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Solar Orientation Issues

Technology Snapshot & Benefits:
When building a new home, orienting it to take advantage of passive solar heat can help save a great deal of money off of your annual heating and cooling bills.  In the northern hemisphere, it is recommended that you orient your home so that it is elongated in an east-west direction (with the widest side of the home facing south) helps maximize the amount of solar energy used to heat your home.  This longest side should face anywhere from direct south to 10 degrees east of south to take advantage of the sun's angle throughout the day.

Installing large windows on the south side of your home will further help take advantage of the sun's heat as windows allow more heat through than solid walls.  The total size of the south-facing windows should be between five and twelve percent of the total square footage of your home.  For example, if you live in a 2000 square foot home, all of the windows on the south side of your home should total between 100 and 240 square feet.  Having too many windows can overheat the rooms and having too few can block some of the passive solar from entering your home.  Install enough windows on the north, east, and west sides of your home to allow for balanced light, natural cooling, and any available views.  Installing too many windows on these other sides can drain the heat provided by the southern-facing ones and decrease the efficiency of your passive solar.

Estimated Cost Savings:
If proper solar orientation is integrated into the design of your home, it will cost little more than simply building your home without the right orientation.  Because passive solar utilizes large amounts of south-facing windows, there will be an initial expense to purchase and install them.  This cost will be slightly higher if you choose to go with energy-efficient windows to further maximize your home's efficiency.  Modifying your home through additions to take advantage of passive solar can be expensive, but will help save you money off of your annual energy bills and add value to your home.  Proper orientation and adequate amounts of south-facing glass can help provide 20-80% of the heat needed in the colder seasons, saving a significant amount of money off of your annual heating and cooling bills (Home Power).

Designing your home for maximum passive solar works best when constructing a new home, completely rebuilding on an existing property, or making additions to the south side of your home.  Because solar orientation require the home to sit at a certain angle to the sun, it is difficult to retrofit an existing home without disrupting the foundation and completely moving the entire building.  However, if your home is oriented in an east-west manner with a good portion of the exterior walls facing south, it is possible to add new windows to help enhance its solar efficiency. If you are selecting a home to purchase, solar orientation can be added to the features you are seeking.

Installing large windows on the south side of your home helps heat the home during the winter, but can often overheat the home in the hotter months.  To avoid this, install overhangs over windows to block the sun at its higher summer angle.  Consider planting shade trees near the south side of your home.  These will help block the sun in the summer when it is at its hottest and the trees are in full bloom.  In the winter, when the trees lose their leaves, they will allow more sunlight through to penetrate the windows and heat the indoor space.

Regional Issues:

The orientation of your home, size of overhangs, and amount of heat retained from passive solar depends on your latitude and climate.  It is important to understand the solar angle at your location to maximize the savings that passive solar design can provide.  In hot climates, sun-tempered homes (homes with south-facing windows that measure 5-7% of the total square footage of the home) provide the most solar benefit.  For colder climates, it is recommended that your south-facing windows are sized to 7-12% of total square footage to take advantage of extra heating in the cold winters

Installation (Getting It Done):
If you are designing or redesigning your home, make sure your architect and contractor have experience with solar home building.  Tell them you are interested in passive solar heat and ask them to design the building with the proper orientation to provide for maximum heat and energy efficiency.  Place the most commonly used rooms along the south side of the house, leaving those that are rarely used (storage spaces, extra bedrooms, etc.) on the north side.  This will help heat the rooms you spend the most time in and avoid wasting heat on empty rooms. 

 After orienting your home for maximum passive solar heat, it is important to reinforce it with thermal mass and proper insulation.  Thermal mass is defined as materials that retain heat and then slowly emit it as the surroundings cool.  Common types of thermal mass include brick, concrete, and wood, among other materials.  Installing thermal mass around the south-facing windows in your home can help retain the heat from the sun and emit is slowly to warm the room after the sun has gone down.

Videos on This Topic:

House Orientation for Solar Power (2:42) - HGTV Pro - This video explains how proper passive solar orientation can help save you money on heating and cooling bills as well as where to place windows, skylights, and trees to make the most of solar heating.

More Information On This Topic:

Designing Your Place in the Sun

Sustainable Sources - Passive Solar Design


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