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by Bob Brooke



Solar home heating and cooling technology has been evolving for thousands of years. Beginning with the Greeks, it has been passed on from culture to culture down through the centuries resulting in the high-tech solar home of today.

Active and Passive Solar Systems
There are two types of solar systems used to heat and cool houses–passive and active. In the former, builders construct and landscape the structure, itself, so that it becomes, in effect, a large solar collector. In a passive system, there’s only one moving part–the earth moving around the sun. In the latter, builders use solar collectors or arrays of solar cells to provide energy in the form of heat or electricity.

A passive solar building is one designed to use the entire building–walls, floors, windows, and roofs--as solar collectors. It uses no mechanical devices, such as motors, pumps, or fans to distribute heat. A well-designed building functions in harmony with the local sun and weather conditions, with spaces and components arranged so that heat transfer is primarily by natural convection and radiation. The result is an efficient and liveable building, with side benefits of increased brightness and more comfortable surroundings. To make the house even more energy efficient, it can be partially buried and constructed of thick adobe. A top tier of windows can heat the rear of the house, while stone walls behind large windows provide heat for the front.

An active solar system employs large roof collectors that permit the sun to heat either air or a working fluid which is pumped to a storage unit. Heat reservoirs are usually in basements or crawl spaces because of their large size and weight. Active houses must still face south, and in addition to large windows, which are passive collectors, roof collectors are included.

The Typical Solar House
The typical solar house of today should have overhangs that shade windows and walls against high summer sun. In winter, when noonday sun is more than 40' below the summer zenith, heat filled rays can enter the structure. This simple architectural adaptation, fully exploited by the Greeks and Romans, is still an energy saver.

Further, a solar house should have a light-colored roof to reflect summer heat, double-pane glass to hold in valuable heat in winter, and windows on the south and east sides but few or none on the north and west sides. As sunlight passes through the glass, it strikes various surfaces. Part of the visible light is reflected back out of the glass, while heat is trapped inside, causing a greenhouse effect. Instead of the normal two-by-four studding, wall studs should be two by six inches to provide for more insulation.

The most important building concept is to orient the house to a southern exposure to take advantage of the sun in winter and shade in summer. This applies to both passive and active houses. However, builders today ignore proven principles that have existed for thousands of years in favor of economic considerations. Most modern houses are gas (or oil) guzzlers. It’s simpler and cheaper in the short run to continue building the American box than to use innovative designs that are more energy efficient. And even with the increased efficiency of today’s insulation, developers are building most large new houses on tracts of land with few trees to shield the sun’s rays in summer.

Contrary to popular belief, a solar house need not be complex or expensive to build. Most solar homes are hybrids, except in the warmer areas of the sun belt.

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