Water heating accounts for a substantial portion of energy use at many residential, commercial, institutional, and federal facilities. Nationwide, approximately 18% of energy use in residential buildings and 4% in commercial buildings is for water heating. Solar water heating systems, which uses the sun's energy rather than electricity or gas to heat water, can efficiently provide up to 80% of the hot water needs - without fuel cost or pollution and with minimal operation and maintenance expense.
Water heating accounts for a substantial portion of energy use at many residential, commercial, institutional, and federal facilities. Nationwide, approximately 18% of energy use in residential buildings and 4% in commercial buildings is for water heating. Solar water heating systems, which uses the sun's energy rather than electricity or gas to heat water, can efficiently provide up to 80% of the hot water needs—without fuel cost or pollution and with minimal operation and maintenance expense. Solar currently represents 1% of the water heating market (about 3% of buildings have solar and it provides about 1/3 of the energy for each). In 2003, 11.4 million sq. ft. of collector area were delivered by 27 manufacturers. Most of these were unglazed collectors for swimming pools, a very cost-effective application.
Solar water heating systems can be used effectively throughout the United States at residences and facilities that have an appropriate near-south-facing roof or nearby unshaded grounds for installation of a collector. They are most cost-effective for facilities with the following characteristics:
Examples include swimming pools, residences, hotels, laundries, prisons, and kitchens.
Solar water heating is a reliable and renewable energy technology used to heat water. Sunlight strikes and heats an "absorber" surface within a "solar collector" or an actual storage tank. Either a heat-transfer fluid or the actual potable water to be used flows through tubes attached to the absorber and picks up the heat from it. (Systems with a separate heat-transfer-fluid loop include a heat exchanger that then heats the potable water.) The heated water is stored in a separate preheat tank or a conventional water heater tank until needed. If additional heat is needed, it is provided by electricity or fossil-fuel energy by the conventional water-heating system.
Although solar water heating systems all use the same basic method for capturing and transferring solar energy, they do so with three specific technologies that distinguish different collectors and systems. The distinctions are important because different water heating needs in various locations are best served by certain types of collectors and systems.
Materials and components used in solar water heating systems vary depending on the expected operating temperature range.
Low-temperature unglazed systems operate at up to 18°F (10°C) above ambient temperature, and are most often used for heating swimming pools. Often, the pool water is colder than the air, and insulating the collector would be counter-productive. Low-temperature collectors are extruded from polypropylene or other polymers with UV stabilizers. Flow passages for the pool water are molded directly into the absorber plate, and pool water is circulated through the collectors with the pool filter circulation pump. Swimming pool heaters cost from $10 to $40/sq. ft. .
Mid-temperature systems produce water 18 to 129°F (10 to 50°C) above outside temperature, and are most often used for heating domestic hot water (DHW). However, it is also possible to use mid-temperature solar hot water collectors for space heating in conjunction with fan-forced convection or radiant floors.
Mid-temperature collectors are usually flat plates insulated by a low-iron cover glass and fiberglass or polyisocyanurate insulation. Reflection and absorption of sunlight in the cover glass reduce the efficiency at low temperature differences, but the glass is required to retain heat at higher temperatures. A copper absorber plate with copper tubes welded to the fins is used. In order to reduce radiant losses from the collector, the absorber plate is often treated with a black nickel selective surface, which has a high absorptivity in the short-wave solar spectrum, but a low-emissivity in the long-wave thermal spectrum. Mid-temperature systems range in cost from $90 to $120/sq. ft.  of collector area.
High-temperature systems utilize evacuated tubes around the receiver tube to provide high levels of insulation and often use focusing curved mirrors to concentrate sunlight. High temperature systems are required for absorption cooling or electricity generation, but are used for mid-temperature applications such as commercial or institutional water heating as well. Due to the tracking mechanism required to keep the focusing mirrors facing the sun, high-temperature systems are usually very large and mounted on the ground adjacent to a facility. Evacuated tube collectors themselves cost about $75/sq. ft., but use of curved mirrors and economies of scale get this cost down for large system sizes to a relatively low cost of $40-70/sq. ft. .
Solar Collectors Solar collector efficiency is plotted as a straight line against the parameter (Tc-Ta)/I, where Tc is the collector inlet temperature (in °C), Ta is the ambient air temperature (in °C), and I is the intensity of the solar radiation (W/sq. m.). Notice that inexpensive, unglazed collectors are very efficient at low ambient temperatures, but efficiency drops off very quickly as temperature increases. They offer the best performance for low temperature applications, but glazed collectors are required to efficiently achieve higher temperatures.
In addition to solar collectors, all solar hot water systems have thermal storage, system controls, and a conventional back-up system.
Thermal storage Storage is generally required to couple the timing of the intermittent solar resource with the timing of the hot water load. In general, 1 to 2 gallons of storage water per square foot of collector area is adequate. Storage can either be potable water or non-potable water if a load side heat exchanger is used. For small systems, storage is most often in the form of glass-lined steel tanks.
Controls Active systems have a "delta T" (temperature differential) controller to start and stop the pumps. If the temperature in the solar collector outlet exceeds the temperature in the bottom of the storage tank by a set amount (say, 6°C), the controller starts the pump. When this temperature difference falls below another set value, say 2°C, the controller stops the pumps. The controller will also have a high-limit function to turn off the pumps if the temperature in the storage tank exceeds a third setting, say, 90°C. Due to the simplicity and low cost of a delta-T controller, it is wise to keep controls independent of any whole-plant energy management system, although it is desirable to include some indication of system performance, such as output from a BTU meter or preheat tank temperature in the building control system.
Conventional Back-Up Heater Solar water heaters save energy by preheating water to the conventional heater. Solar DHW systems are usually designed to meet 40% to 70% of the water-heating load. A back-up, conventional heater is still needed to meet 100% of the peak hot water demand for cloudy days or for when the solar system is down for service.
Solar water heating system types are classified as follows:
Solar water heating systems should be designed to minimize life-cycle cost. It is never cost-effective to design a system to provide 100% of the load with solar because of the excessive investment in collector area and storage volume. Minimize life-cycle cost by designing a system that meets 100% of the load on the sunniest day of the year. Such a system will usually produce about 70% of the annual load. Other design considerations include maintenance, freeze protection, overheating protection, aesthetics of the collector mount, and orientation. Also, utility rebate programs may impose additional design requirements. For example, a solar water heating system must meet 90% of the load in order to qualify for Hawaiian Electric Company rebates.
Steps in designing a solar water heating system include:
Preliminary Screening To determine if your project is a possible candidate for solar hot water heating use Federal Renewable Energy Screening Assistant (FRESA) software. Developed by NREL, this Windows-based software tool screens federal renewable energy projects for economic feasibility. It is able to evaluate many renewable technologies including solar hot water, photovoltaics, and wind.
A somewhat more detailed screening tool is provided by the Canadian Retscreen.
Detailed Performance Once preliminary viability has been established, it will eventually be necessary to evaluate system performance to generate more precise engineering data and economic analysis. This can be accomplished based on hourly simulation software or by hand correlation methods based on the results of hourly simulations. For this task, consider using:
Alternate financing is available for solar hot water systems. Among the alternative financing mechanisms are Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC) and utility programs including:
Consideration should be given to utilizing solar hot water heating systems on all projects where:
For large facilities, active, indirect systems are most frequently used. For smaller facilities in mild climates with modest freeze threat, passive direct or indirect systems are also a viable option.
The use of solar water heating is consistent with administration directives: