DIY tips when selecting and building solar panels for home water heating. See the main differences between the flat solar collectors and other types, including the advantages and disadvantages.
Solar panels or flat plate collectors are designed to absorb the solar heat energy and transfer the heat to the heating fluid, which passes through the device and further to the storage tank where it heats the water. They are the most used type of solar collectors in domestic solar water and space heating.
Flat plate collectors are considered the standard type, widely used, inexpensive, effective, and long-lasting. They collect both direct and diffuse solar energy radiation, so they don't have to track the sun during the day.
According to some studies and reviews, solar collectors are more efficient than evacuated tubes, since the larger collector area is exposed to absorb the solar heat. That means that fewer solar panels are used for the same performance.
Since the solar panels use small riser tubes, it is essential to know that they are prone to clogging if the water is hard.
According to some studies, they have the largest heat absorbing area and the highest heat loss of all types of collectors. They are also susceptible to freezing as they have a large exposed area and many small passages.
It is expected for solar panels to work in a wide temperature range, which can go from below freezing to about 180 F, or even higher. All elements should be made of high-quality materials and capable to withstand higher temperatures during long-lasting sun exposure. Most panels last 20 years or more.
It is important to know that panels do not store any energy; only a small amount of the heating fluid is inside the riser tubes, so most of the energy is kept inside the solar tank for later use.
The solar panels can be used either in passive systems such as the thermosyphon or active solar heating systems with the circulating pump and controllers.
Frame in solar collectors should be strong to resist high winds, heavy rain, snow, hail, and other conditions without breaking or losing its functionality. Most of the time, the shape is rectangular and can come in different sizes, where the most used are 4x8 or 10 feet, and 4-6 ft. deep.
The recommended material is aluminum, lightweight but strong, so it can be installed on the roofs without damaging it. The aluminum channels are better solution as they come with the designed flanges for easy and convenient installation. To attach the frame to the rooftops, you can either buy the mounting hardware kit or separate elements, but be careful to buy long-lasting, such as stainless steel.
The front of the collector - glazing, is usually made of low-iron, tempered glass, or strong plastic and should have characteristics such as high transmission, non-degradability, strength, and durability. They can either use rubber gaskets or silicone caulk when installing into the frame.
The glass is a good solution for the cover due to its high transmittance and better thermal insulation than plastic, while plastic covers can have a larger area as they are lighter. Also, the window glass is unsuitable as it has high iron content.
The absorber plate is installed right below the glazing (1" gap is recommended), and on its ends, it usually has manifolds made of 3/4" or 1" copper pipes to collect the fluid from the riser tubes. Each riser tube is attached with the copper or aluminum flat fins to transfer the collected heat effectively. It is recommended to make the fin-tube connection snug when soldering or welding.
The most important factor when considering the absorber plates is the coating or "selective surface"; it should have a high absorbance and low emittance. They can be made of steel, aluminum, or most of the time, copper, coated in black paint, black chrome, or copper oxide. Together, they provide a strong, corrosion-resistant assembly with high thermal conductivity.
There are several types of absorber plate/riser tube assemblies, and the selection depends on the particular application:
The riser tubes are 1/2" diameter copper pipes where the heating fluid circulates. These small pipes can be made with the manifolds at their ends or shaped as the serpentine, running continuously from one side of the collector to the other. They are installed a few inches apart (3-6 inches is recommended), and they can freely expand or contract when heated or cooled since they are not attached to the frame.
To keep the captured heat longer and reduce the heat loss from the absorber plate and pipes, collectors are insulated in the back and sides. The recommended insulations are mineral wool and PUR because of their lower thermal conductivity.
Solar panels are easy to construct and are inexpensive to build. Most of the big hardware stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, carry all the materials you need to make the panels, or if you prefer plug-and-play systems, you can buy a kit.