Designing solar hot air collectors

Engineering design is a lot of fun. The variety of engineering systems students can realistically design and build in classrooms is, however, limited by the constraints of time, resources, and student preparedness.

Currently, construction toys and computer programming are perhaps the most frequently adopted student projects for learning engineering design. These applications cover a number of domains such as robotics and software engineering. 

In our Engineering Energy Efficiency project, we have been working on adding a new option of engineering project that students and teachers can choose to learn and teach engineering.

This Green Building Kit we are developing needs only paper, cardstock, foam board, among other typical office supplies and widely available sensors. Yet, it will allow students to design, build, and test energy-efficient model houses with considerable green features.


An example I am working on is a hot air collector (HAC, also known as the Trombe wall). This is actually very easy to construct (hence a popular DIY project for those who are "green"-minded and handy). It is not difficult for students to add an HAC unit to the sun-facing wall of a model house.

In order for students to have fun with this design challenge, we need to show them that there are a variety of things that they can learn, emulate, test, and invent.

HAC units are usually installed to the part of the sun-facing wall that is not occupied by windows. Windows are necessary to a house because they let light in, but they generally lose more heat than an insulated wall. An insulated wall keeps the heat inside the house, but it does not do anything to collect the heat from the sun and give it to the house. The idea of hot air collector is to use the surface area of the wall that is exposed to the sun to collect some solar energy for warming up the house.

If you think about this engineering design task, it is really a problem about the optimal use of the sun-facing wall surface. So where should we put windows and HAC units and what is the best way of using them? The above images show a variety of designs. Click each image to enlarge it and see the details of each design.

The fourth design combines the benefits of windows and HAC units. It is basically a large HAC unit with the middle part replaced by a window. On the one hand, sunlight still can shine into the house through the two layers of glazing (we automatically have a double-pane window). On the other hand, as the HAC unit is tall, the convective heat exchange between the HAC unit and the room will be more significant. I haven't seen an HAC design like this, so this is my little "invention." Well, I am pretty sure some guy has thought of this before and there is probably a pending patent for this, but never mind about this, I am just demonstrating how an engineering design process in the classroom could be made more inventive.

Our next step is to make it possible for students to add these green architectural elements (HAC is just one of them) in one of our flagship products: Energy3D. Energy3D already has a powerful heliodon for solar design. 

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