Passive vs. Active Solar Home Design: What’s Better for Your Home?

Light, bright homes simply look and feel better — and as it turns out, there’s a science to it. A home that harnesses the sun through passive and active solar power optimizes energy efficiency and the sun’s ability to illuminate the space within.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between active and passive solar, here’s the gist: Active solar energy captures the sun’s rays, collecting it via photovoltaic (PV) panels and converting that energy into electricity for your home. Passive solar, on the other hand, minimizes a home’s energy usage by maximizing its absorption of sunlight and redistributing heat — no mechanical or electrical devices required.

There are many benefits of solar energy, including reducing your home’s carbon footprint. Active and passive solar energy can work in tandem, so your home is not only more efficient but also well-designed. Here’s how.

How Does Passive Solar Design Work?

No matter what climate you live in, passive solar home design can reduce heating and cooling loads by taking advantage of the features you already have in your home and your natural surroundings.

First, consider the home’s orientation: A passive solar home should have an unobstructed side to maximize sun exposure. This means windows that collect solar energy should be within 30 degrees of the true south — without obstruction creating cooling shade from trees or buildings during winter days — to naturally heat your home with the sun’s energy rather than turning up the thermostat, notes the Department of Energy.

Then, as heat enters your home through south-facing windows and is absorbed into a thermal mass like concrete, brick, stone or tile floors, the stored solar heat releases while your home cools down at night. During the warmer months, control strategies such as awnings, shutters and trellises can prevent solar heat gain, which is a plus for your comfort and energy efficiency.

Additionally, natural light enhances a home’s visual appeal while creating a calm atmosphere.

Heating Your Home With Active Solar Power

Active solar design can turn sunlight into energy, generating heat and electricity for a home via PV panels or another solar collector. As they collect energy from the sun, these solar systems bring solar heat into a home or a storage system for later use.

If your home already has a passive solar design in place, you’ll further decrease your need for electricity in the winter, as well as the amount of pollution your utilities generate. It’s possible for a home to get a majority of its heat from passive solar design and have the solar thermal system kick in to provide hot water and a secondary radiant floor-heating system.

Why Not Both?

You don’t have to choose between active and passive solar: You can benefit from both. While passive solar design can reduce your reliance on traditional electricity, that alone may not be enough to heat or power your home, even if you live in a sunny state. Complementing your passive solar setup with an active system reduces energy consumption and keeps your home comfortable all year-round.

Before starting any solar home improvement projects, get a professional home energy audit to assess how every room in your home uses and loses energy, and pinpoint areas for improvement. Have a clear picture of your home’s energy efficiency, and research for yourself how both passive and active solar can make your home greener — and brighter.

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