Solar Heating Systems: What’s Hot and What’s Not

Let’s take an honest look at solar heating and whether it is as advantageous as we may think. Here are some key points to consider in comparing the pros and cons.

How Solar Heating Stacks Up Point-by-Point: the Pros

  • Solar heating systems are essentially among the simplest technologies for their purpose. This tends to make production and operation simpler and more stable over a longer period of time, affected mainly only by longevity of materials and exposure to any factors causing deterioration.

  • Except for actual production and transportation, they are virtually pollution-free systems.

  • Operational costs are pretty much non-existent.

  • Most solar water heating systems involve passive water circulation designs. Those intended to heat buildings via hot water often involve no motors, moving fans or pumps. In some cases, designs might include these or special blinds or shades to regulate heat levels when necessary. Blinds may be motor driven or hand operated. Minimal moving parts mean quiet operation and low wear on the system.

  • There are no transmission or piping costs for energy or fuel, as sunlight alone is the fuel.

  • It is an essentially off-the-grid technology that is as useful in remote locations around the world as in urban areas.

  • Solar heating is not confined only to lower latitude locations. Systems do work at higher latitudes.

  • Some recent systems include solar power panels to combine heating with power production.

  • Solar cooling techniques make it a versatile technology and conveniently applied when sun power is most available. In fact, all-in-one systems now exist combining heating, production of electrical power and cooling.

  • Subsidized programs and tax credits are available in many instances to cut installation costs and encourage energy savings.

Solar Heating Drawbacks: the Cons

  • Probably the biggest is intermittent access to sunlight. Many areas of the planet do not have consistent daily solar exposure. An additional backup system may be required and will reduce desired savings on costs and environmental impact.

  • Angle of sun requires more efficiency at higher latitudes to make up for solar intensity lost due to less efficient angles of light.

  • Higher latitudes and higher altitude locations tend to have snow and ice, which can reduce efficiency in winter conditions. Hours of winter light are also dramatically reduced.

  • In terms of economic practicality, in some areas, local access to inexpensive natural gas might deter a percentage of those who would consider such a system.

  • Most solar systems are relatively small, and not for large commercial operations.

  • Some people object to the appearance of these systems.

  • Original costs of construction and installation can be high.

  • Location and physical orientation of intended building can affect efficiency depending on presence and hours of shade.

  • Knowledgeable technicians are not always locally available in some areas.

  • Installation in remote areas can drive delivery and labor costs up.

Everything Under the Sun

Note that this blog refers mainly to home solar heating systems and applications. These are used to heat swimming pools, too. Higher tech variations are being built to provide highly concentrated heat via mirrors or special solar collectors. They convert water to steam for power generation, affect desalinization of seawater to potable water, and in some cases are used for industrial, experimental or scientific applications involving treatment of materials and processes under intense heat.

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