hogs. They use 40% of the world’s energy; consume 65% of total U.S. electricity; and account for 36% of total U.S. primary energy use and 30% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Fact three: It’s time to seriously consider the benefits of solar energy.

Let's Look at Solar Energy

Solar energy is all around us in the form of energy wavelengths and particles, heat and light. It is a renewable, environmentally friendly resource available everywhere on Earth, at least part of the time. This energy is provided to us free of charge, we just need to harvest and make use of it. Currently, solar energy use is much more widespread in Europe than North America.

Solar energy can be used in many ways to provide heat, lighting, mechanical power, and electricity. But often, there is confusion about the various methods used to harness the sun’s abundant and clean energy. For our purposes, the Sun’s energy can be categorized in two ways:

  • Light energy (photovoltaics)
  • Solar thermal (heat)

    Light Energy can be converted directly into electrical current through photovoltaic devices. Photovoltaics (PV) is a technology often confused with solar thermal and is, in fact, what many people mean when they refer to solar energy. Photovoltaics (photo=light, voltaics=electricity) is a semiconductor-based technology (similar to the microchip), which converts light energy directly into an electric current that can either be used immediately or stored, such as in a battery or capacitor, for later use.

    PV panels/modules are very versatile and can be mounted in a variety of sizes and applications; e.g., on the roof or awning of a building, on roadside emergency phones or as very large arrays consisting of multiple panels/modules. Currently they are being integrated into building materials, such as PV roofing material, which replaces conventional roofing shingles.

    Solar Thermal technologies use the sun’s heat energy to heat substances (such as transfer fluids or panels) for applications such as space heating, pool heating, and domestic water heating. There are a variety of products on the market that utilize thermal energy. Often the products used for this application are called solar thermal collectors and can be mounted on the roof of a building or in some other sunny location.

    The sun’s heat can also be used to produce electricity on a large-utility scale by converting the sun’s heat energy into mechanical energy. These central utility solar plants are sprouting up around the world.

    Great strides are being made in PV technology, but solar thermal systems are generally more economically feasible at this time. Solar thermal collectors are about five times as efficient as currently available photovoltaic panels, yet they cost about one-tenth as much.

  • Figure 1. Typical Drainback Solar Thermal System

    Not So Simple

    A simple explanation of a solar thermal system would be to say that the sun’s energy heats up water, which becomes “hot water.” Simple, right? Yes and no. Life is never that simple once engineers get involved (see the system schematic inFigure 1). We have an internal drive that forces us to find ways to improve efficiencies and to complicate matters.

    Collector Efficiencies
    We know that the higher the input temperature is above the ambient temperature, the higher the potential heat loss will be. This will result in a lower output temperature, and, therefore, lower efficiency. Because heat naturally migrates from more to less, this result is not surprising. The system will experience conductive and convective heat losses.

    The level of efficiency can depend on which type of collector is used: evacuated tube or flat plate. There is no collector type that is always most efficient, because efficiency is a factor of input times efficiency (in formulaic terms,Output = Input x Efficiency).

    Evacuated tube collectors (seeFigure 2), which can cost significantly more than flat plate collectors, are best if high temps are needed or in low solar energy conditions, like winter. Ironically, because of their higher thermal efficiency, these collectors are slower to melt ice, snow, and frost - inhibiting their function. Hot compressed air is the preferred method of defrosting or deicing vacuum tubes. Debris such as leaves, etc., can also present maintenance problems.

    Flat plate collectors are more efficient if there is lots of sun and a hot water temperature of only 140°F is needed. They can be at least as efficient if 140°F water is desired and ambient temperatures are below 32°F. As an added bonus, these types of collectors  have a lower initial cost and requires less maintenance.

    However, collector type is only one system component that needs to be considered for each project.

    Figure 1. LEGEND
      7. CHECK VALVE
      10. STORAGE TANK
      12. WATER SUPPLY
      13. TO BUILDING
      14. FLOW METER

    Solar-Assisted Service Water Heating Systems

    Solar-assisted service water heating systems generally provide maximum savings when the systems are designed to deliver 45% to 70% of the load (f = 45% to 70%). Oddly enough, in cold climates like Canada, we might get 25% of our hot water load during the summer, but 65% of our load during the winter. To determine the amount of energy required to heat the service water, the following information is needed:
  • Hot water supply temperature;
  • Cold water supply temperature; and
  • Daily hot water demand.

    To meet the requirements set forth in the Federal Housing Administration’s Minimum Property Standards, the hot water supply temperature must be 140°F as a minimum. This temperature also helps reduce water-born pathogens such as Legionella. Depending on the season and geographical location, the cold water supply temperature may vary from 40°F to 70°F, although it is possible to have lower or higher temperatures. This should always be considered when calculating water heating or cooling applications.

    Although many system types, applications and design techniques may be considered for various service water-heating requirements, a few basic guidelines should be followed in all cases:
  • Systems should be designed to be as simple and as feasible for each specific application.
  • Match system design to load patterns and magnitude, and avoid misuse of design rules-of-thumb.
  • Consider system efficiency, as well as collector efficiency.
  • All phases of a system’s control cycle should be examined for potential operational and energy waste problems.
  • Plan for component expansion, movement and service during system design.

  • Figure 2. Viessmann Vitosol 300 vacuum tube collectors installed.

    Types of Solar Water Heating Systems

    Direct Systems (Active)
    This system uses a pump to circulate potable water from the water storage tank through one or more collectors and back into the tank. The pump is regulated by an electronic controller, an appliance timer, or a photovoltaic panel.

    Indirect Systems (Active or Passive)
    In these systems, a heat exchanger heats a fluid that circulates (with or without a pump) in tubes through the water storage tank, transferring the heat from the fluid to the potable water.

    Thermosiphon (Passive)
    A thermosiphon solar water heating system has a tank mounted above the collector. As the collector heats the water, hot water rises up to the storage tank, while heavier cold water sinks down to the collector. No pump is required.

    Draindown Systems
    In cold climates, this type of system prevents water from freezing in the collector by using electric valves that automatically drain the water from the collector when the temperature drops to freezing. Drainback systems, a variation of this approach, automatically drain the collector whenever the circulating pump stops.

    Swimming Pool Systems
    In solar-heated swimming pools, the pool’s filter pump pumps water through a solar collector, and the pool itself stores the hot water.

    Figure 3. Residential Solar System Calculations

    System Sizing: Some Rules of Thumb

    Approximately 440 BTU/hr/sq. ft. of energy generated by the sun could potentially reach the earth. Of that potential energy, 30% to 60% is lost in the journey through the atmosphere, and 170 to 315 BTU/hr/sq. ft. eventually reaches the surface. Here in Illinois, we receive 1260 to 1575 BTU/sq. ft./day of energy from the sun. So for optimum output, panels should be installed at a 45° angle and face south. Optimum output from a panel is roughly 220 BTU/hr/sq. ft.

    For residential applications, collector size is calculated at about 20 square feet of collector area for each of the first two family members and 8 sq. ft. for each additional family member if you live in the South [seeFigure 3]. Up North, collector size is calculated at about the same 20 square feet for the first two family members but increased to 14 square feet for each additional family member.

    Solar storage tank size is calculated at a ratio of about two gallons storage capacity per one square foot of collector area. This provides a buffer to reduce overheating in warmer climates like the southern parts of the United States. As we go north, we actually provide less storage capacity per square foot of collector!

    In the central band of the country, we would want to calculate at a ratio of at least 1.75 gallons of storage capacity to one square foot of collector area. This still helps to prevent the system from overheating when the demand for hot water is low. In more northern climates, we calculate at a ratio of 1.5 gallons storage capacity to one square foot of collector area. 

    Collectors come in different shapes, as do tanks. Using the calculations above, we can see that a family of five, in a place similar to Chicago, for instance, would require about 73 square feet of collector area, and about 127 gallons of storage capacity.

    A circulation pump is required for the solar thermal heat loop, unless it is a passive system. This can easily be accomplished for a typical home-sized system, with a PV-powered DC pump at about 20-30 watts.

    In this case, we would want to consider a drainback system, which will eliminate the need for glycol to protect against freezing. Glycol becomes acidic and aggressive, especially when it is heated repeatedly. We would also recommend flat plate collectors for this project because of the snow that Chicago is likely to experience.

    For additional sizing information, including all of the formulae behind every aspect of solar design, refer to the solar chapter in theAmerican Society of Plumbing Engineers Design Handbook Volume 3, or other similar publications.


    The Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) is a not-for-profit organization that provides a valuable service by serving as a third-party testing, rating, and certification agency for solar thermal systems and equipment. The current standards areOG-100andOG-300.

    OG-100 addresses testing and quality-assurance issues of solar thermal collectors. Units are tested for durability as well as performance characteristics and reaction to adverse conditions.

    OG-300 focuses on testing and quality-assurance of the solar thermal systems. Systems are tested for durability as well as performance characteristics. more information.

    The SRCC will release a new standard for rating installers soon. To date, 72 installers have been certified by the National American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. NABCEP also deals with PV and wind systems. Visitwww.nabcep.orgfor more information.

    These standards and certification programs should lead to inclusion into building codes. I guess that’s a good thing, but that’s sure to bring more challenges with it. The standards are also related to qualification for tax credits, etc. There are myriads of tax credits available, and they can be researched at this site:


    Specifications are an important part of any system design. The new CSI format has rearranged the sections and changed the numbering system. Plumbing is now found in the 220,000 sections.

    Please note that your system may require sections other than those listed. These listed here are only an example. Some of the sections that you may need to include in a solar water heater system specification are:
  • 220500 Common Work Results for Plumbing
  • 22053 General Duty Valves for Plumbing
  • 220529 Hangers and Supports for Plumbing
  • 220533 Freeze Protection for Plumbing Piping
  • 220548 Vibration and Seismic Controls for Plumbing Piping and Equipment
  • 220553 Identification for Plumbing Pipe and Equipment
  • 230993.13 Controls Point List
    But regardless of the format used, the basic objectives and requirements are the same.

    As always, be the engineer! No system or equipment can be the best solution for every application.

  • Additional Resources

    American Solar Energy Society (
    The Solar Hygrogen Civilization, by Roy McAlister
    Solar Hot Water Systems, by Tom Lane
    Solar Energy Industries Association (
    Energy Star (
    Tax Incentives Assistance Program (
    Solar Rating Certification Corporation (