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Getting the best out of solar panels

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 16 December 2008 at 4:20 pm

Get a few people with solar panels together (as happened this weekend) and inevitably there's discussion about how to get the most out of your solar thermal system. This is probably because the amount of hot water generated by solar thermal systems is dependent on how we use the system (as was confirmed earlier this year by a BRE study ). Every household tends to work out a system that suits them.

This was certainly the case when we got our panels. It was a slow process of trial and error. We wanted to make sure that the sun got a proper chance to heat the water. But how could that happen in winter when we wanted central heating in the morning, and the water automatically came on too. The breakthrough came when we bought a new timer clock which lets us run the central heating separately from the hot water.

In summer we turn the boiler off completely, and only put it on if the cylinder temperature is too low for a shower. That was only twice between May and the end of July in 2008 - and then along came the August rain to spoil it all.

In winter, the boiler is set to heat the water in the evening. This gives the sun all day to do its best. The boiler only needs to top it up so that there's hot water for showers in the morning. If we're going out for a muddy bike ride and know we'll want hot water when we get back, we just push the boost button on the timer clock before we leave.

It's not as convenient as just relying on the timer, but it's surprising how quickly we got used to noticing how sunny (or not) a day is and checking whether if we need to give the cylinder a boost. I am also surprised about how strangely satisfying the connection between the heat of the day and the heat of the water is. A year after we got the system I still take great pleasure in seeing the numbers rack up on the monitor.

One of the people I was talking to at the weekend goes further and probably gets more out of his system as a result. His boiler isn't programmed to heat the water automatically. He just boosts the hot water if he needs it, summer or winter.

What do you do? Let us know your tips and tactics for getting the most out of your solar thermal panels.

In contrast, the magic of generating electricity from the sun and feeding your excess back into the grid, which seems more complicated on the surface, is much easier. Once the system's in, it just gets on and does the job without any input. So, conversations about photovoltaic panels tend to be about whether you're happy with the amount it generates or not (yes and not really, respectively, for the people I was with on Sunday).

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