An Effective Solar Home in a Shady Area

Folks who live in cloudy climes can pick up some pointers from this successful sun-power pioneer, including how it works, doubled efficiency.

| January/February 1982

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    Passive solar energy assists in heating the Matthews' home.
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    A view of the Matthews' solar home.
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    One of the solar panels near Matthew's house. 
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    Henry Matthew stands in front of his solar home.

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Back in 1967, when most of the world was still scoffing at the notion that the sun could be a viable source of home heat, a retired carpenter and construction millwright named Henry Matthew built a six-room solar house on Oregon's cool and very foggy coast. Over the course of the last 15 years, Henry's self-designed system — which consists of 725 square feet of water-type collectors and an 8,000-gallon storage tank — has furnished 75 percent of his Coos Bay home's heat in bad years and as much as 90 percent to 95 percent most of the time!
In fact, the monthly utility bill for his otherwise all-electric, 1,444-square-foot dwelling rises from approximately $18 in the summer to all of $22 in the winter. Henry's solar success story so impressed the University of Oregon that its scientists have spent the past few years monitoring the system with a battery of instruments.

A Solar Engineer Ahead of His Time

As you might suspect, Henry — a modest, soft-spoken do-it-yourselfer — has had a long-time interest in solar energy.

"When I was a boy," he recalls, "my father would tell me, 'Someday people are going to store up heat in the ground ... solar heat.' Then, when I was 40 or 45 years old, after my father — who was a lawyer — retired in San Diego, he wrote to me, 'If we could buy some of this inexpensive desert land down here and put in a solar pump to irrigate it with, we could make some money.'

"Dad's idea sounded good, so we located a book called Direct Use of the Sun's Energy by Farrington Daniels. After he read that book, though, Dad decided that the project would require too much work, and he backed out. But, I was still sure it was feasible. Then I learned that Harry Thomason had designed a successful solar house, and I knew right there that I could build one, too — and maybe even improve upon his design.

"The people who've found solar energy unsatisfactory," he contends, "usually don't pay enough attention to heat storage. Now we have rainy periods here, with no direct sunshine at all, that last three weeks at a time. So we have to be able to pack away the heat when it is available. I also believe that most collectors are far too small. Many that I've seen are about a third as large as they should be. Of course, you can't blame people for wanting to economize when they're buying expensive commercial collectors at $20 to $30 a square foot ... but when I built mine, the materials cost only about $1.00 to $1.50 per square foot, so I made sure the panels were big enough to satisfy my needs."  

How Solar Powered Electricity Works

 The Mathew's home's rooftop collector consists of a south-facing, 5-foot-high, 80-foot-long array, installed 7 degrees from vertical. The frame is made of wood backed with plywood and a 1-1/2-inch thickness of fiber-glass (for fireproofing). The heart of the unit is a corrugated sheet of aluminum coated with flat-black paint. A horizontal, galvanized iron, parallel-fed 1/2-inch pipe runs along each corrugation, and these are tied snugly to the aluminum sheet with wire. Three slightly overlapping glass panels (they're 1/16-by-20-by-30 inches), placed 1-1/2 inches away from the aluminum, are used to make up each individual panel. Near-vertical headers are positioned at the ends of the collector — one to bring water in and the other to let it out — and arranged so that no liquid can leave until the collector is entirely full.


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