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What is a solar greenhouse? In contrast to traditional all-glass or all-plastic greenhouses, which often rely on fossil fuels to grow year-round, solar greenhouses can create warm year-round growing environments using only the power of the sun, natural materials and energy-efficient design.
Here are the seven basic elements of solar greenhouse design. By following these, you can create a naturally abundant, self-sufficient growing oasis, allowing you to grow more with less energy and hassle. For more on designing your own solar greenhouse, see The Year-Round Solar Greenhouse: How to design and build a net-zero-energy greenhouse , which includes how-to info as well as many case studies for tailoring your structure to any climate. This is where solar greenhouse design begins: the sun.
The sun is not only your source of light for growth in the greenhouse, but your source of heat.
Thus, if growing year-round in cold climates, you need to capture enough solar energy through your glazing to heat the greenhouse. Glazing is just a word for transparent materials, such as glass or clear rigid plastics. The sun moves higher and lower throughout the year, but it is always South.
A very small percentage of light comes directly from the North, and thus these sides are better off insulated. Solar greenhouse design depends not just on capturing enough solar energy, but trapping it in order to keep the greenhouse warm enough during cold periods. Solar greenhouse design depends on adding insulation on every surface that is not needed for light collection.
This means the entire North wall should be fully insulated. These only get direct sun for a few hours a day and thus can lose more heat than they gain, depending on your location and climate. How much insulation is right? It all depends on your climate and site. Most people think of a greenhouse as four walls and a roof, but they miss a very critical fifth plane: the ground.
The topsoil freezes just like the air, and without an insulating barrier, those freezing temps will enter the greenhouse through the floor.
Moreover, by insulating around the perimeter of the greenhouse, you not only prevent heat loss through the floor, but you also couple the greenhouse to a large store of thermal mass underground. Like other materials — water, concrete, and stone — soil acts as thermal mass, storing energy and slowly releasing it, like a battery. Connecting the greenhouse to this insulated mass helps naturally even out temperature swings.
There are a few different methods for insulating underground.
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The jist is to install insulation around the perimeter of the greenhouse to create a pocket of insulated soil underneath. This pocked is connected to the soil deep underground, which maintains a steady temperature year-round often between F in most US climates.
By insulating around the perimeter, your greenhouse has just tapped into this source of steady year-round temperatures and large store of thermal mass. See more on underground, or earth-sheltered greenhouses here. Solar greenhouse design — and passive solar design in general — relies on the premise of strategically controlling light and heat gain. Namely, you want to maximize light when it is absolutely needed the winter and reduce light when it is abundant and creates too much heat the summer. In the winter, light comes in at a low angle and in the summer it is much higher in the sky note these angles vary by your latitude.
Thus, on vertical South surfaces, you want to use a high light-transmittance material, such as glass, to absorb as much of this light and heat as possible. You do sacrifice insulation at night, but at this time of year light and heat gain are the top priority. Thermal mass should be used to store some of this heat for temperature regulation. You can also angle the South face of your greenhouse so that it absorbs more light and less is refracted off as shown in the commercial solar greenhouse below.
More on choosing the best angle for your greenhouse glazing in this blog.