Types Of Solar Hot Water Systems

There are basically three types of thermal solar collectors: flat-plate, evacuated-tube and concentrating.

1. The Flat-Plate system comprises an insulated, weatherproof box containing a dark absorber plate under one or more transparent or translucent covers. Water or conducting fluid passes through pipes located below the absorber plate. As the fluid flows through the pipes it is heated. This collector, although inferior in many ways to evacuated tube collectors, is still the most common type of collector in many countries.

Evacuated Tube solar water heaters are made up of rows of parallel, glass tubes. There are several types of evacuated tubes (also referred to as Solar Tubes).

Type 1 (Glass-Glass) tubes consists of two glass tubes which are fused together at one end. The inner tube is coated with a selective surface that absorbs solar energy well but inhibits radiative heat loss. The air is withdrawn ("evacuated") from the space between the two glass tubes to form a vacuum, which eliminates conductive and convective heat loss. These tubes perform very well in overcast conditions as well as low temperatures. Because the tube is 100% glass, the problem with loss of vacuum due to a broken seal is greatly minimized. Glass-glass solar tubes may be used in a number of different ways, including direct flow, heat pipe, or U pipe configuration. Focus Technology uses a high efficiency heat pipe and heat transfer fin design to conduct the heat from within the tube up to the header. For more information about heat pipes, click here.

Type 2 (Glass-Metal) tubes consist of a single glass tube. Inside the tube is a flat or curved aluminum plate which is attached to a copper heat pipe or water pipe. The aluminum plate is generally coated with Tinox, or another selective coating. These type of tubes are very efficient but can have problems relating to loss of vacuum. This is primarily due to the fact that their seal is glass to metal. The heat expansion rates of these two materials are different and so after a few years of daily contraction and expansion the seal can fail and the vacuum lost. Glass-glass tubes although not quite as efficient glass-metal tubes are generally more reliable and much cheaper.

Type 3 (Glass-glass - water flow path) tubes incorporate a water flow path into the tube itself. The problem with these tubes is that if a tube is ever damaged water will pour from the collector onto the roof and the collector must be "shut-down" until the tube is replaced.

3. Concentrating collectors for residential applications are usually parabolic troughs that use mirrored surfaces to concentrate the sun's energy on an absorber tube (called a receiver) containing a heat-transfer fluid, or the water itself. This type of solar collector is virtually antiquated as it compares poorly with evacuated tube solar collectors in terms of year round efficiency.

Types of Solar Water Heating Systems

Solar water heating systems (SWHS) can be either active or passive. An active system uses an electric pump to circulate the fluid through the collector; a passive system has no pump and relies on thermo-siphoning to circulate water. The amount of hot water a solar water heater produces depends on the type and size of the system, the amount of sun available at the site, installation angle and orientation. SWHS are also characterized as open loop (also called "direct") or closed loop (also called "indirect"). An open-loop system circulates household (potable) water through the collector. A closed-loop system uses a heat-transfer fluid (water or diluted antifreeze) to collect heat and a heat exchanger to transfer the heat to the household water. A disadvantage of closed looped system is that efficiency is lost during the heat exchange process.

Active Systems

Active systems use electric pumps, valves, and controllers to circulate water or other heat-transfer fluids through the collectors. They are usually more expensive than passive systems but generally more efficient. Active systems are often easier to retrofit than passive systems because their storage tanks do not need to be installed above or close to the collectors. If installed using a PV panel to operate the pump, an active system can operate even during a power outage.

Open-Loop Active Systems
Open-loop active systems use pumps to circulate household potable water through the collectors. This design is efficient and lowers operating costs but is not appropriate if water is hard or acidic because scale and corrosion will gradually disable the system. Open-loop active systems are popular in regions that do not experience subzero temperatures. Flat plate open-loop systems should never be installed in climates that experience sustained periods of subzero temperatures. The Apricus
TM AP solar water heater can be installed in an open loop in areas that experience sub-zero temperatures as long as the solar controller has a low temperature function.

Closed-Loop Active Systems
These systems pump heat-transfer fluids (usually a glycol-water antifreeze mixture) through the solar water heater. Heat exchangers transfer the heat from the fluid to the water that is stored in tanks. Double-walled heat exchangers or twin coil solar tanks prevent contamination of household water. Some standards require double walls when the heat-transfer fluid is anything other than household water. Closed-loop glycol systems are popular in areas subject to extended subzero temperatures because they offer good freeze protection. However, glycol antifreeze systems are more expensive to purchase and install and the glycol must be checked each year and changed every few years, depending on glycol quality and system temperatures.

Drainback systems use water as the heat-transfer fluid in the collector loop. A pump circulates the water through the solar water heater. When the pump is turned off, the solar water heater drains of water, which ensures freeze protection and also allows the system to turn off if the water in the storage tank becomes too hot. A problem with drainback systems is that the solar water heater installation and plumbing must be carefully positioned to allow complete drainage. The pump must also have sufficient head pressure to pump the water up to the collector each time the pump starts. Electricity usage is therefore slightly higher than a sealed closed or open loop.

Apricus AP collectors are ideal for use in active (open or closed) systems.

Passive Systems

Passive systems move household water or a heat-transfer fluid through the system without pumps. Passive systems have the advantage that electricity outage and electric pump breakdown are not issues. This makes passive systems generally more reliable, easier to maintain, and possibly longer lasting than active systems. Passive systems are often less expensive than active systems, but are also generally less efficient due to slower water flow rates through the system.

Thermosiphon Systems
A thermosiphon system relies on warm water rising, a phenomenon known as natural convection, to circulate water through the solar absorber and to the tank. In this type of installation, the tank must be located above the absorber tubes/panel. As water in the absorber heats, it becomes lighter and naturally rises into the tank above. Meanwhile, cooler water in the tank flows downwards into the absorber, thus causing circulation throughout the system. This system is widely used with both flat plate and evacuated tube absorbers. The disadvantages of this design are the poor aesthetics of having a large tank on the roof and the isses with structural integrity of the roof. Often the roof must be reinforced to cope with the weight of the tank.

Batch Heaters
Batch heaters are simple passive system consisting of one or more storage tanks placed in an insulated box that has a glazed side facing the sun. Batch heaters are inexpensive and have few components, but only perform well in summer when the weather is warm. Evacuated tube solar collectors are now an affordable and much more efficient alternative to either batch or flat plate collectors.

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Last modified: 08/10/15