Two types of active solar water heating systems

* Direct circulation systems

Pumps circulate household water through the collectors and into the home. They work well in climates where it rarely freezes.

* Indirect circulation systems

Pumps circulate a non-freezing, heat-transfer fluid through the collectors and a heat exchanger. This heats the water that then flows into the home. They are popular in climates prone to freezing temperatures.

Illustration of an active, closed loop solar water heater. A large, flat panel called a flat plate collector is connected to a tank called a solar storage/backup water heater by two pipes. One of these pipes is runs through a cylindrical pump into the bottom of the tank, where it becomes a coil called a double-wall heat exchanger. This coil runs up through the tank and out again to the flat plate collector. Antifreeze fluid runs only through this collector loop. Two pipes run out the top of the water heater tank; one is a cold water supply into the tank, and the other sends hot water to the house.

Passive solar water heating systems are typically less expensive than active systems, but they’re usually not as efficient. However, passive systems can be more reliable and may last longer. There are two basic types of passive systems:

* Integral collector-storage passive systems

These work best in areas where temperatures rarely fall below freezing. They also work well in households with significant daytime and evening hot-water needs.

* Thermosyphon systems

Water flows through the system when warm water rises as cooler water sinks. The collector must be installed below the storage tank so that warm water will rise into the tank. These systems are reliable, but contractors must pay careful attention to the roof design because of the heavy storage tank. They are usually more expensive than integral collector-storage passive systems.

Illustration of a passive, batch solar water heater. Cold water enters a pipe and can either enter a solar storage/backup water heater tank or the batch collector, depending on which bypass valve is opened. If the valve to the batch collector is open, a vertical pipe (which also has a spigot drain valve for cold climates) carries the water up into the batch collector. The batch collector is a large box holding a tank and covered with a glaze that faces the sun. Water is heated in this tank, and another pipe takes the heated water from the batch collector into the solar storage/backup water heater, where it is then carried to the house.

Solar water heating systems almost always require a backup system for cloudy days and times of increased demand. Conventional storage water heaters usually provide backup and may already be part of the solar system package. A backup system may also be part of the solar collector, such as rooftop tanks with thermosyphon systems. Since an integral-collector storage system already stores hot water in addition to collecting solar heat, it may be packaged with a demand (tankless or instantaneous) water heater for backup.

Source: EERE, U.S. Department of Energy