Introduction to solar heat and hot water
Solar water heating (known as solar thermal) systems capture the free heat from the sun and use it to heat up water for use in the home. Itâs a simple process:
- panels on your roof absorb heat from the sun â they are known as the collector
- the water in the panels heats up
- this hot water is pumped through a coil in your cylinder
- which transfers the heat to the water in the cylinder
Is solar thermal suitable for my home?
The ideal situation for solar panels is facing due south, although they are effective facing anywhere between south east and south west. As a rule of thumb you need between 1 and 2 m2 of collector (solar panels) per person living in the house.
Most panels are mounted on a roof, but they can also be mounted at ground level. It is important that they get direct sunlight. To get the best results they should be at an angle between 20 and 50 degrees from horizontal (most pitched roofs fall within this bracket).
If you have an electric shower it wonât use your solar hot water. Similarly cold-fill dishwashers and / or washing machines heat the water they use. In this situation, solar water heating is not suitable unless you use the bath for most of your washing and bathing, as you won't be able to use much of the solar hot water you generate.
Solar panels are compatible with most existing hot water systems. However, you will need a new cylinder with two coils. Ideally it should be big enough to hold two days worth of hot water.
Solar hot water with combi boilers is more difficult, but still possible. If you have a combi boiler it is important to check with the manufacturer that it will accept pre-heated water.
If your present system is gravity fed, it will need a control (such as a valve and pump) for the hot water circuit so the panels can work effectively in winter when the boiler is running for central heating.
How much hot water from solar thermal panels?
Solar thermal panels should provide most of your hot water from April to September, and make a worthwhile contribution in the months on either side of that period. Outside of that estimates vary depending on who you ask.
Solar panels will provide about 60 per cent of a household's hot water needs, if well-installed and properly used according to Energy Saving Trust field trials.
The reality will depend on a variety of factors:
- How much hot water your household or business uses. The higher the usage, the more benefit you get from a solar thermal system.
- How much interest you take in how the system works and adapt to make the most of the free hot water (ie having showers in the evening rather than the morning). The sun isnât as reliable as a timer clock.
- The size of your cylinder. Many cylinders only hold enough water for a dayâs supply of hot water, so a day or two of cloud and rain will mean you have to turn on the boiler or immersion heater.
- How you programme your back up heating. If your control panel does not allow you to programme the hot water and central heating separately, you may not get the maximum benefit from the solar panels when the heating is turned on. By only boosting the hot water once the sun has gone down, you maximise opportunity for solar heating.
- Adequate insulation of both cylinder and pipes carrying hot water.
- Allowing hot water temperature to vary. If you do not need high temperatures all the time, you will have less need for back-up heating. You will also reduce heat loss. However, it is important to make sure your cylinder reaches more than 60 degrees centrigrade at least once a week to avoid risk of Legionella.
The EST identified a huge range of performance, with the best system producing 98 per cent of the household's hot water, and the worst just 9 per cent. The median across all systems was 39 per cent, so it is important to take action to maximise your solar gain.
What type of solar thermal panel is best?
There are two types of solar thermal panel: flat plate panels and evacuated tubes.
Flat plate panels consist of an absorber plate in an insulated metal box. The top of the box is glass or plastic, to let the sunâs energy through, while the insulation minimises heat loss. Lots of thin tubes carry water through the absorber plate heating it up as it passes through.
Instead of a plate, evacuated tube collectors have glass tubes containing metal absorber tubes, through which water is pumped. Each tube is a vacuum (the air is âevacuatedâ hence the name), which minimises heat loss.
The Energy Saving Trust field trial found little difference in performance between the two. For many people the decision is a matter of aesthetics.
Research from Swiss-based Solartechnik Prufung Forschung shows that the best performing collectors are more than twice as efficient as the worst ones. It found that the most effective flat plate collectors are made in Austria and Germany and the best evacuated tubes in Switzerland and Northern Ireland. Six of the 10 worst performing evacuated tube collectors are made in China.
What does solar thermal cost?
The cost of installing solar a solar thermal system will depend on the type and quality of the panels, whether you need scaffolding, and how easy it is to integrate into your existing plumbing system.
As a guide, average systems are likely to cost between Â£3,000 and Â£5,000 according to the Energy Saving Trust. A typical system, including a well-insulated twin coil cylinder, cost around Â£4,500 according to the Solar Trade Association.
Research commissioned by DECC and published in February 2013 found the following average costs per kW:
0-5kW system - Â£2,060; 5-10kW - Â£1,199; 10-20kW - Â£1,025
The cost of scaffolding and the new cylinder are both significant, so a cost effective time to install would be when you need a new hot water cylinder, or when you are having repairs done on the roof (or at the same time as a solar PV installation).
Financial incentives and grants
Until 31 March 2014 domestic grants of Â£600 are available to help with the cost of installation from the Renewable Heat Premium Payments scheme. This sum will be deducted from the renewable heat incentive payments over the lifetime of the scheme. Apply through the Energy Saving Trust.
Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive for domestic installations will start in the spring of 2014. The rate for solar thermal will be 19.2p per kWh, index linked and paid for seven years. A typical 4 square metre installation with a 250 litre cylinder will get Â£2,347 over the 7 year life of the incentive according to figures from the Solar Trade Association (Â£335 a year). This calculation is based on the new MCS standard, so make sure your installer has adopted it. Click the link to read full details about the domestic RHI.
If you have a solar thermal systems installed since 15 July 2009 that meets the eligibility criteria, then you will be able to apply once the scheme opens in spring 2014.
RHI for solar thermal can be claimed in conjunction with RHI for either a heat pump or a biomass boiler. This is because neither work at their highest efficiency when heating domestic hot water - especially when space heating is turned off. Those installing both technologies will be paid the full deemed heat - in effect being paid twice for the solar heated water.
Non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive
(RHI) is for all other installations. It is available for
installations with a capacity of less than 200kWth. The tariff rate will
pay 9.2p per kWh of heat generated. The tariff will be index linked, and paid for 20 years. The heat generated must be measured by an approved meter. Click the link for answers for more information about the non-domestic RHI.
Panels are available for DIY installation, but buying them this way
means that you have to pay the full rate of VAT (instead of the 5 per
cent rate) and, more significantly, won't be eligible for the renewable
heat incentive. Some people make their own from old
radiators and the like. CAT publishes a book Solar Water Heating: a DIY Guide to help the enterprising.
Well installed, and properly-used, solar hot water systems will provide around 60 per cent of the hot water a home needs. Typical savings from a well-installed and properly used system in the EST field trial (published October 2011) were Â£55/year when replacing gas and Â£80/year when replacing electric immersion heating.
Planning permission for solar panels?
Solar panels are generally considered âpermitted developmentâ in England and Wales as long as they do not protrude more than 200mm from the wall or above the roof slope; and are not higher than the highest part of the roof.
They are permitted in a conservation area as long as the panels are not installed on a wall that fronts a highway. However, if you live in a listed building you will have to apply for planning permission. Up-to-date advice is available on the governmentâs planning portal.
Stand alone solar is permitted development as long as it is less than 4m high, more than five meters from the boundary, and the surface area of the panels does not exceed nine square meters; or any dimension of its array does not exceed three meters. In a conservation area, it must not be nearer to the highway than it is to the dwelling. If it is in the grounds of a listed building you will need to apply for planning permission.
Click to see the full text of the most recent changes to permitted development.
For those of you living in Wales, from the beginning of September 2009, the Welsh Assembly Government announced new planning rules to encourage householders to install renewable energy equipment. A leaflet has been published to explain the changes - Domestic microgeneration permitted development: A guide for householders.Find a solar thermal installer.
Solar thermal calculator
When entering area available below, take into consideration that 4 sq meters is the average size needed for a three bedroom house. Running costs outlined in this calculator comprise the electricity to run the pump plus a service every five years.
More information on solar thermal
From the blog:
Before you install
Choosing an installer
More practical advice
Your questions answered