Episode-798- Steven Harris on Solar Heating Systems — 40 Comments

  1. Favorite quote on the show :

    “Oh, I have a book about that”. That made me laugh. Steven Harris has a book about EVERYTHING!!! I love Sunshine to Dollars, it’s so low tech and do-able. Guy is a genius.

    Okay, so black plastic bags over your windows isn’t high decor, but in an emergency situation, pure simplicity. And its a place to start tinkering with fixed panels on hinges, etc.

  2. A great idea hit me while listening. I’ve heard many stories of people being stranded in their car and they freeze to death, they could have used their car as a heat trap, and then covered the car at night to trap more heat. I would have never thougth of this before this interview.

  3. I built 1.5 inch thick foamboard covers with velcro tabs to hold them to the window frame for my windows a few years ago. They work great but take care! I used to leave them in place during the day if it was cloudy figuring heat gain wouldn’t be very good due to the weather. If it cleared up while I was gone the heat build-up between the glass and the cover was extreme. It literally burned the vinyl windows brown and warped the frame!

  4. The whole idea of making alcohol has been on my mind. For you N. Americans, this is what I learned: Making alcohol is illegal without a permit, no matter what you intend to use it for. That being said, how can anyone catch you?
    This still also comes from (Probably not the manufacturer) and is available in a bunch of places. I’m guessing it’s made in China, not that I’m against that. I would like to get one, just for the heck of it.

    • @Adam S. No you do not need a permit to make alcohol in the US you need a permit to distill it. Such permits though are free.

  5. Good stuff! And I can even understand some of it in spite of a completely non-functioning left brain.

    Just placed my order for the three book deal using my MSB discount. The shipping sux, but that’s unavoidable and I plan to recoup all my money with energy savings.

  6. Why would the black plastic create more heat than letting the sunlight heat the objects in the room? I have done the plastic in the windows but I always wondered if it really increased the heat or not.

    • Ron, the plastic doesn’t create any heat, but the black plastic absorbs more energy from the light than white ( which reflects most of it), and then that energy defaults to heat as the easiest form of energy for it to turn into. Remember nature is crazy powerful but lazy 😛

      • Yes the plastic is heated by the sun, but I would have thought the light coming in the window would bounce around inside your home until it got totally absorbed. I suppose some could exit the window and the plastic would prevent that.

  7. Jack, I think somewhat doubtful silver coins were stolen…. Most of the time it is people that don’t know how to send things though the mail. You cannot simply drop a coin or keys or whatever in a plain envelope. Letters go though automated machines with lots of rollers any of the above get forced out of the envelope and it is impossible to know where it came from with hundreds of thousand going though the machines each evening. A small padded envelope is actually required and recommended….

    • @Ray, I wish that was true we have experienced plenty of clear theft from the post office. PLENTY! Including having boxes cut with a razor knife, stuff removed and then they actually taped the box back up with official US Postal service Priority Mail tape.

  8. Living in the PNW (washington state) I often wonder how many of these ideas would work here. We get so little sunshine in the winter and lots of rain very little snow or freezing temps. Ok Oct-Feb. What ideas would work best for cloudy days? If any.

    Also we have a front porch that has a rotting roof. I was thinking instead of replacing the roof with shingles, I would turn it into another greenhouse / sunroom. It is a southern exposure that is shaded on and off during the day by jumbo fir trees that are east and some west of the porch (most on the neighbors property a good 100 yds away). Was wondering if it would be best to leave the porch floor/decking (it is skirted) or take it out. I have read that if you have a floor like that the cold air will sink down. Leaving more heat at plant level (windows to house level also) . Or would it be best to take the decking out to expose the soil?

    I am also thinking by leaving it there I could draw cooler air from under the decking to help cool when it gets hot. Plant vines to help shade and cool or shade cloth . Wind blows from the east and west. So very easy to vent and blow out any hot air.

    Not really looking to plant into the soil mainly need a place to start seeds, have plants in pots and give more light into the house so I can grow some indoors. Plus having a nice dry place to get out of the rain but still be outside. Gotta get my vit D

    Already have sliding glass door glass double pane 8′. Would start with it 10 -12′ long and its about 6′ deep. There is power out there lights and a water spigot (typical front porch).

    • Roundabouts,

      I imagine if you leave the floor in place without insulation you will lose heat by conduction and convection in the winter. The ground being wet and cold.

      I’m in the Pacific Northwest as well, on the wet side (west of cascades) but I think clouds are the limiting factor rather than temps. As temps fall into the 30’s, there would still seem to be some considerable upside to modest solar, IMHO, at least for greenhouses.

      If feasible, I’d like to try some of his heating projects to reduce our heating cost (electric furnace, added a wood stove last year, renting now so not wanting to do truly big upgrades).

      I’m going to do some more research soon to better understand the science and limits (eagerly awaiting these solar books anyhow, as I think it will be good to learn more about this).
      Steven talked about things “seeing the sky”, which I took to mean that the absorber would in some sense come to equilibrium with whatever it was looking at (sun would be better than clouds in that case…). Anyhow, I figure this isn’t all of the story, since you should get some gain from the transparent substance that passes visible light but blocks IR (just like a greenhouse).
      I am hopeful but need to do a bit more engineering-type research to figure out what that gain might be.

      Anyhow, what a great show. I love all the Steven Harris episodes. Heck, I generally love TSP…

  9. I have been buying books from Steven for years now. I have never seen or heard of any other place/person that has the knowledge that you can get from Steven. I would love to work with him to help and learn. Please keep him coming back often for more shows. If there is anyone in this world that can make a change and is willing to give out so much for so little, it is STEVEN! Please post his other podcast’s so we can go back and listen again. Thanks again for having Steven on your show.

  10. Great interview as always. This was the first time I felt like the subject matter wasn’t way over my head, most likely because he discussed simpler ideas than usual.

    I would love to see some videos! The ones I found online were good but I always want more.


  11. Great show, I have had the Alcohol can be a Gas book for a while. I went on Steve’s site to get the three book deal, but was unable to find an MSB discount code for Steve’s site listed in the MSB benifits page.

    • @Ed the MSB discount is for MSB members only. The code to get it on Steve’s site is in the MSB (Members Support Brigade) not on Steve’s site.

  12. I live in Maine, gets real cold with windchill evan colder like -30 or more at times. Can I heat my home some how with out solar panels that cost to much, for me living paycheck to paycheck. Mind you, not a lot of sun here in winter. Also would like to hear your comment on the idea (the guy in Washington state aka: Roundabouts) had posted about his front porch. I too have a front porch I could do something with if it would help heat my home or I could start plants in. Thank you for your time.

  13. My experience with passive solar has not been very good in northern Indiana. Growing up dad installed a solar collector on the whole south side of the house. It heated the air that was ducted through the house and to a heat exchanger to heat water. I was used 2-3 years before he quit using the system. It was eventually removed completely. He said that the only time you had heat was when you didn’t want it.
    I also rented a home that had a small 4×8 passive heater on the wall. The thermostat only kicked the fan on one to three hours a day ,if there was sun. If you could feel any heat it was only in a small area in front of the vent. I can’t say I saw any savings from it.

  14. I manufactured hot air panels in the 70s. Lived off the grid for 30 years. I have a different point to view. Even the best hot air panel won’t pay for the energy it takes to make it within decades.

    Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply. There is an illusion of looking at the trees and not the forest in the “Renewable” energy world. Not seeing the systems, machineries, fossil fuel uses and environmental assaults that create the devices to capture the sun, wind and biofuels allows myopia and false claims.
    ERoEI is only a part of the the equation. Each of these processes and machines may only add a miniscule amount of energy to the final component of solar or wind devices. How else would we do it? There is always the old way. Who of us will go down first?
    A story in pictures and diagrams:
    From Machines making machines making machines

    • Yea I don’t buy it and I doubt you read Steve’s book. Given the book demonstrates using recycled and free materials to build these systems the energy used to make the raw materials was already used for another purpose. These materials are now being used a second time vs. sitting in a land fill. With that fact your argument becomes totally moot!

  15. In addition.

    Solar and Wind are not renewable. The energy from solar and from wind is of course renewable but the devices used to capture the energy of the sun and wind is not renewable. Nor are they green or sustainable.

    An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. They reproduce themselves. The human-made equipment used to capture solar energy or wind energy is not renewable. There is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment. The many components used in devices to capture solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and biomass energy – aluminum, glass, copper, rare metals, petroleum in many forms to name a few – are fossil fuel dependent.

    Wind used by sailing ships and old style “dutch” wind machines is renewable and sustainable.
    From: Energy in the Real World with pictures of proof.

  16. ber? Not sure what you don’t buy. No, I didn’t read his book, so you are right on that point. The efficiency of these homemade systems is fairly low but go for it.
    As long as we can pick from the carcass of civilization in the form of land fills and whatever, we will. Of course the first line of defense is to stop producing crap.
    If you are challenging my assessment of “renewables” then you need to do more research.

    • One can always construct a sufficiently perfect requirement or criterion such that anything is imperfect.
      Although use of plastics and glass may not be, in the general case, perfectly renewable, using spare materials to greatly decrease fossil fuel consumption is a big plus (as Jack has already pointed out).
      Moreover, I might argue, from a practical standpoint, that cutting down huge heating bills provides more personal freedom (from debt, wage slavery, etc) that can be channeled into improving sustainability in many ways. Especially for prepper-types.
      Not the least of these ways might be increasing non-participation in a system that perpetuates “non-renewable” practices…

  17. What about using a large-screen TV fesnel lens to concentrate heat on a ceramic/finned stone or collector, and then blow the hot air into the house from there?
    Have you tried that?



  19. dk1138 great input. b ut heat rises and it is my understanding that 30 feet down the the temp is the average temp plus one or two degrees. using heat pipes for make up air makes sense and if you ciculated attic air in pipes below your house during the summer you would bring up the temp. there are earth houses covered with insulation extending 50 feet beyond the foot print and the average temp is rising every year.

  20. Hey Jack, I wonder what Steven’s thoughts are on Thermosiphoning Air Panels (TAPs)? I’ve come across them in numerous books on passive solar heating. They’re basically a similar principle to the window heaters Steve talks about except they permanently mount on the side of your house, with an intake through the wall at the bottom and an outflow through the wall at the top. They work kind of like a Trombe wall but without the “heat sink” capability from thermal mass. So long as you have a south-facing side of your house, they can provide continuous passive solar heat.

    Also key to TAPs is to put a damper on the bottom intake, only allowing for one-way flow — otherwise you’ll get cold air cycling through at night!

    I’ve toyed with ideas around putting a louvered vent on the outside in combination with blocking off the hot-air vent into the house in order to allow the hot air to flow out, creating a vacuum effect on the south side of the house, pulling cooler air from the northern side and downstairs (passive cooling). I’m planning to actually build one (or possibly two) on my house this summer.

  21. Jack, why not put the door of the green house on the rear? You could insulate the back , including the door. Old solid doors are cheaper than glass doors.
    In fact you could have much more clear glass up front than you do now. Just a thought.

  22. Echoing previous posters, please ask Steven how successful passive solar heating is in the Pacific Northwest. I’m intrigued, but not optimistic about heating in the cold, cloudy winter.

    Thanks Jack

  23. Jack,
    If you want your cover to last a long time, get a roll of the 3 or 4 inch strapping from Greenhouse supply(or Farmtec). Run it BETWEEN the pipe bows and secure to the wood base. Snug them up before securing. This will prevent wind billowing and the cover from rubbing on the bows.
    Not my idea, got it from the WY county extension service.

  24. Jack,
    Don’t forget the automatic vent(s). Unless you want to grow it AND cook it before you pick it.


  25. Thinking about painting the inside of a solar heater as well as a lining of flat rocks using black spray paint. Is there something better to line the inner compartment or would you at least recommend low VOC paint to avoid fumes?

  26. Wondering why double pane LowE glass w/argon gas is suggested to be better than a single pain glass with no coating. I thought argon filled and coatings were made to avoid heat and infared transfer through the panes.

    thanks guys

    • Helium and hydrogen are the lightest gases and bounce around the fastest and thus transmit heat. I would think that the heaviest gas you can put in there at the lowest pressure would be better. But what do I know. Carbon Tet , although toxic to breath is pretty damn heavy.