Solar Energy Water Heater Systems - Which Solar Water Heater is Right For You?



A solar energy water heater is one of the most basic, yet immediately rewarding solar power products you can buy. The impact to your electric bill every month is positive and startling. Did you know your water heating costs each month are a whopping 17 to 28 per cent of your total electric ball? Installing a solar water heater converts your dishwasher, clothes washing machine and other hot water appliances into sun-powered savings accounts that take money from your electric company and put it back in your pocket where it belongs.

To give you a real number, it takes 11.4 fifty-five gallon barrels of oil to power the hot water needs for the typical American family of four in one year. So when you switch from a traditional fossil-fuel-powered water heater to a solar energy water heater you are making a substantial step in the right direction to help preserve our planet's resource while at the same time putting some cha-ching back in your pocketbook.

Okay, that is all well and good, but what are your options when deciding on a solar water heater? There are probably lots of different types and models, right? Actually, while many solar energy water heater technologies and companies are available, only three solar water heating systems have been solid performers year in and year out. Those are the Integral Collector System (ICS), the Drainback System and the Closed Loop Antifreeze System. Let's explore these three main solar water heater systems further.

Integral Collector Systems

The ICS is the least expensive and technologically simple solar energy water heater you can buy. Perfect for mild climates, the way it is made does allow for potential freezing damage, so bear that in mind. The collector retains the water it is heating, and uses a passive, pump-less flow that is very easy to install. Whenever a hot water faucet is turned somewhere in your house, this type of solar water heater rushes hot water from the collector tank to the user. If there is enough hot water in the tank, your electric water heater does not kick in, and you use no electricity.

However, holding gallons and gallons of water in its tank means drainage is required when temps drop below freezing. But don't worry, you won't be traipsing around on a cold winter night in your jammies running drain lines. You can purchase either manual or automatic drain valves which will do the work for you. Just know that employing an ICS solar energy water heater can possibly become damaged if frozen so take the necessary steps to keep this from happening.

Drainback Systems

Drainback solar water heater systems are true to their name. They drain water from the collector tank on any weather-exposed pipes when there is no sunlight, at night-time and when temperatures plummet. Be sure to buy an optional temperature monitor. This water is then held in a special tank, and as long as there is no need to heat water that is already at the proper temperature, it keeps your pipes clear, which limits possible freezing cracks. A little more is involved in set-up, and they are about halfway up the cost scale, but are more suitable for cold weather climates than the ICS solar energy water heater.

Learning to “time use” the hot water with this system will increase your savings, so use it in the afternoon after the optimal amount of sun's rays have heated up your water supply. Doing your dishes, washing clothes and taking showers in that time frame can reduce your dependability on your electric water heater to zero.

Closed Loop Antifreeze Systems

As you have probably already surmised, the Closed Loop Antifreeze solar energy water heater is most desired in cold to extremely cold geographies. It is the most widely sold solar water heater, and will work anywhere with minimal headaches. As always, you will pay for the convenience of knowing your system is almost totally immune to temperature damage. These are the most expensive solar water heaters, but are not entirely free of concerns. Your antifreeze can break down when it becomes too hot, and will need to be changed out before it gets corrosive. This means annual service.

There are two solar energy water heater types to steer clear from. The Open Loop Flooded System is similar to an ICS, but uses a flat plate type of collector and storage tank. They have no advantage over an ICS and freeze or clog up more frequently.

A Recirculation System is one solar water heater type that on the surface seems to offer an answer to the ICS freezing problem without the cost of a Closed Loop Antifreeze System. When temperatures reach a certain point, a sensor kicks on, powers a motor, and begins re-circulating your water supply to prevent freezing. This may sound great, but when water moves, it loses most of its heat, and this ends up requiring much too much energy to make sense. Steer clear at any cost.

Obviously, you will want to cover certain variables before buying a solar energy water heater. The amount of freezing weather you have is the first thing you will want to take into account. Obviously, if you live in Florida, an inexpensive ICS solar water heater will probably be fine. If you live in Ontario, you will need to spend more money, and probably opt for a Closed Loop Antifreeze System. All systems come with drainage control and valve monitors and options that can make life easier, so make sure you understand these as well to maximize your efficiency and minimize your labor.

But don't forget high temperatures either! ICS collectors can burst if the water reaches a boiling point, and the purity of your water supply can suffer. Mineral buildup in a Closed Loop solar energy water heater is something to look for as the antifreeze breaks down in the hot summer months.

One great tip is to check with a friend or neighbor that has a solar water heater. Ask them their ideas and thoughts, ups and downs, and have them honestly critique their own system. There are a few pointers that have been gleaned from past experience that can help you.

Try to get a complete all-in-one system. Saving a few bucks by piece-mealing just doesn't make sense, and could end up costing ten times what you save upfront. Get as many of the optional monitors we spoke about earlier. Knowing at a glance what is going on inside your solar energy water heater is imperative to max out your efficiency and savings, and can also help you troubleshoot issues before they become big problems.

Check your contractor's reputation and buy only quality kits from trusted brand names. These are two more areas where trying to save some cash now hurts you later. Make sure your contractor understands all local codes and make sure you understand just who is legally liable if something goes wrong.

Adding a solar energy water heater to your home's solar powered arsenal is one of the first steps homeowners take when they implement a "whole-house" solar plan. Use the advice above to choose the correct type of solar water heater for you, and you will maximize your savings and minimize your headaches.


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