Solar energy—harvesting the power of the sun through the use of photo-electric panels or other collection techniques—is no longer just a "Green Dream" or a concept that universities and businesses experiment with. Today, there are practical ways that you can make use of solar energy in your home. As with any technological advancement, there are investment costs to consider, but more and more homeowners are beginning to make everyday use of this most basic source of renewable energy.
"Going solar" no longer means that you have to invest tens of thousands of dollars to cover your roof with solar panels (though you can still do that if you're really serious about renewable energy). There are now a variety of stand-alone solar-powered devices that serve essential practical purposes, as well as DIY- friendly solar panel kits let just about anyone create a small solar system for custom uses.
01 of 09
Solar Powered Ventilation Fans
Ventilation fans of any type are a good idea since they help reduce cooling costs by exhausting hot air from attic spaces and other areas. Traditionally, these exhaust fans are wired into household electrical current, which somewhat defeats the energy-saving purpose. Now, however, you can buy self-contained roof vent fans that feature a small panel of photo-electric cells that operate the fan motor with no need for household electrical current at all. Small roof-mounted units are perfect for keeping a garage, shed, doghouse, or chicken coop cool in the summer. There are also free-standing solar-powered fans you can use on a patio, patio, or kids' play area.
02 of 09
Solar Heating for Your Swimming Pool
Swimming pools are one of the greatest joys of summer for children and parents alike. Everyone is excited the first day the pool is opened—except when the pool is just too cold to jump into it. To fix that problem, you can add a solar blanket that will warm the water. The basic floating blanket is a passive heating device that works simply by absorbing the sun's heat and transmitting it to the water.
However, if you want to get a little more high-tech, you can also install a full-fledged solar water heating system. This utilizes solar heating panels that are mounted on your roof to collect the sun's heat, which is transmitted to the water through a series of tubes looping through the panels. As the water is slowly circulated from the pool up through the solar heating panels and back to the pool, the water temperature in the pool is gradually increased.
03 of 09
Solar Water Heater
There are two types of solar systems that can be used to replace traditional water heaters powered by gas or electricity. Active solar hot water systems make use of mechanical circulating pumps that circulate water or another fluid from rooftop heat collection panels down into a storage tank. Passive hot water systems have no mechanical pump components, operating by the simple physics of heat naturally rising.
Active Water Heater Systems
There are two types of active solar water heating systems:
- Direct circulation systems have a pump that circulates household water through solar collectors and into the home. These systems work well in climates where it never freezes.
- Indirect circulation systems make use of a non-freezing liquid that circulates through the solar collectors to a heat exchanger, where the energy is transferred to the water that then flows into the home. These systems are commonly used in climates where there are freezing temperatures.
Passive Water Heater Systems
Passive solar water heating systems are considerably cheaper than active systems, but they're usually less efficient. There are two basic types of passive systems:
- Integral collector-storage passive systems are used more often in regions that rarely see freezing temperatures. These systems work well in homes where hot water needs are substantial. In these systems, the solar collector is integrated right into the water storage tank. The sun heats the water storage tank much the way a room gets warmer when the sun shines directly on its windows.
- Thermosiphon systems use a design in which the solar collector is positioned lower than the storage tank. As the collector heats the water, it naturally rises into the storage tank. Installation must be careful since the heavy tanks are typically installed on the roof.
Obviously, there can be a substantial investment in installing a solar water heater. Yet doing the math may prove that it is a cost-effective idea when you calculate the energy costs of operating a standard water heater over 20 years or more.
04 of 09
Solar House Heating
The energy of the sun can also be used to heat an entire home in one of two ways. These are systems for the homeowner truly serious about renewable energy, as they involve a substantial investment.
Hot Water Solar Systems
Whole-house hot water systems are the big-scale version of the same kind of solar system that can replace the water heater providing hot water to faucets. Like that system, whole-house heating systems use solar collector panels to heat water that circulates through tubing lacing through the collector panels. But rather than being stored in a relatively small tank for use in plumbing fixtures, this hot water is also circulated through piping that provides warmth to radiators or radiant flooring tubing through the entire home. These systems often serve both purposes: heating water for use at faucets, as well as providing whole-house heating.
These are big-scale systems that use quite large solar collector panels on the roof and sophisticated tanks and circulation technology. Solar hot water heating systems are more commonly used in businesses, but they are also an option for residential use.
Hot Air Solar Systems
There are also full-house heating systems that use hot air rather than water or another liquid as the medium for moving warmth around the house. These systems work by gathering the air that has been heated by the sun beating down on a roof or an exposed wall, and circulating it through the home. For example, clay roof tiles may have air channels built into them that allow the warmed air to circulate.
Houses that use hot air solar heating often have roof or siding surfaces designed to absorb heat. Many systems have some form of a powered circulating fan to distribute warm air. These systems are often designed to heat single rooms only. You can see this type of system as a much more sophisticated version of the old-fashioned sunroom, which was kept warm by sunlight beating down through large windows and heating up a stone or ceramic tile floor.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Solar Powered Pumps
A drawback of some hot-water heating systems described above is that they require a pump to circulate water from the solar collector to the holding tank. Normally, these pumps are powered by household electrical service, and doing so in some ways consumes some of the energy you hoped to save by installing the system in the first place.
But for maximum energy-saving impact, you can also run those circulating pumps on solar power through the use of photo-electric panels, which will generate the power to run DC motors on the circulating pumps. While there is, of course, some investment in getting such a system set up, you have now reduced the operating costs of your hot water system to almost nothing.
Like any photo-electric system, the sun's energy can be stored in batteries so that you can still run the circulating pumps at night or on cloudy days.
06 of 09
Charging Batteries With Solar Power
Virtually any device that operates on a battery can be charged with solar power via some type of photo-electric panel system. The nature of photo-electric solar panels is to generate DC current, which is the same form used in most batteries. Many basic and inexpensive solar panel kits have connections that allow you to plug in cell phones, pad devices, and laptops for direct charging. And by adding a simple inverter that converts DC current to 120-volt AC current, you can also plug in the chargers for other batteries.
On a much larger scale, as we'll soon see, a large bank of solar panels can charge a whole bank of storage batteries that can power nearly any 120-volt AC device—right up to serving your entire house.
07 of 09
Power Your Home With Photo-Electric
Yes, solar energy can power your entire home. Although it sounds complicated and expensive, such a system is relatively simple in concept. Solar panels lined with polycrystalline silicon, which reacts to sunlight by generating a small electrical charge, are linked together on a roof or on open land facing the sun. As the sunlight is converted to electricity, the DC current generated is sent to an inverter, which converts the DC current to AC power. This AC power feeds into your main electrical service panel, where it is used to power all the devices in your home—just like utility company electricity. Through the use of transfer switches and other safety devices, your clean, renewable power source is capable of powering your home, cabin, tool shed, or any other building for that matter.
In most locations, the utility companies now will meter your home in a manner that keeps track of the energy you are generating yourself, giving you credit for that usage and even paying you back when the power grid is making use of the energy you generate. If you are entirely "off-the-grid," you can install a large bank of batteries to store energy for use at night or on cloudy days or rig your system with a backup generator that kicks in when there is no sunlight to power your home.
It is no small undertaking to install a whole-house photo-electric panel system, but looking at the roofs on a drive through most neighborhoods in the U.S. will show that it is no longer a rarity, either. Lining your roof with photo-electric solar panels is not cheap. The average installation cost for a 5 kW system is $25,000 to $35,000. However, subsidies and rebates can cut this cost by 50 percent. And statistics show that the average payback period necessary to recoup your investment through energy cost savings is only 6 to 8 years. After that point, your household electricity is utterly free.
08 of 09
Solar Energy for Cooking
At the other end of the scale, you can also use solar energy simply to cook a meal. Although it is something of a novelty exercise, cooking with solar energy is much easier than you think. With a box, pan, aluminum foil, a cooking bag, duct tape (man's best friend), styrofoam insulation, and a thermometer, you'll be cooking in no time at all.
The essence of a solar cooker is to create a container lined with foil or another shiny substance to focus the sun's rays into a cooking chamber. Dozens of plans for solar cookers are available online.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
Solar Energy for Outdoor Lighting
Rather than 120-volt underground circuit wiring, or even low-voltage lighting powered by a transformer plugged into a 120-volt outlet, it is perfectly possible to provide good landscape lighting with individual lighting fixtures, each of which has its own small solar cell and rechargeable storage battery. At one time, these were rather puny and dim lighting fixtures, but today, thanks to LED technology and improved batteries, you can get quite adequate landscape lighting—even spotlighting—with solar-power fixtures that require no wiring connections at all. The solar panels charge the batteries during the day, and the charge is often enough to keep the lights powered all through the night.
Other systems are available that make use of a larger central solar panel that can power multiple landscape lights. There are also kits for seasonal lighting displays for holidays that make use of solar panels.