Each day, as the sun rises and travels across the sky, an immense amount of energy is lavished on our planet. An oft-cited statistic is that more solar energy falls on the earth in one hour than what is used by the entire population in a year. In fact, most (almost half) of this energy is stored in the ground as heat. This time of year, it doesn’t feel like there’s much warmth to spare, but you can certainly capture it and use it to heat your home.
If you’re building a home, your builder or architect could design it to take advantage of passive solar heating. With this concept, the building is oriented so that the southern façade has lots of windows and a wide roof overhang. In the summertime, when the sun is high in the sky, the overhang shades the windows like an awning to keep the building cool. When the sun is lower in the sky in the winter, the sun’s rays shine freely through the windows to warm the floor. A concrete floor with tile is an ideal surface to store the heat well into the evening. The concrete floor can also use radiant heat as a quiet mainstay heating source.
If you don’t have passive solar heating and are not planning to build a home soon, you can take advantage of active solar heating. All you need is a south facing wall (or steep roof) that gets plenty of sunshine in the winter months, and you can install one or more solar air heating panels. One 4’x8’ panel can heat more than 1,000 square feet of space in a home, and is ideal to use as supplemental heat in a great room.
This is relatively simple technology that can save as much as 25% on your heating costs. The black glass-covered panels are installed on an outside surface to absorb heat from the sun. A fan inside the unit is powered by a small photovoltaic cell on the panel to draw cool air from the room through the heated solar panel. The warm air is then returned to the room through a vent from the top of the panel. The air temperature can reach 110 degrees on a sunny day, and easily heat a well-used room. This is a perfect application for a small cabin, and a great way to extend the usability of a three-season porch.
Solar air heating systems are ideal for warehouses and other commercial buildings as well. In large spaces, like warehouses or gymnasiums, the warm air can be distributed using a porous “sock” duct suspended from the ceiling. The energy savings can pay for the system in as little as five years.
While solar air heating systems can actually be constructed with off-the-shelf materials from a hardware store, SolarSheat panels are affordable and easily installed by a professional installer. The panels can also be built right into the wall, and designed to aesthetically complement the windows on the outside wall. This is one of the lowest-cost ways to incorporate clean, renewable solar energy into your home.
Thankfully an increasing number of new structures are being built to leverage solar energy in one or more ways, and technology continues to more effectively and economically harness this immense source of clean, renewable energy. Sunshine costs nothing, so take advantage of it as you’re able. Once you’ve recouped your initial investment, you’ll have years of trouble-free and cost-free energy to leave you smiling in the sun!
This was published in the Going Green section of the February 2011 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.