Benefits and drawbacks of solar air heaters

David Schieren, CEO of New York-based energy consulting firm EmPower Solar, estimates that you can save more than $300 a year on heating costs by using a solar air heater. Savings vary depending on the size of your home, the sunniness of your climate, and the type of heating sources you use.

Solar air collectors can be used to heat a single room, or to supplement an existing heating system. However, most solar air heaters are not powerful enough to heat an entire home.

Types of solar air heaters

  • An outdoor-type panel collects air from inside your home, circulates it through a flat, heat-gathering panel that’s mounted outside facing the sun, then returns the heated air to your house. The panel attaches directly to the outside of your house. Two 4-inch holes are required for the inflow and outflow ducts, and a small fan helps move air through the circulation chambers in the panel. A connection to standard 120-volt power is necessary.
  • A window-mounted unit doesn’t require any retrofitting or holes cut into exterior walls; it fits inside a standard window opening. Flexible gaskets seal the edge of the unit against the window frame to prevent air leaks. This self-contained unit includes intake and outflow vents, and a thermostatically controlled fan. Because solar air heaters are dark-colored to help absorb heat, window-mounted units block daylight. Window-mounted units are good for heating small rooms, such as a bedroom.

Size and cost

Solar air heaters can vary in size, cost, and heating capacity. A 32-by-18-inch window air heater panel costs $400 to $500 and can heat a small room; a 28-sq-ft. outdoor wall-mounted unit costs $2,700 and is able to heat 1,000 square feet.

Installing your solar heater

In most cases, there is no need to hire a solar specialist to help with installation. You can hire a general contractor or carpenter to complete the job for you.

“The ideal professional to do it would be the all-around handyman type, as there is a little carpentry, a little duct work, a little glazing, and sometimes a little electrical work to do,” says Gary Reysa of renewable energy site BuildItSolar.com.

Installation should take a couple of hours and cost from $60 to $150.
 
A solar heater complements your existing heating system, so there’ll be no need for any modifications to your HVAC system. If you install a large area of air heating collectors, however, you may need to integrate the system into your existing ductwork to distribute the heat more evenly, which could involve consulting a solar heating technician or an HVAC professional.

Do it yourself

To save money, construct your own solar heating system.

“An air heating collector that is equivalent to a commercial collector that costs $1,200 can be built for a couple hundred dollars,” says Reysa. “This makes the payback time a lot shorter.”

Take advantage of DIY solar heater plans to build a low-cost heating system, using materials available at your local hardware store, such as polycarbonate glazing, framing lumber, and silicone caulk sealant.

Keeping your house warm

Remember that when it comes to energy-efficient heating, a solar air heating system is not as important as upgrading insulation in your house. Creating an energy-efficient home starts from the ground up.