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Solar Collectors: Different Types and Fields of Application

Solar collectors transform solar radiation into heat and transfer that heat to a medium (water, solar fluid, or air). Then solar heat can be used for heating water, to back up heating systems or for heating swimming pools.

The use of solar heat

The heart of a solar collector is the absorber, which is usually composed of several narrow metal strips. The carrier fluid for heat transfer flows through a heat-carrying pipe, which is connected to the absorber strip. In plate-type absorbers, two sheets are sandwiched together allowing the medium to flow between the two sheets. Absorbers are typically made of copper or aluminum.

Swimming pool absorbers, on the other hand, are usually made of plastic (mostly EPDM, but also of polypropylene and polyethylene), as the lower temperatures involved do not require greater heat capacity.

Heating and storage are united in a reservoir collector. Arrays of reservoir collectors do not need circulating pumps or regulating mechanisms, as the drinking water is warmed and stored right in the collector.

Highly efficient absorber surfaces

Absorbers are usually black, as dark surfaces demonstrate a particularly high degree of light absorption. The level of absorption indicates the amount of short-wave solar radiation being absorbed that means not being reflected. As the absorber warms up to a temperature higher than the ambient temperature, it gives off a great part of the accumulated solar energy in form of long-wave heat rays. The ratio of absorbed energy to emitted heat is indicated by the degree of emission.

In order to reduce energy loss through heat emission, the most efficient absorbers have a selective surface coating. This coating enables the conversion of a high proportion of the solar radiation into heat, simultaneously reducing the emission of heat.

The usual coatings provide a degree of absorption of over 90%. Solar paints which can be mechanically applied to the absorbers (with either brushes or sprays), are less or not at all selective, as they have a high level of emission. Galvanically applied selective coatings include black chrome, black nickel, and aluminum oxide with nickel. Relatively new is a titanium-nitride-oxide layer, which is applied via steam in a vacuum process. This type of coating stands out not only because of its quite low emission rates, but also because its production is emission-free and energy-efficient.

Flat-plate Collectors

Sketch of a flat-plate collector

A flat-plate collector consists of an absorber, a transparent cover, a frame, and insulation. Usually an iron-poor solar safety glass is used as a transparent cover, as it transmits a great amount of the short-wave light spectrum.

Simultaneously, only very little of the heat emitted by the absorber escapes the cover (greenhouse effect).

In addition, the transparent cover prevents wind and breezes from carrying the collected heat away (convection). Together with the frame, the cover protects the absorber from adverse weather conditions. Typical frame materials include aluminum and galvanized steel; sometimes fiberglass-reinforced plastic is used.

The insulation on the back of the absorber and on the side walls lessens the heat loss through conduction. Insulation is usually of polyurethane foam or mineral wool, though sometimes mineral fiber insulating materials like glass wool, rock wool, glass fiber or fiberglass are used.

Flat collectors demonstrate a good price-performance ratio, as well as a broad range of mounting possibilities (on the roof, in the roof itself, or unattached).

In order to reduce heat loss within the frame by convection, the air can be pumped out of the collector tubes. Such collectors then can be called evacuated-tube collectors. They must be re-evacuated once every one to three years.

 

Evacuated-tube collectors

Sketch of a heat pipe collector

In this type of vacuum collector, the absorber strip is located in an evacuated and pressure proof glass tube. The heat transfer fluid flows through the absorber directly in a U-tube or in countercurrent in a tube-in-tube system. Several single tubes, serially interconnected, or tubes connected to each other via manifold, make up the solar collector. A heat pipe collector incorporates a special fluid which begins to vaporize even at low temperatures. The steam rises in the individual heat pipes and warms up the carrier fluid in the main pipe by means of a heat exchanger. The condensed liquid then flows back into the base of the heat pipe.

The pipes must be angled at a specific degree above horizontal so that the process of vaporizing and condensing functions. There are two types of collector connection to the solar circulation system. Either the heat exchanger extends directly into the manifold ("wet connection") or it is connected to the manifold by a heat-conducting material ("dry connection"). A "dry connection" allows to exchange individual tubes without emptying the entire system of its fluid. Evacuted tubes offer the advantage that they work efficiently with high absorber temperatures and with low radiation. Higher temperatures also may be obtained for applications such as hot water heating, steam production, and air conditioning.

How much energy does a solar collector provide?

Graph of efficiency and temperature ranges of various types of collectors (radiation: 1000 W/m²)

The efficiency of a solar collector is defined as the quotient of usable thermal energy versus received solar energy. Besides thermal loss there alwas is optical loss as well. The conversion factor or optical efficiency h0 indicates the percentage of the solar rays penetrating the transparent cover of the collector (transmission) and the percentage being absorbed. Basically, it is the product of the rate of transmission of the cover and the absorption rate of the absorber.

The specific costs of collectors are also important. Evacuated-tube collectors are substantially more expensive (at 511,29 - 1278,23 Euro /m² collector surface) than flat-plate collectors (153,34 to 613,55 Euro /m²) or even plastic absorbers (25,60 to 102,26 Euro /m²). However, a good collector does not guarantee a good solar system. Rather, all components should be of high quality and similar capacity and strength.

Text and graphics by permission of the:
Deutschen Gesellschaft für Sonnenenergie e.V -- German Society for Solar Energy.

Concise and comprehensible explanations of the basic concepts in solar heating and photovoltaics can be found in our Solar-Lexicon.

Reports on technology, business and politics, as well as presentations on innovative systems and products can be found in the Solar Magazine