Tag Archives: thermal mass

Thermal mass and passive solar design

In construction, thermal mass refers to heavy, dense building components with a high capacity to absorb, store and release heat, for example—logs, masonry, concrete and adobe.  These materials are used in the building envelope to provide structure, but their thermal properties mean that they can also provide other benefits. In this first article of a two-part series on thermal mass, we’ll address how thermal mass can be combined with passive solar design to reduce building heat and cooling load.  Next week we’ll examine the effect of thermal mass for more conventionally designed homes in three different locations.

Passive solar design uses a combination of building features along with the sun’s energy to provide heating in a home.  Typically, a home’s orientation combined with south-facing windows and a large thermal mass are designed to collect, store and distribute solar energy during the heating season. During the summer, features such as deciduous trees or awnings can block solar energy from entering a house and causing overheating. Many homes in Alaska use passive solar design to provide part of their heating needs during the year.

In passive solar design, there is no control system that dictates the movement of heat energy, as with a boiler or furnace.  To understand how this might work, picture a house with a concrete floor in a south-facing room on a sunny spring day in Fairbanks.  As sun’s radiation enters the room through the windows, it warms up the room and the thermal mass of the concrete floor absorbs this energy throughout the day.


At night, the situation reverses.  With no incoming solar radiation, the heating system will need to work to keep the temperature of the room at the set point. However, as the room’s ambient temperature drops below the temperature of the thermal mass, the stored heat energy in the massive floor radiates back into the room, stabilizing the temperature and delaying when the heating system needs to switch on. In effect, the thermal mass acts as a heat battery, storing solar radiation until the sun disappears and then releasing it back into the room. A properly designed passive solar system can result in energy savings for a home because the thermal mass can store excess heat during the day and allow it to offset nighttime heating loads.

Although thermal mass is often in the form of a concrete floor, there are other ways to incorporate it into a home—such as a wall that receives lots of sun or a masonry bench or shelves in the sun’s path.

As the days lengthen during the spring and summer, the large south-facing windows in the above example can allow too much solar radiation to enter a room and cause it to overheat. Some people install awnings or curtains, or plant deciduous trees to shade the windows. Thermal mass also helps prevent overheating, especially in early spring before deciduous trees have leafed out.  A room that might have become uncomfortably warm during the day instead experiences less rise in temperature as the solar radiation is absorbed by the thermal mass. This energy is released later in the evening when outdoor temperatures are cooler. Overall, the thermal mass acts to smooth out temperature swings in the room, enhancing indoor comfort.




How can I use thermal storage in my home?

 A 5,000 gallon tank acts as thermal storage in a home heated by a solar thermal system. Photo Courtesy Reina LLC.

A 5,000 gallon tank acts as thermal storage in a home heated by a solar thermal system. Photo Courtesy Reina LLC.

CCHRC recently completed a study on how you can use thermal storage as part of your home heating system.

Thermal storage has recently gained interest in Alaska as it has the potential to increase the efficiency of heating appliances, enhance the use of renewable energy in cold climates, and reduce emissions of certain appliances like wood boilers. It is most suited for renewable energy systems such as solar thermal, geothermal and biomass, but can be adapted to a wide variety of heat sources. The report looks at different design considerations and describes several examples in homes around Alaska.

Thermal storage is a common concept. Many households use water storage tanks to provide domestic hot water, which can range from just a couple gallons to more than 100 gallons. Thermal storage also can be used in space heating systems to store heat for a certain period of time. For example, storing the heat from solar collectors in a buffer tank to use at night; storing heat from a wood boiler in a water tank to allow for a hotter, more efficient burn; or storing heat in the ground to harvest later with a ground source heat pump. In each case, thermal storage can be thought of as a “heat battery” because it holds energy to be used later. In this way, it can enable a heat source with intermittent delivery (like the sun or wind) to still meet demand.

Every thermal storage system needs three basic components: a heat source, a storage medium to store the heat (such as a tank of water, rocks or soil), and a discharge method (heat exchanger) to distribute the heat. Technically, any heat source can be used to charge a thermal storage material, however you should select the fuel and storage material based on availability, cost and compatibility with your home’s needs.

Also, many factors will drive the design of a thermal storage system for your home — such as your heating appliance, your distribution system, your heating demand, your lifestyle and many others. The design of the system also will depend on whether the system is being installed in a new home or being retrofitted into an existing one, as retrofits must accommodate the existing distribution system and available space in the home.

There are various applications of thermal storage throughout Alaska. A net-zero heating home built in Fairbanks several years ago uses solar thermal collectors and a masonry heater to charge a 5,000-gallon insulated water tank that provides heat to a radiant floor system.

The tank also heats domestic hot water in the house.

A different system, located at CCHRC, uses a wood-fired boiler to charge an insulated 1,500-gallon tank of water in the lab. The goal was to fire the boiler hot and fast, which produces more Btu and fewer emissions, and save the heat to use when it’s needed, rather than damping down the boiler so the fire lasts longer.

The water tank heats 1,900 square feet of lab space in the building. The tank was sized to hold as many Btu as the boiler could produce in one firing per day and to provide enough heat for the entire lab over a full winter day.

If you’re considering a thermal storage system, the first step is to consider what your goal is. Do you want to use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels? Are you looking for short-term (a few hours or overnight) or seasonal storage? Systems that are recharged daily are smaller and less expensive than seasonal systems.

Check out the report for an overview of various types of systems used in cold climates, case studies in Alaska, and tips for designing your own system.

Report: www.cchrc.org/docs/reports/thermal_storage.pdf