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residential solar water heating system will be 9. to 12 years if the ... with the sun will typically reduce a home's. greenhouse gas emissions by 18 tons over the ...
journal of lightconstruction Solar Hot Water 101 solar water heating has a proven record of cutting energy costs. Here’s what you need to know to help customers choose the By gary gerBer right system. M y company has been designing and late 5 percent per year, then it will save almost installing alternative energy systems $17,000 over 30 years. If the homeowner is since 1975; to date, we’ve installed currently using an electric water heater, the more than 1,000 solar water heat- savings may top $40,000. ing systems. Lately, as energy prices rise at On the environmental side, heating water an ever-accelerating rate, we’ve seen renewed with the sun will typically reduce a home’s interest in solar hot water. greenhouse gas emissions by 18 tons over the A simple solar hot-water system can be life of the system. With an extra 60 to 120 gal- installed for as little as $4,000, while a larger lons of hot water at their disposal, homeown- and more complicated freeze protected system ers can take long, guilt-free showers. We often can cost as much as $10,000. Thanks to the equip our solar hot-water systems with valves recently signed energy bill, the customer’s cost that allow the customer to completely shut off is about to fall; the bill grants a 30 percent the backup heater and use only solar-heated federal tax credit to property owners who water in the summer. install solar energy systems in 2006 and 2007 (see “Incentives Sweeten Energy Bill for Build- Solar Water Heating BaSicS ers and Homeowners,” In the News, in this All solar water heating systems contain col- issue). Homeowners can claim a credit of up lection, storage, and transfer components; to $2,000; for business owners, there is no cap some systems combine all three into a single Figure 1. Flat-plate collectors on the credit. In areas where natural-gas water element. Most systems are designed to preheat range in size from 3 by 6 feet heaters are the norm, the payback period for a water that goes to a backup heater — typically to 4 by 12 feet and are light residential solar water heating system will be 9 a conventional gas or electric water heater. A enough to be carried by hand to 12 years if the value of the credit is includ- tankless heater will also work as a backup, as (above). because the tubing in- ed. Because a well-designed system will last 20 long as it is designed to accept hot-water input side is of small diameter, even to 30 years, it should pay for itself two to three (not all of them are). a large collector might contain times over. If the system saves $250 worth of only a gallon or two of fluid. natural gas the first year and gas prices esca- 42 MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER september/october 2007 www.homebuilders.org www.homebuilders.org september/october 2007MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER 43 journal of lightconstruction Although there are some systems in which In an integral collector storage — or ICS — the preheated water flows directly to the unit, water is heated and stored in a series of backup, it’s more common for the preheated interconnecting tubes in a roof-mounted box. water to be stored in a separate storage tank Sometimes called batch heaters, ICS systems are upstream from the backup. In hot, sunny simple and inexpensive because they require no weather, the backup is rarely if ever needed, pumps or controls. However, since they store but during cloudy periods it may have to pro- water in an exposed location, they are subject to vide virtually all the domestic hot water. high heat loss and freezing (Figure 2). A 42-gal- collection. The most visible part of any lon ICS unit costs about $2,100 uninstalled. solar hot-water system is the collector. There Storage. Solar energy is available only are three main types of collectors, but all basi- for the six to 10 hours that the sun is out, cally consist of a black collecting surface that so heated water must be stored for later use. transfers heat to a fluid. The collecting surface While ICS systems store hot water right in the is typically enclosed in an insulated aluminum collector, most other systems keep it in a sepa- box with clear glazing to trap the heat. rate storage tank located upstream from the A flat-plate collector — which is about 3 backup heater. Because the tank has to hold an inches thick — contains a grid of copper tub- entire day’s worth of hot water, it is larger than ing attached to an aluminum or copper plate a conventional heater. (see Figure 1, page 42). Both components have a There are some systems that send solar-heat- black surface coating; when sunlight hits the ed water directly to the backup, but I’m not a plate, heat is conducted to the fluid inside the fan of doing this with a conventional backup tubing. Sensors measure the temperature in the heater. Because it’s too small to hold an entire collector and when it’s hotter than the fluid in day’s worth of water, this kind of heater will the system’s storage tank, an electronic control- short-cycle and heat the water before the sun ler activates a pump to move the heated fluid to has a chance to do its job. the tank. The uninstalled cost of a 4-by-8-foot In pumped systems, storage takes place in flat-plate collector is approximately $750. a pressurized steel tank that resembles an An evacuated tube collector is similar to a electric hot-water heater. Usually located near flat-plate collector except that the heat-absorb- the backup heater, this storage tank connects ing tubes are housed in a series of evacuated to the collectors with copper pipes (Figure 3, glass cylinders. The vacuum insulates against next page). heat loss in the same way that a thermos bottle ICS and thermosiphon systems are does. Evacuated tube collectors are extremely pumpless. Water moves through the ICS unit efficient but cost about twice as much as con- but does not circulate within it. Within ther- ventional flat-plate collectors. mosiphon systems, which rely on the principle Figure 2. Integral collector that hot water rises, water circulates between storage — or Ics — units the collector and a tank above. contain 4-inch-diameter pipes in which water is heated and stored (top). because of their weight, they are typically craned into place (middle). potable water enters through a pipe at the lower end, is heated by the sun and exits through the upper end (bottom) when a hot-water tap is turned on. 44 MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER september/october 2007 www.homebuilders.org transfer. Solar hot-water systems can be With a capacity ranging from 20 to 50 gal- categorized according to their method of heat lons, these collectors can be quite heavy. They transfer and freeze protection. In open-loop — are also subject to freezing, because the water or direct — systems, potable water flows is stored on the roof. through the collector and is heated there. In closed-loop — or indirect — systems, the tHermoSipHon SyStemS liquid in the collector is isolated from the po- Like an ICS system, a thermosiphon system table water and transfers heat to it with a heat has no pump, but it’s more efficient because it exchanger next to or inside the storage tank. separates heating and storage functions. When Closed-loop systems provide the best freeze sunlight hits the collector, the liquid inside protection because the liquid in the collec- heats up and becomes buoyant, then flows up tor is chemically or mechanically protected to the storage tank, which is located above the from freezing. Open-loop systems, on the collector. It’s replaced by cooler liquid that other hand, are subject to freezing because flows down from a separate line on the bottom the collector contains potable water. While it’s of the storage tank (Figure 5, next page). While a possible to provide some freeze-protection to pump would certainly speed up the recircula- Figure 3. An installer plumbs open-loop systems, I don’t recommend install- tion process, the convective flow is more than an 80-gallon storage tank for ing them in climate zones where there are hard adequate to move the entire contents of the a pumped system (top). the freezes more than once every five years. tank through the collector several times per tank has taps for supply and On the following pages, I’ll describe the day in sunny weather. return lines to and from the most common system designs, ranging from collector, plus a cold-water simpler passive systems to more complex ac- supply inlet and a hot-water tive systems. outlet to the home. integral collector Storage In an ICS system, potable cold water is piped into a roof-mounted unit and preheated by the sun on its way to the backup heater. Water moves through this system only when a hot- water tap is opened (Figure 4). An ICS system Integral Collector is simple and relatively inexpensive, but a lot of heat can be lost through the glass, so the Storage (ICS) backup has to run if the client wants hot water System first thing in the morning. Early manufacturers of ICS systems sim- Figure 4. since Ics heaters ply placed a single bulk storage tank within both heat and store water in a glass-covered insulated enclosure aimed at the rooftop collector, they the sun. Newer designs typically consist of an can be quite heavy, requiring interconnected series of 4-inch-diameter cop- reinforced roof framing. they per tubes in an 8-inch-deep insulated box with are not well-suited for cold glazing on top. climates (left). www.homebuilders.org september/october 2007MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER 45 journal of lightconstruction Thermosiphon systems are available in both open-loop recirculation open-loop and closed-loop configurations. In In an open-loop recirculation system, pressur- the open-loop version, the collector contains ized potable water is actively pumped between potable water, whereas the closed-loop ver- the collectors mounted on the roof and a stor- sion contains a glycol mix that flows to a heat age tank installed inside the house (Figure 8, exchanger surrounding the tank. next page). Heat sensors wired to an electronic Two mechanisms provide freeze protec- controller activate the electric recirculating tion in an open-loop thermosiphon system. pump — typically whenever the collectors are Water gets lighter just before it turns to ice, 5°F warmer than the tank. This “differential” Figure 6. the author’s crew al- creating a “reverse thermosiphon” that pulls control causes the pump to run continuously ways installs a freeze drip valve warm water down from the tank. I don’t rely as long as the sun is out (Figure 9, next page). on the outlet side of the collec- on this phenomenon alone, however; we also If the weather gets cold enough, the collector tors on open-loop systems. If install a freeze drip valve, which opens when could freeze and burst, so when the controller the temperature drops below the collector temperature reaches 35°F (Figure senses an imminent freeze the pump comes 35°F, the valve drains enough 6). This bleeds water from the collector and on and brings warm water up from the indoor water from the collectors to brings warm replacement water from the tank. tank. It shuts off once the collectors reach bring warm replacement water Normally, the freeze valve won’t open unless 40°F. While this is a simple method of freeze up from the house. the primary protection fails. protection, it’s not particularly energy-efficient, Since they don’t involve any pumps or and there are several ways it might fail: Power controllers, thermosiphon systems are simple may go out, the pump can stop working or a and extremely reliable. But, because the tank sensor or controller might malfunction. So, is outside, they have low flow rates and high again, we always install a freeze drip valve just storage losses, making them less efficient than in case. pumped systems. Also, the tank in these sys- Although more expensive than such passive tems is typically mounted on the roof, which systems as thermosiphon and ICS, open-loop means there are aesthetic and structural issues recirculation costs less than other types of to deal with, too (Figure 7). pumped systems. Figure 7. because it’s located in a warm climate, this thermo- siphon unit contains potable water. closed-loop thermosi- phon systems containing glycol are also available for areas where freezing temperatures are common. Thermosiphon System Figure 5. thermosiphon units rely on convec- tion to move hot water from the collector to the storage tank which is mounted right above the collector. As hot water rises into the storage tank, cool replacement water enters at the bot- tom of the collector. 46 MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER september/october 2007 www.homebuilders.org cloSed-loop Because the liquid in the collectors contains antifreeze SyStem a mixture of propylene glycol and water, it A closed-loop antifreeze system is designed won’t freeze. Unlike the ethylene glycol used for areas with moderate to frequent freezing. in automobile radiators, this antifreeze is a These systems resemble pumped open-loop nontoxic food grade additive, so if a leak in the systems, except they have additional compo- heat exchanger did occur, the worst that would nents like a heat exchanger, two independent happen to the homeowner is that the water sets of pipes and sometimes a second circulat- might taste sweet. Good-quality antifreeze in ing pump. One pump circulates antifreeze a well-designed system should last at least 10 between the collectors and a heat exchanger, years. But because antifreeze can degrade and while the other circulates potable water be- become acidic enough to damage the system, it tween the heat exchanger and the storage tank should be periodically replaced. (Figure 10, next page). This type of system is virtually immune to A typical heat exchanger consists of a pair freezing, but the heat exchanger, additional of concentric copper pipes; liquid from the pump and antifreeze increase the cost of the collectors flows through one pipe and potable system. water flows through the other. The liquids don’t mix but heat transfers easily though the conductive wall of the inner pipe. It’s also possible to exchange heat by running heated fluid through a coil inside the storage tank or backup heater, but an external heat exchanger is usually less expensive and easier to repair. Figure 9. An the installer inserts a heat sensor into a flat-plate collector (top); this sensor and another one on the storage tank connect to an electronic controller (middle) that activates the pump (bottom) whenever the collector is 5°F hotter than the tank. Open-Loop Recirculation System Figure 8. In an open-loop recirculating system, a sensor-activated pump moves water between the collector and the storage tank whenever the collector’s temperature is warmer than the tank’s. When the temperature drops, the sensor activates the pump to bring warm water from the tank back into the collector to protect against freezing. www.homebuilders.org september/october 2007MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER 47 journal of lightconstruction Closed-Loop Anti-Freeze System Figure 10 (left). Designed for cold climates, closed-loop antifreeze systems use glycol to protect the collector. this requires a heat exchanger to transfer heat to the potable water and a second pump to circulate domestic water be- tween the heat exchanger and storage tank. Drain-Back System Figure 11 (right). A drain-back system uses distilled water as the collector fluid, pumped from a nonpressurized indoor holding tank. the circula- tor pump runs continuously while heating conditions are good, then shuts off when the Solar-Orphans temperature drops, allowing the water in the collector to in the early 1980s, hefty tax credits and drain back to the tank, thereby high energy prices led to a boom in the preventing freeze damage. installation of solar water heaters. a lot of Old solar systems, like the one on this origi- people entered the business and installed nal wood roof, may no longer be operable all kinds of equipment, then went under but can often be put back into service for a after the tax credits expired and energy reasonable cost. prices fell in 1986. Whereas some of these systems were quite good, others were experimental frozen, there’s a reasonable chance it can and with so many solar companies out of be saved. business, there were few qualified people Inexpensive repairs. our repair crews around to maintain and repair them. as have revived any number of systems by a result, many of the older systems failed making a few inexpensive repairs. Some- and gave a black eye to a legitimate times it’s a matter of spending $450 technology. our company runs into these (including labor) to replace a pump. a orphaned systems all the time; some are leaking storage tank can be replaced for still going strong while others have been just over $1,000, which may seem like a “broken” for many years. lot, but it’s a small price to pay to repair a Bad advice. When homeowners move system that would cost $6,000 new. into a house with a nonfunctioning system, the most common problem with a they’re almost always advised to tear it pumped system is a failed sensor or loose out. unfortunately, most of the people wire. these repairs may cost only $100, giving this advice — plumbers, roofers, but most plumbers don’t know how to and gcs — don’t know anything about make them. Figure 12. A pumped system solar water heating. Sometimes the problem is simply that typically contains more than an experienced solar hot-water in- the homeowner doesn’t know how to turn one flat-plate collector (top). to staller can tell you which systems should on the system. allow for easy installation and be torn out and which can be repaired. repair, the author joins the col- if the system was built with high-quality lectors with unions (bottom). components and the collectors have never 48 MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER september/october 2007 www.homebuilders.org drain-Back SyStem would install two 4-by-8-foot collectors (Figure A drain-back system is a closed-loop system 12, previous page). that relies on a pump to lift distilled water The relationship between collector and from a non-pressurized indoor reservoir tank varies by climate. In the Sun Belt, the and move it through the collector. When the rule of thumb is 1 square foot of collector per outdoor temperature is high enough and the 2 gallons of tank capacity (daily use). In the collector is warmer than the reservoir, the Southeast and Mountain states, this ratio is pump comes on and circulates water between 1-to-1.5, in the Midwest and Atlantic states it’s the reservoir and collector. When the pump 1-to-1, and in the Northeast and Northwest it’s is off, gravity causes the water to drain out of 1-to-.75. the collectors and into the reservoir below. The controller won’t activate the pump when the orientation outdoor temperature is close to freezing; this It’s generally best to face the collectors due keeps water out of the collector, which protects south, though in some cases it’s wise to ac- the system (Figure 11, previous page). count for local weather patterns. For example, Solar-heated water is stored in the reservoir in the San Francisco Bay area there are a lot of and transferred to the potable water with an overcast mornings, so we prefer to orient col- internal or external heat exchanger. In some lectors slightly more to the west. designs, a second pump moves water between For optimal annual collection, collectors the heat exchanger and the storage tank. In should not face straight up, but should be tilt- others, the reservoir is the tank, so there’s no ed above horizontal to an angle 5 to 10 degrees need for a second pump. higher than the latitude at which they are Drain-back systems provide troublefree, reli- located. Our latitude is 38 degrees, so ideally able freeze protection because the closed side the collectors would be tilted 43 to 48 degrees. of the loop contains distilled water, which, The steeper angle makes for better wintertime unlike glycol, doesn’t require periodic replace- solar collection, when the sun is lower in the ment. On the other hand, drain-back systems sky. In cases where aesthetic concerns trump require greater pump power to lift fluid to the efficiency, we’ll install the collectors at the collectors. same pitch as the roof. temperature rise. When an actively deSigning tHe SyStem pumped system has been properly sized, each Because there are bound to be periods when exchange of water will increase the tempera- Figure 13. When this sys- the sun doesn’t shine for several days in a row, ture in the storage tank 10°F. On an average tem is up and running, the there’s no point in trying to design a solar hot- day, there might be eight exchanges, creating gauges (top) will show how water heating system that provides 100 percent a total temperature rise of 80°F; in hot, sunny much heat the water gains as of the total yearly hot-water demand. We typi- weather it could be more. Our systems rou- it passes through the collec- cally aim for 60 percent to 80 percent capacity, tinely reach 180°F in the summer, especially tors. because the water may with the backup heater providing the rest. when water usage is low. This water would be become too hot to safely use, As a rule of thumb, we assume that each too hot to use safely, so to prevent scalding we the author always installs a person in a household uses 20 gallons of hot install a tempering valve downstream from the tempering valve to prevent water per day, so a family of four would need backup heater. scalding (middle). A pressure an 80-gallon storage tank. In our mild San relief valve (bottom) opens if Francisco Bay–area climate, 1 square foot of the collector itself gets too hot; collector will produce about 1.5 gallons of hot the cylindrical valve at the top water per day, so a system with an 80-gal- automatically bleeds air from lon tank requires 53 square feet of collector. the system. Since collectors aren’t available in that size, we www.homebuilders.org september/october 2007MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER 49 journal of lightconstruction Excessive pressure can build up in the col- Structural issues. To install the collectors, lectors if they get too hot, so as a matter of we use the same mounting hardware we use to course we install a pressurerelief valve on the install the roofmounted portions of a photo- pipe where fluid exits the collector or group voltaic system (see “Installing Solar Electric of collectors. A closed-loop system will have Power,” 3/05). The best approach is to install a pressurerelief valve on the roof and, if the post mounts before the roofing material goes loop contains glycol, an expansion tank in the on, but it’s also possible to retrofit various building (Figure 13, previous page). mounting brackets over the shingles. Weight is rarely a concern with flatplate inStallation collectors, the largest of which weigh less than The lines to the roof are usually 3⁄4-inch cop- 175 pounds even when full of water. However, per. We don’t use PEX because in California a full ICS unit might weigh 500 pounds, and it’s illegal to use it for potable water — plus the the system might require more than one unit. high temperatures found in the closed loop of In such a case, it’s important to find out if the a glycol system could easily be too hot for it. roof can carry the load. On new work, we run the lines up through power needs. Most pumps will run on less Figure 14. the author’s crew the house. Because we work in a mild climate, than one amp of electricity, so inspectors often insulates every pipe that on retrofits we usually run pipes down the allow us to tie into an existing circuit or share contains hot or warm water. exterior of the house. We insulate all the pipes a circuit with another load in new construc- Here, an installer protects the that carry hot or recirculated liquid with 3⁄4- tion. A few inspectors require us to install neoprene insulation with an inch neoprene, which handles high tempera- a separate circuit. In some jurisdictions, it’s aluminum jacket. tures better than plastic foam insulation does. legal to plug pumps and controllers into wall Without UV protection, the sun will destroy receptacles, which we do whenever possible to this insulation in less than five years, so we reduce wiring costs. n jacket it with aluminum (Figure 14). Another option is to protect the insulation with a painted coating, but a metal jacket Gary Gerber is the owner of Sun Light & Power in looks better. Berkeley, Calif. He has been in the solar business since 1975. 50 MID-ATLANTIC BUILDER september/october 2007 www.homebuilders.org 2007 SponSor Club Members do business with members Presenting MeMbers TakingCareofBusiness WeTakeBanking Personally WeDon’tJustInsure Builders,WeHelpBuilda FirewallSpecialists AllThingsFinancial BetterBottomLine contributing MeMbers Allied Building Products K. Hovnanian Homes Reznick Group Susquehanna Bank ExpectExcellence TheFirstNameinLastingValue BuildingBusinessValue T.W. 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