John Canivan

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DIY Solar
In 1970 a friend of mine left the civilized comforts of a New Jersey home to seek out and experience the free, wild wilderness of an Adirondack hilltop in upstate New York. Jack loved the country life and swore that he’d never leave his mountain retreat. He endured the cold winters without electricity and baseboard heating, but Jack still missed running hot water. When spring came he took a 300foot coil of black plastic tubing and connected one end to a spring high up on the mountain. He draped the remainder of the 300-foot coil on his roof and spread it out to cover as much surface area as possible. For a $50 investment and one hour’s worth of labor Jack had himself a bona fide hot water shower. He made good use of it whenever the sun was high on the mountain. I used it a few times myself. It worked. The roof might look a little funny and the hot water would run out sooner than you’d like, but it did work when the sun was shining. When the sun disappeared the shower would get very cold. By the end of September water would freeze inside the exposed plastic tubing. You might be interested in a simple system like this if you enjoy taking showers when the sun shines. BUT If you’re looking for a more sophisticated hot water system you’ll need to invest more time and more money. This article introduces the basic DIY concepts of active closed loop serpentine collectors and active open loop Modified Trickle Down solar collectors. Details are available at . My first serpentine collector was first built in 1980 and my first MTD collector was built in 2006. BUT before we begin let’s take a quick look at a direct connect passive, batch heater. This may be all you need if you live in a warm sunny climate.

BATCH HEATERS In mild climates like coastal California or almost any place in Florida where freezing is a rare occurrence a simple passive batch heating system is all that’s necessary. The batch heater could


be as simple as a water tank painted black. A more efficient system would enclose this black tank in an insulated box. Glass or some form of glazing would be installed at an angle perpendicular to the sun’s rays. This is a practical, cost effective passive solar hot water system, ideal for mild climates. For more information about batch heaters check out

Active solar hot water systems are designed for colder climates. Although they are a bit more complicated and require electricity to run a circulator pump, active solar hot water systems harvest a thousand times more energy than they consume.

What is the difference between parallel flow flat plate collectors and serpentine flat plate collectors?


Notice that the top and bottom pipes are larger than the vertical pipes. If the top and bottom pipes are large the pressure difference is moderated and the flow rate in each of the parallel pipes is more uniform. One small. Half inch and two inch copper tubes are expensive. undetected leak on one T fittings could become a catastrophic mess. There is a reason for this. It is unfortunate that the flow rate is minimal at the center of the collector where most of the heat is concentrated.. 3 . also there is a leak risk t the solder junctions.This parallel collector is designed to transport collector fluid from the bottom of the collector to the top via a network of parallel pipes. This is because incoming fluid pressure is greatest at the base of the first pipe and outgoing fluid pressure is smallest at the top of last pipe. These collectors may be connected in series because the top and bottom distribution tubes are so large. Other problems associated with the parallel flow include cost and leaks. Fluid mechanics favors an increased flow rate for the end pipes.

Quarter inch copper tubing is inexpensive. Half inch flexible tubing is difficult to bend and fairly expensive. The size of this flexible tubing is an important consideration. low cost. It is very important to bend this 3/8 copper tubing carefully to avoid kinks. A two-collector system works fine. and ease of fabrication. It has a reasonable flow capacity. however it restricts the flow rate too much. This will insure that the flow rate is uniform throughout serpentine collectors hooked in parallel.SERPENTINE FLOW DYNAMICS The serpentine collector consists of one long continuous flexible tube so there is no problem with uniform flow rate. What more could one ask for? The main problem with a serpentine collector is flow rate restriction. A four-collector system works even better. 4 . Connecting the serpentine collectors in parallel alleviates this problem. 3/8 inch tubing is just right for the money. Even the larger half inch copper tubing restricts flow rate too much and puts an unnecessary burden on the circulator pump.

More than 700 linear feet of copper tubing would be required to cover the same surface area that could be covered with 60 linear feet bonded to a wellconstructed absorber plate.Absorber Plate Construction Solar Collectors would not be very practical without absorber plates. Absorber plates increase the surface area exposed to sunlight. 5 .

or three 50-foot rolls for eight collectors. OK tar sounds good. It is sticky. If you purchase a 50-foot roll of 20-inch aluminum flashing you will have enough for three collectors. After 16 grooves are pounded into the aluminum sheet the length should shrink about 6 inches. The inside dimension of a 4X8 collector would be 46½” X 94½ “.Copper absorber plates facilitate the soldering of copper tubes. How large should this absorber plate be? The aluminum plate should cover the largest possible area inside the collector. but they are expensive. heavy. Sounds a little sticky to me. You may have difficulty finding sheets of aluminum that are 40 X 100 inches. That’s the point. but I doubt that such an animal is commercially available. A metallic bond of copper to aluminum requires a special helium arc set up. If you have ever walked on a hot tar roof you’ll know what I mean. Aluminum absorber plates are less expensive. difficult to fabricate and unnecessary. A 67-foot roll would be just right for four collectors. You should be relieved to know that my design calls for aluminum absorber plates. 6 . Two 20 X 100 inch sheets work fine. The starting length of the plate should be 100 inches. Tar also provides a conducting medium. A fifty-foot roll of 20-inch aluminum flashing costs about $40. Did you know that aluminum is a superior conductor of heat? That’s nice to know but how do you expect me to solder a copper tube to an aluminum plate? I don’t. The process is time consuming and expensive. So … the finished absorber plate should measure about 40 X 94 inches. We’ll be using tar and a support lip. So… the width of the absorber plate should be about 40 inches. You’ll need two 50-foot rolls for a four collectors. lighter. The width of the absorber plate should be less than 46½ ” to accommodate the semicircle bends of the copper tube. and easy to fabricate.

Tools and Materials for Absorber Plate Construction 1. 7 . Pounding Jig Construction Instructions 1. Might as well get everything you need in one trip. It will be used as a reference spacer. Take the remaining piece of 1X6 and cut off a ½ inch strip. One gallon of roofing tar and a throw away brush. 5. Hacksaw. Two 50-foot rolls of 20-inch aluminum flashing for four collectors. Tin snips. 3. 4. 8. Four 1X6X8’s common pine.What else will I need? Good question. From the wood that you purchased make four 1X6X4’s and seven 1X6’s 20 inches long. One pound of 1 ¼ . I recommend that you work on a level concrete floor. 2.inch drywall screws. 7. First you’ll need to build what I call a pounding jig. (Actual size ¾” X5½” X8’) Two 7/16 inch steel rods. Are we ready? Let’s go. 2. This jig will be used to pound 16 grooves into each 20 X 100 inch sheet of aluminum. Heavy hammer. 6. The width of this strip should be precisely ½ inch.

Lay the aluminum sheet on top of the pounding jig so that one end of the sheet extends 3 inches beyond the center of the first space.3. Now for the pounding 1. and the pounding jig should look something like this when you’re done. 6. 5. It is important to get off to a good start so I recommend that you center the aluminum sheet on the pounding jig. 2. Rip the remaining piece in half to make two 1X2’s 20 inches long 4. Cut a 7/16” steel rods in half so that you have two rods 24 inches long. Be sure all the 1X6 boards are also perpendicular to the base platform and spaced ½ inch apart. 3. Now secure a 20-inch 1X6 ½ inch from the 1X2. Fasten the top layer of boards to the base platform with 1¼-inch drywall screws. The base platform should measure 24 inches by 48 inches. The most important consideration in the construction of this jig is the spacing between the boards. Screw a 1x2 onto one end of the base platform with drywall screws perpendicular to the base platform. First cut some aluminum sheets 100 inches long. You will need eight 20X100 inch strips for four collectors. The ½ inch spaces should be centered 6 inches apart. Use the reference spacer between the 1X2 and the 1X6 to get accurate spacing. The edge of the aluminum should be parallel with the edge of the pounding jig platform. I will now refer to the spaces between the boards as slots. This will be the base of the pounding platform. When the sheet of aluminum is properly centered with 8 . Place the eight 1X6X4’s in a row on top of the concrete floor with half-inch spaces between them.

Notice how the absorber plate wraps around the copper end protruding 3 inches from the center of the first space place your knee on the aluminum to hold it in place and carefully press the rod into the first ½ inch slot like this: The absorber plate should look something like this when you’re done. Once the serpentine tube is bonded to the groove with tar and the absorber plate is coated with a lampblack tar coating it will look something like this close up. but believe me it works. Guess it might seem a bit crude. 9 .

VIDEO 10 .youtube.

11 . You could attempt to screw the corners together if you like. Be sure the length is eight feet between the outside corners and the width is four feet between corners. Now take a break. The important thing is to line up the 1X4’s under the plywood one at a time. Make all your collector frames at once and then paint them inside and out with an oil base paint of your choice. You’ve earned it. Make sure the outside edge of the 1X4 is flush with the plywood and the corners of the plywood line up with the outside tips of the 1X4’s. but you may find it difficult to hold them in place while driving a screw. I like to gently throw the 4X8 CDX plywood on top of the 1X4’s. If it becomes impossible to wait for paint to dry you could spend some time working on the 3/8 inch copper tube-bending jig. One or two of the 1X4 may fall down. and besides you’ll have to let the paint dry for a few days before giving a second coat. but they can easily be put back in place.Building a Serpentine Collector Find a nice hard level surface and assemble the frame like this.

Use a half-inch reference spacer board to position the bending jig boards so that they have a half-inch gap between them and screw them into the CDX plywood with drywall screws. Two screws in each board should be sufficient. Cut semicircles on the ends of the 1X6 boards and then make 8 boards like this one. Use a carpenter’s square to trace out guidelines on the collector bottom. Now cut each of these boards in half. Center the bending jig boards on top of the collector bottom in the manner demonstrated below. 12 .Construct tube-bending jig Take those four 1X6X8’s and cut them in half so that you have eight 1X6X4’s. and flip a collector frame over so that its plywood bottom faces up. This will help you secure these 1X6 boards in this manner demonstrated.

After the collector frames have thoroughly dried you can check yourself into a nearby mental hospital. You will be bending a sixty-foot coil of 3/8 inch ID copper tubing into the tube bending jig slots from one end of the jig to the other. A friend may prove useful. Start the tube about a foot from the top of the first loop so that you have enough tube for the entire serpentine bend. If you don’t have a friend to help you may wish to hold the start end down with a board and a few screws. If you have come this far I think you’ll make it. 13 . If you do put a few small kinks in the tubing don’t shoot yourself. DON’T KINK THEM. Say hello to my wife while you’re in there. The bent tube will look something like this when you are done: Find a good place to store your serpentine tubes. If you have carefully laid out the bending jig and have spaced the bending jig boards correctly you should have no difficulty bending the copper tubing. Hang in there you are doing fine.STEP FIVE Bend copper tubing. Kinks restrict the flow rate and lower collector efficiency. With a little TLC you can squeeze kinks out with the help of vice grip pliers. Keep the tubing snug when you press it down into the grooves. Now go on to step 6. but do not put kinks in the tube. Only kidding. Give all the collector frames at least two good coats of oil enamel paint.

The first line and last line should be 2¼ inches from the inside edge of the collector frame. Now rip 5¼-inch strips of ½. Place the insulation inside the collector foil side up and trim off the excess with a drywall knife so that the insulation fits nice and snug.STEP SIX.isocynate insulation and glue these pieces (with contact cement to the back of the absorber plate as illustrated below. MARK INSULATION: Mark the insulation where the copper tubes will go. The lines should be 6 inches apart. These squares will help position and support the absorber plate. INSTALL INSULATION AND SUPPORT SQUARES Turn a collector right side up and install a 4X8 sheet of one-inch ridged isocynate insulation with a foil back. 14 .

A distance of 90 inches must separate the inlet and outlet holes. Center the vent holes one inch down from the top and one foot over from the bottom side corners. You will also need a few vent holes in the bottom side of your collector to vent trapped collector moisture. These vent holes are for the right collector. The ¾-inch holes may seem a bit large but there is a reason for this.STEP SEVEN Drill inlet. Before unrolling these groovy absorber plates I’d like you to drill four ¾-inch holes into the sides of your collector frame. Half inch copper union connectors will be inserted into the inlet and outlet holes. The space between the tube and the wood will be filled with clear silicon caulking. 15 . Center the inlet and outlet holes 3 inches from the collector corners and about 2 inches down from the top rim of the collector frame. The left collector will have vent holes on the other side. The inlet and outlet holes should be centered to accommodate the inlet and outlet positions of the serpentine tube. Vent holes should be centered on the bottom side of the collector one foot from the corners and 1½ inch down from the collector’s top rim. All vent holes should be on the bottom side of the collectors. outlet and vent holes The absorber plate grooves will hold the serpentine copper tubing that you bent.

Overlap the absorber plates so that their outside edges are 4 inches from the inside edges of the collector sides.STEP EIGHT Install absorber plate Now unroll two absorber plates into the collector body. A distance of 90 inches should separate the end grooves. 16 . Handle the tubing with care. You may wish to trim the ends of the flashing to fit the collector body. why spoil it now? Gently glide the tubing into position. This serpentine assembly should measure about 94 inches long and be 45½ inches wide. You have come this far without a kink. installing it into the collector body will be a piece of cake. STEP NINE Install serpentine tubing If you did a good job bending the 3/8 inch tubing. groove side up and overlap them in the center of the collector body.

These tubes will later be trimmed to fit sweat unions that will fit snug against the side of the collector. 17 . Do not press the tubes into the grooves yet. If you examine this three dimensional collector closely you will notice that it has 14 groves instead of 16. This is merely a pictorial representation of the actual collector. The solid protrusions from the collector represent ½-inch copper tubes. Your absorber plate should have sixteen groves and the serpentine tube should fit into these groves. make the necessary adjustments before continuing.Congratulations! Your collector should look something like this after the serpentine tube is inserted. Join 1/2 ID copper pipes to the 3/8 ID copper tube with adapter sweat fittings and allow the ends to protrude through the predrilled ¾ inch holes. if they don’t.

passive Trombe Walls can also supplement some of the heating needs of a home. but air is not a good heat transfer medium and the heat from air is difficult to store. This is what Harry E Thompson did in 1960 and this is what Richard Heiliger and I have been doing since 2007.htm 18 .jc-solarhomes. For large solar heating and domestic hot water systems I recommend using water as a heat exchange medium because a cubic foot of water can hold about 2.000 times more heat than a cubic foot of air and heat is exchanged through water at a faster rate than through air. but a combined air and water system could work. So rather than use copper flow tubes and aluminum absorber plates and heat exchange coils to transfer heat indirectly consider the advantages of transferring heat directly into Hot Air Alternatives Passive solar greenhouses and modified. As a mater of fact the direct heating and storage of solar heated water is perhaps the most practical method of collecting and storing the sun’s energy. If you decide to stick with a passive solar air heating system and you live in a cold climate with limited sunlight be sure to have a back up heating system. I prefer water to air when considering heat exchange systems. http://www.

Commercial 19 .Trickle-Down Solar Heating Harry E Thompson In the 1960’s an engineer from North Carolina by the name of Harry E Thompson invented a simple method of collecting solar heat without using copper flow tubes bonded to metallic absorber plates. Conventional collectors use copper flow tubes to harvest the sun’s trapped heat from a blackened absorber plate.

Although the serpentine collector uses less Copper than the parallel flow system they both rely on Copper to isolate collector fluid from the glazing. At the bottom of the corrugated aluminum roof a trough was placed to catch the heated water which was channeled back into a huge heat storage tank in the basement. Harry Thompson felt that flow tubes and copper absorber plates were an unnecessary expense.parallel flow tubes are soldered to a copper absorber plate and serpentine flow tubes may be pressure bonded to an aluminum absorber plate. A thermostat on the first floor was used to turn on a fan that forced cold house air across the heated stones. Instead of using flow tubes Harry decided to pump water from a storage tank to the ridge of a roof and allow it to dribble down across a corrugated aluminum absorber plate. This tank was buried in a pit of stones which picked up heat from the tank. Thus heat transfer occurred directly from the absorber plate into the water. The 20 .

Concerns about heat losses through the glazing material and the necessity of using a corrugated metal roof have prevented me from investigating this solar heating option until March 2006.heated air from the stones in the basement entered the living area through grates in the first floor. At this time I became aware of the increasing cost of copper and decided to build some experimental collectors without copper flow tubes that trickled water under a plastic film to prevent heat loss. I call this kind of collector a Modified Trickle Down collector or MTD. As you know hot air is lighter than cold air so it has a natural tendency to seek a higher elevation and spread throughout the house. A fan is often used to extract heat in a more controllable fashion. There are still houses along the Canadian border that use Harry Thompson’s trickle-down solar heating system and I have for some time been interested in the concept. MODIFIED SOLAR THERMAL ROOF 21 .

Leaks through the absorber plates and through the underlayment developed and I was forced to dismantle the entire roof. Since no provision had been made for modular trouble shooting all five sheets of Kalwall and all ten absorber plates had to be removed. MELTED POLYETHYLENE UNDERLAYMENT HOT SPOT Modular Modified Trickle Down 22 . On the positive side I discovered that the plastic trapped plenty of heat but it soon melted without water flowing. After dismantling was complete I noticed that the polyethylene underlayment had fused with the nylon netting.My first experiment with MTD was a disaster. and there were areas near the ends of the trickle down tube that had melted clear through to the TYVEK.

installation and maintenance of MTD systems.After my first experience with an MTD roof I developed modular MTD collectors with the help of Richard Heiliger. A modular design facilitates the construction. A modular array of MTD collectors might look something like this: Richard Heiliger’s house in Richmond Utah To collect water from your Modified Trickle Down collectors you’ll need to make a PVC gutter that looks may look like this: 23 . I learned to use heat resistant Mylar and polypropylene as inner glazings and polyester felt as an absorber plate.

Notice how the bib tab is bent up and over the bib. 24 . I use a modified heater hose: This trickle down tube is one method of bringing water to the top of the collectors. The bib is actually the first layer to be bent into the gutter. Here is another view of the gutter and gutter support. After the collector is installed on the roof the gutter may be slid into position from one end of the collector array. but if the tube is too long water will never reach the holes near the ends of the tube.To distribute water to the tops of your MTD collectors you’ll need a Trickle Down Distribution System that looks something like.

25 .

The MTD collector has been specially designed for easy mounting. but in order to work properly a stop support must first be installed. This stop support is simply a 1x2 screwed into the roof rafters with 3” drywall screws. 26 .The Installation Modified Trickle Down Collector Installation as well as any other solar installation works best when flush mounted on a roof. The protruding lip on the gutter support makes this possible.

This may be installed before or after mounting the collector. 27 . Top support and central supports prevent the collector from warping. Here is a close up side view of the stop support and a collector resting on it.As you can see the collector rests on the stop support and facilitates the mounting process. Notice the 1x1 finish support on the edge of the gutter support.

For more information about DIY solar heating systems go to: www.htm 28 . The TDDs for this eight collector system will each be about 106 inches long.jc-solarhomes.JC-Solarhomes.TDD Installation After the collectors are secured into position press the two TDDs into the TDD The shed has already paid for itself in the heat collected and the products made from the collected heat. From the data collected I have estimated that the efficiency of converting sunlight into heat is about 50% This is the MTD shed that I’ve been experimenting with for the last 2 years.

com and get your fair share of For more information about serpentine and MTD solar collectors as well as MTD collector kits visit www.A full MTD solar heated workshop will be my next project… VIDEO http://www. John Canivan 29

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