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Passive Solar Heating

There are two methods of solar heating: active and passive. Active solar heating requires the use of pumps or fans to move and direct solar heat. This method can be further broken down to liquid- and air-based systems. Passive solar heating garners energy from the sun without the use of mechanical or electrical devices. This is largely done through building structure and design and is advantageous for its low operation and maintenance costs. This article will focus on the passive method of solar heating.

Because passive solar heating is enacted through a home’s design concept, material structure, and orientation in relation to the sun, it is usually implemented during a home’s initial construction. A home with a basic passive solar design will be elongated on an east-west axis, have south-facing rooms and windows, incorporate foliage for shade, use less space on the north side, especially for rooms that require the most light and heat, and have an open floor plan for optimal thermal mass.

There are three general approaches to passive solar heating: direct gain, indirect gain, and isolated gain. In a direct gain system, the living space itself collects, absorbs, and distributes solar heat. Temperature is controlled through shading, skylights, windows, and heat-absorbing material in walls and floors.

An indirect gain passive system stores solar heat between the south-facing windows and the living spaces. A Trombe wall is the most common indirect gain approach. It consists of an 8 to 16-inch-thick masonry wall, erected with a frontal glass layer on the south side of the house. The wall collects solar heat and distributes it into the living space over several hours. Water walls and roof ponds are further examples of indirect gain systems.

Finally, sunspaces, greenhouses, or solar closets are three options for creating isolated gain passive systems, where solar heat is captured and moved out of a space through a duct, door, vent, or other access point without the use of mechanical devices.

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