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Renewable Energy: Using Solar Energy to Heat Your Home

Updated on March 27, 2013

A Review of Solar Technology

Solar energy is no new concept. In fact, for hundreds even thousands of years people have been finding ways to use energy from the sun to make life better. For example, ancient Roman bathhouses used solar radiation to warm water. Romans and Greeks also used passive solar architecture to heat their homes throughout the year. In 1676, Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure invented the first solar collector which was used in the 1830s by Sir John Herschel to cook food during his South Africa expedition. And in the 1860s the first solar powered engine was designed and built by French mathematician August Mouchet.

Today, solar technology has grown to the point where we can collect and store relatively large amounts of energy from the sun to be used for our electricity needs. This energy can now be stored in batteries, used for electricity in your home, or even funneled back into the electrical grid to take the place of traditional fossil fuels. Solar panels are becoming more efficient and more easily manufactured which has resulted in somewhat lower costs. And while recent technological advancements have made solar panels more popular, there are also traditional methods for using solar energy to heat water and homes that remain relevant today.

Here is an example of a house using both passive and active solar energy.
Here is an example of a house using both passive and active solar energy.

Passive vs Active Solar Heating

When deciding how best to use solar energy in your own home, it is important to first know that there are different methods of doing so. Passive solar energy is using sunlight to heat a room or area without having to employ any kind of mechanical system. One great example of this is passive solar architecture which is characterized by large, southern facing windows. This style of architecture allows sunlight to filter into a home or room through large double or triple pained windows. The floor plan of the house is usually designed to radiate heat to every room and also to allow heat to escape on hot summer days. Of course passive solar architecture can't be implemented in a home that is already built. Use this method if you are planning on building a home or are interested in a remodel which can be done in some instances.

Active solar heating involves solar panels and solar collectors to capture energy from the sun that can be used for electricity and heating. This method of "actively" using solar energy can also include the use of electrical pumps and fans to help heat your home by circulating warm air throughout the house. These mechanical components are also used to move warm air out of rooms on warm summer days so the house doesn't become uncomfortably hot. Other, more common ways of using active solar energy is with solar photovoltaic panels to collect energy, and using solar hot water collectors to heat and store hot water for your home.

Find Out More About Passive Solar Heating

Rooftop solar collectors heating hot water.
Rooftop solar collectors heating hot water.
Diagram explaining how solar collectors can be used to heat water in a home.
Diagram explaining how solar collectors can be used to heat water in a home.

Solar Hot Water Heating

The idea of using solar energy to heat hot water in the United States first began around 1900 in California. The first residential hot water heater called "Climax" was a series of tubes containing water that were mounted on a rooftop. The Climax became popular in California and Florida, but it's sales stalled because the units could not survive harsh winters. Solar hot water heating in the United States remained fairly popular until around 1950 when the price of electricity dropped in the California and Florida areas. It just became cheaper to heat water using a new electric water heater, and so it was around this time that the solar hot water heating industry came crashing down.

Modern solar hot water heaters are more reliable and efficient than those of the past. And most people don't realize that 12 - 17% of their home electricity bill comes from heating water. Although electricity is relatively cheap still in the United States, you can usually make up for the $4000 - 5000 upfront cost of a solar hot water heater within the life of the unit.  With the growing concern over burning up all of our fossil fuels, it makes sense to invest in a solar hot water heater. Systems are more reliable than ever, and as mentioned before, solar hot water heaters can pay for themselves through savings on your electricity bill.

Most solar hot water heaters come as part of a "kit" so you can also save money by installing the system yourself. There are many models to choose from, all with different capacities and physical sizes to consider. When purchasing a solar hot water system you should first do a little research to find out how much hot water you use on a daily and monthly basis. You want to invest in a system that will fulfill your needs but at the same time not be too large as to lose its efficiency.

Here is an example of a solar hot water heater being used to heat water for a pool.
Here is an example of a solar hot water heater being used to heat water for a pool.

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An example of new "Solar Shingles".
An example of new "Solar Shingles".

Using Solar Panels to Capture and Store Energy

Solar photovoltaic cells or "solar panels" are the most popular modern way of using solar energy. These panels can be used to collect and store energy from the sun to be used in your home, or put back onto the electrical grid. There are many advantages and disadvantages to using solar panels on your home. The biggest disadvantage is a high upfront cost, which can usually be recovered within around 10 - 15 years of your initial investment. While this seems like a long time, if you start using solar now you will be that much closer to becoming energy dependent in the years to come.

There is new technology on the horizon that will lower the costs of solar panel systems and increase their efficiencies. When these new design and manufacturing methods are refined, there will no doubt be once again an increased interest in solar energy in the United States. New technology means lower upfront costs, smaller panel sizes, more storage capacity, and higher efficiency. These advantages could potentially turn solar energy into the largest source of renewable energy, ahead of wind and hydroelectric.


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    • Eclairman profile image

      Eclairman 6 years ago

      It's interesting ... that will give me some beautiful ideas ^^

    • MazioCreate profile image

      MazioCreate 6 years ago from Brisbane Queensland Australia

      Great hub! In Australia there has been some controversy about the quality of solar panels that are currently on the market. On the other hand I have friends who are not connected to the grid and have a bank of cells with a diesel generator for the wet season. Works a treat.

    • RGEES profile image

      RGEES 6 years ago from NC

      Just adding that Phase change materials are able to enhance the efficiency of Solar water systems, keep the water hot for much longer time.