Solar power is becoming more and more popular in the Fox River Valley and across the country. But, we here in the Midwest have a concern about it that not everyone in the U.S. shares: Is it strong enough to power an electric heater through an Illinois winter?
It’s a darn good question. After all, your heater often uses the most energy of anything in your home by a long shot. And, recently, we’ve seen temperatures so low that even today’s best heat pumps couldn’t keep up (of course, we have a solution for that problem).
Where — and how — does solar power factor in?
Technically, solar power can provide enough energy for an electric heater to work through winter. Temperature doesn’t affect how much power these will generate. As long as there’s sunlight, they work no matter how cold it gets.
Even snow doesn’t affect things much. Usually, it just melts or slides off them on their own, and the albedo effect (think “snow blindness”) can actually make it so the panels absorb more light.
However, the better question is just how much power your setup generates and how much electricity your heater requires.
There are a lot of different appliances that fall under the term “electric heater.” And, there’s more than one form of solar power. So, there’s no real one-size-fits-all answer.
In this article, we’ll look at the two most popular — but very different — types of electric heaters. Next, we’ll dive a little into how solar energy works. Then, we’ll put it all together.
Meanwhile, if you have more questions about solar power or are looking for more ways to make your home more energy independent, call or email us today at Compass Heating and Air.
Let’s start with an important distinction: What kind of electric heat do you have?
If you’re talking baseboard heaters, that’s resistance heating. You’re using electricity to heat the coils. The warmth generated here radiates throughout the room.
Electric furnaces are also an example of resistance heating. The system pulls in air, and the coils heat it as it passes through. Then, the ductwork and vents circulate the warm air throughout the house.
On the other end of the spectrum is a heat pump. These are also powered by electricity. But, that power source doesn’t directly generate warmth.
Instead, these units use a heat transfer process. In the winter, they draw in what little heat there is outside. Then, the pump amplifies that thermal energy until it’s strong enough to heat the house.
Of course, that’s a simplification of the process. But, the big difference is that they only need a tiny amount of electricity to get the mechanical process started. The actual heating doesn’t require any power.
And, when it comes to solar power, that makes a big difference.
When most people think solar, they’re thinking of the photovoltaic panels you see on roofs and sometimes in yards.
They work by collecting sunlight and converting it into electricity. Once again, that’s a big simplification. But, for what we’re talking about, this explanation works.
By contrast, thermal solar is when you use sunlight directly to heat your home. You’d do this using the house design, insulation, and other strategies to trap heat. On top of that, some systems heat water directly.
At any rate, you’re likely picturing photovoltaic panels, especially if you’re thinking about using solar to generate electricity.
It’s possible to get off the grid entirely with photovoltaic power. But, that requires a lot of space for a lot of panels. This method is still kind of inefficient. Something like only 25 percent of the sunlight they capture gets converted to electricity.
Of course, you’re not paying for any of that power, so it’s not a loss. It’s more that you need a whole bunch of panels, unless you spring the more expensive high-efficiency models.
We’ll put this all together in a moment. But first, we need to address heat pumps and Midwestern winters.
By and large, heat pumps deserve all the acclaim they’re getting lately. They handle heating and cooling and use a tiny fraction of the electricity any traditional furnace or central air setup needs. In a mini split setup, you get terrific customized heating in every room of your home.
But, they have a limit, and that limit is around negative 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Most heat pumps can’t draw enough thermal energy to do the job once the temperature gets that low.
And, in most parts of the country, that’s fine because it never gets nearly that cold. But, Chicagoland is not most parts of the country. In recent years, we’ve seen it get down to negative 20.
The solution is a hybrid system such as the Daikin VRV Life. This way, you have a backup gas furnace that clicks on automatically if it gets too cold for the heat pump. You get all the heat pump advantages with the peace of mind that your home will always stay warm.
This is an important consideration when you’re thinking about Fox River Valley winters and solar power.
Here’s the bottom line: You can run a house on solar power all winter without losing heat. To do it, you need to know how much electricity your heater requires and how much your panels can provide.
Remember: the cold doesn’t diminish your panel’s performance. But, you need enough of them to power your HVAC system.
Going with a heat pump plus solar means you require less power than an electric furnace or baseboard units. Using a hybrid system offers you the gas backup or subzero temperatures.
It’s a tricky equation, and we recommend consulting a professional before you start spending any money.
You can call or email Compass Heating and Air any time for HVAC service or a free consultation in Barrington, East Dundee, Elgin, or any town in the Fox River Valley. Energy independence is important to us, and we want to see all our customers stay comfortable while reducing their utility bills as much as possible.