2011 Ultimate Solar Energy and Photovoltaics Sourcebook: Comprehensive Coverage of All Aspects of Solar Energy, Power, Electricity, Heating, PV, CSP, Research, Practical Information for Homeowners by Progressive Management - Read Online
2011 Ultimate Solar Energy and Photovoltaics Sourcebook
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Four major document collections provide over 600 pages of comprehensive coverage of all aspects of solar energy, with practical information about available solar systems and financing; Basic Research Needs For Solar Energy Utilization Report; Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Program 2012 Multi-Year Program Plan; and the Program Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2009.

Published: Progressive Management on
ISBN: 9781452346489
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2011 Ultimate Solar Energy and Photovoltaics Sourcebook - Progressive Management

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BOOK ONE - 21st Century Guide to Solar Power and Photovoltaics: Green Domestic Power from the Sun - Practical Information about Home Electricity, Water Heating, Panel and Cells, Solar Energy Financing

Table of Contents

Module 1: Better Buildings Series: A Winning Combination, Design, Efficiency, and Solar Technology

Module 2: Heat Your Water with the Sun

Module 3: Clean Energy Choices / Tips on Buying and Using Renewable Energy at Home

Module 4: Self-Generation / Making Your Own Power

Module 5: Estimating Solar Resources at Your Site

Module 6: Hybrid Power Systems

Module 7: Renewable Energy At Home

Module 8: Clean Choices for Heating, Cooling, and Lighting / Solar Electricity Basics

Module 9: Homeowners Guide to Financing a Grid-Connected Solar Electric System

Module 10: Photovoltaics

Module 11: The Borrower’s Guide To Financing Solar Energy Systems

Module 12: A Homebuilder’s Guide to Going Solar

Module 13: Electricity When And Where You Need It: From The Sun-Photovoltaics for Farms and Ranches / Case Studies

Module 14: Solar Energy Technologies Program Glossary

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Module 1: Better Buildings Series: A Winning Combination, Design, Efficiency, and Solar Technology

Basics of a Solar Electric System

Today's solar technologies are more efficient and versatile than ever before, adding to the appeal of an already desirable energy source. Solar electric systems, which use a natural source of power — sunlight — produce less pollution than traditional forms of electrical production. And they can offer homeowners the security of producing their own power.

Components of a System

Interconnected solar cells, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, form a solar panel or module, and several modules connected together electrically form an array. Most people picture a solar electric system as simply the solar array, but a complete system consists of several other components.

An inverter converts the direct current (DC) electricity produced by the modules into alternating current (AC) electricity for powering lights, appliances, and other needs.

Wiring connects the various components of a solar electric system. In some cases, the system is also interconnected to the utility power grid. If the system produces more power than is required for the house, the utility may offer the homeowner credit for the excess power produced through a program called net metering or net billing. Your state energy office or local utility can provide more information.

Batteries are used to store solar-produced electricity for nighttime or emergency backup power. Batteries may be required in locations that have limited access to power lines, as in some remote or rural areas.

If batteries are part of the system, a charge controller is included to protect them from being overcharged or drawn down too low.

Finally, disconnect switches allow the power from a solar electric system to be turned off to provide safety during maintenance or emergencies. Most providers of solar electric technologies can supply you with all the components you will need for a fully functional system.

Choosing Solar Modules

In purchasing solar modules, you will be seeking a balance between the best cost and years of reliable service. Most solar electric modules on the market today are composed of solar cells made from either crystalline or amorphous silicon. Crystalline silicon solar cells have been used since the 1950, whereas amorphous silicon is a newer and more common technology. If you have a calculator without a battery, it is likely powered by a very small amorphous silicon solar cell. Other new materials, such as cadmium telluride and copper indium diselenide, are now being used to manufacture thin-film solar cells.

Thin-film solar panels give consumers more design options because they require less semiconductor material, and can be made on flexible materials such as plastic or thin stainless steel. This feature has led to thin-film solar panels resembling traditional roofing materials such as shingles that serve a dual purpose—protecting your roof while generating electricity for your house.

Choosing a System

So what system is best for your home? Your decision will depend primarily on how much energy you require to operate your home, but also on aesthetics. For example, you can purchase thin solar modules that resemble traditional roof shingles, standing-seam metal roofs, or slate tiles.

Location is one decision that won’t vary for different types of systems. Solar electric systems work best when placed on an unshaded roof or in a yard having no obstructions to sunlight. Observing the potential location for your system throughout the day will help you spot any shadows that might be cast across the system at different times.

Modules are usually mounted directly onto a south-facing roof (in the Northern Hemisphere) or integrated into the roof itself. However, they can also be used as skylights, placed on a vertical wall, or mounted on a structure apart from the building. Some modules can be mounted on a tracking system, which allows them to directly face the sun throughout the day for increased energy production.

Don’t worry if your home doesn’t face exactly south—the solar electric system will still work, although you may need more modules to meet your electrical needs. Talk to your distributor or manufacturer about the benefits and costs of several types of solar electric systems before you make a decision about which type of solar electric system is right for your home.

Battery Power for Your Residential Solar Electric System

A battery bank stores electricity produced by a solar electric system. If your house is not connected to the utility grid, or if you anticipate long power outages from the grid, you will need a battery bank. This fact sheet provides an overview of battery basics, including information to help you select and maintain your battery bank.

Types of Batteries

There are many types of batteries available, and each type is designed for specific applications. Lead-acid batteries have been used for residential solar electric systems for many years and are still the best choice for this application because of their low maintenance requirements and cost. You may remember the flooded version, which used to be widely used in automobiles. The sealed version is used in most types of portable equipment. Other names for sealed batteries are absorbed glass mat, valve regulated lead acid, and gel. Lithium and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, which are commonly used in cell phones, laptop computers, and camcorders because of their energy-to-weight ratios, are very expensive and may be difficult to use in residential solar applications.

The best kinds of batteries to use in a residential power system are deep-discharge lead-acid batteries specially designed for stationary solar electric systems. Some golf cart batteries may be a less expensive alternative. Car and marine batteries are not recommended for solar electric system use because they are designed to give a large burst of energy when starting a vehicle and are not made for deep discharges. Although they are sometimes used in situations in which deep-discharge batteries are not available, car and marine batteries will quickly fail if used in a solar electric application.

The Battery Bank

The basic building block of a lead-acid battery is a 2-volt cell. A battery bank is a collection of connected 2-, 6-, or 12-volt batteries that supply power to the household in case of outages or low production from renewable energy sources. The batteries are wired together in series to produce 12-, 24-, or 48-volt strings. These strings are then connected together in parallel to make up the entire battery bank. The battery bank supplies DC power to an inverter, which produces AC power that can be used to run appliances. The decision to select a 12-, 24-, or 48-volt battery bank will be determined by the inverter’s input, the type of battery you select, and the amount of energy storage you require.

Sizes and Costs

To determine the number of batteries you need, you must first determine how much energy storage you need in kilowatt-hours (kWh). If you are connected to the utility grid, you can use your monthly utility bill to calculate past energy usage for your household. (Keep in mind that implementing energy-efficiency measures in your home is a preliminary step to installing a solar electric system. Reducing energy consumption and installing energy-efficient appliances are far cheaper than purchasing larger solar electric systems.) A second way to determine your required kWh of energy storage is to multiply the wattage of your appliances by the number of hours you use them in a day. Because watts = amps x volts, if you require 1,000 watt-hours (or 1 kWh) per day, and if you have a 24-volt battery bank, then you need 42 amp-hours of useful storage. Because you cannot fully discharge lead-acid batteries, you would need to install a larger battery to get the needed 42 amp-hours of capacity.

Over the lifetime of the solar electric system, batteries will be the most expensive component of the renewable energy system in an off-grid home due to maintenance and replacement costs. Initial costs for residential batteries range from $80 to $200 per kWh. What should you look for when purchasing a new battery?

1. A long cycle life, or how many deep discharges the batteries can provide.

2. Thick lead plates — the thicker the plates, the deeper the discharge and the longer the battery life.

3. If you have flooded batteries, look for space at the bottom of the battery case to hold sloughed-off material, which can lower the battery’s performance level, and adequate head space above the plates so you don’t have to water as often.

Flooded (unsealed, watered) batteries may be the least expensive choice. However, flooded batteries require periodic electrolyte maintenance by adding distilled water and equalizing the charge among cells. Keep in mind that sealed batteries still require maintenance, even though you don’t have to check electrolyte levels. Sealed batteries are sometimes specified in difficult or remote locations.

Battery Maintenance

All batteries will wear out in 1-15 years, even if they are rarely used, because the acid in the battery wears down the internal components regardless of use. However, you can maximize the life of your battery bank by adhering to the following practices:

1. Avoid repeated deep discharging of batteries. The more a battery is discharged, the shorter its lifetime. In addition, if your batteries are deeply discharged every day, you should increase the size of your battery bank.

2. Keep batteries at rated temperatures. Battery life is rated for 70º-75º temperatures. Keeping batteries warmer than this significantly reduces their life. Passive solar is a great way to heat a battery storage unit, but it must be well insulated. Keeping the batteries cooler than 70º-75º will not significantly extend their life but will reduce their capacity. Discharged batteries may freeze and burst, so maintain an adequate charge on the batteries in cold weather.

3. Maintain the same charge in all the batteries. Although the entire series of batteries may have an overall charge of 24 volts, some cells may have more or less voltage than neighboring batteries.

4. Inspect your batteries often. Some things to look for are leakage (buildup on the outside of the battery), appropriate fluid levels (for flooded batteries), and equal voltage. Your battery manufacturer may have additional recommendations.

Battery Tips

1. The largest cost, over the life of the system, is the batteries. The lifetime cost, including maintenance, of your batteries is dependent on your initial purchase price, how well you adhere to a maintenance schedule, and the replacement interval for the batteries you select.

2. The energy storage capacity of a battery is measured in watt-hours, which is the amp-hour rating times the voltage. For example, a 12-volt, 100-amp-hour battery has a storage capacity of 1,200 watt-hours, which is the same as a 600-amp-hour, 2-volt battery.

3. Follow manufacturer recommendations for voltage set points. Make sure that your charger or charge controller will supply the correct voltage.

4. Place batteries in a well-ventilated, temperature-moderated area because batteries give off gases that could accumulate to form an explosive mixture. Batteries should be kept in an uncluttered, dry area of a shed or garage or placed in a vented box with a strong lock for easy but safe access.

5. Always refer to the battery manufacturer’s recommendations for use and maintenance.

Connecting Your Solar Electric System to the Utility Grid

In the past, most homes with solar electric systems were not connected to the local utility grid. It made sense to install solar electric systems in areas without easy assess to the power grid, where the option of extending a power line from the grid might cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In recent years, however, the number of solar-powered homes connected to the local utility grid has increased dramatically. These grid-connected buildings have solar electric panels or modules that provide some or even most of their power, while still being connected to the local utility.

Owners of grid-connected homes can choose to supply a portion of their energy with solar energy, using the utility for power during the night or on cloudy days. Because of the up-front costs of installing a solar electric system, many of these homeowners initially install systems that meet about one quarter to one-half of their energy use.

Net metering

Solar electric systems sometimes produce more electricity than your home needs. This extra electricity is either stored in batteries or fed into the utility grid. Homeowners can be given credit by their local power companies for the electricity produced at their homes through net metering programs.

Grid-connected systems generally use a billing process called net metering or net billing. In this process, any energy generated by the solar modules that your home does not use immediately is sent to the utility grid. However, when the solar electric system is producing less power than is needed, you can draw additional power from the grid. If your system is connected to the grid through a single electric meter, your meter can actually run backwards as you contribute excess energy to the utility. The excess electricity is being credited to you at the same retail rate as the electricity you use from the utility. Your utility may require the use of two meters — one that meters your consumption of energy from the grid and the other that meters your contribution to the grid. In this case, your solar-generated excess energy could be credited at the retail rate or possibly at a lower wholesale rate, depending on the utility.

In addition, some utilities bill their customers according to a time-of-use rate system. Under this system, customers are billed at a higher rate during certain times of the day, such as during the sunniest daytime hours of summer when air conditioners are working at their peak. If this is the case with your utility, you may be able to trade your excess energy to the utility at these same rates. You can therefore benefit from the fact that your solar electric modules produce the most power during those sunny summer days. When you need power from the utility during the off-peak periods, such as in the evening, the rate is usually lower.

If you choose to have a grid-connected solar electric system, and your system produces enough energy in any given month so that you do not have to draw from the grid, you may still receive a small monthly bill. This is because many utilities charge monthly fees for meter reading. Again, check with your local utility.

Connecting to the grid

One of the most important steps in purchasing a grid-connected solar electric system is choosing a provider with experience. A good provider will also have a properly licensed electrical contractor, have enough years of experience to have demonstrated an ability to work with customers, and be able to compete effectively with other firms.

A good provider should be familiar with your local utility’s regulations on interconnection requirements. If your provider is not familiar with these requirements, check with your local utility, state energy office, or state or local Public Utility Commission for details.

Your solar electric provider should supply you with everything you need to run your system, including a specific type of inverter for grid-connected systems, batteries (if you want backup power), and a special electric meter. As mentioned already, some utilities require you to have one electric meter that runs both forward and backward. Other utilities require two separate meters: one for incoming power you receive, and one for power you generate that goes back into the system. These meters are sometimes paid for by the utility, but may be part of your provider’s price for the system.

As part of the installation of your solar electric system, you will need to sign an interconnection agreement with the utility company. Your solar electric provider may be able to handle the negotiations and paperwork with the utility, but this contractual agreement is between you and your local utility. Be sure to read the fine print in this agreement, which may differ considerably from one utility to another. It could range from a short one-page statement to a lengthy booklet. In either case, the fine print may contain references to liability issues that you will want to fully understand before signing the contract.

Also, be sure to speak with your homeowner’s insurance provider, because the solar electric system itself will need to be added to your policy. In many cases, you may have to add a rider to your policy for the grid-connected system.

More information

Contact your local utility for more information about its particular practices. The general customer service representatives may not be familiar with net metering, so several phone calls may be necessary to find the correct contact person. Your solar electric provider should also have more information.

To learn about local incentives in your area, go to the national Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (www. dsireusa.org). This Web site also includes rules, regulations, and policies for many areas across the nation.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Module 2: Heat Your Water with the Sun

Would you like to learn more about how the sun can help meet your home’s heating needs without straining your budget?

Today’s solar heating systems not only keep swimming pools warm — they can also heat much of your home’s water and interior space. Their popularity is increasing, for several reasons. Solar heating systems are reliable, adaptable, and pollution-free because they use renewable energy from the sun. Many systems include sleek, attractive, low-relief collectors that people often mistake for skylights.

Did you know that solar heating systems work well in many different climates? Some applications, such as pool heating, are widely cost-effective today. The cost-effectiveness of other applications depends on specific circumstances, such as the type and cost of your usual source of energy. Today, special financing is available to help you purchase the system that’s right for your home.

If you’d like to find out more about solar heating for your home or pool, this booklet is a good place to start. Here, you’ll learn how solar heating systems work, how they’re used, their benefits, and how to purchase one yourself. Please note, however, that this booklet isn’t a technical guide to designing and installing a system. For that, you’ll need to consult an experienced solar heating contractor; see Getting help in this booklet for more information.

A solar heating system is a substantial but rewarding investment. It can reduce your monthly heating bill while helping to protect our environment. Being informed and planning carefully will ensure that you’ve chosen the right system for you and your family.

What is solar heating?

Solar heaters, or solar thermal systems, provide environmentally friendly heat for household water, space heating, and swimming pools. The systems collect the sun’s energy to heat air or a fluid. The air or fluid then transfers solar heat directly or indirectly to your home, water, or pool.

Solar water heaters, sometimes called solar domestic hot-water systems, may be a good investment for you and your family. Solar water heaters are cost effective for many applications over the life of the system. Although solar water heaters cost more initially than conventional water heaters, the fuel they use—sunshine—is free. Solar heating technologies can be used in any climate. To take advantage of solar energy, you usually need to have an unshaded area that faces south, southeast, or southwest, such as a roof. In some cases, a solar professional may recommend west facing roofs for solar collectors.

The type of system you choose, including the type of collector and whether it is active or passive, depends on several factors. These include your site, the climate you live in, installation considerations, cost, and how you would like your solar heating system to be used.

What are the basic components of a solar thermal system?

Solar water heaters and solar space heaters are made up of solar collectors, and all systems except pool heaters have some kind of storage. In pool systems, the swimming pool itself is the storage, and the pool’s filtration pump circulates the pool water through the collectors.

Active systems also have circulating pumps and controls; passive systems work without this added equipment.

Three types of solar collectors are used for residential applications: flat-plate, integral collector-storage (ICS), and evacuated-tube collectors.

Flat-plate collectors are the most common type. Glazed flat-plate collectors essentially are insulated, weatherproofed boxes that contain a dark absorber plate under one or more glass or plastic (polymer) covers. Unglazed flat-plate collectors are simply a dark absorber plate, made of metal or polymer, without a cover or enclosure. Unglazed flat-plate collectors made from polymer materials are typically used in solar pool-heating systems.

Integral collector-storage systems, also known as ICS or batch systems, are made of one or more black tanks or tubes in an insulated, glazed box. Cold water first passes through the solar collector, which preheats the water, and then continues to the conventional backup water heater. ICS systems are simple, reliable solar water heaters. However, they should be installed only in mild-freeze climates because the outdoor pipes could freeze in severely cold weather.

Evacuated-tube solar collectors are usually made of parallel rows of transparent glass tubes. Each tube contains a glass outer tube and metal absorber tube attached to a fin. The fin is covered with a coating that absorbs solar energy well, but which inhibits radiative heat loss. Air is removed, or evacuated, from the space between the glass tubes and the metal tubes to form a vacuum, which eliminates conductive and convective heat loss. In the United States, evacuated-tube collector systems are used most frequently in commercial applications.

Most solar water heaters require a well-insulated storage tank. Solar storage tanks have an additional outlet and inlet connected to and from the collector. Active solar systems usually include a storage tank along with a conventional water heater. In two-tank systems, the solar water heater preheats water before it enters the conventional water heater. In a one tank system the backup heater is combined with the solar storage in one tank.

Active solar water heaters use pumps to circulate water or a nonfreezing heat-transfer fluid from storage tanks through the collectors. Active systems are usually more expensive than passive systems, but they are also usually more efficient.

Direct circulation systems use a pump to circulate household water through the collectors and into the home; they work well in climates where it rarely freezes. Indirect circulation systems use pumps to circulate a non-freezing heat-transfer fluid through the collectors and a heat exchanger. This heats water that then flows into the home. Indirect systems are popular in climates prone to freezing temperatures.

Passive direct solar water heaters move household water or a heat-transfer fluid through the system without using pumps or electricity. Passive systems work during power outages, but they should not be used in climates where temperatures often go below freezing. Passive systems are typically less expensive to purchase and maintain than other types of solar systems. They are also inherently more reliable and may last longer. However, passive systems are not usually as efficient as active systems.

ICS passive solar systems may be best in areas where temperatures rarely go below freezing. They are also good in households with significant daytime and evening hot-water needs.

Thermosyphon systems work because water flows through the system when warm water rises as cooler water sinks. In this system, the collector must be installed below the storage tank so that warm water will rise into the tank. These systems are reliable, but contractors must pay careful attention to roof design because the water in the storage tank is heavy.

Thermosyphon passive solar systems are usually less expensive than active systems, but more expensive than ICS systems.

How have solar systems improved?

Since the early 1970s, the efficiency and reliability of solar heating systems and collectors have increased greatly and costs have dropped. Improvements to materials, a rating system for consumers, and more attractive designs have all helped to make systems more successful.

Low-iron, tempered glass is now used instead of conventional glass for glazing. Improved insulation and durable selective coatings for absorbers have improved efficiency and helped to reduce life-cycle costs.

The Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) and the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) certify and rate solar thermal systems and equipment. SRCC evaluates product reliability and rates the performance of solar water-heating systems by subjecting them to technical reviews. SRCC has a directory of certified systems on its Web site along with system performance ratings. FSEC publishes similar information specific to Florida that is useful in other states with similar climates.

The appearance of the systems has also improved. Today’s collectors can usually be mounted flush with the roof for a streamlined system that looks like skylights. Unglazed polymer collectors for solar pool heating are now available in terra cotta colors as well as black, so homeowners can choose the color that will best match their home.

Why should I invest in a solar thermal system?

The first question many people ask when considering a home expense is, How much will it cost? The answer depends on the type of system, how you want to use it (water or pool heating, for example), and your geographic location. But most solar thermal systems cost between $2,000 and $4,500. Although this is usually more than the cost of a conventional gas or electric system, today’s solar heating systems are cost competitive when you consider your total energy costs over the entire life of the system.

Your monthly gas or electricity bills will usually be lower and more predictable for as long as you own the house. Also, solar heating systems will insulate you from rising fossil fuel costs and protect you from fuel-price inflation over time. Investing in a solar thermal system could also increase the resale value of your home. Often, the entire initial cost of the system can be recovered when you sell your property. In addition, you will be earning an annual 6% to 25% tax-free rate-of-return on your investment, depending on how much hot water you use and how much energy you save.

Another important reason to invest in solar systems may be less tangible. When you purchase a solar heating system, you support technologies that are good for the environment. You are making a conscious, responsible decision to help reduce harmful emissions from fossil fuels, while maintaining your quality of life.

How much will your solar heating system help the environment?

Depending on the type of conventional fuel used, replacing an electric water heater with a solar heater can offset the equivalent of 40% to 100% of the carbon dioxide emissions of a modern passenger car.

Carbon dioxide traps heat in our atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect, which alters our planet’s climate and ecological systems. Using solar energy in place of nonrenewable fuels may also reduce nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxides, which are components of smog.

Is my home a good place for a solar heating system?

The first consideration when building a solar thermal system is the site. If your site has unshaded areas and generally faces south, it is a good candidate for a solar thermal system. A professional installer can evaluate your roof as a location for collectors. If your roof doesn’t have enough space, you can also install the system on the ground. Please refer to the system-sizing section of this booklet for more information on space requirements. The amount of sun that your site receives, how often temperatures dip below freezing, and other factors will also affect the type of solar heating system you choose.

Before getting under way, you need to consider your homeowners association rules and neighborhood bylaws, also known as codes, covenants, and restrictions (CC&Rs). In Arizona, California, and Florida, state laws prohibit CC&Rs that restrict solar system installations. Nine other states have similar laws barring regulations that unreasonably limit solar energy use in planned communities. Some cities and counties have ordinances or require permits for home improvement construction, including solar system installation.

How big should my solar thermal system be, and which features should I look for?

Some of the answers to questions about system size and features depend on how you plan to use the solar system. Here, you’ll find general information on sizing systems for water heating, swimming pools, and space heating.

Sizing a solar thermal system for heating domestic water Just as conventional water heaters come in different sizes, so do solar water heaters. Sizing your solar water heater involves determining the total collector area and storage volume you need to meet 90% to 100% of your household's hot water needs during the summer. Solar equipment experts use worksheets and computer programs to help determine system requirements and collector sizing.

Contractors usually follow a guideline of about 20 square feet (2 square meters) of collector area for each of the first two family members. For every additional person, add 8 square feet (0.7 square meters) if you live in the Sun Belt area of the United States, or 12 to 14 square feet (1.1 to 1.3 square meters) if you live in the northern United States. For active systems, the size of the solar storage tank increases with the size of the collector—typically 1.5 gallons per square foot of collector. A small, 66-gallon system is usually big enough for one to three people; a medium-size, 80-gallon system works well for a three- or four-person household; and a large, 120-gallon system is appropriate for four to six people.

In recent years, homebuilders have begun including solar water heating systems as standard features in some subdivisions. The systems are the same size for every home, and they all work equally well. However, large families with greater hot-water demand find that a smaller percentage of their hot water is provided by the solar energy system.

Sizing a solar thermal system for heating swimming pools

Heating your swimming pool with solar energy requires a collector that is 50% to 100% of the surface area of your pool. Your geographic location and other factors determine the exact size.

For example, a 15-by-30 foot swimming pool in Florida typically requires a collector that equals 100% of the pool’s square footage, which translates to 450 square feet of unglazed flat-plate collectors. This is because many Florida swimming pool owners use their pools year round. In contrast, in northern California, most pools are used only 6 to 8 months per year, so systems are typically sized at 60% to 70% of the pool’s surface area.

In general, adding more square footage lengthens the swimming season and allows owners to use the pool in colder weather. A pool cover or blanket reduces heat loss and helps maintain warm temperatures for a longer period.

Sizing a solar thermal system for space heating

In contrast to solar water heating, solar space heating usually requires a larger, more complicated system. Space-heating systems have to store heat for use when solar energy is least available and your house is coldest—at night and during the winter months. Solar space-heating systems are usually combined with water heating, and they are sized to accommodate both uses.

The amount of solar collector area needed to heat your home depends on many factors. These include the available solar energy, collector efficiency, local climate, and heating requirements. Heating requirements are based on insulation levels, the house’s airtightness, and the lifestyle of the residents. Generally, the area of solar collector is about equal to 10% to 30% of the floor area of the house.

How much money will my solar thermal system save, and how much will it cost?

Your savings depend on how your solar system will be used, as well as the size and type of your system. Other factors can include the climate, the contractor, and the system rating. Your state may offer solar rebates or other incentives that will reduce costs.

Savings and costs for solar domestic water heating

Solar heating systems can save you money in the long run. FSEC studied the potential savings to Florida homeowners who use common water-heating systems, including solar, in comparison to electric water heaters. FSEC undertook this study because the initial installed cost of a solar water heater is higher than that of a gas or electric water heater. FSEC wanted to explore costs and savings over time, beyond the initial installation period. The study found that solar water heaters offered the greatest potential savings. Annual utility costs for solar water heaters were 50% to 85% lower than those for electric water heaters.

The cost and benefit of purchasing a solar water heater vary from region to region, so check costs in your area. Depending on the price of the conventional fuel, a solar water heater can be more economical over the life of the system than heating water with electricity, fuel oil, propane, or even natural gas. That’s because the fuel — sunshine — is free.

However, at historically low prices for natural gas, the total cost of owning a solar water heater with a backup natural gas heater may be more expensive than owning a natural gas heater alone. Nevertheless, as natural gas becomes more costly and its availability more volatile, solar water heaters become more economical. Solar water heaters are often quite cost-competitive in new homes.

In many places in the United States, homebuilders choose electric water heaters because they are easy to install and relatively inexpensive. Research shows that the average household with an electric water heater spends about 25% of its home energy costs on heating water.

If you are building a new home or refinancing because of a major renovation, the economics are even more attractive. Including the price of a solar water heater in a new 30-year mortgage usually amounts to between $13 and $20 per month. The federal income tax deduction for mortgage interest attributable to the solar system reduces that by about $3 to $5 per month. So, if your fuel savings are more than $15 per month, the solar investment is profitable immediately. On a monthly basis, you are saving more than you are paying.

Savings and cost for solar swimming pool heating

A solar heating system for your pool usually costs between $3,000 and $4,000 to buy and install. This provides a payback of between 1.5 and 7 years, depending on the cost of the fossil fuel your system replaces. The actual cost and payback depends on your site, the type of system you choose, financing, and the length of the pool season.

Often, a payback cannot even be calculated, because many people choose not to heat their pool at all, given the extra $300 to $600 on their energy bill. A solar system allows these people to swim in a pool that was previously too costly to heat and too cold to use.

Savings and cost for solar space heating

The cost of a solar space-heating system depends on many factors, including the size of your house, how airtight it is, how much of your heat will be supplied with a conventional backup, the system you choose, and your site. In general, solar space-heating systems can provide 40% to 60% of your space-heating needs. These systems are most economical for consumers who would otherwise be heating with electricity, rather than with natural gas or other fuels.

But solar space heating is needed most when sunlight is least available, during the winter and at night—and needed least when sunlight is most available, during the summer and the daytime. So today’s solar technologies are not likely to be a cost-effective solution for active solar space heating in most homes. However, a good alternative is to simply to use passive solar building techniques. See the EERE Web site, www.eere.gov/solar, for more information.

How can I finance the cost of my solar thermal system? Are there incentives?


Financing the cost of your solar thermal system is not as tricky as it may seem. Although some special programs are available to help you purchase solar thermal technologies, most of the financing options are familiar ones. One common way to finance a solar system is through your mortgage or through a home-equity loan secured by your home. Mortgage loans offer lower interest rates and longer pay schedules than conventional bank loans, and interest on your mortgage loan is tax-deductible. Financing your system when you apply for your mortgage—whether because you are building or refinancing— can make the application process simpler and less costly.

Conventional bank loans are another way to finance your solar system. However, your system is a long-term investment; this should be reflected in the pay schedule for the loan. Look for longer terms and lower interest rates, which will help keep your solar thermal system affordable.


Many states have incentives for buying solar technologies. Check with your state or local energy office or your state departments of revenue or finance for information. Some electric utilities offer rebates to customers who install solar energy equipment because these installations help utilities reduce energy use during times of high demand.

You can also check the National Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE). DSIRE is prepared by the North Carolina Solar Center. It provides information on financial and regulatory incentives to promote renewable energy technologies.

What are the maintenance issues and repair costs for a solar thermal system?

The costs of maintaining your solar thermal system depend on the type of technology you choose and how often temperatures in your area fall below freezing. Properly maintaining your system will keep it running smoothly.

Passive systems do not require much maintenance. For active systems, discuss the maintenance requirements with your system provider and consult the system owner’s manual. Plumbing and other conventional components require the same maintenance as conventional systems. Glazing may need to be cleaned in dry climates where rainwater does not provide a natural rinse.

Regular maintenance on simple systems can be as infrequent as every 3 to 5 years, preferably by a solar contractor. Systems with electrical components usually require a replacement part or two after 10 years. Simple, regular system checks can also be effective. For example, one easy way to check the system is to carefully feel the hot-water pipes going into the storage tank after the system has been working on a clear, warm day. If the pipes are hot, your system is working properly.

Selecting a solar heating contractor

Who sells and installs solar thermal systems?

Depending on your area, the simplest way to find a solar thermal systems contractor is to look in the yellow pages under Solar Energy Equipment and Systems—Dealers. Most of the listings will probably be for solar water heating, photovoltaic (solar electric), or electric systems contractors.

You can also contact your utility company to get information on recommended vendors, or search on the Internet for solar water heating, solar pool heating, or solar space heating, depending on the application you are interested in installing.

Your state may have an active chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade association of contractors, distributors, and manufacturers.

How do I choose among solar thermal system providers?

One way to choose a contractor is to check your list of potential companies for the ones nearest you. Ask them what products and services they offer. Here are a few questions you might want to ask potential vendors.

Has your company installed solar thermal systems for solar water heating, pool heating, or space heating?

Choose a company that has experience installing the type of system you want and servicing the applications you select.

How many years of experience does your company have with solar heating installation?

Obviously, the more experience the better. A business that has been working with these systems for a long time will be more professional, know more about current technologies and recent advances, and be less likely to make costly mistakes. Request a list of past customers who can provide references.

Is your company licensed?

Having a valid plumber’s or solar contractor’s license is required in some states for solar thermal system installation. You can confirm licensing by contacting your state contractor licensing board. Local requirements may also include a local contractor’s license. Call your city and county for information on other required licenses. For you to obtain certain rebates, your contractor may have to demonstrate special knowledge about solar installations through one or more of the following:

Possession of a solar contractor specialty license issued by a local building jurisdiction

Certification in solar thermal systems by a group such as the state chapter of SEIA

A letter from the solar heating manufacturer that indicates that the installer has the necessary experience and training to install solar systems.

Does your company have any pending or active judgments or liens against it?

As with any project that requires a contractor, due diligence is recommended. Your state contractor licensing board can tell you about any complaints against state licensed contractors. The Better Business Bureau is another good source for such information.

How do I choose among bids? Is the least expensive the best deal?

It is usually a good idea to get more than one bid for installation of your solar system. Make sure that all the bids you receive are based on the same information and requirements. For example, comparing a bid for a system mounted on your roof with a bid for one mounted on the ground would not tell you how the two bids compare — it would probably tell you more about how the two types of installations compare.

One solution is to ask for bids on systems certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC). If possible, have each bid specify system type and size, energy output, maintenance requirements, and cost. Cost should include having the system installed and getting it up and running, as well as the cost of hardware, permits, sales tax, and warranties.

A system warranty is crucial in comparing bids. A solar rebate program may require a written installation warranty, for example a 2-year parts-and-labor warranty in addition to manufacturers’ warranties on system components. The company may offer other, longer warranties, particularly on the collectors. However, solar systems are more than collectors; active systems include electronic components, pumps, valves, and wiring. Make sure you know what your warranty covers and that the company stands behind the full warranty.

If you have several bids, you may wonder if the lowest bid is the best deal. Sometimes it is not. A solar thermal system installer is in business to make money; overhead and operating expenses must be covered. A low price could be a sign of inexperience, or of a company without staying power. Contractors that expect to stay in business must charge enough to cover their products and services plus make a fair profit. Price is not the only consideration.

Before you put solar heating to work

Do I need a conventional system as a backup?

Whether you need a backup system for your solar thermal system depends largely on the type of system you choose and where you live. Solar water-heating systems almost always require a backup system for cloudy days and times of increased demand. This backup system is typically a conventional gas or electric water heater and may already be part of the solar system package. It may also be part of the solar collector, such as rooftop tanks with thermosyphon systems. For example, an integral collector-storage system (ICS) may be packaged with an instantaneous gas water heater for backup. The ICS system stores hot water in addition to collecting solar heat, and the instantaneous water heater provides hot water when solar heat is not available.

Most people do not need or use a backup heater with solar pool heaters. In freeze-prone climates, solar pool heaters are used mainly in summer. Spas or hot tubs are an exception. Spa owners may use their solar system to heat both the pool and the spa, but will use a backup heater to get the spa to a higher temperature. In climates where it rarely freezes, pool heaters may be used year-round.

If you decide to install solar thermal space heating, you will almost certainly need a backup system. Space-heating systems require a large collector area, significant storage volume, and a highly efficient building envelope to produce enough energy to heat your home at night and during the winter. Solar space heating usually provides 40% to 60% of your home’s space-heating needs. A backup system ensures that your house is comfortably warm during power outages, cold snaps, and extended cloudy periods. Many building codes and mortgage lenders require a conventional backup space heater.

Will I need any permits or inspections?

If you live in a community with a homeowners association, check to see if any approvals, permits, or inspections are required. Always obtain the necessary approvals from the association before beginning construction. Homeowners associations, towns, cities, and counties usually have a legal right to require approval before building. However, some states have solar rights laws that may apply if approval is denied.

You will probably need to obtain permits from the building department that has jurisdiction in your state, county, or city. Plumbing, building, and electrical permits may be required. These permits typically require a final inspection after the system has been installed. Check with your solar heating system contractor to find out whether the price of obtaining permits and inspections is included in the bid and final cost estimate.

What about insurance?

If you are buying a solar heating system for your home, your regular homeowners insurance should cover your needs.

Will I need warranties?

Warranties are an important factor in the bidding process and an important aspect of the system you choose. Make sure you know the warranties that your system manufacturer and installer offer for your equipment and hardware, as well as parts-and-labor warranties. Check to make sure the manufacturer can provide support and supplies if the installer is not available. You can usually obtain a full-system warranty plus parts-and-labor for at least 1 to 3 years. This means you will not be responsible for system problems covered by the warranty in the first year or two of system operation.

Will I need a maintenance agreement?

A maintenance agreement may be part of your warranty. Have the contractor prepare a schedule of required or recommended maintenance before you purchase your system.

Getting Help

American Solar Energy Society (ASES)

2400 Central Avenue, Suite G-1

Boulder, CO 80301


Phone: (303) 443-3130

Fax: (303) 443-3212

E-mail: ases@ases.org

Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE)


Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC)

Public Affairs Division


Phone: (321) 638-1015

Fax: (321) 638-1010

E-mail: info@fsec.ucf.edu

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Solar Energy Technology Program


Solar Benefits Model Software

www.eere.energy.gov/ solarbuildings/sbm.html

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

1616 H Street NW, 8th Floor

Washington, DC 20006-4999


Phone: (202) 628-7745

Fax: (202) 628-7999

Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) c/o FSEC

1679 Clearlake Road

Cocoa, FL 32922-5703


(See standards document OG-300)

Phone: (321) 638-1537

Fax: (321) 638-1010

E-mail: srcc@fsec.ucf.edu

Get Your Power from the Sun

Are you thinking about buying a solar electric system for your home or business?

Solar electric systems, which are also called photovoltaic or PV systems, are reliable and pollution-free. They make use of a renewable source of energy — the sun. And PV systems for homes and businesses are becoming more affordable all the time.

PV works best in an energy-efficient building. So, adding insulation and energy- efficient lighting, appliances, and windows is a good idea, to reduce your home’s overall electricity use before you install a PV system.

To make PV systems even more affordable, several states offer financial incentives through solar rebates and other programs. Some utilities have net metering programs, which further enhance the economics of PV. Net metering means that when your PV system generates more power than you need, the excess goes to the utility grid and the meter runs backward. This allows you to receive full retail value for the power that your PV system generates.

This is not a technical guide to designing or installing a system—for that information, we recommend consulting an experienced PV system designer or supplier. A PV system can be a substantial investment. As with any investment, careful planning will help you make the right decisions for your home or business.

What is a solar electric or photovoltaic system?

Photovoltaic (PV) systems convert sunlight directly to electricity. They work any time the sun is shining, but more electricity is produced when the sunlight is more intense and strikes the PV modules directly (as when rays of sunlight are perpendicular to the PV modules). Unlike solar thermal systems for heating water, PV does not use the sun's heat to make electricity. Instead, electrons freed by the interaction of sunlight with semiconductor materials in PV cells are captured in an electric current.

PV allows you to produce electricity— without noise or air pollution—from a clean, renewable resource. A PV system never runs out of fuel, and it won't increase U.S. oil imports. Many PV system components are manufactured right here in the United States. These characteristics could make PV technology the U.S. energy source of choice for the 21st century.

The basic building block of PV technology is the solar cell. Multiple PV cells are connected to form a PV module, the smallest PV component sold commercially. Modules range in power output from about 10 watts to 300 watts. A PV system connected or tied to the utility grid has these components:

One or more PV modules, which are connected to an inverter

The inverter, which converts the system's direct-current (DC) electricity to alternating current (AC)

Batteries (optional) to provide energy storage or backup power in case of a power interruption or outage on the grid.

AC electricity is compatible with the utility grid. It powers our lights, appliances, computers, and televisions.

Special appliances that run directly on DC power are available, but they can be expensive.

Before you decide to buy a PV system, there are some things to consider:

First, PV produces power intermittently because it works only when the sun is shining. This is not a problem for PV systems connected to the utility grid, because any additional electricity required is automatically delivered to you by your utility. In the case of non-grid, or stand-alone, PV systems, batteries can be purchased to store energy for later use.

Second, if you live near existing power lines, PV-generated electricity is usually more expensive than conventional utility-supplied electricity. Although PV now costs less than 1% of what it did in the 1970s, the amortized price over the life of the system is still about 25 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is double to quadruple what most people pay for electricity from their utilities. A solar rebate program and net metering can help make PV more affordable, but they can't match today's price for utility electricity in most cases.

Finally, unlike the electricity you purchase monthly from a utility, PV power requires a high initial investment. This means that buying a PV system is like paying years of electric bills up front. Your monthly electric bills will go down, but the initial expense of PV may be significant. By financing your PV system, you can spread the cost over many years, and rebates can also lighten your financial load.

Are incentives available to help reduce the cost?

Yes, many states offer incentives. For specific information, call one of the contacts listed under Getting Help at the end of this booklet. Another excellent source is the National Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE). Prepared by the North Carolina Solar Center, this database contains information on financial and regulatory incentives that promote renewable energy technologies.

Net Metering — In more than 35 states, customers who own PV systems can benefit from laws and regulations that require net electric meter reading. The customer is billed for the net electricity purchased from the utility over the entire billing period—that is, the difference between the electricity coming from the power grid and the electricity generated by the PV system. Through net metering, the customer obtains the full retail electricity rate—rather than the much lower wholesale rate — for kilowatt-hours of PV-produced electricity sent to the utility power grid. The benefits of net metering to consumers are especially significant in areas such as Hawaii and New York, which have high retail electric rates. Utilities also benefit because the solar-generated energy often coincides with their periods of peak demand for electricity.

Property and Sales Tax — Tax incentives may include a sales tax exemption on the PV system purchase, a property tax exemption, or state personal income-tax credits, all of which provide an economic benefit to consumers by lowering high capital costs. The U.S. government also provides financial support for PV technology through a tax credit for commercial uses of solar energy. This energy investment credit provides businesses (but not individuals or utilities) with a 10% tax credit and 5-year accelerated depreciation for the cost of equipment used to generate solar electricity.

Buy-Down — Rebates and buydowns, typically based on the rated power of the system, help to defray high capital costs and to create competitive, sustainable market growth. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Energy has been involved in a program known as TEAM-UP, or Technology Experience to Accelerate Markets in Utility Photovoltaics. Through this program, some 80 utilities in 40 states have installed more than 7 megawatts of grid-connected PV; supplier buydowns and consumer rebates range between $2 and $4 per watt.

Residential Energy Rate — This is the average retail residential rate for energy from utilities, in cents per kilowatt-hour. Check your utility bill for your actual rate. PV awnings such as this one in California provide both electricity and shade. Why should you buy a PV system?

People decide to buy PV systems for a variety of reasons. Some people want to help preserve the Earth's finite fossil-fuel resources and reduce air pollution. Others want to invest in an energy-producing improvement to their property. Some people like the security of reducing the amount of electricity they buy from their utility because it makes them less vulnerable to future price increases. And some people just appreciate the independence that a PV system provides.

If you plan to build a home away from an established utility service, inquire about the cost of installing a utility line. Often, the cost of extending conventional power to your residence is higher than the cost of a solar option.

Whatever your reason, solar energy is widely thought to be the energy source of choice for the future, and you may be able to take advantage of a state-sponsored program to help make it your energy choice for today and tomorrow.

Is your home or business a good place for a PV system?

Can you locate your system so it works well?

A well-designed PV system needs clear and unobstructed access to the sun's rays for most or all of the day, throughout the year. You can make an initial assessment yourself. If the location looks promising, your PV provider can determine whether your home or business can effectively use a PV system.

The orientation of your PV system (the compass direction that your system faces) affects its performance. In the United States, the sun is always in the southern half of the sky but is higher in the summer and lower in the winter. Usually, the best location for a PV system is a south-facing roof, but roofs that face east or west may also be acceptable. Flat roofs also work well for solar electric systems, because PV modules can be mounted flat on the roof facing the sky or bolted on frames tilted toward the south at an optimal angle. They can also be attached directly to the roof as PV shingles.

If a rooftop can't be used, your solar modules can also be placed on the ground, either on a fixed mount or a tracking mount that follows the sun to orient the PV modules. Other options (often used in multifamily or commercial applications) include mounting structures that create covered parking, or that provide shade as window awnings.

Is your site free from shading by trees, nearby buildings, or other obstructions? To make the best use of your PV system, the PV modules must have a clear view of the sun for most or all of the day—unobstructed by trees, roof gables, chimneys, buildings, and other features of your home and the surrounding landscape. Some potential sites for your PV system may be bright and sunny during certain times of the day, but shaded during other times. Such shading may substantially reduce the amount of electricity that your system will produce. To be eligible for some rebates, your system must be unshaded between certain hours during certain times of the year. Some states have laws that establish your right to protect your solar access through the creation of a solar easement. Your PV provider can help you determine whether your site is suitable for a solar electric system.

Does your roof or property contain a large enough area for the PV system?

The amount of space that a PV system needs depends on the size of the system you purchase. Some residential systems require as little as 50 square feet (for a small starter system), but others could need as much as 1,000 square feet. Commercial systems are typically even larger. If your location limits the size of your system, you may want to install one that uses more efficient PV modules. Greater efficiency means that the module needs less surface area to convert sunlight into a given amount of electric power. PV modules are available in a range of types, and some offer more efficiency per square foot than others do. Although the efficiency (percent of sunlight converted to electricity) varies with the different types of PV modules available today, higher efficiency modules typically cost more. System sizing, discussed later in this booklet, should also be discussed with your PV provider.

What kind of roof do you have, and what is its condition?

Some types of roofs are simpler and cheaper to work with, but a PV system can be installed on any type. Typically, roofs with composition shingles are the easiest to work with, and those with slate are the most difficult. In any case, an experienced solar installer will know how to work on all types and can use roofing techniques that eliminate any possibility of leaks. Ask your PV provider how the PV system affects your roof warranty. If your roof is older and needs to be replaced in the near future,