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As energy prices and concerns about environmental impact increase, alternative forms of energy are gaining appeal.  Manufacturers are responding to the demand with increasingly affordable "green" products that can slash utility bills.  The solar hot water heater is one major home appliance that is becoming more accessible to typical homeowners.

Solar water heaters can be used to heat swimming pools and hot tubs, or provide water for an entire family's needs.  Most systems work in synch with a traditional hot water heater which further warms water for use.  In addition to their obvious function in heating water, systems can also be integrated with a home's heating system.  Solar systems can be used to supplement both forced-air and hydronic-heating systems, contributing to heating the home.

Both passive and active solar water heating systems are available.  All have the same basic design:  water or another liquid is heated by the sun in a batch collector, which is coated with material that maximizes solar radiation; heated water is then piped to a storage tank or directly to the tap.

Passive systems are the most basic type, using only a batch collector pressurized by the water supply, but no pump.  Heated water rises to the top of the collector or tank, while cool water falls to the bottom.  Active systems incorporate electric pumps, often running on solar power, to circulate water through the system, reducing heat loss.

closed loop solar hot water heating system
Diagram of a closed loop solar hot water heating system

The most affordable solar hot water systems are direct, meaning that they directly heat the water which will be used.  Indirect systems are a more expensive, but more efficient, option.  Roof-top collectors heat glycol which then passes through a heat exchanger in the storage tank.  This method avoids the risk of freezing when temperatures dip, making this type of system ideal for colder regions.

While solar hot water heaters are becoming more affordable as they enter the mainstream, they are still more costly than a standard system.  Installation is also more involved, because plumbing is required to connect the collector plates to the holding tank.  However, federal, state, and utility rebates and tax credits can make the price tag a bit more palatable.  In addition, the energy savings will pay back the cost of the system over time.

Solar hot water heaters are a great way to reduce both energy costs and environmental impact.  With more affordable options becoming available, they are an appealing, realistic choice when upgrading plumbing or building a new home.


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Solar Hot Water Heaters - Solar Water Heater Guide