If you're considering buying and installing evacuated tubes for solar water heating, there are several important factors to consider before making your decision. These systems are highly efficient at converting solar energy into heat, providing free hot water for your home. They are also durable, low-maintenance, and eco-friendly, making them a smart choice for those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint and lower energy costs.
To make an informed decision, it's crucial to understand how evacuated tubes work and how they compare to other solar technologies, such as flat-plate collectors or photovoltaic (PV) panels. Each technology has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the right choice will depend on your specific needs, budget, and location.
Evacuated tube collectors (ETC) are specifically designed to absorb solar energy and convert it into heat for various residential and commercial applications. These include domestic water heating, space heating, and pool/spa heating.
While flat plate collectors remain the most popular, vacuum tubes have notable advantages. They perform exceptionally well for most of the day and year due to their always-perpendicular orientation to the sun's rays.
One key advantage of vacuum tubes is easy handling and installation, as they don't require large volumes of water like solar panels. Additionally, if one or more tubes break, they are easy to replace.
To make an informed purchase decision, it's important to take into account the following factors:
Evacuated tubes used in solar water heating systems are cylindrical in shape and designed to absorb solar energy to heat a liquid via a heat pipe and vacuum glass tubes.
These vacuum tubes consist of two layers of clear glass joined together, with a flat or curved absorbing plate attached to a copper heat pipe. The heat pipe transfers the heat from the absorber plate and glass walls.
Both inner and outer glass tubes are made of strong borosilicate glass, which is resistant to harsh weather conditions such as large hail. The outer tube is clear to allow efficient passage of solar rays, while the inner pipe is coated with a special selective coating to minimize reflection and maximize absorption of solar energy.
The air between the glass walls is removed to create a vacuum, which acts as an insulator, preventing heat loss from the absorber to the outside. At the bottom of the vacuum tubes is a barium getter, which removes any air from the tube to maintain the high vacuum inside.
The heat transfer fluid is transferred to the condenser bulb located at the end of the heat pump, which fits into the manifold along with the header pipe and insulation, where the accumulated solar energy is transferred.
The tubes are combined into groups called collectors, with each collector consisting of parallel rows of glass tubes to increase the exposed surface area. The collectors are supported by a frame and each tube is connected to a header pipe or copper manifold located at the top, allowing for easy installation and replacement.
Tubes come in different sizes, up to 8 feet in length and up to 3 inches in diameter.
The evacuated tube collectors work by absorbing the solar energy inside the vacuum tube, increasing the temperature of the heat pipe, and transferring the heat energy to the heating fluid.
When the evacuated solar tube is exposed to the sun, it absorbs the heat. The copper heat pipe located inside the evacuated glass tube gets warmer, so the inside liquid (water, alcohol, or acetone) quickly turns to hot vapor. And because the heat pipe is in a vacuum where the pressure is reduced, the liquid can boil at a much lower temperature (around 90 F).
The steam or hot vapor then rises to the top of the heat pipe and condenser bulb, where it exchanges heat with the cold water or glycol flowing through the manifold.
Once it transfers the heat, the fluid in the heat pipe cools down and condenses (turns into the liquid), and returns to the base of the heat pipe. The cycle starts again and continues until the solar tube system has enough sunlight or diffuse light.
For the best performance, the recommended tilt angle of the collector should be maintained to allow a condensed liquid to return to the hot absorber.
These systems can achieve inside temperatures above 400 F, while the outside surface is cool to the touch due to the high level of insulation.
There are a few different vacuum tube configurations available making the solar water heating more or less efficient:
The air is entirely removed from inside the tube in a single-wall tube, and the metallic top and heat pipe cannot be removed. If something is wrong with the tube, the whole element needs to be replaced. When compared to the double-wall system, this system gets more sun exposure making it more efficient and better in colder climates.
Double-wall evacuated tubes come with two layers of glass where the air between them is removed, forming a vacuum (an insulator) to reduce the heat loss. Each inner tube contains a metal heat pipe connected to an absorber fin and condenser bulb at the end, attached to the manifold.
Direct flow evacuated tubes come with two pipes and an absorber plate made of copper with a selective coating and vacuum-sealed inside a glass tube. One pipe is for inlet and the other for outlet heat transfer fluid, making a "U" shaped collector. It does not use the heat pipe with the condenser bulb.
They have the advantage of being installed at any angle, including horizontally. The problem with this system is that tubes are not easily replaced when they break, and the system must be drained.
This is the most popular system. As opposed to direct flow systems, which are filled with liquid, a heat pipe system has only a small amount of liquid and a dry section, making the replacement easier without emptying the entire system. They require a minimum tilt angle to ensure required performance.
According to the experts, evacuated tube collectors will outperform solar panels in cold climates because the efficiency doesn't rapidly change when the air temperature drops.
Due to the greater insulation properties, the outer surface of the evacuated tube is cool to touch even when the inner tube reaches high temperatures. This means that the heat retention is higher, and the outside cold air won't significantly influence the inside tube temperature.
Unfortunately, this can be a problem in winter because there will not be enough heat on the outer tube surface to melt the snow and frost accumulations.
Also, as the tubes have to be spaced apart, they have a lower absorber to gross area ratio (60-80%), according to Wikipedia.
Solar panels are a more efficient and better option for many homeowners in warmer climates and regions with more sun exposure.
Solar panels are more susceptible to damage from hail due to their larger contact area and their flat construction. Evacuated tubes are more durable, and because they are sealed, they are less prone to condensation and corrosion.
Solar panels must be installed at a recommended angle and facing the side with maximum sun exposure to maximize efficiency.
Evacuated tubes require less roof space and are lighter than panels making them easier to install and manage even on the roof at a steep angle. While they can produce heat with a higher temperature, they can also more often overheat.
For many homeowners, the cost is one of the most important factors when choosing between solar water heaters. Vacuum tubes tend to cost more than the standard flat type because their design is more complex and costs more to produce, and they can cost you 20 to 40% more.
The main advantage of the evacuated solar tube water heaters is the ability to heat water in all climates, including cloudy and winter days, also windy conditions, and hail.
Because of the cylindrical shape, the evacuated tube system is facing the sun all the time with the tubes perpendicular to the sun rays, making them more efficient than flat solar panels. As long as the sun shines, the evacuated solar tube heater can be in service all year round.
Even in cold climates, you can use this system as the selective coating and vacuum layer prevents heat loss and ensures high energy absorption.
Since the heat pipes transfer the heat in one direction only and within the collector, over 92% of the heat is absorbed, and less than 8% of heat is lost.
They are also easy to install and replace. If one of the vacuum tubes breaks, you can easily replace it - just plug the new one in. What is great with this plug-and-play system is that the collector still performs well even if one or more tubes are out of service.
They are compatible with gas and electric heaters that can work as a backup.
Also, since there is no water inside the evacuated tubes, the system can work during wintertime without any freeze concern and need to drain a tank.
Evacuated tubes can be used for pool heating, but some modifications may be required to prevent deterioration of copper pipes and gaskets. To avoid damage from chlorinated water, it is recommended to use stainless steel or titanium heat exchangers for heat transfer.
Evacuated tubes are efficient in colder weather, allowing homeowners to extend their pool season by a few months. However, some experts suggest that since the vacuum tubes work best for higher temperature differentials and pools don't require high heat, unglazed flat plate collectors may be a more suitable option.
Evacuated tubes have a life expectancy of over 20 years, but their longevity depends on many factors, including the system type, material quality, weather, climate, usage, etc.
According to solartubs.com, the method and material of the absorbing coating of the vacuum tubes have a major role in the tube's life expectancy.
Evacuated tubes are not only replaced when they break but also when the vacuum inside the tube leaks. Unfortunately, leaks in the tube cannot be repaired, so the defective tube must be replaced entirely, which can happen at any time.
If the leak happens during the warranty period, the manufacturer will replace it.
The warranty is approximately ten years.
Evacuated tubes provide an innovative and reliable option for homeowners seeking to utilize renewable energy sources to heat their homes and pools.
While their initial cost may be higher than flat panels, they offer greater efficiency, particularly during colder and cloudier weather conditions, ultimately resulting in long-term cost savings.
Additionally, the ability to replace individual tubes without interrupting the entire heating system provides added convenience and ease of maintenance.
Overall, evacuated tubes are an excellent investment for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint and maximize their energy savings.