A DIY pool solar panel installation can save you almost half of the cost of a pro installation, and before you doubt yourself, you CAN do it.

Let’s get started with the basics.

What Are Solar Panel Pool Heaters?

A solar panel pool heater relies on pool water circulated through a series of tubes or pipes exposed to sunlight. Now, that’s a really simplistic way of putting things, but it’s the entire theory in a nutshell. And most folks have felt how hot the water in a garden hose gets that has been in the sun for a while. So the core concept is remarkably effective and, if you decide to install solar panels to heat your pool, the heating is absolutely free.

What Kinds of Solar Panel Pool Heaters Are There?

Four types of commercial solar panel pool heaters are used in the majority of installations.

  • Flexible mat heaters
  • Unglazed solar panel heaters
  • Glazed solar panel heaters
  • High-temperature solar collector heaters

Let’s check each one out briefly to see how they work, what pool types and environments they are suited for, and approximately how much they cost.

Flexible Mat Heaters

These are the least expensive solar heaters and among the easiest to work with and install. The solar panels consist of a serpentine tube coil sandwiched between two fabric, or flexible UV stabilized PVC sheets. Each sheet has an inlet and outlet and may be used singularly or in groups of solar panels for a larger surface area and higher output. Here is an example.

Pool Solar Panel Installation

Credit: Paul Scott

For the most part, flexible mat heaters use a mobile, submersible pump, and the mats can be connected using ordinary garden hoses and fittings. These solar panels are ideally suited for small to mid-sized pools in warm climates. To install a solar pool heater using flexible mat collectors would cost approximately $500 and $3,000 installed depending on the pool size.

Unglazed Solar Pool Panel Heaters

Unglazed pool solar panels are generally larger than flexible mats and are primarily designed for permanent installation. They consist of manifolds and vertical riser tubes, as illustrated in the basic example below. The solar panels can be encapsulated in a UV stabilized rubber sheath or exposed depending on the design.

Unglazed Solar Pool Panel Heaters

Credit: Paul Scott

Non-glazed pool solar heater panels may be ground, or roof-mounted and are typically grouped in fairly large permanent installations. These solar panels may use a dedicated pump or be plumbed into the existing filter pump circuit.

These heaters may be used for most pool types and sizes except for the largest pools. They are well suited for hot climates but less effective than glazed solar panels in cooler weather. A typical unglazed solar panel pool heater will cost between $1,500 and $4,000 installed.

Glazed Solar Pool Panel Heaters

Glazed solar pool heating systems are very similar to unglazed systems in their general layout and operation. The most important difference is that they’re packaged in sealed, insulated boxes that feature clear polycarbonate or tempered glass covers. This arrangement greatly reduces heat losses and makes these solar panels a lot more efficient. The basic glazed solar panels concept is illustrated below.

Glazed Solar Pool Panel Heaters

Credit: Paul Scott

The substantial increase in the efficiency of glazed panel solar pool heating systems makes them an ideal choice for colder climates and locations that don’t get as much direct sunlight. The increased efficiency does mean these solar panels are more expensive than unglazed types, though. They are also suitable for all but the largest pools and will cost approximately $3,000 to $8,500 to install.

High-Temperature Vacuum Tube Solar Panel Pool Heaters

These are the big boys in the solar pool heating game. These solar panels can generate efficiency levels other types simply cannot and even work well in overcast or cloudy weather.

There are two types of vacuum tube heaters, closed and open tube types. Although they operate differently, they are set up in the same way and are visually similar. Here is an example of a vacuum tube solar water heater,

High-Temperature Vacuum Tube Solar Panel Pool Heaters

Credit: Paul Scott

These solar panels use either thermo-siphoning or heat tube elements in a vacuum to heat the pool water. Their design specifics make them very effective, and they can heat even the largest pools. To install solar panels of this type will cost between $9.000 and $11.000.

Sizing and Working Out Specs for a Pool Solar Panel Installation

Here’s a basic guide to calculating the number of solar panels you’ll need to heat your pool efficiently. In addition, we’ll consider the differences between the above and in-ground pool types.

Pool Size vs. Required Number of Solar Panels

Using the Pool’s Surface Area

When it comes to choosing a solar pool heating system, you will need to work out the surface area of your pool. A safe rule of thumb in mild climates is that you’ll need a solar panel area equal to the pool’s surface area. In warm or hot areas, half the pool’s surface area would be a fair average.

Using BTU Ratings

This method of calculating the number of panels required to heat your pool is more complex but a lot more precise. The BTU (British thermal unit) calculation uses a formula based on the following facts.

  • The sun generates around 300 BTU per square foot per hour.
  • On the low end of the scale, solar panels are 50% efficient and at most 75% efficient.
  • It takes 10 BTUs every hour per square foot of the pool area to raise one degree.
BTU Calculation

Now, all solar heating system panels carry a BTU rating that allows you to use this method of calculating solar heating system requirements. So using an 18 x 36-foot pool as an example, and a target temperature gain of 7 degrees, let’s put this method into action.

  • The pool’s surface area is 648 ft² (18 x 36 = 648).
  • You would multiply the 648 feet by the 7-degree target gain to get the total temperature gain factor, giving you a working gain factor number of 4, 536.
  • Now multiply the gain factor by the ten BTU per square foot per hour number. That gives you 45 360 BTUs per hour.
  • To calculate a panel area based on the sun’s 300 BTU/Hr potential, you’d divide 45 360 by 300 for a result of 151.2.
  • That line of the equation was assuming a 100% panel efficiency rating which is not practical. To reach a final solar pool panel area figure, use the lower end of the efficiency scale, i.e., 50%. So you will have to double the 151.2 figure to get a realistic result. The result is a panel surface area of 302.4 ft².

Pool solar panels come in various sizes, but the most commonly used are 4′ x 10′ and 4′ x 20′. So a 4′ x 10′ panel has a surface area of 40 ft², and a 4′ x 20′ panel is 80 ft². Using the BTU calculation, we now know that we would need 303 ft² of the heater panel area. If you chose to use 4′ x 10′ (40 ft²) panels, you’d need 8 panels (303/40 = 7.58).

This may be a fairly complex method, but it is more science than thumb sucking, so it’s worth considering.

Calculating Your Pool Surface Area

If you have a round, square, or rectangular pool, calculating the surface area is easy.

  • Round pools: The formula used to calculate the surface area is 3.14 (π) x pool radius². In other words, if your pool is 18 feet wide across its center, the radius is 9 feet, and this is how to work out the surface area. 3.14 x (9 x 9) or 3.14 x 81 = 254.3 square feet.
  • Square or rectangular pools: These are easy – you multiply the length and breadth of the pool. For example, if your pool is 36 feet long and 18 feet wide, the calculation would be 36 x 18 = 648 square feet.

To calculate surface areas of complex pool shapes, there are any number of good resources with online pool area and volume calculators.

If your goal is to raise the temperature of your pool from 5 to 7 degrees during the “swimming” season, the takeaway from all this equates to the following:

  • When you’re located in Florida and have a pool with a 254 square foot surface area, you’ll probably get away with pool solar panels of 130 to 140 square feet.
  • If you live in Montana with the same pool, a safe figure is 300 to 350 square feet of solar heater panels.
Above Ground vs. Inground Pools

Several pool heating considerations revolve around pool installation types. For example, above-ground pools tend to heat quickly but lose the accumulated heat faster than conventional in-ground pools. This is due to the insulating mass of soil around an in-ground pool and the heat transfer potential of the air around an above-ground swimming pool.

The debate low down is this. If you have an in-ground pool, you’ll need fewer pool solar panels to maintain your target temperature. An in-ground pool may take a little longer to reach that thermal sweet spot, but it will hold the heat longer than an above-ground pool.

Solar Pool Heating: Professional vs. DIY Installation

There are a fair number of pros and cons relating to both methods to install a solar pool heater. Your ability to maximize the pros and minimize (or eliminate) the cons will depend largely on canny decision-making and being well informed.

Professional Installation of a Solar Pool Heating System

Having your pool solar panels installed professionally is undoubtedly the easiest way of going about it. For those who aren’t inclined to get technical or are pressed for personal time, a pro install is a way to go. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of installed solar panel pool heaters.

Pros

  • The benefit of experience. Reputable installers have masses of experience of the game that even the most seasoned DIY handyperson will never have. They can make valuable recommendations, sound calls on installation specifics, and sidestep the multitude of pitfalls that litter this sort of project.
  • Workmanship warranties. Again, reputable installers will not only honor parts and equipment warranties but also guarantee their own workmanship. More on this later.
  • Speedy installation. A professional installer will generally get the job done a lot quicker than you will.

Cons

  • High cost. Obviously, labor is expensive, and no right-minded person works for free. However, the added labor cost is not the end of the financial stinger. Everything will cost you more as installers usually mark their equipment and consumables, even though they may buy them at wholesale prices.
  • Tricks of the trade. Sadly not all installers are honest, and the trade is awash with scams, dodgy dealings, and outright theft in some cases. We’ll look at ways to protect yourself against getting taken for a ride in the next section.

Tips for a Professional Solar Pool Heating System Installation

For the most part, solar heating installers are above board and give good service before, during, and after the installation. Unfortunately, there will always be the less than stellar types out there ready and willing to fleece the uninitiated. This is the biggest risk pool owners face when using an installer to heat their pool.

Here are some of the ways unscrupulous operators dupe unsuspecting clients and how to beat them at their own game.

Overspecifying the Installation

This is a common ruse and involves selling you systems far larger and more complex than you actually need. And here, knowledge is your best weapon. If you know how big your pool is, which type of heater would work well and how many panels you’ll need, you’re golden. If you can quote those figures off-pat, the installer will know you’re not likely to buy snake oil, no matter what the flavor.

Quoting Hourly Installation Rates

Another common ploy is to quote hourly installation rates and then drag the job out excessively. Demand a fixed installation price and research its validity for your area. If they refuse – show them the door.

Inflating the Scope of Work after the Fact

Once the installer is halfway done with your $1,000 project and suddenly claims he needs to add another grand for some unforeseen omission, you are not really going to have an easy out. Any installer worth their salt will have an installation contract that includes a comprehensive scope of work (SOW) clause. Here is a good SOW guide.

Creative Material Quotes

This is a really tricky one. It’s so easy to load half a roll of tubing, a couple of boxes of fasteners, and a gallon of PVC adhesive into a truck after the work is finished if the client isn’t vigilant. Make sure you study the materials part of the quote, and don’t be scared to ask what will happen with the material left over when the job is done.

Overstated or Misleading Warranties

This one’s not necessarily an attempt to steal from you but can end up costing you big. Good installers will ALWAYS give you a comprehensive warranty on their work. Dodgy operator’s warranties often overstate the parts and materials cover and omit any workmanship liability. A solid warranty will clearly state to which extent the installer’s WORK is guaranteed, not just the materials used.

Going the DIY Solar Pool Heater Route

Installing commercial solar pool heaters yourself can be a rewarding experience if you have the technical ability and equipment needed. Here are some of the pros and cons of installing a solar pool heating system yourself.

Pros
  • Cost-saving. A DIY solar pool heating system can cost less than half of a pro installation.
  • Flexible installation schedule. You can install the system in stages if you are on a tight budget.
  • Flexible system structure. Many pro installers only use a set range of products. You can mix and match components at will if you are sure of their compatibility.
  • System integrity. You’ll probably do as good or even better a job than a professional installer if you are technically strong. After all, it’s your home and pool, and you’re unlikely to do a bad job of it.
  • Intimate system knowledge. If you have installed the system yourself, it’s easy to troubleshoot problems, and you’ll be less likely to have to bring someone in to fix them.
Cons
  • No workmanship warranty. If you go the DIY route, any installation problems will be for your account. That said, you’ll have the benefit of the same materials and equipment warranties a pro installer will give you. So, if you do a good job, this is not going to be a big issue.
  • The lack of experience learning curve. Even if you are an excellent handyman and very well-informed, there’s no substitute for years of experience. Pro installers have probably seen it all over the years and can avoid unforeseen or unknown pitfalls that could foul up a DIY installation.
  • Risk of personal injury or property damage. A fall through your roof during the installation is not only going to put you in ICU. The repairs to your home would certainly trash any savings on a DIY install. The same applies to accidentally dropping a $1.800 vacuum tube panel off the roof.

Tips and Cost Comparisons for a DIY Solar Pool Heating System Installation

The adage of “knowledge is power” has been touched on several times in this article. And it’s particularly true if you chose to go solo with your solar pool heating system installation. There is a wealth of information available in almost all installation scenarios to guide you through the process. The more you know, and the better you understand the specifics, the smoother the install will be.

Here is a good basic game plan for getting ready for the project.

Know Your Pool Specs.

Use the resources mentioned earlier here to get as accurate an idea as is possible of the surface area and volume of your pool.

Know Your Site Specs.

Consult online forums and solar resources for information regarding your specific installation location. These specifics will center around your geographic location and your home’s roof pitch and orientation if you opt for roof-mounted solar panels. Different locations require different panel angles and orientations to ensure optimal performance so that these points will form the core of your installation plan.

Know Your Heater Specs.

Based on the information gathered in the previous two points, you can now decide which type of heater would best suit your needs and how many solar panels it will take.

Choose a Pump Setup.

You may choose to install a dedicated pump for your solar heater or tap into your pool filtration circuit. This choice will profoundly affect how the project evolves and will affect its overall cost and complexity.

Choose a Manual or Automated System.

A manual system is simple and cheaper to install but requires significant vigilance and user input. An automated system senses the temperature of the air and solar panels and regulates when the system pumps water to the heater. This is very convenient and can make the system as a whole a lot more efficient. Obviously, it adds to the cost of the installation, though.

Assemble a Plumbing List.

Now you know where and how your heater will be mounted. You also know which heater system you will use and how many solar panels it will include. You know which pumping arrangement you’ll use and whether or not the system will be automated. Based on these known parameters, you can now put together a list of tubing, valves, fittings, and consumables to tie the different elements together. The absolute best way of getting this right is to work from a scale sketch of the system.

Assemble an Equipment and Tools List.

The same principle applies to the tools and equipment you’ll need. It’s fair to assume that you are a capable handyperson if you are attempting this. So running through the install plan would give you a clear idea of what you need to get it done properly and, most importantly, SAFELY.

Installing Your Solar Pool Heating System

This part of the project is almost impossible to cover comprehensively due to the sheer number of different possible system choices. Running a step-by-step installation guide for a glazed panel solar pool heater installation will do you no good if you’ve chosen to use flexible mats.

Fortunately, many swimming pool-related resources give detailed advice on installing the most popular pool solar heater types. These typically include detailed installation diagrams that clearly illustrated all circuit components, including the required parts and equipment. A clear and concise installation diagram will go a long way to flattening the learning curve we mentioned earlier.

As an example, here is a basic schematic for a pool solar heater with an automated diverter valve. This layout ties into the existing pool pump and filter circuit. The solar heater controller constantly monitors air and pool water temperatures when the air is hotter than the pool water—the controller pings the diverter valve to send the pump feed through the heater.

Installing Your Solar Pool Heating System

Credit: Paul Scott

Cost-Saving Implications of DIY Solar Panel Pool Heaters

As each installation is unique and there are so many different types of heaters available, cost-saving figures can only be calculated accurately on a case-by-case basis. That said, the 2021 average labor costs for professionally installed solar pool heaters are between $500 and $3 500. If one considers the installed prices mentioned earlier, one could realistically expect to save between 30 and 40 percent on a DIY installation.

In other words, a glazed panel heater for a mid-sized pool that would have cost around $5,800 would cost approximately $4,000. That’s a healthy saving if you can do the installation properly.

How to Maximize the Benefits of Your Pool Solar Heater

The trick is keeping your pool water warm is containing heat loss during cool, rainy weather and at night. A couple of measures you can put in place will help your pool solar heater keep your pool water cozy.

Pool Covers

One of the best ways of maintaining pool temperatures is the humble pool cover. There are many really great pool covers on the market, and installing and using them is relatively straightforward. There are also sizes, designs, and colors available to suit all swimming pool types.

Auxiliary Active Heaters

If you live in a colder climate or have significant shading issues, installing an electric or propane heater as a backup can be a good idea. The idea here is to use the auxiliary heater to help the pool solar heater under adverse conditions.

Solar Pool Boosters, Sun Rings, or Floating Solar Mats

A solar pool booster, or rather a couple of them, isn’t going to heat your pool a whole lot, but they will contribute to the heating process, and every little bit helps.

The Wrap-Up

By now, it should be evident that choosing to have a pool solar panel installation is a good idea. And having it professionally installed or taking it on as a DIY project will largely be a matter of personal choice. There are no solid right or wrong answers.

That choice will be based on your technical abilities, the amount of time you have to dedicated to the installation, and your budget. There are some significant pros and cons attached to each choice, and the right choice is the one you’re most comfortable with. Good luck!

If you have any additional advice, insights, or questions, please drop us a line in the comments section below.

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