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What I've Learned
A few years ago, a fellow named Jim Meaney turned a bunch of empty soda cans into a solar heater.
Picture, if you will, a shallow box three feet wide, seven feet long, and six inches deep. The box is insulated. Meany took soda cans, painstakingly cut a hole in the top and bottom of each, then laid them on their sides in the box in such a way as to make 15 vertical columns.
He carefully glued the cans in place. The holes in the cans allowed air to travel through them up the columns. He painted the cans flat black, then covered the box with a sheet of clear, unbreakable Lexan [a polycarbonate resin thermoplastic], and sealed the edges so the box was airtight.
The result looked like a display case full of black soda cans lying on their sides.
On the back he cut two holes, one near the bottom and one near the top, so he could insert the ends of two pipes. The bottom pipe would serve as the inlet, drawing in cool air, the top pipe would be the outlet, pushing out warm air.
Stood up and placed in the sun, the cans would get hot the way things do if left in a closed car on a sunny day.
Mounted on a wall outside a house, cool air would be sucked in from floor level of a room, travel up through the soda cans getting heated as it goes, then be pushed back into the room near the ceiling, much warmer than before.
That was the idea, and it worked famously. In an hour and a half, the unit could exchange all the air in a room, warm for cool.
Meaney formed a company called Cansolair Inc. and began manufacturing and selling these heaters for about $2,800 each.
Soda can solar-heaters quickly became the rage, and people not wanting to shell out several thousand bucks for one, took to making their own.
It was labor intensive. Cutting holes in the tops and bottoms of cans was a chore. Gluing the cans into columns with special high-temperature glue took time. Painting them black with long-lasting paint, insulating the box properly, sealing it tightly and so on made the process daunting.
I told you that so I could tell you this.
In 2009, Rich Allen, of West Virginia, bought a sheet of plexiglass at a yard sale for a dollar. The plexiglass was maybe three feet by three feet. While wondering what to do with it, Allen got thinking about the soda can solar-heater idea.
What would happen, he wondered, if instead of cutting holes in the tops and bottoms of the cans and gluing them in a box in neat little columns, he just painted a bunch of cans black and put them in?
Certain that his quick and dirty experiment would fail, he almost didn't bother to film the process.
Allen duct-taped together a shallow box from rigid, half-inch insulation, then squirted some silicone caulking along the joints. Inside the box he put 46 empty (but undrilled) soda cans, a row up, a row across, till the box was filled, one layer deep. He spray-painted the cans black, then put a layer of chicken wire in to hold them in place.
He used duct tape and silicone caulking to affix and seal the sheet of plexiglass. On the back, he cut an intake hole near the bottom and an output hole near the top. Inside the top hole he put a digital thermometer, then set the unit in the sun.
Within 15 minutes, the temperature inside the box was 117 degrees. Putting a hand near the output hole, he could feel warm air coming out. At 30 minutes, it was up to 144 degrees, which unfortunately was as high as the thermometer would read. A cooking thermometer was inserted, which, at 45 minutes, read 168 degrees.
It was not winter when he tried this, so probably on a cold day with a weaker sun, the temperature wouldn't get so high. Maybe only 100 degrees. (One hundred degrees, by the way, is the temperature that Meaney's larger, expensive units emit.) Can you imagine having a pipe coming into your house issuing forth heated air – for free?
Allen's version of the soda can solar-heater was feather light and could easily be rigged to hang from a southern exposure window. If you raised the window enough for the hot air pipe to enter, it would be easy to insulate the rest of the opening. Thus, no hole has to be cut through your wall.
As an afterthought, Allen suggested making the box with the cans but no plexiglass and simply duct-taping the thing to the inside of a window.
After seeing Allen's video, guess what? I saw another in which a guy used a heavy cardboard box and no soda cans at all. He painted the inside of the shallow box black, covered it with a layer of clear plastic, and set it in the sun. It, too, pumped out warm air.
This winter, anyone who is not lowering their oil bill by taking advantage of cheap, do-it-yourself solar heating is lazy, crazy, or both.