Build a Simple Solar Heater With a Sheet of Plastic

How one family built a solar-powered heating unit for $25.

| September/October 1976


The simple solar heater in the Gilman home pays for itself every five weeks.


Contrary to what you might think, solar heating installations don't have to be complicated and expensive in order to do the job. We proved this to ourselves not long ago when we outfitted a home—an old adobe dwelling located high (8,000 feet) in the mountains of northern New Mexico—with a bare-bones simple, yet highly effective, $25 solar heating system.

When we took it over, the house was nothing but a drafty, unfinished, 750—square-foot adobe lodge that featured lots of window area and walls with an equivalent insulation value of less than an inch of fiberglass. Not exactly what you'd call a cozy shelter in which to brave—19° New Mexican winters!

Fortunately, the building's roof was insulated with a full six inches of fiberglass ... but the floor—like the walls—had no insulation, and we were told that during the winter previous to our arrival the house's occupants had spent $60 per month for propane to keep the place warm.

That was all the incentive we needed to begin looking for a way to improve the dwelling's heating efficiency. So we pondered the situation for a while ... and ultimately decided to [1] put in a wood-burning stove and [2] rig up a large solar collector for the south wall of the structure. (Because we were renting --not buying—the place, we felt it wouldn't be feasible for us to go to the expense of insulating the entire building . . . even though that would've solved the better part of the heating problem.)

Building the collector was a cinch. All we did was [A] tack up a sheet of black plastic to the outside of the south wall, [B] construct a 9' X 14' framework of 1" X 6" boards, cover the outside face of this framework with see-through 4-mil plastic (we put a few lath reinforcements between the one-by-sixes to help the plastic withstand the strong mountain winds), and [D] mount this stud-wall-like frame to the side of the house, right over the black plastic.

As you can see from the accompanying diagram, we also cut two 12" X 15" vent holes in the wall near the ceiling and a 24" square opening in the wall near the floor, and placed doors over all three openings. (These holes vent the collector to the house, but not to the outside.)

Thus, whenever Ole Sol shines down on our humble abode and we need some extra room heat, all we have to do is throw open the hatches, sit back, and let the collector (aided by natural convection) do its work. Cool house air enters the collector through the 24" opening at the bottom of the wall ... rises as it's warmed by the sun's rays ... and exits back into the house through either of the two top vents (which are located in two different rooms) with enough force to flutter a few ribbons. TA DA! Passive solar heat!

The beauty of this design is that it's simple (no expensive pumps, differential thermostats, copper tubing, etc.), and yet it works. The setup's only drawback is that it doesn't keep us warm for very long ... because at night, the heat passes right through our adobe walls. (The only remedy for this, of course, is insulation.)

Still, we're proud to report that our solar heater now provides us with one-third of all the Btu's we consume in space heating, which—in terms of propane—translates out to about $20 a month. Hence, you can figure the pay-back time on our whole system at around five weeks ... a far cry from the five to ten years it takes most solar heating installations to pay for themselves.

It's true that we could have increased the collector's efficiency and durability by using glass in place of plastic ... but this would've been—for our budget—much too expensive. Plastic works fine for us (and when it does need replacing, a new sheet should cost only about $5.00).

We found this a fun and rewarding—to ourselves AND the planet—experiment So much so, that we're already at work constructing a solar heated house of our own!

Valerie Bronz
4/11/2012 3:18:03 PM

another thought to the cost of glass instead of plastic is, the habitat for humanity has stores were they sell used and sometimes new construction supplies that have been donated. I found glass windows double paned for five bucks each. and a giant window for 50.00

Ken Tait
7/8/2011 11:46:30 AM

|Very interesting, I think you should get glass instead of plastic sheeting. I know it is expensive. BUT you may try some of the large glass company's that put glass in commercial buildings, and replace glass in commercial business's. I worked at Home depot about ten years ago and one day they replaced the glass in the front doors and vestibule, and I was able to get the old glass from the guys that were changing the glass for nothing. These are about 4' X 4' double pane 1/4" glass panels. The guys told me that they were only going to throw them away in the dumpster when they got back to the shop. They made nice cold frames, ( Heavy but nice) in my garden. As far as summer heat, two doors on the outside, one at the top and one at the bottom of the panels. You could also take a silver tarp and make it to fit the collector and hang it in front of it. In the winter just roll it up and tie it out of the way like an awning. Hope this helps you. Papa Tait.

Suzanne Horvath
7/23/2010 10:16:30 AM

anachronism Your comments interested me. I went to the website you listed, but found it very confusing. Where are the photos (10)? There is almost too much information to delve into. I am hopefully moving to the high desert in Arizona in the next year and would like to have some info to think about (and plan) till then. I can be contacted at Thanks

8/13/2009 10:47:08 AM

Continued: anachronism-. Another way to COOL your homes, as I have designed for a project in Chino Valley, Ariz. is to use the earth to cool your home. This project is to big to discuss, but we will "Cool" a building twice the size of the Vancouver storage project, (28 homes) for $20 to $40 per day. Sincerely, Anachronism.

8/13/2009 10:36:22 AM

Passive Solar Heating and Cooling: I have created/used/re-fined and built "Passive Solar Heating AND cooling systems for 25 years. Go to this web address:/ and look at the Photos (10) and you will find photos of five projects constructed and are totally "Heated" by Passive Solar. The project in Vancouver is automatically "COOLED" using a passive solar heating system that use's the air around the building to cool the interior of the structure. This building is 145' long, 74' wide and 21' tall. The interior volume is the same as (14) homes of this size. 55' x 36' and 8' ceilings(1980 Sq Ft and/or 15,840 Cubic feet) The project in Burlington went on solar in 1983 and cost a total of $50 to create the Passive system and NEVER required any repairs in 25 years. The building costs $1 per day, in natural gas, in the winter to "Heat interior to 75 degrees". The project in Vancouver both heats with solar and "COOLS" using solar with NO compressors, heat pumps or other machines. I will gladly show you how to create your own system in written form and also drawings to explain why it works. The COOLING system in the Vancouver project is totally automatic in operation and is driven by nature. I maintain interior temperature between 68 degrees to 74 degrees year round with a cost for natural gas of $1.50 per day for the complete building and the size of 14 homes. It daily cost is .10 cents to cool/heat a 1980 sq. ft. home. I will assist you to understand how to create that which I built and YOU then help others to create their own system. I owned and operated all five projects and the average daily heating costs in the dead of winter in Burlington Washington, Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Monroe and Vancouver ON AVERAGE cost $1 per day. I kept all the cost numbers as I operated and kept the information. Another way to COOL your homes, as I have de

8/11/2009 12:29:41 PM

I love this idea - perhaps taking down the clear plastic for the summer would reduce the heat build up - I realize the black would still make that wall hot. Bill- I think closing the "doors" at night would stop the cold backflow? My husband suggested painting the wall black rather than dealing with the black plastic. Has anyone tried this project recently - I'm somewhat hesitant to cut holes in my house without knowing how well this will work.

2/8/2009 2:44:47 PM

Great simple idea. One question, how do you remove the collected heat in the summer from the collector? We have nice hot summers in Michigan so I want to get rid of the heat in the collector without damage to the collector from all the summer sun.

Bill Szmyd
9/22/2008 8:01:17 PM

I've made this simple solar collector before and was hoping to discover a simple solution to letting this collector only run when I want it to; on a cold but sunny day. I don't want air circulating backwards during a cold night nor do I want hot air circulating on a hot summer day. Anyone have an easy answer to adding air valves?

12/25/2007 8:17:15 PM

Where can find "fiberass"? I'm not sure, even if I can find it, that I would like the smell. My local Home Depot does not carry any "fiberass". However, they do have fiberglass insulation.

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