What is a Solar Heater?

Solar power is everywhere. It heats our planet and makes life possible on earth. The sun is the most powerful object in our solar system, continuously radiating heat and energy with unimaginably powerful force. The earth absorbs some of this energy, allowing us to go throughout our lives by experiencing a regular day/night cycle. It’s an understatement to say that the sun is essential for our lives. Not only does it provide life-sustaining heat, but all that heat and energy can be harnessed again to power our homes and cities. By channeling it into electricity, we can expand its uses, including installing a solar heater.

Is there a solar power heater?

It’s a new idea, so you can’t blame people for not having heard of it. But yes, solar heat is extremely useful for homes and pools. All it takes is a special installation to allow a renewable energy system to power pool water, as well. 
Most forms of energy already produce heat on their own. If you’ve ever put your hand near a running car or by a laptop’s vent, you’ve felt the heat that comes from energy exertion. Anything that moves and generates energy also creates heat as a byproduct. The sun follows similar principles but on a much larger scale. Its massive size and unimaginable surface temperatures radiate enough energy to power the entire planet for several years by itself if it were efficiently collected and distributed. And with that energy comes heat, and lots of it. Once that heat is absorbed, it has to go somewhere anyway, right? So why not allow it to dissipate evenly across a pipe that’s funneling water into your pool? Solar heaters are an amazing idea because they take the best things about solar heat and combine it with solar panel technology. 
They don’t require too many additional parts or electric systems because it piggybacks off of what you already have. They’re fairly flexible, too, capable of working with tons of different systems. The key focus of a solar water heater is not to add a bunch of bulky equipment to your home but to make use of what’s already there. It appeals to solar panel enthusiasts and newcomers alike because all you need to start is a basic solar system. You may already have one for its renewable energy benefits, such as alleviating your utility bill or getting cleaner, environmentally-friendly energy. But whatever the case may be, it’s not too much hassle to add another component to your solar collectors or panels.
Specifically, a solar pool heater is a special type of heat-collecting device that allows an above-ground pool to stay warm even when temperatures get cold or if you live in a cold climate. They’re relatively simple to install if you already have solar energy systems too. By hooking up a solar panel system to a solar collector, which then feeds water through the panels and back into the pool, you get solar hot water. Additionally, solar water heating is one of the most cost-effective pool heating methods out there. Depending on your climate and region, a solar water heating system could be the cheapest way to keep your pool at a comfortable water temperature.
Even after the sun goes down, or when “pool season” starts to taper off into colder fall temperatures, you can still have access to heated water and maintain a cozy setup. It’s even possible to take on a DIY solar heater and create your own solar hot water heater if you have the knowledge and expertise. If not, you can hire a professional. Either way, solar pool heating frees up your swimming experience and allows you to feel the sun’s warmth long after it gets colder outside.

Can you run a heater off a solar panel?

You can! In fact, that’s how many solar heaters tend to run. Of course, there are other methods, such as getting a separate panel for the heater, but most methods won’t require that. In most cases, the best way to handle solar heating is to use what’s already there, saving you time and hassle. 
One thing to keep in mind is how much energy your solar panels are producing. They’re already being used for other purposes, but you may wonder if that energy will be enough to heat the water coming through? To be clear, it won’t take energy from the system because the water pipes aren’t absorbing electricity. It’s not using the solar energy itself—just the heat byproducts of solar energy and electric components.  But if your solar panel isn’t doing much work, it won’t be producing much heat. This situation could mean that your pool will take a bit longer to heat up than you might hope, though it wouldn’t mean the system is a waste. It’s just a consideration to think about when deciding whether to install a solar water heating system. It might be time to upgrade to other solar panels, anyway, but those can be expensive by themselves.

What types of solar heating are there?

There are two main types of solar heating. Both effectively heat the water in your pool but come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Consider these two types and figure out which one is optimal for your home:
Active. Active systems keep the water pumping through a system of pipes and valves, sending it around to get heated after cooling. There are two sub-classifications of active heating systems: direct and indirect. Direct circulation means the heated water goes right into your pool or home. It doesn’t pass through anything else after getting heat energy created by the collectors. Indirect systems have the same destination, but they make another stop along the way. Active indirect circulation sends the water through a heat-transfer fluid that prevents freezing before reaching your home or pool. Because of its usefulness against cold weather, cold climate homes love this type of circulation.
Active circulation works because it feeds water through a loop around/underneath the solar panels. This panel is referred to as a flat plate collector when it’s part of a pool heating system. After heating the water, the flat plate collector sends the water down to a tank and through a double-wall heat exchanger coil. This device is a pump that sends water on its way to the next step, which is usually back to the flat plate collector and then to either a storage tank or the pool/house—or both. Direct and indirect circulation both have the same basic structure. The biggest difference between them is that indirect circulation adds heat transfer fluid to prevent freezing and expansion in cold weather.
Passive. These systems are much simpler and cheaper to assemble and are often more reliable and long-lasting. But it does come with a key disadvantage compared to active systems: it is not nearly as efficient because the systems rely a lot on stationary water being heated evenly. It’s still getting funneled through pipes and tanks, but the heating methods involved don’t necessarily bypass a solar panel. Instead, the water is heated in a tank that faces the sun and disperses the heat throughout a large body of water.
Like active systems, passive solar heating systems divide into two categories. There are integral collector-storage passive systems that are better for warm regions requiring lots of hot water day and night. The other type is a thermosyphon system, which uses basic physics to distribute heat throughout a water tank. Remember how warm air rises and cool air drops? The same works for any particles, including water molecules. Because of this fact, the thermosyphon system’s tank starts with warm water at the bottom that then comes to the surface, heating all the water around it. As the molecules rise, they disperse some of their energy to other particles until the whole mixture reaches a uniform temperature. If you’ve watched water boil before, you’ll recall that steam bubbles start at the bottom because that’s where it’s hottest. The same thing works here, just on a larger scale.
By installing a storage tank on top of a solar collector, the water can rise and heat itself evenly as the collector distributes heat energy. In this way, the sun’s rays act just like they normally do, but they’re focused on a specific spot. Lakes and rivers are warm at the top but cool at the bottom, but this tank seeks to accomplish the opposite. The collector acts as the primary source of heat by redirecting the sun’s energy to where it’s hardest to heat: the bottom. That way, the entire body of water can stay warm and comfortable for any pool or home use.
There are two things to notice while considering a thermosyphon system. First, they’re pricier than collector-storage systems. Investing in a large tank is no small feat. But more than that is the installation, which brings us to the next downside: roofing. Some roof designs simply will not hold the massive tank, especially after it fills with water. You’ll need to ensure that you can remove or adjust the shingles on your roof to accommodate the addition. And if the roof slopes too much, that can be dangerous, as well. Water follows the flow of gravity, so it will always be slanted inside a container on a slanted roof. With that much water perpetually tipping over, the tank might not be able to hold it properly (imagine if you were on the slanted roof, leaning forward and trying to not lose your balance). Because of these and other risks, installation is expensive because contractors want to protect themselves from liability. Several things can go wrong and none of them are cheap. The roof might collapse under the tank’s weight and bring all the heated water cascading into your home. You probably don’t want that much hot shower water!

How hot can a solar pool get?

While it varies a lot, there are a few factors that can help heat your solar pool. First, it will depend on the temperature and climate in which you live. That’s going to change depending on which season it is, as well. You’ll also need to make sure your solar collector is on the side of the house that gets the most sunlight. The sun will be working to heat your pool on its own, but if you want the heater to help, there are a few things to know.
Generally speaking, solar heaters raise an above-ground pool’s temperature by 6-10 degrees Fahrenheit, with better ones getting up to 15 degrees. Depending on your system and the amount of sunlight you get, the speed at which the pool heats will also vary, but solar heat generally takes longer than gas or electric. It’s also possible to set a certain temperature you want the system to maintain, kind of like a thermostat for your pool. It might not be necessary in every case, but many solar pool systems come with a valve that diverts water to the collector when it gets too cold. You can set this flow control valve to either manual or automatic. If you prefer manual, you’ll probably want a thermometer that checks on the pool’s temperature periodically. For automatic, consider installing a sensor by the collectors so the system can regulate itself.

How efficient is solar heating?

Solar heating has comparable efficiency to other types of heating but with some extra advantages. For starters, while the upfront cost can range from cheap to expensive, the system will usually pay for itself after a few years. And even though it takes a while to heat and can have difficulty storing energy, it heats just as well as more expensive systems. Another plus is you don’t have to pay a utility bill for solar power. Except for occasional repairs (and solar panels are praised for being long-lasting and well-built), your solar system won’t cost anything to run monthly. You can’t say the same of electric or gas heating systems—not for pool or home systems.
As we previously mentioned, of the two types of solar heating, active systems get the job done better than passive. Because the hot water cycles more directly through the system instead of sitting in a tank, the water is constantly in motion. There’s not much time wasted while the water sits around and risks losing its heat. Active systems also aren’t as tricky as a passive system’s rooftop tank installation. They may require a bit more attention to maintain than passive systems, but the extra efficiency is worth it.

Can you heat your home with solar energy?

Absolutely! A lot of the solar water heating systems also heat water for use in the home. Drawing on heated water from a tank or circulating pipe can bring comfortable water for cleaning, bathing, and cooking. In fact, while setting up heated systems for your pool, it might make sense to add the heated water into your house’s circulation. That way, you can cover your bases if something happens to your current water heating method. While it may take a bit more time and attention, solar heat can provide amazing backup to any system as long as it gets enough sunlight. 

The DIY Solar Heater

Many systems come with easy-to-assemble instructions. These pre-packaged DIY solar kits are great for those with a little experience in the field of solar installation. They also come with another benefit: you know that what you’ve bought will fit together well.
But if you’d like to create a solar heater from scratch, there are plenty of things people have tried. One of the more interesting methods comes from a DIY solar air heater made from recycled aluminum cans for about $100. While this particular system is designed for air heating, you could adjust it by directing the water to circulate through it instead of the surrounding air. As with anything that can get extremely hot, follow safety protocols and don’t keep the collector near any flammable objects. Consider installing a sensor so you can tell how much heat it’s getting on hot days. That way, you’ll know when you need to cool it off or reduce its performance for a little while. You might also install a fan from an old computer, and be sure to make it weather-proof.
However, if you decide you would rather hire a professional to install your solar heater, be sure that their license is current. Many places are strict when it comes to making sure workers are properly trained and certified. Ask to see the company or individual’s license of practice, and research their business beforehand. Have they done jobs like yours in the past? Are they familiar with the equipment you need to install? What are online reviews saying about them? A few minutes of extra research could save you loads of complications in the future and give you the peace of mind you need to move forward on your projects.

How much does solar heating cost?

The answer depends on the type of system you’re getting and whether you’re or a professional are assembling and installing the parts. But, generally speaking, solar heating can cost up to $1000 or as low as $150. If you want to buy some kind of heat storage, like thermal batteries, that’s going to cost you more. Add-ons like that might be worth it depending on the climate, especially if you’re not expecting a whole lot of sunshine in the coming months. And, of course, a solar system doesn’t require any monthly expenses unless you’re paying off installation costs. But if you have the time and expertise to install it yourself, it won’t cost anything beyond the price of materials. 
While the upfront price of a solar heating system is pricey, it’s hard to argue with its year-to-year savings. Solar pool heating is more cost-effective than any other energy source. Gas heating costs an average of $1700/year and electric at $840/year, solar clocks in at a clean $70! On top of that, the components can last quite a while. Solar panels are rated to last for several years, but one study indicated that many panels last 80% longer than the warranty guarantees. Solar heating is a big investment that pays itself off rapidly.