The Collector Size Paradox

Recently I presented the usual update of our system’s and measurement data documentation.The PDF document contains consolidated numbers for each year and month of operations:

Total output heating energy (incl. hot tap water), electrical input energy (incl. brine pump) and its ratio – the performance factor. Seasons always start at Sept.1, except the first season that started at Nov. 2011. For ‘special experiments’ that had an impact on the results see the text and the PDF linked above.

It is finally time to tackle the fundamental questions:

What id the impact of the size of the solar/air collector?


What is the typical output power of the collector?

In 2014 the Chief Engineer had rebuilt the collector so that you can toggle between 12m2 instead of 24m

TOP: Full collector – hydraulics as in seasons 2012, 2013. Active again since Sept. 2017. BOTTOM: Half of the collector, used in seasons 201414, 15, and 16.

Do we have data for seasons we can compare in a reasonable way – seasons that (mainly) differ by collector area?

We disregard seasons 2014 and 2016 – we had to get rid of a nearly 100 years old roof truss and only heated the ground floor with the heat pump.

Attic rebuild project – point of maximum destruction – generation of fuel for the wood stove.

Season 2014 was atypical anyway because of the Ice Storage Challenge experiment.

Then seasonal heating energy should be comparable – so we don’t consider the cold seasons 2012 and 2016.

Remaining warm seasons: 2013 – where the full collector was used – and 2015 (half collector). The whole house was heated with the heat pump; heating and energies and ambient energies were similar – and performance factors were basically identical. So we checked the numbers for the ice months Dec/Feb/Jan. Here a difference can be spotted, but it is far less dramatic than expected. For half the collector:

  • Collector harvest is about 10% lower
  • Performance factor is lower by about 0,2
  • Brine inlet temperature for the heat pump is about 1,5K lower

The upper half of the collector is used, as indicated by hoarfrost.

It was counter-intuitive, and I scrutinized Data Kraken to check it for bugs.

But actually we forgot that we had predicted that years ago: Simulations show the trend correctly, and it suffices to do some basic theoretical calculations. You only need to know how to represent a heat exchanger’s power in two different ways:

Power is either determined by the temperature of the fluid when it enters and exits the exchanger tubes …

[1]   T_brine_outlet – T_brine_inlet * flow_rate * specific_heat

… but power can also be calculated from the heat energy flow from brine to air – over the surface area of the tubes:

[2]   delta_T_brine_air * Exchange_area * some_coefficient

Delta T is an average over the whole exchanger length (actually a logarithmic average but using an arithmetic average is good enough for typical parameters). Some_coefficient is a parameter that characterized heat transfer for area or per length of a tube, so Exchange_area * Some_coefficient could also be called the total heat transfer coefficient.

If several heat exchangers are connected in series their powers are not independent as they share common temperatures of the fluid at the intersection points:

The brine circuit connecting heat pump, collector and the underground water/ice storage tank. The three ‘interesting’ temperatures before/after the heat pump, collector and tank can be calculated from the current power of the heat pump, ambient air temperature, and tank temperature.

When the heat pump is off in ‘collector regeneration mode’ the collector and the heat exchanger in the tank necessarily transfer heat at the same power  per equation [1] – as one’s brine inlet temperature is the other one’s outlet temperature, the flow rate is the same, and also specific heat (whose temperature dependence can be ignored).

But powers can also be expressed by [2]: Each exchanger has a different area, a different heat transfer coefficient, and different mean temperature difference to the ambient medium.

So there are three equations…

  • Power for each exchanger as defined by [1]
  • 2 equations of type [2], one with specific parameters for collector and air, the other for the heat exchanger in the tank.

… and from those the three unknowns can be calculated: Brine inlet temperatures, brine outlet temperature, and harvesting power. All is simple and linear, it is not a big surprise that collector harvesting power is proportional temperature difference between air and tank. The warmer the air, the more you harvest.

The combination of coefficient factors is the ratio of the product of total coefficients and their sum, like: \frac{f_1 * f_2}{f_1 + f_2} – the inverse of the sum of inverses.

This formula shows what one might you have guessed intuitively: If one of the factors is much bigger than the other – if one of the heat exchangers is already much ‘better’ than the others, then it does not help to make the better one even better. In the denominator, the smaller number in the sum can be neglected before and after optimization, the superior properties always cancel out, and the ‘bad’ component fully determines performance. (If one of the ‘factors’ is zero, total power is zero.) Examples for ‘bad’ exchangers: If the heat exchanger tubes in the tank are much too short or if a flat plat collector is used instead of an unglazed collector.

On the other hand, if you make a formerly ‘worse’ exchanger much better, the ratio will change significantly. If both exchangers have properties of the same order of magnitude – which is what we deign our systems for – optimizing one will change things for the better, but never linearly, as effects always cancel out to some extent (You increase numbers in both parts if the fraction).

So there is no ‘rated performance’ in kW or kW per area you could attach to a collector. Its effective performance also depends on the properties of the heat exchanger in the tank.

But there is a subtle consequence to consider: The smaller collector can deliver the same energy and thus ‘has’ twice the power per area. However, air temperature is given, and [2] must hold: In order to achieve this, the delta T between brine and air necessarily has to increase. So brine will be a bit colder and thus the heat pump’s Coefficient of Performance will be a bit lower. Over a full season including the warm periods of heating hot water only the effect is less pronounced – but we see a more significant change in performance data and brine inlet temperature for the ice months in the respective seasons.

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