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Passive solar home design

Any home that collects sunlight — passively or actively — and converts it to energy is considered a "solar home"

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Written by Taylor Sansano
Edited by Sally Jones

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    house with solar panels on the roof

    If you’re building a new home, it makes sense to do it in a way that employs free, renewable energy when it’s available. Most home designs don’t prioritize using energy they receive from the sun, but solar homes make the most of it.

    There are lots of different ways to do this. Solar homes generally use solar panel systems to capture sunlight and convert it to electricity, but many don’t stop there. Passive solar designs use specific architectural elements, building materials and construction techniques to attract, store and distribute heat from the sun so owners can maintain a comfortable temperature inside without active heating or cooling.


    Key insights

    • There isn’t a strict definition for what makes a home "solar" — it just has to use energy from the sun in some capacity.
    • Passive solar homes focus on efficiency first and then use solar energy to help reduce energy usage.
    • Two key elements of passive solar architecture are south-facing windows and thermal mass.
    • While potentially more expensive initially, going solar can pay for itself over time.
    • Net metering allows you to sell excess energy to your local utility company.

    Main elements of passive solar architecture

    Commonly accepted passive solar home design principles say that you should orient a house in a way that allows it to collect heat from the sun and then use good heat insulators, such as concrete or brick, in the home’s construction. This helps reduce the home’s reliance on utility power for heating and cooling, which, in turn, lowers energy costs and helps the environment.

    These principles are exemplified in two of passive solar architecture’s main elements: south-facing windows and thermal mass.

    South-facing windows

    Site selection and home orientation are important to the success of passive solar architecture. These designs optimize the amount of sun coming in by placing windows and skylights in the right places and using awnings, overhangs and adjustable window coverings to control how much sunlight is absorbed.

    In the U.S. and other places in the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing windows get the most reliable sunlight all day long. That’s why those with passive solar home designs usually try to face their systems toawrd windows and other surfaces that collect solar energy within 30 degrees of true south and away from any shade that may limit their intake between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

    Thermal mass

    The general idea of thermal mass as an architectural element is that certain types of building materials hold on to energy better than others, and large amounts of these materials can store heat for long periods of time.

    Thick concrete or brick walls, for example, are good heat absorbers that can help regulate the temperature in your home, keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Other examples of thermal mass commonly used in passive home design are water containers and phase-change products.

    These materials need to be used correctly, though. “One of the key considerations you'll need to keep in mind is that the home build will require advanced framing to eliminate thermal bridging,” said Karyna McLaren of Hybrid Power Solutions, a company that specializes in portable battery systems, solar installation and energy storage. Thermal bridging is when heat moves across an object that is more conductive than the materials around it. In this case, it could mean that your solar home loses the energy it’s taking in, which hurts efficiency.

    Not all contractors are familiar with the necessary building methods to avoid thermal bridging, McLaren told us, which is why it’s important to work with experts who understand thermal mass and the appropriate heat absorbers.

    New-build solar home vs. retrofit

    Newly built solar homes generally use energy efficiency as the starting point for their designs, then add on other solar technologies, such as solar panels, to compensate for any other energy needs. Some building plans also supplement passive solar elements with fans or other mechanical conductors to help circulate heat throughout the home as needed.

    Solar home concepts don’t have to be limited to new construction, though. “While the best solar homes are built with [passive solar architecture] in mind from the ground up, there are definitely some ways to take the same ideas and implement them in your own home,” said Leonard Ang, CEO of iPropertyManagement, a national resource center for landlords and tenants.

    He says property managers use passive solar concepts such as dark, heat-conducting colors and materials to take advantage of readily available energy, saving on energy costs for both landlords and tenants.

    While the best solar homes are built with [passive solar architecture] in mind from the ground up, there are definitely some ways to take the same ideas and implement them in your own home.”
    — Leonard Ang, CEO of iPropertyManagement

    While it may be difficult to achieve the overall efficiency of a purpose-built solar home with a retrofit, there are design principles that you can incorporate into your current home, and installing a solar panel system can help offset your reliance on utility power and give you a different type of solar home.

    Other types of solar homes

    While passive solar designs often use solar panels and other active solar technologies to complement their existing efficiency, other types of solar homes rely on these technologies more heavily because they aren’t as efficient. This is especially true in cases where you’re trying to retrofit a traditional home into one that relies on solar power.

    A reviewer from Arizona told us that when they moved to a new home, they knew they wanted to add solar panels. “I like that it helps the environment. I like that I can get batteries and if a power outage happens I won't be affected,” they said.

    If you’re also interested in adding a solar home energy system to your house, there are three main types you should be aware of:

    • Grid-tied solar energy systems: Grid-tied systems generate their own electricity, but they're still connected to a traditional electric utility grid. This means you can switch between solar energy and traditional energy as needed and sell any excess back to the utility company through net metering (in places where it’s available). These are often the most cost-effective solar energy systems.
    • Off-grid solar energy systems: These systems rely solely on solar energy and are not connected to an electrical grid; instead, they utilize battery storage systems to address energy demands throughout the year when solar energy isn’t as readily available. Purchase and installation costs tend to be higher with these systems because they’re often larger and more intricate, though.
    • Hybrid solar energy systems: Hybrid systems are basically grid-tied systems with battery backups, so you can choose which to draw energy from as needed. Hybrids offer the most flexibility, but they may involve some complex design requirements and maintenance.
    TypeBenefitDrawback
    Grid-tiedMost cost effectiveNot fully solar
    Off-gridFully independentMore expensive
    HybridMost flexibleStill expensive

    Benefits of a solar home

    Solar homes are getting more efficient and more affordable, providing major benefits to homeowners. Here are a few of the main benefits of going solar:

    Lower utility bills

    If you own your solar panels, the energy they produce is essentially free, so every unit of electricity they produce is one you don’t have to buy from the utility company. How much a given system can save you depends on a number of factors, but if you go fully solar, you can eliminate your energy bill entirely.

    Possible tax benefits

    There are tax credits and other incentives available from the government and other institutions for installing and maintaining a solar energy system. These can lower your overall tax bill and help maximize your investment.

    Increased home resale value

    Often, the cost of installation can be partially recouped when you sell your home. According to Sunrun, solar homes are commonly listing for at least 3.74% more than comparable, non-solar homes.

    Increased sustainability

    Being environmentally friendly is arguably the biggest benefit of a solar home. “Each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of solar that is generated will substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions like CO2, as well as other dangerous pollutants such as sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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      Are solar homes expensive?

      Passive solar homes have generally been more expensive to build than standard homes, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Pennsylvania architect Richard Pedranti, who created a passive house in Scranton, said the house cost only $165 per square foot to build. “We typically use between $175 and $200 per square foot for standard new home construction costs in our area,” he said.

      Also, keep in mind that energy-efficient upgrades can eventually pay for themselves when measured against the cost of utility bills over time. A solar panel system can offset its upfront cost in five to 15 years, depending on the price of your system and your energy consumption.

      Solar tax credits, net metering and other incentives, like solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs), can also help make going solar significantly more affordable. The federal solar investment tax credit (ITC) offers a 26% tax deduction on qualifying solar costs as of 2022.

      FAQ

      Can you run your whole house on solar power?

      A solar panel system can power an entire home on its own (especially if your home is already passively energy efficient), but it often requires a significant upfront investment. There may also be times when your energy needs increase or solar power isn’t as available. If you’re connected to the utility grid, that’s not a huge problem, but if you’re off the grid, you may need to rely on battery backups until everything is back in equilibrium.

      What are the main disadvantages to a solar-powered home?

      The main disadvantage of a solar energy system is that the upfront cost is usually pretty steep if you’re looking to buy. However, solar loans, leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs) are available to help spread out the expense, and tax incentives can make the purchase more affordable overall.

      Why are we still designing so many new homes with little regard for passive solar energy?

      There are a few reasons why, but most of it likely stems from a lack of knowledge about solar energy and passive efficiency. Nonrenewable energy is also still relatively cheap, and installing passive systems may initially be more expensive or cumbersome, so many builders and homeowners skip over this part of the design process in favor of a quick, affordable build.

      Karyna McLaren, who works for a company that designs, produces and installs solar energy systems, explained it this way: “The upfront costs can sometimes be prohibitive and often discourage homeowners to consider implementing a system. This, paired with the 'cookie cutter' approach to home building that has become wildly popular, means customizations are more difficult to implement.”

      The more homeowners continue to learn about passive solar energy and the more they demand it from the market, the more we should see it adopted as a standard in architecture.

      Bottom line

      There are many ways to go solar when it comes to green architecture. From passive solar designs to off-grid solar panel systems, homeowners, builders and architects have a lot of options for taking advantage of sustainable energy. While it’s arguably easiest to build a passive solar home from the ground up, there are a few strategies you can implement in your existing home to harness the benefits of solar energy and create a more sustainable future.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
      1. Williams College, “Passive Solar Design.” Accessed June 8, 2022.
      2. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), “Passive Solar Home Design.” Accessed June 8, 2022.
      3. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), “Net Metering.” Accessed June 8, 2022.
      4. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), “Benefits of Residential Solar Electricity.” Accessed June 16, 2022.
      5. Zero Energy Project, “Passive House Busts High Cost Myth.” Accessed June 16, 2022.
      6. Ohio State University School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR), “What Can We Learn from the Failure of Adoption of Passive Solar Homes?” Accessed June 8, 2022.
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