Solar pool heating can be a great way to heat your pool, but there is an alternative. I once heard the phrase that pool heating is one letter away from pool hating. Heating a pool can be expensive, so deciding the best way to do it is an important decision you need to make to ensure that you enjoy using your swimming pool rather than just looking at it.
A traditional solar pool heater passively heats your pool as water is pumped from your pool to the roof and back down again. As the water passes through your solar panels, it is heated as the water passed through small tubes. The amount of heat depends on the weather. The process is simple and efficient. There are downsides, however:
- You are at the mercy of the weather. Heating your pool when it’s cloudy, cool, or windy is not very effective. There is a limit to how warm the water can get. That is usually 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit above an unheated pool in good conditions. When unheated pools dip to 65ºF in December, don’t expect a solar heated pool to be in the 80’s.
- Sending water to your roof through piping and panels will inevitably cause leaks. These can be a minor nuisance if there are defects or damage early on, but eventually systems will deteriorate after 10-12 years and need replacement once leaks become a major headache. Think about it this way – you will be sending around 7 million gallons of pool water a year through the system. We ask a lot of these systems.
- You can’t really quantify the performance of the system. There is no monitoring system other than the anecdotal current pool temperature.
- The mounting systems place the panels directly on your roof surface. The technology hasn’t kept up with modern solar panel mounting improvements.
- Panels are far more prone to damage in high winds than solar electric panels.
Still, solar pool heating remains popular and does an effective job of heating pools. If you are satisfied with the limitations and accept the downsides, it can be a pretty low-cost and suitable way to heat your pool.
The Alternative To Solar Pool Heating
The economics of solar panels have changed dramatically in the last decade. It’s now time to consider an alternative. Why not use an efficient, reliable, and proven electric heat pump pool heater and install solar electric panels to offset the electricity that the heater uses?! We call this Solar Hybrid Electric Pool Heating, or SHEPH for short.
Solar electricity for homes has become extremely popular recently. The cost has plummeted and tax credits sweeten the deal. The technology has become much more efficient and installation products and methods are light years ahead of what we had just a decade or two ago. Solar electric panels have proven to be extremely resistant to storm damage (proven by Hurricanes Irma, Wilma, Ian, and other recent local wind and rain events).
If you already have an electric heat pump, it’s almost a no-brainer to go this route. If you don’t have one or need to replace an aging unit, the numbers still work since solar electric panels last more than twice as long as solar pool heating panels.
How Does SHEPH Work?
The concept here is pretty simple. What we’re really doing is giving you a small solar electricity system, the same type that we install for whole home utility electricity offset. We size the system based on how much electricity we expect your electric pool heater to consume. This is part art and part science. We need to know how you intend to heat your pool, to what temperature, when, and how often, and get a general sense of your expectations. We couple that with average heating costs from many years of experience and come up with a recommendation for how many solar panels you will need to offset those costs.
The solar panels will provide electricity year-round, even when you are not heating your pool. Excess solar power is seamlessly used for the other appliances in your home. You can even send excess power to the utility grid for full credit. When you are heavily heating your pool, you may not have enough solar electricity to meet the demand, but you will draw from the credits you gained in the warmer months, resulting in a net zero operating cost to heat your pool. And here’s the best part – it’s all quantifiable using a modern app! We show you how much electricity you are using to heat your pool and how much solar energy you have produced. You can manage your heating accordingly. If you want more heat than your solar panels have produced, no problem – you can just pay for the extra electricity, which should be very minimal. If you end up with more solar energy than needed, no problem – it will just go to reduce your household utility bill!
Here is an example of how that looks in the app:
This client’s pool pump starts up at 9:00 am. The electric heater ran for about an hour on this particular day until the pool reached the desired temperature. In this case, the client is monitoring consumption for both the pool heater and the variable speed pool pump. The SHEPH system was designed to produce energy to offset both. On this day, the SHEPH solar panels produced 21.0 kilowatt-hours of electricity, but only 8.7 kWh was needed to operate the pool. The excess solar energy (12.3 kWh) was used in the home for other electrical needs, creating a virtual “credit” toward times when the solar conditions are poor or more heating is necessary. At the end of the year, we expect that solar production will be roughly even with the pool operating costs.
The distinct advantage of this strategy, aside from being quantifiable, is that you can heat your pool any time you want, even at night or in cloudy weather. In the end, all that matters is how much solar energy you produce over time and how much energy you consume to heat the pool.
We size SHEPH systems based on how much we expect you to heat your pool. That comes after a conversation about your expectations. We can determine how much electricity the solar panels will produce over time, but you control how much energy you use. That’s why the monitoring system is so important. You can make informed decisions about your pool heating costs.
Our minimum SHEPH system size is six panels. The maximum size is 11 panels. This limit is based on how many panels you can put on a typical pool equipment circuit. However, the SHEPH system is expandable to whole home solar electricity, limited only by your roof space. The expansion path simply requires a new electrical circuit to the point of interconnection.
The Economics of SHEPH
Solar electric panels are slightly more expensive than solar pool heating panels up front. However, there is currently a 30% tax credit, which puts the two systems on pretty even footing when it comes to the net price. You will need to come up with a little more money upfront, but you should get that back at tax filing time. But the best selling point is the longevity. Solar electric panels are warranted for 25 years, whereas solar pool heating panels are warranted for 10-12 years. You need to expect to purchase two traditional solar pool heaters in the life of a solar electric system! Solar electricity systems also typically have virtually no maintenance costs. There is nothing to leak and no moving parts.
Now an electric pool heater itself will typically have a two to seven year parts and labor warranty and it is a mechanical system, so at some point it will need to be replaced. To counter this downside, for all SHEPH system owners we will provide a quality heat pump replacement unit at our material cost with no added labor charges to replace it any time within 10 years of installation! That is a very sweet deal.
There are more economic advantages. When you decide to not heat your pool, your solar panels still provide you with financial benefits. The electricity will simply go to offset other household electrical usage. We find that many people who are new pool owners use their pool frequently, but as the novelty fades they may not use their pool as often. And when you sell your home, buyers might not value pool heating the same way you do, but everyone likes a lower electricity bill.
One thing we used to say in the traditional solar pool heater industry is that it has no operating costs. That was true when everyone had single speed pool pumps. Nowadays, most people have variable speed pumps. Technically, we might need to increase the speed of your variable speed pump to move the ideal amount of water through the system, so you may have increased electricity costs with a traditional solar pool heater. We can no longer claim that there are NO added electricity costs for traditional solar pool heaters. This is another reason that SHEPH has economic advantages.
As electricity costs increase over time, your SHEPH system will just become more valuable. For every unit of electricity it produces, you will save even more on your utility bill as the system ages!
And because SHEPH uses the same solar electricity panels and electrical components as a whole home solar electricity system, it is completely modular and expandable, providing an upgrade path for when you are ready to offset more of your utility bill. You can even add battery backup later to provide power during a utility outage!
Can a solar pool heater do all that? Absolutely not. It is a one-trick pony, intended only to heat your pool whether you need it or not.
When Is Traditional Solar Pool Heating The Better Alternative
Don’t get us wrong. We love solar pool heating and it has its place. For people looking for the basics who are willing to live with whatever heat the sun can provide, traditional solar pool heating panels will work. We can’t make any guarantees about how well they will work on a particular day, month, and year, but they absolutely do work to heat your pool. You may be the type of person that is willing to forego swimming unless the conditions are right. If so, traditional solar pool heating might easily meet your needs.
Keep in mind that we need to get pool water from your pump to your panels. If your optimal roof is a long way from your pool equipment, you will need a lot of plumbing on your roof. This adds to the cost, risk of maintenance issues, and can be unsightly. On the other hand, if you have a beautiful south-facing roof and the pool equipment is right below it, that is an ideal situation that could make traditional solar pool heating more attractive as an option.
Keep in mind that traditional solar pool heating panels are typically up to 4 feet wide and 12 feet long. It can be challenging to fit these on hip roofs and small roof spaces, especially if there are vents or other obstructions. If you have a wide open roof with no obstruction, a gable roof, or other pristine location for these large panels, it might work out well. Otherwise, smaller solar electric panels, typically around 3.5 feet x 6.5 feet, fit better on most roofs.
We only need one sun to heat your pool, but sometimes all of the stars need to align to make traditional solar pool heating the better choice. Your roof and the proximity to pool equipment will tell us whether traditional solar pool heating is worth considering.
Is This a Novel Approach to Solar Pool Heating?
Some would say that this is nothing more than a solar electric (photovoltaic) system that is sized to approximate the electricity used by a pool heat pump. They would not be wrong. But we view this a little differently because of the way we interconnect everything. By using your existing pool wiring, we can quantify your pool heating costs (and pool pump costs if desired). This allows you to take control of your pool operating costs and decide whether and when pool heating is reasonable and justified based on your budget. Imagine knowing how much your pool heater costs to operate. As they say, knowing is half the battle. The other half is knowing how much solar energy you produce, which you will also know!
One major air conditioning manufacturer tried this years ago, but it never gained a lot of traction. We think they did a poor job of marketing it, and HVAC installers are really not well qualified to install solar panels or do electrical work. However, in Florida, some licensed solar contractors like us are qualified and experienced in doing both solar pool heating and solar electricity. So we can uniquely inform clients of what advantages there are of each pool heating option.
That brings up the question, can you install solar panels to offset my air conditioning? Of course! There really isn’t a lot of magic here. They key is monitoring the electricity usage of anything you want to offset, and determining how many solar panels it will take to do that.
We think the SHEPH system is a novel alternative approach to traditional solar pool heating and one that you should consider. The advantages are many, and the economics have put it on an even footing.