The Phenomenology of Solar Energy

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I recently installed a thermal-solar hot water system on my rooftop, and it has profoundly changed the way I live, making this HVAC technology quite architectural; certainly more than other mechanical systems. Indeed, we could even say “phenomenological”, at least to the degree that anything scientific and technological can be considered so. Then again, there’s nothing more primordial than the sun.

The reason for installing this gizmo is rather prosaic: the electric hot water tank died one August afternoon, and since Spain has some of the most expensive electricity in the world despite being one of the sunniest countries on Earth (thanks to energy oligopolies and their corruption of politics), and since we have a top-floor apartment that receives sun all day, it only made sense to look into installing a rooftop solar hot water system. Besides, our flat is very small, and such a system frees up some interior space. Little did I know that delivery would require months of waiting due to high demand, causing us to live completely without hot water well into October, when cold showers are no longer relief from summer heat but a form of self-inflicted torture. 

When the kit finally arrived, the solar panel was so large it had to be hoisted up six floors using a rope and pulley (thanks to radical architect Marcel Fontanillas for lending a generous helping hand). While the steel structure was straightforward Mecano construction, it nevertheless had to be anchored securely to withstand occasional “Tramuntana” wind gusts that can be very strong. Once everything was in place, it was plumber and electrician Angel Molina’s turn to connect it to the flat’s plumbing system, which involved him having to suspend himself from the top of a lightwell at one point. 

It’s now been a couple of winter months since my family has been showering and hand-washing the dishes with solar-heated water, and what a difference it makes. It’s not that the hot water itself feels any different now, just that the temperature fluctuates much more. The system works perfectly as long as it isn’t completely overcast for more than two consecutive days, in which case there’s a back-up electrical resistance that can be manually turned on. But I am “resistant” to use this feature, preferring not to let us become overly pampered. Occasionally, when it’s been cloudy, a shower might be lukewarm, or outside the comfort zone, but this is more than compensated for by the comforting thought that the Endesa Electrical company’s profiteering is now slightly lessened.

So, other than occasionally showering with lukewarm water and paying less for electricity, how has this affected us “architecturally”? And what is so phenomenological about hot water anyway? Sound like a lot of hot air, you may be thinking. Well, for one thing, we are all much more sensitive to the weather now, and thereby to seasonal change. Previously the weather didn’t matter at all, but now we appreciate a sunny, radiant day like never before.

In fact now, whenever I step into the shower and feel solar-heated water on my skin, I’m reminded of the latitude and climate zone we live in, of the workings of the solar system, and indeed of one’s personal insignificance in the cosmos. Is that not architectural enough? Moreover, we now feel like we are living closer to nature even though we live in the middle of a big city, and are more perceptive of nature’s power and the gift it provides us with every day. Well, almost every day. 

2 Comments

  1. Nice article, Rafael. This close and realistic approach, very different from the boring technical one, will enhance others to do the same. Congrats for the new solar heater!

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