Possible Applications of Residential Solar Thermal and Photovoltaic Systems

If you are interested in installing panels on your roof to supply a percentage of your home's electrical power, you are talking about a photovoltaic solar array.

Each panel in the array is made up of interconnected solar cells. The panels are connected in a series to achieve the desired total voltage. The array converts the sun's energy into direct current, which is fed to an inverter for conversion to alternating current for home use.

Many people are less aware, however, of the existence of thermal solar systems and how that application of solar energy technology can be employed for home use.

Major Electrical Use for Water Heating

A great deal of money is spent annually in the United States simply heating water. In 2001, the U.S. Energy Information Administration calculated that each household in the nation consumed 2,300 kWh of electricity per year heating spas and pools alone.

The aggregate use was 7.6 billion kWh annually for approximately 3.3 million households. At the current national electrical rate of $.12 per kWh, that's $276 a year on recreational hot water heating -- and there are many more homes and many more hot tubs in existence now than a decade ago.

Thermal Solar Pool Heaters

Thermal solar power for pool heating is an excellent application of solar technology at a price point competitive with and sometimes less than gas and heat pump equipment. Components and installation average $3,000 to $4,000 with a payback period of 1.5 to  7 years. Operational life of the equipment is rated at 10 to 20 years.

The water to be heated is channeled through the tubes of a solar collector, where the warming occurs via a transfer fluid. The water is then circulated back into the pool. Systems are available that work in both warm and cold climates.

Other than washing the system's coils to maximize heat penetration, and occasionally addressing issues of debris in the piping, solar thermal pool systems are extremely low maintenance.

Thermal Solar Water Heaters

Solar water heaters for domestic use are comprised of a solar collector, which is connected to some form of storage tank. Systems can be active (outfitted with a circulating pump) or passive. Since thermal water heating functions in almost any climate, a homeowner can realistically expect to draw as much as 85% of the home's hot water needs from solar energy.

Two types of collectors are used depending upon climate: flat-plate and evacuated-tube. Flat-plate collectors are glazed and dark in color. They are housed in insulated boxes that are waterproof and covered with layers of glass or polymer plastic. In an evacuated-tube system, parallel rows of transparent glass tubes are used to collect heat from the sun.

In direct circulation systems, household water is pumped through the collector and back into the home. This is the best method in regions where the temperature does not fall below freezing. Indirect systems move a freeze-resistant heat transfer fluid through the collector. The fluid, in turn, passes through a heat exchanger where it is warmed before flowing into the home. These systems work best in colder regions.

Typically, a solar water-heating system will be designed to use two tanks so there is a back-up supply of hot water for the home. This further enhances the adaptability of the installation according to variations in climate.

In general, homeowners are looking at an initial investment of approximately $7,000 with a high rate of return in terms of home energy savings.

Whether you opt for a roof-mounted photovoltaic array or a solar water heating application, a site assessment of the quality of solar energy at your specific site is essential before proceeding.

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