DIY





Understanding Passive Solar Heating and Cooling

Learn what it takes to create a comfortable building environment with less reliance on fossil fuels (and lower energy bills).

| April 16, 2008

Being passive isn’t always a bad thing, especially when it’s passive solar heating and cooling. The idea behind passive solar is to design buildings that take advantage of natural heat from the sun in winter; and shade and wind and in the summer. Although the concept has been used in many cultures for centuries, passive solar design principles recently have been refined a great deal, even since the 1970s.

Passive solar, on it’s most basic level, works like this: Rays from the sun enter a building through windows, heat the air and are absorbed by floors, walls, furniture, etc. Some materials, such as stone, brick and plaster, more effectively absorb the heat. As the air cools at night, the absorbed heat releases into the building and maintains a comfortable temperature.

How Passive Solar Works

Kelly Lerner, architect and author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House, says there are four things to consider when designing or remodeling a building to most effectively utilize solar energy: south-facing glass (glazing), shading, insulation and thermal mass.

“In most North American climates, the right amount of south-facing glass is 7 to 12 percent of the floor area of the building — a lot less than you might think if you’ve seen solar home designs from the ’70s,” she says. “In the ’70s, we really used too much glass with too little thermal mass, so instead of passive solar heat, we had something more like ‘passive-aggressive’ solar heat, creating buildings that were too hot during the day and too cool at night. Too much glazing can be a detriment on cold winter nights, allowing heat to escape.”



Longtime passive solar expert Ron Judkoff, director of the Buildings and Thermal Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab, says, “It’s the thermal storage part that’s kept passive solar from becoming more widespread. It’s also the biggest additional expense: adding brick or another internal thermal mass instead of drywall.”

Judkoff points out that production builders are accustomed to using lightweight materials not suited to storing (and releasing) heat gathered through south-facing glass. “But you need adequate thermal storage mass for a passive solar thermal building to work as it’s supposed to,” he says.

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Dan Jacobs
2/10/2009 8:16:52 PM

Dear Mother Earth, I have a large bay and picture window facing south in my home. My couch currently sits in front of it, but I would be interested in a suggestion of decorative thermal mass that may provide passive heating. Is there some brick/lego type structure that can go on a foot wide window sill? Also have you any suggestions if I wanted to go all out and use focused mirrors to intensify the solar heat through a window? Thanks for all the years of trying to keep our planet green! Dan Jacobs


Very Interested
8/19/2008 12:28:50 AM

Can anachronism lead the sheep to green 'er pastures?







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