Residential Solar Heating Collectors

Summary: This section describes the different types of solar collectors used for residences. It also briefly covers the solar heating systems for which they are best suited. Solar collectors are the heart of most solar energy systems. The collector absorbs the sun's light energy and changes it into heat energy. Solar collectors heat a fluid, either air or liquid. This fluid then is used to heat-directly or indirectly-the following:

  • Water for household use

  • Indoor spaces

  • Water for swimming pools

  • Water or air for commercial use

  • Air to regenerate desiccant (drying) material in a desiccant cooling system.

There are several types of solar collectors used for residences. These are flat-plate, evacuated-tube, and concentrating collectors.

Flat-Plate Collectors: Flat-plate collectors are the most common collector for residential water-heating and space-heating installations. A typical flat-plate collector is an insulated metal box with a glass or plastic cover-called the glazing-and a dark-colored absorber plate. The glazing can be transparent or translucent. Translucent (transmitting light only), low-iron glass is a common glazing material for flat-plate collectors because low-iron glass transmits a high percentage of the total available solar energy. The glazing allows the light to strike the absorber plate but reduces the amount of heat that can escape. The sides and bottom of the collector are usually insulated, further minimizing heat loss.

The absorber plate is usually black because dark colors absorb more solar energy than light colors. Sunlight passes through the glazing and strikes the absorber plate, which heats up, changing solar radiation into heat energy. The heat is transferred to the air or liquid passing through the collector. Absorber plates are commonly covered with "selective coatings," which retain the absorbed sunlight better and are more durable than ordinary black paint.

Absorber plates are often made of metal- usually copper or aluminum-because they are both good heat conductors. Copper is more expensive, but is a better conductor and is less prone to corrosion than aluminum.

Flat-plate collectors fall into two basic categories: liquid and air. And both types can be either glazed or unglazed.

Liquid Collectors: In a liquid collector, solar energy heats a liquid as it flows through tubes in or adjacent to the absorber plate. For this type of collector, the flow tubes are attached to the absorber plate so the heat absorbed by the absorber plate is readily conducted to the liquid.

The flow tubes can be routed in parallel, using inlet and outlet headers, or in a serpentine pattern. A serpentine pattern eliminates the possibility of header leaks and ensures uniform flow. A serpentine pattern is not appropriate, however, for systems that must drain for freeze protection because the curved flow passages will not drain completely.

The simplest liquid systems use potable household water, which is heated as it passes directly through the collector and then flows to the house to be used for bathing, laundry, etc. This design is known as an "open-loop " (or  "direct") system. In areas where freezing temperatures are common, however, liquid collectors must either drain the water when the temperature drops or use an antifreeze type of heat-transfer fluid.

In systems with heat-transfer fluids, the transfer fluid absorbs heat from the collector and then passes through a heat exchanger. The heat exchanger, which generally is in the water storage tank inside the house, transfers heat to the water. Such designs are called "closed-loop " (or  "indirect") systems. See section Solar Water Heaters.

Glazed liquid collectors are used for heating household water and sometimes for space heating. Unglazed liquid collectors are commonly used to heat water for swimming pools. Because these collectors need not withstand high temperatures, they can use less expensive materials such as plastic or rubber. They also do not require freeze-proofing because swimming pools are generally used only in warm weather.

Air Collectors: Air collectors are simple, flat-plate collectors used primarily for space heating. The absorber plates in air collectors can be metal sheets, layers of screen, or non-metallic materials. The air flows past the absorber by natural convection or when forced by a fan. Because air conducts heat much less readily than liquid does, less heat is transferred between the air and the absorber than in a liquid collector.

In some solar air-heating systems, fins or corrugations on the absorber are used to increase air turbulence and improve heat transfer. The disadvantage of this strategy is that it can also increase the amount of power needed for fans and, thus, increase the costs of operating the system. In colder climates, the air is routed between the absorber plate and the back insulation to reduce heat loss through the glazing. However, if the air will not be heated more than 30°F (17°C) above the outdoor temperature, the air can flow on both sides of the absorber plate without sacrificing efficiency.

Air systems have the advantage of eliminating the freezing and boiling problems associated with liquid systems. Although leaks are harder to detect and plug in an air system, they are also less troublesome than leaks in a liquid system. Air systems can often use less-expensive materials, such as plastic glazing, because their operating temperatures are usually lower than those of liquid collectors.

Evacuated-Tube Collectors: Evacuated-tube collectors heat water in residential applications that require higher temperatures. In an evacuated-tube collector, sunlight enters through the outer glass tube, strikes the absorber tube, and changes to heat. The heat is transferred to the liquid flowing through the absorber tube. The collector consists of rows of parallel transparent glass tubes, each of which contains an absorber tube (in place of the absorber plate in a flat-plate collector) covered with a selective coating. Evacuated-tube collectors are modular-tubes can be added or removed as hot-water needs change.

When evacuated tubes are manufactured, air is evacuated from the space between the two tubes, forming a vacuum. Conductive and convective heat losses are eliminated because there is no air to conduct heat or to circulate and cause convective losses. There can still be some radiant heat loss (heat energy will move through space from a warmer to a cooler surface, even across a vacuum). However, this loss is small and of little consequence compared with the amount of heat transferred to the liquid in the absorber tube.

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