- In climate regions with large seasonal variations in solar radiation, such as the Pacific Northwest of the United States, a solar thermal energy collector might not economically satisfy year-round domestic water heating demands, requiring an auxiliary unit, such as a natural gas-fired water heater. Previous studies have shown that the burner efficiency of a gas-fired water heater varies depending on the log-mean temperature difference between the cold fluid (water) and the hot fluid (combustion gases). In a solar/gas hybrid water heating system, where solar collectors are used in conjunction with a gas-fired heater, the partial heating of water provided by solar input reduces the log-mean temperature difference value for the gas heater, reducing the efficiency of the gas burner. Since this efficiency reduction varies depending on the amount of pre-heating provided by solar energy input, it is difficult to accurately predict the actual cost and energy savings offered by solar/gas hybrid water heaters in different climates and operation scenarios. Hence, to predict the actual energy and cost savings under various design conditions, the performance of solar/gas hybrid systems must be better understood.
The objective of this work is to experimentally determine the thermal performance of a solar/gas water hybrid water heating system with a 6.44 m2 flat plate solar collector array and a 22.3 kW natural gas burner in Corvallis, Oregon, USA. Under different temperature lifts and solar insolation values, the system was operated at three different modes of heating: solar, gas, and combined solar/gas mode. The overall system thermal efficiency value for each mode is calculated. The efficiency of the solar collector heating system was found to be 41.97%, 39.82%, and 35.05% at initial water temperature of 20, 30, and 51.5 °C, respectively. For initial water temperatures of 20, 30, and 51.5 °C, the efficiency of the gas burner was found to be 69.2%, 66.4%, and 65.5% at the HHV, and 76.7%, 73.6%, and 72.6% at the LHV of natural gas, respectively. In the combined solar/gas heating mode, the efficiency of the gas burner decreased with increasing solar fraction. For solar fractions of 4.93%, 9.40%, 11.39%, and 14.27%, the efficiency of the gas burner in terms of the HHV of natural gas was found to be of 69.08%, 66.80%, 66.17%, and 65.18%, respectively. Based on the experimental results, a configuration that would provide higher overall system efficiency for combined solar/gas heating is suggested.