Go Solar! Passive Solar Design Saves Big

Every homeowner needs to know that passive solar design doesn't have to be exotic or expensive, and will give you a lifetime of lower energy bills.

| August/September 2006

  • go solar - sun angle diagram
    The angle of the sun’s arc through the sky is lower in winter than in summer. Passive solar design takes advantage of this cycle to capture heat in the winter and block it in the summer.
    Oliver Rollin
  • go solar - illustration of man with megaphone
    Alternative builder Clarke Snell promotes passive solar design for homes, a technique that saves energy and reduces pollution.
    Illustration by Dave Channon
  • go solar - long cold climate house
    In a climate with cold winters and moderate summers, houses that are long and thin on their east-west axis are best because they expose more wall surface to the south, where it will be warmed by the sun in winter.
    Oliver Rollin
  • go solar - shade vines
    Flowering vines above the patio of this California home are just getting started in the spring. By summer, their rapid growth transforms this area into a cool, shady spot. In winter, the vines die back and allow more of the sun’s heat in through the windows.
    Catherine Wanek
  • go solar - compact warm climate house
    In a climate with mild winters and hot summers, compact houses with a northern orientation are easier to cool than long, thin houses.
    Oliver Rolling
  • go solar - interior, south facing windows
    South-facing windows take advantage of the sun’s position during the winter to allow in a maximum amount of light and heat.
    Catherine Wanek

  • go solar - sun angle diagram
  • go solar - illustration of man with megaphone
  • go solar - long cold climate house
  • go solar - shade vines
  • go solar - compact warm climate house
  • go solar - interior, south facing windows

Great news! You have free access to a source of energy that can save you thousands of dollars on your home’s heating and cooling bills. You can harness this eco-friendly energy source using inexpensive, readily available technology, and it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

The energy source is the sun, and the technology is passive solar design — the conscious manipulation of building temperature by using the sun’s direct energy. If you are planning to buy a new home or remodel your current residence, go solar! Put passive solar design on your “must-have” list.

Everyone is already aware of some of the advantages of solar design: We all appreciate the coolness of a shady porch or patio in the summer, or the warmth of a sunny window in the winter. But most people are not aware of the huge difference solar design can make in the amount of energy needed to heat and cool our homes. In most situations, a well-designed passive solar home stays cool in the summer without air conditioning, and in the winter it requires much less energy to heat. The combination of a woodstove and solar design is often enough to keep a house comfortably warm, even in very cold climates.

The best aspect of solar design is that if you’re building or remodeling a home, you can incorporate it at little or no extra expense. With oil and natural gas prices rising, and power blackouts becoming more common, it now makes more sense than ever to take advantage of natural heating and cooling rather than depending on fossil fuels.

After all, we already heat and cool our homes with solar energy. That’s because the fossil fuels we burn today are nothing more than stored solar energy. Plants captured that solar energy through photosynthesis, and then — over millions of years — heat and pressure transformed dead plants and animals into deposits of coal, oil and natural gas. I wish I had the biggest bullhorn ever made (solar-powered, of course) to broadcast this message: There’s a better way! Everyone should use solar design to save energy, save money and reduce pollution.

Location, Location, Location

In nearly every kind of climate, heating and cooling a building is a challenge. Maintaining a stable temperature for a tiny air mass (the inside of your house) is a difficult undertaking because of the constantly fluctuating temperature of a much larger surrounding air mass (the great outdoors). Unlike most other approaches, though, solar design makes the sun an ally rather than an adversary in this task; the key is adapting the design to the specific location where you live.

Frank M
10/7/2010 7:45:14 PM

Let me tell about my 3000 sq ft "Super Good Sense" house in Montana. The house is "all electric" which worried me when I bought it nearly seven years ago from a contractor who built it for himself to retire in before he got the itch to build yet another home for himself. My monthly electric bill is actually lowest in the dead of winter and runs around $72. In the summer months it runs as high as $84 mainly because I have a large lawn (~3 acres) to water from a well pump. To be fair, I must admit I heat the house mainly with a single wood burning stove at the basement level of our one story home with a walkout basement. It uses very little wood and I can go all winter burning pine wood from a small 50 sq ft room. The construction is 2 x 6 stick frame on 24 inch centers. Walls are about R29 using about 2" of sprayed foam on the outside plus 4" of fiberglass (for running wires). The ceiling is about R50 with blown in fiber and is certified "air tight". I have two mechanical air moving systems. One to push fresh air into the house using 8" PVC pipe buried 8' in the ground about 100 feet distance from the house and another system to suck stale air out of the house along with moisture build-up. The underground air comes into the house between 50 and 55 degrees F year round. It is a source of free pre-heated air in the winter and free pre-cooled air in the summer which keeps the house cool all summer.

5/29/2009 4:45:27 PM

Good summary of many of the ideas! There should be a caveat though, that all directions indicated are N.Hemisphere centric. For all S.Hemisphere readers, switch all references to North with South and vice-versa. Steve/New Zealand

B Knight
5/29/2009 9:19:37 AM

Very good article, lots of ideas and referrences. Would have preferred a bit more information on retrofit projects as most people are living in their house right now and not building a house. Simple retrofit items include wind breaks, shade trees to the south of the house, adding mass to the inside of south facing windows, using blinds, outside window shades, DIY solar water and air heating systems, etc. Here are some more ideas.. DIY solar water heaters: http://www.greenterrafirma.com/batch_solar_collector.html DIY solar AIR heaters: (remove in summer) http://www.greenterrafirma.com/solar-air-heating.html DIY solar oven: http://www.greenterrafirma.com/diy-solar-oven.html

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