Filling the pressure: Sizing an expansion tank correctly

Filling the pressure: Sizing an expansion tank correctly

You’ll need a few basic details about your system.

Here are some good questions about the correct sizing for an expansion tank from a conscientious installer — which I know includes all of us.

Question 1: Fill pressure vs. expansion tank size? (Or in other words, what should the loop pressure be and how much pressure should be in the expansion tank?)
Question 2: Expansion tank size vs. system fluid volume/ number of collectors? (Or, how to size the expansion tank to your solar system, including collectors, length of pipe, etc.)
Question 3: Fill pressure vs. PRVs? (How to size the pressure relief valve.)
Question 4: Fill pressure vs. head? (Does head or distance to the panel affect fill pressure?)

If you can visualize the concept of a correctly installed pressure glycol system, the answers will become more evident.

The goal is to not blow off when the power fails on a super-hot day. To do this, the system needs to be designed along the lines of a drain-back system. Sometimes it’s called a steam-back system. Sizing an expansion tank for solarThis is the only sure way to design this to make it work correctly.

Let me explain, and your other questions will start to become clear once you understand how it works.

All plumbing coming out of the collector array MUST drop down several feet to form a thermal lock or trap for the steam in the collectors. The liquid/steam must not migrate at all. Water expands 1,130 times when it flashes. If in any way it can migrate and flow out of the collectors, it’s not possible to have a large enough expansion tank.

With this understanding, you can now start making the calculations you need. For example, a single 4’x10’ collector, holds 1.3 gallons of water. So, if you have a string of eight 4’x10’ collectors, the total is 10.4 gallons. This should have 1″ pipe (copper handbook). Never oversize the plumbing or you lose control.

As the array heats and starts to flash, it will start to push the fluid back and DOWN the plumbing. Once it settles, the collectors now contain 10.4 gallons of steam volume, and about 10.4 gallons have been pushed down the plumbing into the expansion tank. Calculate expansion for the liquid in the plumbing (maybe 0 to 200°), and you now know what size the expansion tank needs to be. Or, I have an Excel spreadsheet I created years ago that will help you with the calculations. (Go to the “Sizing Tanks, Panels and WH” tab.)

Most systems have between 20 to 40 psi. Remember, every 100 feet of water has 44.4 psi. Add this to whatever you start with. Oh, and make sure you size the PRV with a good margin above set pressure.

The expansion tank should have a cold unloaded pressure set before you start to fill that is close to the psi your system will be set at. You cannot change or check the pressure on an expansion tank after it has been loaded. The reading will be wrong.

You might get some other suggestions for setting the pressure. I know Velux and Heliodyne have some interesting guidelines. Then too, I’m not a pro on pressure glycol systems. We do drainback every chance we can. But, European collectors generally can’t do drainback when they have a serpentine riser inside.

Good luck — or, do it correctly and you won’t need any luck!

Incoming water temp can determine size of collectors, storage

Incoming water temp can determine size of collectors, storage

As you get ready to design a solar thermal system for your home, there’s one factor you may not be considering that could make a bucket load of difference: What’s the beginning temperature of the water you’ll be heating?
In the United States’ northern climes, it’s likely 50°. In warmer, more southern climates, you’re likely beginning with 70° water.
And common sense tells us, the colder the water you start with, the more solar uumph you’ll need.
I’m asked all the time how to design a residential system. And, as I worked on the attached chart, I realized it pretty much tells you the basics of what you need to know – the size of the storage tank and the number of collectors.
This attached chart will give you an idea of what to expect. The chart allows you to determine if, for instance, you’ll be heating an 80-gallon tank in a system sized for up to three people, or a 119-gallon tank sized to serve three to five people. I chose these sizes because they are averages for family-sized systems. These numbers can be easily customized.
So, to read the chart: Say you’ve decided on an 80-gallon tank and you live in a colder area, then you’d chose line 1. And, reading across, it will tell you the number of solar collectors you’d need based on the sizes of the collectors you’d like.
Continuing this example, you decide that your home in Michigan has a large roof area and you’d like the largest collector — the 4’x10’ collector. Based on this chart you’d need two of those large collectors — or 80 square feet of collector real estate — to heat that 80-gallon storage tank.
As someone who lives in a northern climate, I shake my head sometimes knowing that we colder people all need a little extra uumph. But I know that we snow people – I live in northern Utah — will enjoy our hot water all the more.
Just as a side note, the input water temperature also has a bearing on how steep should you tip your collectors, believe it or not. If you live in 70 degree, you’ll living in a 30 to 40° latitude, so you’d use a tilt or angle of 30 to 40° for optimal performance. Likewise, those in the colder climes with colder water probably live in a 40 to50° latitude, therefore using a 40 to 50° tilt or angle.
To download an Excel file of the chart, click here.

This design for a light commercial thermal system is effective, simplified

This design for a light commercial thermal system is effective, simplified

I’m asked, more and more, to provide a solar hot water system design for light commercial systems. There is, indeed, an effective and simple design template for smaller commercial systems that need to heat up to 330 gallons of water per hour or less. The actual system this template is based on is for a fire station; the solar is designed to cover 80% to 100% of the load in a southern climate.

However, this category of light commercial could also include restaurants and cafes, hair salons and spas, grocery stores, laundromats and car washes. Some of these businesses may require even larger systems, which we’ll discuss in an upcoming blog post.

Why am I recommending this template? Because it’s the most efficient in its design, and it offers greatest simplicity in installation. It has freeze and overheat protection. Also, it requires little or no maintenance.

The virtue of this system is that solar directly heats the water to be used. Too often I’m sent designs that preheat water for some conventional water heater that can’t be heated with the solar directly.

This template includes three 4’x8′ flat-plate solar collectors. The number of panels may be adjusted according to the climate of the location. On that fire station I mentioned, because it’s in Texas, a hotter climate, fewer panels are required. If I were to spec out a similar system for a northern location, I’d possibly use one more panel or use larger panels.

This system also allows data logging with web monitoring so that its performance can be checked at any time online.

Following is the components list for this system:

  • 1 ea. Solar Phoenix, 199,000 Btu and 119 gallons (PH199-119S) stainless-steel modulating condensing water heater with solar input. Will produce continuously 335 GPH at 100° rise. If this is more than needed, use the PH130-119S
  • 1 ea. SSU-10DB stainless steel drainback tank for overheat protection (10 gallons)
  • 1 ea. Variable speed solar pump control with 4 sensors (8600-047)
  • 1 ea. Solar rated anti-scalding valve (8600-068)
  • 3 ea. 4’x8′ flat plate collectors (FP-32SC)
  • 3 ea. FP-RM mounts (or select mounts for roof application)
  • 1 ea. Field-supplied pump that will supply 4 GPM and the lift from the DB tank to the panels
  • 1″ copper and insulation to the panels

The photos below show a system using this design at Corry Station Bldg 3782 (a GSB support building) at Florida’s Eglin Air Base. The contractor is McDonald Construction of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and they really know what they are doing (850-862-2151). The engineer was Jimmie Johnson of Johnson-Peaden Engineers, also in Fort Walton Beach. Manufacturers’ rep is Coleman-Russell.

For installation instructions, you’ll need to download “Control Instructions” HERE. The last page of the manual should be followed for a correct installation of the drainback configuration. You will also find the programming instructions for this system on page 4 of the Control Instructions.

Template below for a drainback solar hot water system for light commercial, with three flat-plate collectors and a Solar Phoenix

Drainback system with Solar Phoenix

Sizing home system based on temp of incoming water, with helpful chart

Sizing home system based on temp of incoming water, with helpful chart

Earlier, I published a chart that helps size a solar hot water system for your home, but after hearing from some people I realized I needed to make it more simple.

So, to back up and provide a bit more information:

This chart shows what system is right for you, using actual sizing logic instead of guessing. (Believe me, I see that more than you’d think.) Instead of a rule of thumb, it considers a southern or northern location in the U.S. to determine what the incoming water temperature might be. The amount of energy you’ll need is based on raising the water temperature from where it starts as it comes into your home. With a little math, we can easily determine how much solar will be needed to fill up the tank, based on the incoming temperature.

The chart lists four choices of collectors with differing measurements. For example, if the load requires two 10-foot collectors and your roof height is only 7-feet tall, you still have several choices to make them fit nicely on your south-facing roof. (Unless you live in Brazil, then please face them north.)

Chart for sizing solar based on temp of incoming water. Click on chart image for full-sized PDF.

Commercial solar: With tankless water heater, you don’t pay to heat it ’til you need it

Commercial solar: With tankless water heater, you don’t pay to heat it ’til you need it

Here’s a new concept for commercial solar: a 250,000-Btu tankless water heater. It comes down to this simple philosophy: Don’t pay to heat ’til you need it. As you study this concept illustration, you’ll realize how simple this is. And, when you compare this setup to a conventional design, the cost will be half. back-up.

The Hydra Smart water allows for a gas or electric backup. In locations that have 300+ days of sunshine (all the southern U.S., for instance), I’d recommend this tankless with an electric backup. You can actually get real close to having 100% of the domestic water heating covered all by solar.

With the addition of the new Cocoon Tanks — large, super-insulated and designed to fit through any door — you can store several days of hot water. The simple drainback design lends perfect protection from freezing and overheating. Most importantly, the backup heater will rarely get used.

If you’re looking for a small domestic hot water system for your home or a client’s commercial job (laundromat, car wash or restaurant, for example) these new products and designs will dramatically cut the cost in half and make solar the big hit it should be.


Drainback with tankless is less costly, more efficient

Drainback with tankless is less costly, more efficient

Today, as part of our ongoing series of basic solar designs, we look at a drainback system using an efficient solar storage tank and a tankless water heater as backup.

This design is fairly uncomplicated and is, perhaps, the least costly system for residential applications. For all its simplicity, it delivers freeze and overheat protection with water. It also features low heat loss.

The tank is the solar storage and the drainback tank combined. The hot water storage tank I’m using in the drawing is made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which has an insulation factor of about R5 per inch. Dimensions of the tank are 60 inches in height and 30 inches outside diameter, with 4-inch walls. Usable Btu storage is 81 gallons,  which when filled with solar energy up to 160 degrees equals about 67,000 Btus of energy.

The system has very few components — basically the storage tank, pump, controller and collectors. The tank contains a 50-foot 1″ HX coil. Potable water is drawn through the coil, picking up heat from the contents of the tank. The backup water heating is located after the coil exits the  tank. A tankless gas or electric water heater works well as a backup, or this could be connected to any existing water heater and used as a preheat design.

This system is an excellent choice for the HTP Hydra Smart tankless water heater. That is the tankless water heater I’ve used in the design drawing. For more information on this advanced, modulating tankless, click here.

Like other drainback designs, all plumbing must be sloped from the panels for complete drainage.

Here’s more general information on how tankless water heaters work.


Condensing boilers and baseboards: A great matchup

Condensing boilers and baseboards: A great matchup

Do you need a more efficient (and expensive) modulating condensing boiler if you have baseboards?

That was the question posed in a discussion group I follow, and many contractors said, “No, a cheaper, conventional boiler is just fine.” The baseboards require high temps of 180° at all times, they said, and condensing boilers save fuel by heating at low temperatures. Plus, baseboards respond too slowly to the outside-reset feature of condensing boilers.

I respectfully disagree. Condensing boilers can result in significant energy savings when used with baseboards.

First off, there is a good part of the heating season where you don’t need those high temps – such as the “shoulder” months of October and March, for instance.

Secondly, systems using conventional boilers tend to be over-sized, and huff and puff more heat up the chimney than is used.

Consider this, a 30° reduction in water temperature will pencil out to a 10% fuel savings. In the shoulder months, you may run your baseboards at 130°, while in colder seasons, you may run the baseboards at 160°. So, running your baseboards at 130° would save you 18% over the high temps of a conventional boiler. When you consider that a condensing modulating boiler runs at 95% efficiency, while a conventional boiler is at 80% or so efficient, you’re adding that 18% savings on top of your already higher efficiency rating.

Thirdly, you absolutely need a good reset control. Contractors put reset controls on old-style set-temperature boilers all the time, but their effectiveness is limited. Condensing modulating boilers do it now. Some do a crummy job with poor control, and some are very sensitive and dead on for comfort at the lowest operating temperature possible (and energy savings).

I watch my new HTP Elite Plus with gas adaptive technology all the time. I can see exactly how my house is performing. I retrofitted with underfloor plates in the 1/3rd basement that I have and low-temp (Heating Edge) baseboards in the rest of the home. Not to get too carried away with my details, but I found that my basement stayed warm just from the staple-up for the upper floor.

As an experiment, later in the next heating season I installed low-temp baseboards in the basement. My condensing boiler adjusted the temp down about 8° overall compared with the previous year’s operating conditions. I have my program set from 110° to 140° with an 11° swing. It follows outside temp and sets the water temp to about 123° on average.

When a T stat comes on after being off for a while, the boiler control measures the Delta T in the zone in accord with the outside temperature. If it is below 16° outside and the zone fluid temp has a Delta T difference of 11°, the boiler will ramp to max setting of 140° until the Delta T narrows, which doesn’t take long. It does that so that the zone doesn’t have an under-swing because of the off/on setting of the T stat.

So, to recap, baseboards love modulating, condensing boilers – and we love the accompanying energy savings.

Drainback solar system at airport gains every drop of energy from sun

Drainback solar system at airport gains every drop of energy from sun

Out with the old (over complicated, expensive solar). In with the new (better and more efficient solar at lower cost).

Case in point: the Minneapolis- St. Paul international Airport’s cutting-edge solar thermal system with a new innovative design approach.

Two decades ago, conventional solar called for installing a water heater or, for larger systems, a boiler that heated a tank. Later, solar morphed into separate, individual components that drew heated water into the water heater storage only if someone washed their hands. This design suffers from too much heat loss, and the solar can’t heat the water heaters to prevent them from firing. Preheating is now an outdated and inefficient design.

The new design we’re sharing today integrates the drainback tank and storage tank, reducing costs and components. At the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport, the engineering firm of Michaud, Cooley & Erickson did this with great finesse and accuracy. All 152 collectors charge the storage tank. Because the storage tank is a huge drainback tank, no energy is left to waste in a separate individual drainback vessel. That cost is eliminated too.

Conventional designs use a heat exchanger to transfer the solar BTUs into the storage devise. Any time you launder BTUs through a heat exchanger, you’ll pay an efficiency penalty. Store the pure energy until it is needed, and then use a heat exchanger to deliver it to the needed source.

Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport drainback system