Generally, solar energy systems fall into three categories:
Passive Solar Energy Systems
Passive solar energy systems are integrated into the design of a home and do not necessarily include any solar panels or equipment. Passive solar energy systems include design features like energy efficient doors and windows, good insulation, high ceilings to maximize cooling in the summer, and south facing windows to maximize heating in the winter. Passive solar energy systems work best when incorporated with one or both of the other categories of home solar energy systems below.
Thermal Solar Energy Systems
This type of system provides hot water for your home. Thermal solar energy systems are designed to heat your home using thermal solar panels, which heat water or other fluids like glycol. Panels can be mounted on the roof, or on a frame set at an angle on the ground. Water is stored in a tank and pumped through the panels while the sun is shining, before returning this solar thermal energy to the hot water tank.
Larger solar thermal systems can be designed to heat pools and hot tubs. Larger systems, or those intended for cloudy climates, may require more space devoted to panels as well as a larger hot water tank. When thermal solar energy systems are designed to heat the whole home in addition to providing hot water, the design typically includes radiant floor heating, where hot water is pumped through tubing beneath the floors of a home.
Photovoltaic Solar Energy Systems
Photovoltaic solar energy systems are designed to meet some or all of the electricity usage needs of a home. Like thermal solar energy systems, photovoltaic systems are designed around a solar panel array mounted on the roof or on an angled frame adjacent to the home. Unlike thermal solar panels, photovoltaic panels do not require a tank or a pump to move water or glycol.
Photovoltaic solar energy systems can be integrated into the utility grid, or used to power a home off the grid. Many local power utilities offer integration deals that allow photovoltaic solar energy systems to funnel excess power back into the grid. Often, homeowners who generate more power than they consume in their home can sell this excess power back to the grid and receive money back from their local utility company.
Solar energy systems can help you power your home. | © CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr.com / Bromford
Summary: Different Options for Solar Energy Systems
Most home systems involve some combination of these three systems, often mixing passive solar design with either thermal heating or photovoltaic to meet their electricity needs. Adding a solar energy system to an existing home, or to a new home, can be a big decision. Homeowners should research their options thoroughly, taking their individual needs into consideration and looking into the local and federal tax credits that can help reduce the upfront cost.
For more information about local and federal tax credits for residential solar energy systems in your area, check out our handy state solar energy fact sheets
To find a solar energy installer for your home, check out our database of quality contractors.