Choosing A Solar Pool Heater

How a solar pool heater works and how to select the right one for your needs

solar pool heater

Whether you use your pool for recreation, relaxation or for health reasons, a warm pool adds to your comfort. Many people purchase a pool only to discover they don't use it nearly as often as they thought they would because the water is just too cold to swim or relax in comfortably.

Heating a pool is expensive using traditional pool heating systems but now you can enjoy a heated pool by harvesting the power of the sun at an affordable cost. With a solar pool heater you can extend your swimming season by several months and you will save money because solar pool heaters have very low annual operating costs.

Solar Pool Heaters

Ready to learn more about solar home designs? You will find more detailed information at the bottom of the article as well.

How They Work

Solar pool heating systems generally include the following equipment:

  • Solar collector: a device that collects the heat from the sun and transfers the heat to the pool water, which circulates through the collector to be warmed.
  • Filter: The filter removes debris from the pool water prior to the water being pumped through the collector
  • Pump: The pump circulates water through the filter and solar collector back into the pool
  • Flow control valve: This device is automatic or manual and it is used to divert pool water through the solar collector

As in all pool heating systems, pool water is pumped through the filter and then through the heater (in this case a solar collector), where it is heated before it is returned to the pool. With solar pool heating the collector can also be used to cool the pool during peak summer months by circulating the water through the collector at night in hot climates.

Most systems include automatic sensors or a manual valve which diverts water through the collector when the collector temperature is significantly higher in the collector than the pool temperature. Filtered water bypasses the collector if the collector temperature is similar to the pool temperature.

The type of solar pool heating collector system you'll need depends on the local climate and how you plan to utilize the collector. If you only use your pool during warm weather when the temperatures are above freezing then you will most likely be able to use an unglazed collector system. An unglazed collector has no glass covering (glazing) on it. Unglazed collectors are commonly composed of heavy-duty rubber or plastic that is treated with an ultraviolet (UV) light inhibitor to extend the life of the unit. Unglazed collectors are usually less expensive than glazed collectors because of their simple design and cheap parts. Unglazed systems are best utilized in hot climates but they can work for indoor pools in colder climates if the system is designed to drain back into the pool when it is not in use. Even if you shut the collector system down during cold weather unglazed collectors still be more cost effective than installing a glazed collector system which is a significantly more expensive investment.

A glazed collector system uses an aluminum (flat) plate collector with copper tubing and an iron-tempered glass covering. These parts are more expensive and thus a glazed solar waterheating collector will cost you significantly more. If you live in a colder climate, glazed collector systems are probably your best option because they have heat exchangers and use transfer fluids. This type of collector captures solar heat more efficiently than unglazed systems. For this reason they can be used all year round in most climates. Glazed collectors can be used to heat domestic hot water year-round. See our article on solar hot water heating for additional iinformation. Both glazed and unglazed collector systems should include some type of freeze protection if it will be used in colder climates.

Selecting a Solar Pool Heater

In general a high-quality solar pool heating system costs between $3,000 and $5,000 to buy and install. You can expect a payback period between 1 and 7 years, depending on your local energy costs. If this is way beyong your budget, you can alway try low-cost alternatives, like this solar pool heater from Sunheater. It will only cost you some $250, but then neither PVC piping, diverter valve or some kind of support or rack system are included. Neither are installation costs or hours, of course. In addition, the heater only promises a temperature rise of up to 10 F, so most likely the actual temerature increase is often less. Nevertheless, many users seem content with the product, especially when combined with a pool cover.

Going back to the more costly solar pool heating systems, since material costs are decreasing and electrical prices are increasing, the payback period is beginning to decrease. The exact cost of your system depends on many factors and before you make a decision to invest in a solar pool heating system you need to do the following research:

Check you local building, zoning codes and regulations

Before you invest in any solar pool heating system you need to research your local building and zoning ordinances and subdivision covenants. It is also wise to check for any special regulations that may pertain to the site. You will probably need a building permit to install a solar energy system to an existing home or building.

The matter of building code and zoning compliance for a solar system installation is usually handled at the local level. Although there may be a statewide building code in effect, it's usually enforced locally. Some common problems homeowners have encountered with building codes include the following:

  • Exceeding roof load
  • Unacceptable heat exchangers
  • Improper wiring
  • Unlawful tampering with potable water supplies.

Typical zoning issues include:

  • Obstruction of sideyards
  • Erecting unlawful protrusions on roofs
  • Siting the system too close to streets or lot boundaries.

Your solar pool heater must also comply with special area regulations like homeowner association covenants. These covenants, historic district regulations, and flood-plain provisions can easily be overlooked.

Evaluate your site for sunlight

You must determine how many hours a day your location receives sun so you can calculate the size system you will need to generate enough power to heat the pool. There are many claculators online to help you determine your average daily sunshine and to size your system but it is recommended that you consult with anexperienced solar contractor to avoid costly mistakes.

Size your system

If you decide to hire a solar contractor they will use various worksheets and computer programs to determine what the size of your collectors should be and the requirements of your system.

If you are doing your own calculations the surface area of your solar collector should equal a minimum of 50%-100% of the surface area of your pool. If you live in a cooler climate or you are in an area with a lot of cloud cover, you may need to increase the ratio between the collector area and the pool surface area. If you add additional collector square footage it will enable you to lengthen your swimming season. You can usually decrease the required collector area by using a pool cover at night to retain heat.

Siting a Solar Swimming Pool Heating System's Collector

One of the first things to determine is where the solar collector can be mounted. The roof is a common location because it usually provides the best exposure, orientation, and tilt toward the sun. The orientation and tilt of the collector affects your solar pool heating system's performance. Work with a contractor and ask about siting at the time you are working to evaulate your site's average daily sun exposure.

Determine Pump size

You will need to determine the proper pool pump for your solar pool heating system. If the solar heating system is replacing a conventional pool heating system you may need a larger pump than the current pump or you may need to add a separate, smaller pump to move the pool's water back and forth between the collector and the pool.

Learn More

As you've seen, there are both high-quality and low-budget solar pool heating systems and products available. If you are still considering to get yourself a homemade solar pool heater, you'll find basic instructions for it here. In such case, we also recommend that you learn more about solar water heating, for example through one of the books below.


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