Should You Invest In a Solar Water Heater?

by Anthony Rizzo from

With the continuing rise of energy costs and the trending "green energy" movement, solar water heating is quickly becoming a popular topic. Solar water heaters are good way to save money (in most cases) and help preserve the environment. Using panels that are normally placed on the roof of your home, solar water heaters use the sun's energy to heat your water and then store it in an insulated tank. There are enough options available for a home system to seem overwhelming, but the basics are fairly simple.

Two types of solar water heaters

There are two main types of solar water heaters, each of those with two subtypes. The two styles are active solar water heaters and passive solar water heaters.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages and most likely one will fit your needs!

Active Solar Water Heating

Active solar water heaters have a pump system and controls. This system is extremely efficient at heating water, but requires electricity to power the system. If you are not worried about heating water during a power failure or you have a backup power system then this is the ideal system for your home.

There are two types of active solar water heaters... direct circulation and indirect circulation.  Direct circulation moves the cool water through solar panels where it is heated and returned to the home.  Indirect circulation systlems use a antifreeze solution which is heated by the panels and returned to a tank inside the home, where it heats water in the tank.

Direct circulation systems are more efficient as no heat is lost in transference, but they are not recommended in climates that have periods of freezing temperatures... unless you plan to drain the system in the winter!  Indirect circulation systems can be used year-round and overall may give you the best-bang-for-the-buck!

Passive Solar Water Heating

Passive solar water heaters are not as efficient at heating water, but are considered more reliable and tend to outlast active heaters. If you want your home to be capable of being "off the grid" or are in an area where electricity is unreliable then this system is a good option.

There are two types of passive solar water heating systems... integral and thermosyphon. 

Integral systems circulate the heated water directly into your hot water system using your home's normal water pressure without any supplemental pumps.  Because your water circulates outside, these systems must be drained during the months where freezing is possible.

Thermosyphon passive systems use an antifreeze-like fluid to warm water in a tank located in your home, but unlike active systems uses the normal flow of heated water plus gravity to circulate the fluid.  They do not need to be drained in the winter and can provide some level of heated water throughout the year, depending on your climate. 

Integral systems are the most efficient since you are heating the actual water that you are using.  However, since they can only be used part of the year in colder areas any savings due to efficiency might be outweighed by the ability of a thermosyphon system to be used year round.

Installation Costs

The cost to setup and maintain your solar water heater will vary depending on where you live, how much of the installation you are able to perform yourself, which system you choose, and how capable of basic system maintenance you are. But as a general guideline, expect to pay around $6,000 to $12,000 to have a system installed. That said, you may be eligible for federal and possibly state and local tax credits. Currently, there is a 30% federal tax credit off the cost of equipment and installation making the upfront cost a bit more reasonable.

In short, the "pros" and "cons" of using solar water heating


• Free, renewable energy using the sun
• Lower and more consistent monthly energy bills
• Non-polluting
• Federal tax credits (and possibly state/local) can significantly lower the upfront cost
• Low maintenance


• High upfront cost (when compared to conventional water heaters)
• Supplemental energy source may be required (depending on region/climate)
• Not practical for areas which don't get a lot of sun year round
• Requires unshaded area that faces a southern direction

Before you get a solar water heater...

If you are renting and don't own your home or HOA regulations may not allow you to install solar panels on your roof, a solar water heater system may not be an option. If you do own your home or have landlords that allow you to make modifications to your residence, then a solar water heater may be an excellent upgrade for you. Here are a few things to consider before you purchase a solar water heater:

• If you are not the owner, will the landlord allow it?
• Will your roof be able to support the weight of the panels?
• How much hot water does your home use?
• Can you install the solar water heater and panels yourself or will you need to hire a contractor?
• Will you be maintaining the system or is there a specialist in your area to assist you?
• Does your region receive a good amount of sunny days each year?
• During the winter, does the outside temperature ever fall below freezing?

These questions will help you decide whether a solar water heater is right for your home. They will also help you decide which size and the style you will need to install.

What type of homeowner would benefit the most (and who wouldn't)

Any homeowner that uses hot water and owns a home that gets a decent amount of sunlight throughout the year can benefit the most from a solar water heater. If you do not own your home or you live in an area with a lot of overcast days, then a solar water heater may not provide the best ROI. Once installed, a solar water heater can save you time, money, and help preserve the environment for the next generation.

About the author:  Anthony Rizzois a 2nd-generation plumber out of Minnesota who also runs the website in his spare time. His website offers visitors information on what to do if your water heater is leaking, how to troubleshoot common problems, perform regular maintenance, and other helpful water heater related advice. As an avid do-it-yourselfer, he understands almost anyone is able to do minor water heater repairs themselves and save some money in the process as long as they have the right information in front of them.