Sources of Heat, Life, and Everything

Same procedure as every summer: Science and tech blogging comes to a halt, and the daring ‘internet artist’ is summoned. But also unorthodox avant-garde art is rooted in down-to-earth engineering.

In summer elkement leaves the programmer’s cave (a bit) and sees the sun. The local elkemental microcosmos is a fully functional biosphere-2-like ecosystem with lots of life-forms. They interact with each other – and they interact with the collector and the ice storage tank. In 2018 it’s time for a retrospective!

As soon as the collctor was built, the flying descendants of the dinosaurs occupied it. As the white spots show, it has an important function:

Latrine seat

This is also a modern, innovative ecosphere: We provide co-working space and meeting rooms, also for the slimiest of life-forms.

The collector has obviously a positive impact on any life-form – not only the faunal:

According to a questionable theory byy crackpot hobby scientists, this can be explained by the collector’s true core: It is made up from life-forms itself – gigantic worms.

Taming the worms

We also had ghastly apparition of a very rare life-form integrated with the collector: The Solar Scorpion:

Solar Scorpion

Let’s not forget the ice storage part of the heat source: It is every bit as interesting as the collector for the technically savvy life-forms:


Now and then you can spot even human life-forms within the storage tank:

Irgendwer im Eisspeicher

The storage tank is giving something back in an eternal circle of life: Excess water is drained from the tank – and it is said to boost the vegetables!

Belebtes Eisspeicherwasser

This posting is like all the other soporific TV documentaries about animals roaming beautiful landscapes. Nature is cruel. Also the ice storage tank took its death toll.

Suicide or murder?

But life-forms strike back … and they target the heat source. Never underestimate an aggressive tree:

Fallen tree damages collector (in a storm)

Fortunately most living beings come in peace; some are particularly likeable and intelligent. Recently the collector had a surprise audit:

Collektor Inspector

Collektor Inspection

Finally the elkement knows what smart monitoring actually is:

Smart monitoring

Cooling Potential

I had an interesting discussion about the cooling potential of our heat pump system – in a climate warmer than ours.

Recently I’ve shown data for the past heating season, including also passive cooling performance:

After the heating season, tank temperature is limited to 10°C as long as possible – the collector is bypassed in the brine circuit (‘switched off’). But with the beginning of May, the tank temperature starts to rise though as the tank is heated by the surrounding ground.

Daily cooling energy hardly exceeds 20kWh, so the average cooling power is always well below 1kW. This is much lower than the design peak cooling load – the power you would need to cool the rooms to 20°C at noon on a hot in summer day (rather ~10kW for our house.)

The blue spikes are single dots for a few days, and they make the curve look more impressive than it really is: We could use about 600kWh of cooling energy – compared to about 15.000kWh for space heating. (Note that I am from Europe – I use decimal commas and thousands dots :-))

There are three ways of ‘harvesting cold’ with this system:

(1) When water in the hygienic storage tank (for domestic hot water) is heated up in summer, the heat pump extracts heat from the underground tank.

Per summer month the heat pump needs about 170kWh of input ambient energy from the cold tank – for producing an output heating energy of about 7kWh per day – 0,3kW on average for two persons, just in line with ‘standards’. This means that nearly all the passive cooling energy we used was ‘produced’ by heating hot water.

You can see the effect on the cooling power available during a hot day here (from this article on passive cooling in the hot summer of 2015)

Blue arrows indicate hot water heating time slots – for half an hour a cooling power of about 4kW was available. But for keeping the room temperature at somewhat bearable levels, it was crucial to cool ‘low-tech style’ – by opening the windows during the night (Vent)

(2) If nights in late spring and early summer are still cool, the underground tank can be cooled via the collector during the night.

In the last season we gained about ~170kWh in total in that way – so only as much as by one month of hot water heating. The effect also depends on control details: If you start cooling early in the season when you ‘actually do not really need it’ you can harvest more cold because of the higher temperature difference between tank and cold air.

(3) You keep the cold or ice you ‘create’ during the heating season.

The set point tank temperature for summer  is a trade-off between saving as much cooling energy as possible and keeping the Coefficient of Performance (COP) reasonably high also in summer – when the heat sink temperature is 50°C because the heat pump only heats hot tap water.

20°C is the maximum heat source temperature allowed by the heat pump vendor. The temperature difference to the set point of 10°C translates to about 300kWh (only) for 25m3 of water. But cold is also transferred to ground and thus the effective store of cold is larger than the tank itself.

What are the options to increase this seasonal storage of cold?

  • Turning the collector off earlier. To store as much ice as possible, the collector could even be turned off while still in space heating mode – as we did during the Ice Storage Challenge 2015.
  • Active cooling: The store of passive cooling energy is limited – our large tank only contains about 2.000kWh even if frozen completely; If more cooling energy is required, there has to be a cooling backup. Some brine/water heat pumps[#] have a 4-way-valve built into the refrigeration cycle, and the roles of evaporator and condenser can be reversed: The room is cooled and the tank is heated up. In contrast to passive cooling the luke-warm tank and the surrounding ground are useful. The cooling COP would be fantastic because of the low temperature difference between source and sink – it might actually be so high that you need special hydraulic precautions to limit it.

The earlier / the more often the collector is turned off to create ice for passive cooling, the worse the heating COP will be. On the other hand, the more cold you save, the more economic is cooling later:

  1. Because the active cooling COP (or EER[*]) will be higher and
  2. Because the total cooling COP summed over both cooling phases will be higher as no electrical input energy is needed for passive cooling – only circulation pumps.

([*] The COP is the ratio of output heating energy and electrical energy, and the EER – energy efficiency ratio – is the ratio of output cooling energy and electrical energy. Using kWh as the unit for all energies and assuming condenser and evaporator are completely ‘symmetrical’, the EER or a heat pump used ‘in reverse’ is its heating COP minus 1.)

So there would be four distinct ways / phases of running the system in a season:

  1. Standard heating using collector and tank. In a warmer climate, the tank might not even be frozen yet.
  2. Making ice: At end of the heating season the collector might be turned off to build up ice for passive cooling. In case of an ’emergency’ / unexpected cold spell of weather, the collector could be turned on intermittently.
  3. Passive cooling: After the end of the heating season, the underground tank cools the buffer tank (via its internal heat exchanger spirals that containing cool brine) which in turn cools the heating floor loops turned ‘cooling loops’.
  4. When passive cooling power is not sufficient anymore, active cooling could be turned on. The bulk volume of the buffer tank is cooled now directly with the heat pump, and waste heat is deposited in the underground tank and ground. This will also boost the underground heat sink just right to serve as the heat source again in the upcoming heating season.

In both cooling phases the collector could be turned on in colder nights to cool the tank. This will work much better in the active cooling phase – when the tank is likely to be warmer than the air in the night. Actually, night-time cooling might be the main function the collector would have in a warmer climate.


[#] That seems to be valid mainly/only for domestic brine-water heat pumps from North American or Chinese vendors; they offer the reversing valve as a common option. European vendors rather offer a so called Active Cooling box, which is a cabinet that can be nearly as the heat pump itself. It contains a bunch of valves and heat exchangers that allow for ‘externally’ swapping the connections of condenser and evaporator to heat sink and source respectively.

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.

Same Procedure as Every Autumn: New Data for the Heat Pump System

October – time for updating documentation of the heat pump system again! Consolidated data are available in this PDF document.

In the last season there were no special experiments – like last year’s Ice Storage Challenge or using the wood stove. Winter was rather mild, so we needed only ~16.700kWh for space heating plus hot water heating. In the coldest season so far – 2012/13 – the equivalent energy value was ~19.700kWh. The house is located in Eastern Austria, has been built in the 1920s, and has 185m2 floor space since the last major renovation.

(More cross-cultural info:  I use thousands dots and decimal commas).

The seasonal performance factor was about 4,6 [kWh/kWh] – thus the electrical input energy was about 16.700kWh / 4,6 ~ 3.600kWh.

Note: Hot water heating is included and we use flat radiators requiring a higher water supply temperature than the floor heating loops in the new part of the house.

Heating season 2015/2016: Performance data for the 'ice-storage-/solar-powered' heat pump system

Red: Heating energy ‘produced’ by the heat pump – for space heating and hot water heating. Yellow: Electrical input energy. Green: Performance Factor = Ratio of these energies.

The difference of 16.700kWh – 3.600kWh = 13.100kWh was provided by ambient energy, extracted from our heat source – a combination of underground water/ice tank and an unglazed ribbed pipe solar/air collector.

The solar/air collector has delivered the greater part of the ambient energy, about 10.500kWh:

Heating season 2015/2016: Energy harvested from air by the collector versus heating-energy

Energy needed for heating per day (heat pump output) versus energy from the solar/air collector – the main part of the heat pump’s input energy. Negative collector energies indicate passive cooling periods in summer.

Peak Ice was 7 cubic meters, after one cold spell of weather in January:

Heating season 2015/2016: Temperature of ambient air, water tank (heat source) and volume of water frozen in the tank.

Ice is formed in the water tank when the energy from the collector is not sufficient to power the heat pump alone, when ambient air temperatures are close to 0°C.

Last autumn’s analysis on economics is still valid: Natural gas is three times as cheap as electricity but with a performance factor well above three heating costs with this system are lower than they would be with a gas boiler.

Is there anything that changed gradually during all these years and which does not primarily depend on climate? We reduced energy for hot tap water heating – having tweaked water heating schedule gradually: Water is heated up once per day and as late as possible, to avoid cooling off the hot storage tank during the night.

We have now started the fifth heating season. This marks also the fifth anniversary of the day we switched on the first ‘test’ version 1.0 of the system, one year before version 2.0.

It’s been about seven years since first numerical simulations, four years since I have been asked if I was serious in trading in IT security for heat pumps, and one year since I tweeted:

How Does It Work? (The Heat Pump System, That Is)

Over the holidays I stayed away from social media, read quantum physics textbooks instead, and The Chief Engineer and I mulled over the fundamental questions of life, the universe and everything. Such as: How to explain our heat pump system?

Many blog postings were actually answers to questions, and am consolidating all these answers to frequently asked questions again in a list of such answers. However, this list has grown quickly.

An astute reader suggested to create an ‘animation’ of the gradual evolution of the system’s state. As I learned from discussions, one major confusion was related to the role of the solar collector and the fact that you have to factor in the history of the heat source: This is true for every heat pump system that uses a heat source that can be ‘depleted’, in contrast to a flow of ground water at a constant temperature for example. With the latter, the ‘state’ of the system only depends on the current ambient temperature, and you can explain it in a way not too different from pontificating on a wood or gas boiler.

One thing you have to accept though is how a heat pump as such works: I have given up to go into thermodynamic details, and I also think that the refrigerator analogy is not helpful. So for this pragmatic introduction a heat pump is just a device that generates heating energy as an output, the input energy being electrical energy and heat energy extracted from a rather cold heat source somewhere near the building. For 8kW heating power you need about 2kW electrical energy and 6kW ambient energy. The ratio of 8kW and 2kW is called the coefficient of performance.

What the typical intro to heat pumps in physics textbooks does not point out is that the ambient heat source actually has to be able to deliver that input energyduring a whole heating season. There is no such thing as the infinite reservoir of energy usually depicted as a large box. Actually, the worse the performance of a heat pump is – the ratio of output heat energy and input electrical energy, the smaller are the demands on the heat source. The Chief Engineer has coined the term The Heat Source Paradox for this!

The lower the temperature of the heat source, the smaller the coefficient of performance is: So if you run an air source heat pump in mid-winter (using a big ventilator) then less energy is extracted from that air source than a geothermal heat pump would extract from ground. But if you build a geothermal heat source that’s too small in relation to a building’s heating demands, you see the same effect: Ground freezes, source temperature decreases, performance decreases, and you need more electrical energy and less ambient energy.

I am harping on the role of the heat source as the whole point of our ‘innovation’ is our special heat source that has two components, both of them being essential: An unglazed solar / air collector and an underground water / ice tank plus the surrounding ground. The collector allows to replenish the energy stored in the tank quickly, even in winter: Air temperature just needs to be some degrees warmer than the cold brine. The tank is a buffer: When no energy is harvested by the collector at ambient temperatures below 0°C, water freezes and releases latent heat. So you can call that an air heat pump with a huge, silent and mainentance-free ‘absorber’ plus a buffer that provides energy for periods of frost and that allows for storing all the energy you don’t need immediately. Ground does provide some energy as well, and I am planning to post about my related simulations.(*) It can be visualized as an extension of the ice / water energy storage into the surroundings. But the active volume or area of ground is smaller than for geothermal systems as most of the ambient energy actually comes from the solar / air collector: The critical months in our climate are Dec-Jan-Feb: Before and after, the collector would be sufficient as the only heat source. In the three ‘ice months’ water is typically frozen in the tank, but even then the collector provides for 75-80% of the ambient energy needed to drive the heat pump.(*)

(*) Edit: This post written in 2017 shows how much energy is stored / exchanged by each component. An overview of essential numbers is given here; emphasis on the volume of ice – which is compared to simulations here.

Components are off-the-shelf products, actually rather simple and cheap ones, such as the most stupid, non-smart brine-water heat pump. What is special is 1) the arrangement of the heat exchanger in the water tank and 2) the custom control logic, that is programming of the control unit.

So here is finally the series of images of the system’s state, shown in a gallery and with captions: You can scroll down to see the series embedded in the post, or click on the first image to see an enlarged view and then click through the slide-show.

More information on the system (technical data, sizing) and measurement data since 2012 can be found in this documentation – updated every few months.

Information for German readers: This post contains the German version of this slide-show.

Economics of the Solar Air Collector

In the previous post I gave an overview of our recently compiled data for the heat pump system.

The figure below, showing the seasonal performance factor and daily energy balances, gave rise to an interesting question:

In February the solar collector was off for research purposes, and the performance factor was just a bit lower than in January. Does the small increase in performance – and the related modest decrease in costs of electrical energy – justify the investment of installing a solar collector?

Monthly Performance Factor, Heat Pump System

Monthly heating energy provided by the heat pump – total of both space heating and hot water, related electrical input energy, and the ratio = monthly performance factor. The SPF is in kWh/kWh.

Daily energy balances, heat pump system, season 2014-2015

Daily energies: 1) Heating energy delivered by the heat pump. Heating energy = electrical energy + ambient energy from the tank. 2) Energy supplied by the collector to the water tank, turned off during the Ice Storage Challenge. Negative collector energies indicate cooling of the water tank by the collector during summer nights. 200 kWh peak in January: due to the warm winter storm ‘Felix’.

Depending on desired pay-back time, it might not – but this is the ‘wrong question’ to ask. Without the solar collector, the performance factor would not have been higher than 4 before it was turned off; so you must not compare just these two months without taking into account the history of energy storage in the whole season.

Bringing up the schematic again; the components active in space heating mode plus collector are highlighted:

Space heating with solar collector on, heat pump system punktwissen.

(1) Off-the-shelf heat pump. (2) Energy-efficient brine pump. (3) Underground water tank, can also be used as a cistern. (4) Ribbed pipe unglazed solar collector (5) 3-way valve: Diverting brine to flow through the collector, depending on ambient temperature. (6) Hot water is heated indirectly using a large heat exchanger in the tank. (7) Buffer tank with a heat exchanger for cooling. (8) Heating circuit pump and mixer, for controlling the supply temperature. (9) 3-way valve for switching to cooling mode. (10) 3-way valve for toggling between room heating and hot water heating.

The combination of solar collector and tank is ‘the heat source’, but the primary energy source is ambient air. The unglazed collector allows for extracting energy from it efficiently. Without the tank this system would resemble an air heat pump system – albeit with a quiet heat exchanger instead of a ventilator. You would need the emergency heating element much more often in a typical middle European winter, resulting in a lower seasonal performance factor. We built this system also because it is more economical than a noisy and higher-maintenance air heat pump system in the long run.

Our measurements over three years show that about 75%-80% of the energy extracted from the tank by the heat pump is delivered to it by the solar collector in the same period (see section ‘Ambient Energy’ in monthly and yearly overviews). The remaining energy is from surrounding ground or freezing water. The water tank is a buffer for periods of a few very cold days or weeks. So the solar collector is an essential component – not an option.

In Oct, Nov, and March typically all the energy needed for heating is harvested by the solar collector in the same month. In ‘Ice Months’  Dec, Jan, Feb freezing of water provides for the difference. The ice cube is melted again in the remaining months, by the surplus of solar / air energy – in summer delivered indirectly via ground.

The winter 2014/2015 had been unusually mild, so we had hardly created any ice before February. The collector had managed to replenish the energy quickly, even in December and January. The plot of daily energies over time show that the energy harvested by the collector in these months is only a bit lower than the heating energy consumed by the house! So the energy in the tank was filled to the brim before we turned the collector off on February 1. Had the winter been harsher we might have had 10 m3 of ice already on that day, and we might have needed 140kWh per day of heating energy, rather than 75kWh. We would have encountered  the phenomena noted during the Ice Storage Challenge earlier.

This post has been written by Elke Stangl, on her blog. Just adding this in case the post gets stolen in its entirety again, as it happened to other posts tagged with ‘Solar’ recently.

We Want Ice!

We haven’t seen much of it this winter yet.

I am talking both about the ice you would expect in winter and about the one created from extracting heat from a water tank – our heat pump system‘s heat source.

This winter does again disappoint; it seems we will not be able to generate Pannonia‘s largest ice cube in this season. This plot shows the growth of ice in the past three seasons, since the system went live in autumn 2012:

Energy stored in the water tank, January 2015The tank of water can be considered a buffer that stores energy harvested by the solar collector; in addition some energy is directly harvested from the surrounding ground.

The water tank temperature is 20°C maximum. This is the maximum heat source temperature the heat pump can deal with, so the solar collector is hardly used in summer. Heat provided by ground is sufficient to provide the energy which is extracted from the tank on heating hot water.

This is the energy stored in the tank over time:

Energy stored in the water tank-2015-01The specific heat of water is 1,16kWh per m3  – cooling down the 25m3 tank from 20°C to 0°C provides about 580kWh. Currently we need about 70kWh per day for space heating and hot water heating; the maximum in this season was about 100kWh per day so far. We had not seen ice before December in the past three seasons: Water does not freeze as long as as the energy provided by the solar collector replenishes the energy in the tank quickly enough.

The ice formation curves in the first figure show that the blue peaks always follow a cold spell of weather –  a negative peak in the (green) ambient temperature. As soon as there is a positive peak the ice is quickly melted again. This year the latest green positive peak was quite pronounced – about 12°C average daily temperature; maximum temperatures were about 20°C in some regions in Austria.

But we try harder now to create a gigantic ice cube: On rebuilding the solar collector last summer a new feature has been added for research purposes – the effectively utilized area of the collector can be changed by letting brine only flow through a subset of the tubes.

Currently we use only the upper half of the area. There is hoarfrost on the pipes which are in use – as they are colder as energy is extracted from the flowing brine by the heat pump and / or by the water tank:

Solar collector in winter, half of the area used

If this is still not sufficient to challenge the system we might turn off the collector permanently in February. 100kWh heating energy per day translates to 75kWh to be extracted by the heat pump (given a performance coefficient of about 4). The tank containing about 2.000 kWh would then be exhausted and completely frozen in 27 days.

Solar collector in winter, half the area used, closeup


Further information:

Other plots and key performance data for each month and each season are detailed in our documentation of measurement data – this file contains two full seasons as per the writing of this blog post.

In the unlikely case somebody stumbles upon this post when searching for historical weather data for Austria: The English Annals page show the data in a format that is difficult to work with (you need an outdated browser), but CSV files can be downloaded from the German page with historical data. Pick daily data (Tagesauswertung) for the greatest level of detail.