The actual amount of surface area that you will need to cover with solar cells will depend on the size of your pool, howl warm you want the pool to be, as well as the amount of direct sunlight that that area receives. It will also be critically important whether you use a cover nightly on the pool. Without a cover nightly on the swimming pool almost all heat generated from the solar heater will be lost.
Manufactured solar panels are more efficient per given area then most homemade solar heaters. Mostly this boils down to surface area contact between the water and the heat exchanger itself. Manufactured solar heaters for swimming pools take the water from usually a pipe and reduce it down to one quarter of an inch or less. Most homemade solar heaters use half inch or inch pipe at the least. The more surface contact area the water has with the heated source, the greater the effectiveness of the solar heater.
You can either build a solar heater from scratch or you can buy a manufactured solar panel to heat your pool. Usually if you buy a manufactured product you will need to buy multiple solar cells in order to heat your pool. The amounts of cells that you will need will depend on the size of your pool and the solar panels that you are buying will have this information.
Alternatively you could build your own solar heater out of ABS, PVC or copper pipes. All you need to do is run a grid of plumbing on a hot surface such as a shingle roof. The pipes should be small in diameter to increase the surface area contact with the heat exchanger. In this example the surface of the pipes themselves are the exchanger as the heat from the sun keeps the inside of the pipes well the water on the inside absorbs that heat.
To install the system you will need to tap into the existing circulation system for the pool. You would attach the pipes into the circulation system so that you remove water after it has been filtered to ensure that larger debris does not get stuck in your solar heater. It would also be a good idea to add any chlorine that you are adding to your system after the water as has been heated to avoid sending concentrated chemicals through the heater itself. By adding valves such as ball valves, you can achieve control over the amount of water that you are sending at any given time. This will also allow you to turn off the solar heater altogether as well as provide a point for drainage should you need to winterize your system.
Many solar heaters are installed as a part of a control system that uses either temperature or the time of day to turn on and off the heater. It is not a good idea to cycle water through a solar heater if there is no sun as this will actually reverse the process stealing heat away from the pool. Mechanical actuators are added to the isolation valves which achieve a level of automation. This can be controlled through timers or by manually adjusting the settings for your control system.
It is important to note the limitations of pool solar heaters in that they do not prolong the swimming season. A gas-fired heater can extend your swimming season up by a few months however solar heaters will not do this. They are simply not powerful enough to overcome the cold temperatures however they do make mid season swimming much more enjoyable.
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