What Is It and How Does It Work?

There are several different ways to use the sun's energy in order to provide heat, ventilation, electricity, and lighting in your home. Smart solar design strategies can make your home more comfortable, reduce your reliance on mechanical heating systems, allow you to use less electrical lights, and will help to lower your energy bills.

What Are the Options?


Active Solar

Active Solar heating systems take a fluid - such as air, water or an anti-freeze solution - heated in rooftop collectors and then distribute it either directly to rooms in your house or to a storage system for later distribution. These types of heating systems can be integrated with radiant floor heating, boilers with hot water radiators, absorption heat pumps and coolers, and forced air systems.

Factors such as climate, type of collectors, and how energy-efficient your house is will determine how large the system must be. It may be cost-effective to supply up to 80% of your home's heating needs with an active solar heating system. If you are considering this type of system, you should also make sure your home is well sealed and insulated to maximize the effectiveness of the heating system. In most cases, a supplementary mechanical heating system will be required, but it will be much smaller and cheaper to install and operate than a full-capacity mechanical heating system.

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Passive Solar

Passive Solar Heating includes a series of strategies to harness the warmth provided by the sun to heat your home in the winter. These strategies also account for warm weather in the summer and can help keep you house cool as well. Passive solar design uses your windows to collect solar energy, and your walls and floors to store and distribute solar energy to your house as heat. True passive design does not involve any electrical or mechanical components, such as an HVAC system, furnace, or fans. However, there are also ways to integrate fans or pumps into a passive solar design to make it perform better. Additionally, passive solar design strategies can also be used in conjunction with an HVAC system to reduce the load on your mechanical system and lower your energy bills.

Some components of passive solar design can easily be integrated into new construction with no cost implications, such as including south facing windows that collect solar energy in the winter with over hangs that block summer sun. Other strategies require added design elements, but can also be integrated into most homes and in some cases can be taken advantage of as living spaces. Passive solar design is also possible in existing homes as a retrofit, although your options will be somewhat limited by your home's orientation and other existing conditions.

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Photovoltaic Panels

Photovoltaic (PV) panels are a clean, emissions-free way to convert solar radiation into electricity. By installing PVs on your home, you can reduce or eliminate your reliance on utility-supplied electricity. PV systems can be connected to the electrical grid, or they can be installed as stand-alone systems with no tie to the grid. PV systems can be implemented in a retrofit by adding them onto a roof or wall, or designed to be integrated into the building form, known as Building Integrated Photovoltaic, or BIPV. Although PV panels will be more efficient and produce more electricity in clear, sunny weather, they can also be effective in cloudy conditions. They may not operate at maximum efficiency, but it could still be an option worth exploring if you are considering options for on-site generation of electricity.

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Solar Thermal

Solar Thermal systems use energy from the sun to heat water in a solar collector. The water can then be used either to heat your home or in your hot water system. A Solar Thermal System (also sometimes called a solar water heater) can be either active – using mechanical pumps – or passive – operating solely by thermal properties and gravity. The system includes solar collectors on the roof, a circulation system, a storage tank, and a system to control the flow of water. Many solar thermal systems also include a backup mechanical hot water heater.

Solar thermal systems work by collecting solar energy in the solar collector on your roof. Water passes through the solar collector until it gets hot. The water is then circulated to a tank, where it either can be used directly as hot water or used indirectly to heat water that is used in shower and sinks. In climates where freezing temperatures are common, it is best to use an anti-freeze solution in place of water. In this case, when the solution is heated, it enters the tank in pipes to indirectly heat the water.

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Daylighting

Daylighting is the use of natural light through windows and skylights to provide lighting for your home. Well controlled daylight apertures can make for a more pleasant interior environment and reduce the need for electrical lighting, which can help you save money on your electric bills. Also, recent studies have indicated that natural light can have positive affects on worker productivity and overall health. The daylighting strategies that work best for your home will depend on your climate and the orientation of your home.

When considering the placement of windows, it is important to make a distinction between 'daylight' and 'sunlight.' Direct sunlight can often cause a distracting glare, whereas daylight should provide less dramatic contrast. Including sunshades and minimizing the amount of windows to the east and west – where it is difficult to shade the rising and setting sun when it is low in the sky – can help reduce glare from direct sunlight.

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