Solar Energy and Carpentry Tips

by Joe Campisi
(Minnesota United States)

For all the enormous quantities of literature and hardware that are suddenly available on the subject, you'd think solar energy was the most complicated new toy since nuclear physics. Actually, it's not new; and it can be as simple as sunlight passing through a window. Solar energy is simply the heat radiated by the sun.

The technology of solar energy is concerned with its application how to tap and use this unlimited, renewable, nonpolluting, and very available source of energy. Solar energy systems are the mechanisms and techniques that have been developed to harness and use this energy.

Although someday we may be able to convert the sun's energy directly into electricity at competitive costs (by means of an emerging science called photovoltalcs), for the moment the domestic use of solar technology is largely confined to two areas: heating the living space within a house; and heating water for domestic use such as bathing, cooking, and drinking, and for swimming pools or hot tubs. While solar energy has been with us for a long time, the technology that allows us to control its use intentionally and productively has a shorter history.

In some countries, the use of basic solar energy principles has been an integral part of the culture and of architectural design for thousands of years; but this has not been the case in our country. While there have been spurts of growth and development in solar energy technology, most home heating systems still depend primarily on fossil fuels. Because the design of the houses we live in today was based on the assumption that cheap fuel would be readily available, most of this book has been devoted to increasing the energy efficiency of our existing structures and systems.

But with the rapidly increasing cost of fossil fuels, solar technology has received renewed interest; research and installations are being subsidized by federal and state governments. One result of all the attention solar energy has received of late is the wealth of emphatic opinion about its value: Whether it is effecttive, whether it is cost effective; whether it should or should not be developed further, and if so for hat sorts of applications; whether the attention devoted to solar energy development and the research funds spent on it would be better used in other areas. But while the controversies rage, some facts do stand out.

A solar heating system does provide independence from the conventional energy grid, but even with the subsidies and rising fuel costs, the equipment and installation of a solar water or space heating system is still more expensive than the equipment and installation of a conventional system. The annual savings in solar operational costs must be measured against the number of years it will take to pay off those initial costs. And until fuel costs rise even higher and the expense of solar equipment and installations is reduced, retrofitting a house with a commercial solar system will not be an easy answer for everyone, and not necessarily an obvious cost effective step.

It is also true, however, that solar technology does exist, and in the pages that follow we will explain what it is and how the various systems work. From these descriptions and illustrations you will be able to determine which aspects of this field may be applicable to your particular situation. For all the differences among solar energy systems, they all share three primary functions: 1. To collect the sun's heat; 2. To store the collected heat; and 3. To distribute the stored heat in a controlled fashion.

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