Detail of the Month: Passive Solar Design 
Detail Of The Month

Types of Passive Solar Designs

Passive solar designs can generally be classified as one of three types, depending on where the solar heat is collected relative to where it is used: direct gain, indirect gain or isolated gain. The basic components are illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Direct Gain Systems

In a direct gain space, solar energy penetrates directly into the space where it is stored and used. Direct gain systems are the simplest to install since only windows and mass are required. Figure 1a shows the proper use of thermal mass in the walls and on the floor. Heat is collected and distributed by transmission through the windows, absorption at the mass surface, and convection and radiation within the room. Using sufficient thermal mass improves performance and comfort.

Indirect Gain

With indirect gain, a thermal storage material is used between the glazing and the space to be heated to collect, store and distribute solar radiation. An example is the trombe wall (see Figure 1b). A trombe wall uses a south-facing masonry wall faced with glazing placed 3/4 to 2 inch (19-51 mm) from the masonry. Heat from sunlight passing through the glass is absorbed by the masonry and slowly transferred through the wall to the interior space. Shading and/or ventilation are used to prevent unwanted heat gains during warmer periods. Vents at the top and bottom of a trombe wall are sometimes included to set up a convective current for passive cooling.

Isolated Gain

Isolated gain systems, such as sunspaces, collect solar energy in an area that can be closed off from the rest of the building. In addition to thermal mass floors, sunspaces typically use concrete masonry walls for thermal storage and as a heat transfer “valve” between the sunspace and the living or working space. Sunspace heat can be moved through vents with back-draft dampers to prevent improper flow. A fan, doors and/or windows can also be used to circulate warm air to the living space. Because of the potential for overheating, care must be used when designing with sloped (i.e.,overhead) glazings. Vertical glazings and pop-up skylights can be used with only a small decrease in performance.Vertical glazing is less expensive than sloped glazing, and overheating is more easily prevented.

For more information on passive solar using concrete masonry, see TEK 6-5A. Go to for links to sponsoring member e-tek sites.