There are 3 main ways homeowners are able to take advantage of solar energy in their homes.
- Solar Electricity through the use of photovoltaic panels (solar panels) mounted either on the roof or on the ground. The sun’s rays hit these solar panels which are made up of semi-conductor materials, most notably silicone wafers with conductors embedded in them. This is converted into DC or Direct Current voltage that can either be used to power DC equipment or converted by means of an inverter into AC or Alternating Current, used universally in the United States and much of the world. These panels can be rather large and take up quite a bit of room and are now being contested in some communities as an “eyesore” despite the fact they represent an alternative, green energy source. Because of this, integrated photovoltaics have been developed that are made to blend into and become a part of the architectural framework on which they are mounted. These have taken the form of pliable rolls, roof shingles and now, glass or glazing, which is most promising as we move forward and the costs start to come down. Costs have started to come down substantially as supply from China has just about exceeded demand. Bad news for companies in the solar industry, good news for the consumer.
- Solar Hot Water: Solar Hot water is achieved from simple batch water heaters, meaning that a hot water holding tank is mounted on the roof, usually in an enclosed, insulated box (depending on the climate) with a cold water supply feeding it and a hot water return going back into the house. These have been very successful over the years and relatively inexpensive. In colder climates, there needs to be a mechanism installed, either on a timer or thermostat, that will open a valve allowing the water to drain back down into a holding tank or other reservoir such as a hot tub or swimming pool to accept the heated water and to keep it from freezing overnight. Even more common these days are evacuated tube solar panels and flat plate solar panels. Both have their merits at providing the necessary heat transfer for hot water and each are better suited for different climates. By following the previous links, one can learn more about these units and what would be best for your particular situation.
- Passive Solar. Passive solar energy is the easiest, most overlooked form of solar energy. It is simply a matter of orienting one’s home to the sun, South in the Northern Hemisphere and North in the Southern Hemisphere. This common sense, practical method of taking advantage of solar energy to heat our homes is not always convenient or practical. Housing developments, adhering to the layout of square blocks, cannot always orient a home to the south because the home might then be looking directly into neighboring homes, 2nd story homes block the sun from ranch style homes or there could be geographical impediments such as hills or mountains that block the sun. Housing developments are built with a developer’s mentality of siting as many houses as possible within a given amount of land and connecting to the existing energy sources. These developments are laid out in an office, on paper, without regard to the topography or setting of the house(s). Passive solar energy has long been used by those living in open areas who have a say about where their house will be sited and the orientation. To me, there could nothing worse than having to live in the shadow of a mountain or in a neighborhood surrounded by walls blocking out the sunshine. Having lived in a passive solar home for most of my life, I appreciate being able to get up in the morning and have the heat of the sunshine coming in through our large windows while having that first cup of coffee in the morning. Passive solar energy also works best when there is a large amount of mass for it to heat up and radiate that heat back in the evening. For our home, we have flagstone floors and 10 ft. tall, 3 ft. thick rock columns that get heated during the day, providing this radiant heat back at night.
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