Passive Solar: Passing the Benefits on to You

Sunny skyFar too often we find ourselves struggling to pay monthly heating and cooling costs. Whether you live in the South with high cooling costs, the North where you spend your cash heating your home, or the mid-regions where bills are constant, if not extreme, energy costs can eat away your budget.  Enter passive solar – learn to take advantage of your environment to save energy.

 How Does Passive Solar Work?

The abridged explanation of this approach is the placement of a home in an area that utilizes the sun and various architectural design elements to minimize heating and cooling costs. How? This design uses almost every element of your home from the windows, to the walls, to the floors. Each element acts to store and distribute solar energy to create heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer1.

There are 5 fundamental architectural elements that you would use in this heating alternative, including:

  1. An Aperture or Collector – This is the area that brings the suns rays into the home (ie glass, windows, doors and rooms).
  2. An Absorber - A dark surface that absorbs and stores solar heat (ie a masonry wall, concrete floor, or partition)
  3. Thermal Mass –  Elements that act to store absorbed heat (ie concrete, stone, brick or a water tank)
  4. Distribution Technique-  Using fans, ducts or blowers to move stored heat to cold surfaces in order to evenly distribute the warmth.

    Passive solar home with clerestory windows

    Clerestory windows are the distribution technique in this home, utilizing the natural properties of hot air to rise to create a circular air flow.

  5. A Control Mechanism –  A means of controlling the amount of sunlight being absorbed into the aperture. F or instance, creating some sort of roof overhang that blocks or allows sunlight to enter depending on the time of year.2

Each of these elements needs to work in conjunction with the others to create a successful system.

3 Key Elements for Passive Solar Syste


  1. Window location and glazing type
  2. Insulation and air sealing
  3. Potential supplemental heating and cooling units (depending on location).1

Advantages of Passive Solar

  1. Monetary Savings- A 14% reduction in monthly energy costs can result. This can be reduced to nearly 47%, if the home is properly insulated. Additionally, all heating, cooling and lighting generated by this system is utility bill free.
  2. No Equipment or Appliances Required - Although some may use fans, ducts or blowers to move heat from one place to another, you can create a venting system that uses the natural properties of rising heat with clerestory windows.
  3. No Fossil Fuels needed – Unless you need to use a fossil fuel driven supplement, but this is not required.
  4. Environmental Benefits: It is a completely clean energy source and produces no harmful fumes, pollutants or emissions.3

Cash outlay to go passive solar – the costs associated with this system are restricted to the upfront investment.  You will need to consider installing the proper windows and doors, masonry elements for the absorber and thermal mass, proper insulation and possibly fans, ducts or blowers for the movement of heat from one place to the next. All in all, this is a very affordable and green alternative that will ultimately save you big in the long run.

Check with your builder to see what the cost difference would be to incorporate these elements into your new construction or home addition.  It may be more challenging to work elements of passive solar into a remodel, but it’s still a viable option for long term energy savings.

Passive Solar Remodel Case Studies

The Finch House – Denver, CO, Architect: Thomas Doerr  - Brief with PhotoFull Case Study
Passive Solar FarmhouseThe Story,   Photo Gallery
Compact Urban Dwelling – Berkley, CA, Owner: Randy Eveleigh – Case Study (pdf)
Desert Verde – Taos, NM, Owner: Nan Fischer  The Story (series of posts)

 Resources for Passive Solar Energy:

(1)   Passive Solar Home Design,
(2)   Passive Solar Design, David Darling
(3)   The Advantages of Passive Solar Energy, Bambi Turner
(4)   How to Remodel Your House for Passive Solar Gain, (pdf)

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