Adding Cheap Solar Power to Your Home

If you're looking for ways to cut your fuel bill, here are two cheap solar power projects you can take up this weekend.

| June/July 1994

  • 144 cheap solar - sun illustration
    The sun itself might be 93 million miles away, but cheap solar power is well within your reach.
  • 144 cheap solar power - old house2
    Even an older home can be retrofitted with a thermal mass or batch heater system.
  • 144 cheap solar power - batch heater diagram
    Diagram shows method using a batch heater to assist an existing water heater. 

  • 144 cheap solar - sun illustration
  • 144 cheap solar power - old house2
  • 144 cheap solar power - batch heater diagram

Maybe in your mind the term "solar power" conjures up images of blue photovoltaic panels lining a broad expanse of south-facing roof on a residential home, or perhaps vast arrays of mirrors aimed to concentrate the sun's light in one spot. And maybe you also think about the cost of these big ticket implementations, and know they are well beyond your means. Well don't despair. Cheap solar power isn't an oxymoron. Tapping the sun's energy for heating purposes is affordable and relatively simple. Here are two ways to do it.

Thermal Mass

When I was around ten, my mother decided to build herself a modest 3' x 7' step-in greenhouse as a small addition to the family room. She and my father sat around the kitchen table for weeks, poring over plans and deciding how they could piece it together without going broke. And each day I came from school to find something different; a large hole in the south-facing wall, sheets of plastic as temporary windows, piles of bricks, concrete. For a while it was better than television. In a month, construction was finished, and we had a handsome little topiary bubble sticking out of the house like a turret. The first hot weekend in May, however, brought a shock for my Mom. That bubble, while we were away for just one warm, sunny weekend, had managed to kill all but the hardiest of Mom's plants and turn the family room into a convection oven. It was my first lesson in just how much heat a few windows can muster. Mom and Dad restocked the plants, invested in some reflective shades and monitored the weather a little more closely after that.

Nearly all homes have some southern facing glass, but most homes, especially older ones, were not built to take advantage of the heat energy those windows can transmit. One low-cost and simple way of taking advantage of southern exposure is through the addition of thermal mass material, which absorbs the heat energy and stores it, radiating the stored heat during the cool fall and winter evenings. You can do this by placing a substantial amount of heat-holding material such as masonry, concrete, or containers of water where the sun can shine on them. This thermal mass will help to prevent the sunny room from being overheated and will reduce the need for opening windows or shading out the sun's free energy just to maintain comfort. At night, this mass will radiate its stored solar heat and reduce the need for conventional heat.

There are many ways to add thermal mass to a room. The challenge is to add enough. Try to provide 2 to 4 gallons (1/4 to 1/2 cubic feet) of water per square foot of south window, or 1/2 to 1 cubic foot. (75 to 150 lbs.) of concrete or masonry per square foot. If the mass is not in direct sunlight, double or triple these amounts. If you have a concrete slab, you already have plenty of thermal mass — just allow the sun to reach it. The mass should be dark-colored to absorb radiation and should be placed as close to the window as possible so that the sunshine hits it all day. It's important, though, that the windows should normally overheat the space where the thermal mass material is placed. If the windows don't overheat the space, the mass won't attain the higher temperatures needed to help with heating, except by moderating uncomfortable temperature change.


  • If you have a strong floor, you can pour a thin 2" - 4" concrete slab over it, or lay down brick or heavy tile.
  • Steel drums or racks of water-filled containers could act as partitions or furniture.
  • An interior wall that receives sunlight could be lined with stone or brick. 


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