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There is nothing new about heating a living space with the sun. Ancient cliff dwellings in the American Southwest were dug into a south-facing cliff to capture the heat of the low, southern winter sun. At night, the rock walls radiated the stored heat to keep the occupants warm. Do you know how a sidewalk is hot in summer? That is the sun’s heat radiating to your feet.

In summer, the sun moves north and climbs high in the sky, almost directly overhead. By digging a home into the cliff wall, native peoples created an overhang that kept out the high, midday summer sun. I am sure civilizations older than this used the sun’s warmth to their advantage, too. My dogs lay in the sun on chilly days and move to the shade as they warm up. When they get chilled, they move back to the sunny spot. This is primal, innate behavior, which our oldest ancestors probably exhibited.

Why haven’t we been using these principles of solar energy through the centuries? As energy prices remain unstable, solar is becoming more necessary and will need to become mainstream.

A Need For Alternative, Sustainable Energy

Fossil fuels are finite. They will not be available forever to heat and cool our homes. As they get depleted, prices will rise. We cannot grow more oil, natural gas and coal, but we can always capture sun, wind and water. Fossil fuels also cause political struggle, greed and other negative energies. No one needs to die in the battle for fossil fuels when the sun, wind and water can supply our energy needs.

According to the EPA, buildings in the US account for:
• 39 percent of total energy use
• 12 percent of the total water consumption
• 68 percent of total electricity consumption
• 38 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions

It is clear that saving energy in your home will have a positive impact on the planet and your wallet. An energy-efficient home is a buffer against fuel price increases.

Passive Solar Energy: Any Objections?

So, why not passive solar? When did our homes become fortresses against Mother Nature? Sure, we want protection from rain, wind, snow and critters, but from the element that warms and cools us? I don’t get it. What are we afraid of?

Here are homeowners’ fears of passive solar heating:

  • Fabrics are going to fade
  • Too much glare
  • Privacy loss
  • The house will be cold
  • The house will be stuffy when windows are closed to keep the heat in
  • It’s expensive

There are solutions to all of these.

4 Ways to Best Incorporate Passive Solar Energy Into Your Home

1) Think About furniture placement and sunlight exposure

There are fade-resistant fabrics, but the sun and the heat it produces are brutal on fabric no matter what you do. The best thing to do is keep upholstered furniture out of the sun.  Rotate upholstered furniture regularly to keep it from getting too much sun. Put no furniture on the south side, and let the sun drench a concrete floor that acts like the rocks in a cliff dwelling – thermal mass.

Place light and open outdoor furniture where the sun comes in. The sun does not damage metal or wicker tables, chairs and etageres. Save your upholstered furniture for the north side.

I love rearranging furniture, but not everyone does, so this solution may not be for you.

2) Think about window treatments and placement

Passive solar windows do not need to be across the entire length of the south wall. Depending on the size of the room and the wall, you can leave a generous space between windows. This creates shade in the home, a good place for upholstered furniture. This can also reduce glare.

Window coverings and window films keep heat inside. Even if you don’t have passive solar, all your windows should be covered at night in winter and during the day in summer.

How a trombe wall works (click to enlarge)

3. Investigate trombe walls for heat rention, and privacy concerns

If you are worried about privacy, you can cover the windows with a film that blocks the view from outside, but is barely noticeable from inside.  A trombe wall will give you plenty of solar radiant heat without a window to the world. This is the best solution for privacy.

4) Research heat recovery ventilators to keep indoor air fresh

A heat recovery ventilator (HRV) efficiently exchanges stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air with no heat loss. I’ve been in homes and offices where a HRV was installed, and they never felt stuffy.

Passive Solar Energy: A Standard For The 21st Century Home

It’s not expensive to build a passive solar home or to retrofit an existing home. I have inexpensively put windows in sunny walls, which cut down on daytime heating. The money and fuel saved quickly offset the cost.

I think something solar should be written into building codes; a sunny window, a trombe wall, or a sunny entry way/mud room. There is no excuse for not taking advantage of free, available sunshine, especially in sun-drenched places like the southwest desert, where I live.

Passive solar energy is an inexpensive way to save money and get a quick return. It’s a simple way to save natural resources, too. An added bonus is that there are no moving parts to break or maintain. Passive solar simply and quietly takes advantage of free, available sunshine.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.