Making use of solar energy is by no means a new concept. But the increased emphasis in recent decades on making more efficient use of solar energy has caused homeowners to think seriously about optimizing solar usage, both for saving money and preserving the environment. If you are not quite ready to make the leap into a self-sustaining solar energy system, you can still benefit from the power of the sun. From no-cost to low-cost, the ways for homeowners to harness the sunshine are myriad.
Adapt your home to seasonal sunlight. When the heat of the summer begins to wane, open the curtains and remove outdoor awnings that block sunlight from coming inside. Passive solar energy, the kind that streams through your windows unbidden, is free, requires no special equipment and is an excellent source of natural light and heat. According to the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, "Depending on the climate and the design, as much as 100 percent of a building's heating needs can be provided by the sun" (see References 1). By making sure you cover the south-facing windows when the sun goes down, you can retain some of that heat throughout the evening.
Retrofit your home to maximize passive solar usage. If you have a south-facing room with plenty of windows, you can optimize winter heat absorption with a couple of inexpensive retrofits. Because darker-hued surfaces absorb more solar heat, consider repainting the walls of a sun-filled room a dark color that has more capacity for collecting and then radiating natural warmth to cooler adjacent areas. Masonry has greater thermal capacitance -- it absorbs and retains solar heat longer -- than wallboard or wood, so consider creating a brick, tile or designer stone wall or floor in an area of your home where the most sunlight streams in. During the night, these materials gradually release heat as the air temperature in the room falls. (See References 2.)
Outdoors, you can harness the seasonal abundance of solar energy to benefit your household year-round. In spring, give your garden a jump start by placing cold frames over young plants to magnify nurturing rays of the sun while protecting the plants from nighttime frost. In summertime, preserve your bounty for later use by turning the cold frames into solar food dryers. Use passive solar energy to heat water outdoors for free, refreshing baths and showers.
Incorporate other solar power usage in your household routines for a measurable savings in grid-power bills over the long term. Your electric clothes dryer is second only to your refrigerator in energy consumption, adding an average of $85 to your annual utility bill, as of March 2011 (see References 3). You can pare that cost down considerably by using a clothesline in sunlight whenever possible. Making common-sense choices like this to use solar energy in your household saves you money and conserves commercially generated energy.
I have an MFA degree in Creative Writing and am a published poet who has received several poetry awards. I have established a reputation as an environmental activist, both through the group I co-founded -- see alternativeone.org -- and through a series of op-ed pieces in Montana newspapers. I have written extensively on alternative energy, recycling and endangered species.