When most people talk about solar panels, they are talking about solar electric systems that produce electricity for use in a home or business. Solar electricity is the exciting, trendy, and accessible product in the world of solar energy. It is an environmentally friendly option, and empowers people to take control of their energy future. With alluring incentives, plummeting prices, and many financing options, there is no doubt that solar electricity is the king of solar panels, and a great investment for many.
In some areas of the country solar pool heating is also wildly popular. Solar panels used to heat pools are a much different technology. They produce and consume no electricity at all, but instead heat pool water directly through thermal heat transfer. Solar panels heat pools throughout the country, but are most popular in Florida and California where pools are ubiquitous, sunshine is ample, and the weather makes nearly year-round swimming desirable.
Image via: Florida Solar Design Group
While solar electric panels are rigid with aluminum frames and glass covers, solar pool heating panels are flexible panels usually made from polyethylene or other plastics. Solar pool heating panels are lightweight and usually mounted directly on a roof rather than a substructure, making them cost-effective to install, and suitable for just about every type of roof. The panels resemble mats, usually black in color, and much larger than their solar electric cousins.
To work, the existing pool circulation pump circulates pool water through the panels where the water heats up and is then returned to the pool. The panels are made to absorb as much of the sun’s heat as possible, transferring that heat to the water as it passes through small channels that run between panel headers, returning to the pool through standard PVC plumbing. Solar pool heaters are available for in-ground and above-ground pools, and a variety of panel designs are geared toward different pool types and climates.
The concept is really quite simple—like a garden hose left out in the sun, the water inside quickly heats up inside the panel. In fact, solar pool heating panels can take advantage of over 80% of the usable solar energy that strikes them. This is phenomenal considering that commercially competitive solar electric panels on the market today hover around the 20% efficiency mark.
By using the right panel for the job, solar dealers can maximize energy transfer to your pool while reducing installation costs drastically. It makes no sense to heat a pool with solar electricity since solar pool heating systems cost just 10-20% that of a typical household solar electric system. The return on investment versus a traditional gas heater or electric heat pump can be unbelievable, with some commercial systems paying for themselves in just a couple of years.
While there are no Federal and few state and local incentives for solar pool heating systems, the choice is obvious when compared to similar installation costs for traditional heaters. With essentially no operational costs, solar pool heaters are an attractive buy for people who want to maximize enjoyment from their pool. Solar pool heating panels will last 10-20 years with typical warranties in the 5-12 year range. You can expect quite a few backyard parties over the years where your neighbors and family will thank you!
The best part about solar pool heating is having a warmer pool every day of the year, where it’s always ready when you want to swim. You don’t have to plan ahead to “turn on” the system, as solar panels will dutifully attempt to achieve your desired temperature any time the conditions allow it. Solar panels even work in cloudy weather as long as there is enough solar energy available to transfer to the pool water. Covering your pool helps retain heat overnight (as with any heater) and will further enhance the experience. Most existing pool automation systems are capable of controlling solar valves automatically, optimizing performance and adding convenience.
Solar pool heating may be less well-known than solar electricity, but it is a very popular product in some markets, and for good reason. Pools are very expensive toys, and what fun is a toy if you can’t play with it? Solar panels take the shock out of getting into a cold pool, and eliminate the shock of high utility bills caused by traditional pool heaters. You will be the envy of the neighborhood with a solar heated pool, and you can put all of your savings into beach balls, beverages, and bikinis!