Solar panels are the primary collectors of the sun's energy for use in an active solar heating system.
The Two Types of Solar Panels
Solar panels capture the sun's energy and heat either by use of liquid or air.
In a liquid system, the fluid is contained in tubes that absorb the heat of the sun. This heating process warms the liquid that is then pumped into such things as a radiant floor heating system.
In an air system, the panels warm a cavity of air that is located below the glazing (or glass), otherwise known as an "air collector." Once the air reaches a certain temperature, a fan will automatically turn on and circulate it in the house.
Generating Electricity with Solar Panels
The panels are also used to generate electricity. The most common type is called "photovoltaic" (or PV). A typical PV system consists of solar cells electrically connected to form a module.
These panel modules vary in shape and size (usually 2 to 4 feet wide, and 4 to 6 feet long). New technology has now introduced modules that look like traditional house shingles. As the electricity is collected, an inverter changes the current from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC, which is what most standard appliances require).
Batteries can also be added to a PV system to store the captured energy. This is useful for power outages and when the panels are not producing electricity.
PV panels come in a wide array of sizes to suit the required needs. For heating systems, there are different considerations than for PV systems. The more energy efficient a structure is in terms of passive solar design and proper insulation, the less stress will be put on its heating system. (Another reason to build a "wise home"!)
PV systems are somewhat less dependent on structural efficiency. Although you always benefit from efficient design, a PV system will produce electricity regardless of efficiency. This is one area where shutting off appliances when not in use saves electricity and money.
Get Paid by Your Panels
More and more utility companies are creating programs for businesses and homeowners called "net metering."
Net metering allows people to sell excess power back to the utility companies. Imagine a large office building with a sizable array of PV panels on its roof. On the weekend when demand is down, the excess electricity goes to the power grid. This greatly reduces the overall cost of electricity to the company when it needs to use more energy than its own PV system can provide.
Between innovations in technology and government-sponsored incentive programs, the future of harnessing the energy of the sun is bright (pun intended!). As with most things in life, we change when we are forced to change. Rising energy costs are forcing that change to happen now.
Other Solar Products
Want to learn more about other uses for solar energy? Check out the links to other pages on our site, below.