In the early 1950’s, two countries led the world in the development of solar hot water heater systems (SHWS): Israel and Australia.
Based on technology pioneered in California and Florida in the 20’s both countries were developing ‘integrated tank’ models: water is heated pipes in 2-3 sqm of dark copper plates behind glass (the absorber), that then flows to and from a tank mounted horizontally above the absorber.
As water in the absorber is heated by the sun it rises up the sloping panel into the tank, at the same time drawing down cold water into the bottom of the panel to be heated; a closed loop or thermosiphon. Simple and self-regulating, easy to manufacture, at first it appears a very elegant solution, and given the plentiful sunshine in both countries it seemed a ‘no-brainer’ that this technology would be widely developed and implemented.
Fast forward 70 years: in Israel there is hardly a building that doesn’t have some form of SHWS; in Australia less than 5 percent of houses have one. The big question is: if both countries started out with the same enthusiasm, technology and access to sun, why did Australia fail?
The answer is usually believed to be twofold: cheap energy and no incentives. Energy in Australia was cheap for ages, and a SHWS expensive (relative to an electric or gas storage heater). Payback periods of 6 to 8 years were considered too long; a really stupid argument, since no-one asks the payback period of a stone benchtop over laminate or a big window over a small one. Nevermind that a SHWS will continue to save money for decades, which the bench and window won’t.
Another reason was a lack of government regulations or incentives to install a SHWS (as had been in Israel since the 70s). The few rebates eventually introduced were state or council-based, periodic and without mandatory installation requirements. No national co-ordination, confused information and poorly promoted (need we add that over 70 years the conservative LNP has been in power for twice the time of the ALP).
But the real failure, rarely acknowledged, was design: an integrated tank style SHWS is ugly, ungainly and difficult to install. The elegant idea of the original design was more than offset by the eventual clunkiness in appearance and the clumsiness of installation: great theory, terrible practice.No manufacturer made an effort to visually integrate a SHWS onto Australian roofs, rather the tanks were finished in bright aluminium or polished stainless steel, not coloured to match the roof. And adding insult to injury the manufacturers splashed garish signs across the entire tank; no other household product had this aggressive, not to say offensive, branding.
Add to this the impracticality of installation: north-facing roofs required just structural reinforcement, but any other direction needed extra structure AND a separate frame, uglier than the SHWS itself. The increasingly popular two storey houses also needed the SHWS craned in.In any event the plumber had to install multiple fixings to fix the panels and tank in place, and several penetrations for the hot and cold-water pipes and the booster connections. All this on our preferred terracotta or concrete tiles, getting more brittle with age, not to mention being on those fragile tiles for maintenance. Two generations of plumbers, the most expensive sub-contractor on site, became inured to the attractions of the SHWS.
Some Councils -like the then Leichhardt in Sydney - had a policy mandating a SHWS but prohibited them being visible from the street. This highlighted the contradiction facing homeowners: they wanted to be eco-conscious, but so difficult were the issues of aesthetics, efficiencies, approvals, frames and overshadowing they preferred not to install a system.But wait, there’s more: in cold or frost-prone conditions the water can freeze and burst the absorber. The solutions, using a separate circuit of liquid with an antifreeze agent, or pumping warm water through on cold nights, increased the initial price and created other problems of failure. Hailstorms, common in coastal Australian cities (more than the Middle East) can wreck the panel’s laminated or tempered glass.
One of the most vexing problems was the booster: using electricity or gas in cloudy or rainy conditions. The booster wouldn’t know when the sun was about to come out, or when the users were about to use the water, so the system defaulted to use energy to heat the water overnight in case there was early morning demand for hot water. Early morning sunshine (or owners showering late) meant the solar input would be wasted in a pre-heated tank. A later solution was to use instantaneous gas to heat only the water that was not hot enough.
Early issues were eventually resolved, but the design never suited Australian houses and conditions, and the public resisted installing them, so the potential for mass production to reduce prices was never achieved. Even more amazing, the manufacturers persisted with this design for over 40 years, spending more time seeking government rebates than looking at the design failures.Fortunately, two changes in technology improved the situation. About 20 years ago a better absorber, using evacuated tubes, that worked on a wider range of roof angles and orientations became common. The panels were still vulnerable to hail, but more efficient to eliminate the need for a bulky frame. Equally important, the tank was now separate from the panels, located on the ground and connected by a pump, where it was more easily installed and maintained, and where instantaneous gas boost could be connected.
More recently there has been an even more radical change. Hot water can now be produced by a heat pump motor. Like an AC set to heat, they are super-efficient: every kWh of energy input ‘pumps out’ 4 kWh of heat (a coefficient of performance, or COP, of 4). Now if we add a PV panel system, then the energy for the heat pump, and thus the hot water, comes for free.
Technically this is a ‘solar water heater’ but more efficient than the traditional types, particularly if the heat pump is set to run when the sun is out and the PVs are working, and the back-up has a COP of 4 when it’s not. The installation is easier: the tank and pump are on the ground near the kitchen / bathrooms, and the PVs are more easily fixed and hail resistant than the older ‘hydronic glass panels’.
Despite 70 years of innovation water heating still produces as much greenhouse gas in Australian houses as the AC we have been discussing in recent weeks. Ten years ago, when I first wrote some of this critique in Architectural Review Australia, I called for more SHWS, saying:
“Australia needs a coherent program to promote solar water heating for 95% of its dwellings, particularly in widespread suburbia that has access to sunlight on almost every roof. Ten years from now, travellers arriving by plane should remark on three things: the red terracotta roofs on the houses, the blue swimming pools and the black solar water heaters that are offsetting the energy demands of the former two.”
The sentiment hasn’t changed, just the technology to deliver it has: the ‘black’ that I so ardently wanted is now PV panels on 2.2 million homes; it needs to be linked to heat pump hot water systems, storing energy in hot water, and then the last old-style SHWS can be taken down and consigned to the Powerhouse Museum.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected].