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What is passive solar heating?

This design takes advantage of a home’s location, climate and building materials to maximize and control the amount of thermal heat collected from the sun

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Written by Brian Church
Edited by Sally Jones

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    sunroom exterior for passive solar heating

    Since the dawn of time, humans have been capturing and repelling heat from the sun by building homes of clay and other good heat-conducting materials and orienting homes to best control the sun’s heat at various times of the day throughout the seasons. This is known as “passive solar heating,” but the concept pertains just as well to keeping a dwelling cool (or, at least, comfortable).

    There’s a renewed interest in passive solar heating. Eco-friendly home builders are incorporating design methods to harness the sun’s natural power and using building materials that reduce heat transfer and increase residential energy efficiency.


    Key insights

    • Passive solar heating strategies increase the cost of a new build, but the design will minimize energy use and utility power consumption over the lifetime of the home.
    • Passive and active solar heating techniques may be employed together.
    • Most homes can benefit from some passive solar heating strategies.

    Passive vs. active solar

    To understand passive solar heating, it helps to also understand active solar heating. The two technologies are similar, in both cases using the thermal energy of the sun to regulate a building’s indoor temperature. Importantly, both are separate from solar electricity — where photovoltaic systems, or solar panels, turn sunlight into actual electricity.

    Many energy-efficient homes use a combination of both passive and active heating systems. If you’re considering using some form of passive or active solar heating and aren't sure what kind of system would work best for your home, find a solar energy company near you to point you in the right direction.

    Passive solar heating

    A passive solar heating system captures warmth from the sun, stores it and releases it over time. In the Northern Hemisphere, two key features of a passive solar heating system are southern-facing glass and thermal mass (such as bricks or concrete) to absorb the heat.

    Active solar heating

    An active solar heating system harnesses the sun’s energy to increase the temperature of fluid (or sometimes air) that’s run through a heat exchanger to heat the home’s interior. This type of solar heating is called “active” because its methods directly incorporate moving parts, appliances and occasionally other sources of power (such as electricity) rather than relying on sunlight alone.

    Does passive solar heating really work?

    Passive solar heating works by maximizing solar heat gain in the winter and minimizing it in summer. In the U.S., passive solar heating is incorporated into building designs across the country, though it’s far more common in areas with heavy sun exposure, such as the Southwest and coastal regions. Homes don't need to be “off-grid” or “green-certified” to use these strategies. Elements of passive solar heating design can be very effective in pretty much any building, helping to regulate the temperature and minimize energy usage.

    In regions with a colder climate and limited sunlight availability, active solar heating systems are typically more sustainable.

    If you have a large thermal mass to store solar energy — like concrete, brick or even water — it heats up slowly and releases the heat slowly throughout the entire course of a night.”

    A few main principles of passive solar heating:

    Controlling sunlight: The most important aspect of passive solar heating is controlling the amount of sunlight that enters a home through skylights, windows and other areas. Buildings that use passive solar heating are positioned to receive the most sunlight possible, which is southern-facing if your home is located in the Northern Hemisphere.

    To block out summer sun, most passive solar homes have an awning or overhang that protects south-facing windows from receiving direct sunlight, allowing a building to stay cool. Buildings can also be outfitted with smart shades and other coverings to block the sun from entering through the other windows or skylights, adjusting to the sun’s position from morning through evening hours.

    Capturing and distributing heat: Capturing solar heat and regulating it throughout the home is the key to passive techniques. One of the most popular thermal mass designs is known as a Trombé wall, explained Dan Orzech, general manager of the Oregon Clean Power Co-op, a community-funded solar cooperative whose mission is to ​​increase the amount of renewable energy available to Oregonians.

    Separate from the main living quarters, a Trombé wall collects heat, which is then selectively used or released to regulate the rest of the home’s temperature.

    It’s similar to a sunroom, Orzech explained, “but instead of a whole room, it's a narrow space with southern exposure, where the sun is captured. If you have a large thermal mass to store solar energy — like concrete, brick or even water — it heats up slowly and releases the heat slowly throughout the entire course of a night.”

    Insulating and sealing: Good insulation is also critical to keeping interior temperatures stable, with minimal heat loss or gain. New-construction buildings can minimize inefficiencies with smart framing, ducting and insulation materials — referred to as the “building envelope” — as well as good seals around windows and doors.

    Passive solar heating cost

    Because passive solar heating typically requires physical changes to a structure, it can be very expensive to retrofit these strategies into an existing home or building. For this reason, most passive solar heating techniques are applied to new-construction homes during the building process, and they do mean increased material and labor costs.

    While the exact expenses for passive solar heating components is highly dependent on a building's size, all passive solar systems are designed to minimize energy use (and therefore reduce utility bills) over time. As a whole, passive solar heating is not expensive when weighed against future cost savings on utility power.

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      FAQ

      Can you retrofit a home for passive solar heating?

      There are ways to employ passive solar heating strategies in an existing building. Although specific renovations will vary from property to property, popular passive solar heating retrofit projects include improvements to a home’s insulation, windows or overall energy efficiency. Almost always, however, it's easier to apply passive solar heating techniques to new construction.

      What are the disadvantages to passive solar heating?

      Passive solar heating systems are reliant on the weather, limiting a homeowner’s complete control of regulating interior temperatures. Winter days without enough sunlight may lead to colder conditions in the home. Then, during hotter seasons, passive systems need to employ smart protection. “Design is critical, because if you just put a mass of glass windows on the south side of your home, it’s liable to overheat, like a car on a hot day in the sun,” explained Orzech.

      Does passive solar heating work in winter?

      Passive solar heating systems are almost always designed to work best in winter, when heat is needed most. By letting in and capturing more direct light from the lower winter sun, a passive solar home is still very effective when outside temperatures are cooler, given you have well-insulated walls.

      Bottom line

      Passive solar heating is a lot less complicated than it may seem. If you’re building a home with passive solar heating components, such as large windows, heavy insulation and concrete or brick walls, it may increase construction costs, but you'll be able to minimize energy usage and save money on ongoing monthly energy expenses over the long term.

      1. Williams College, “Passive Solar Design.” Accessed June 1, 2022.
      2. U.S. Department of Energy, “Active Solar Heating.” Accessed June 2, 2022.
      3. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Passive Solar Design.” Accessed June 3, 2022.
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