Passive cooling refers to technologies or design features used to cool buildings naturally. The term “passive” implies that energy-consuming mechanical components like pumps and fans are not used. Using the technologies we will discuss here you could save up to 90% on your utility bills.

Passive cooling building design attempts to integrate principles of Physics into the building exterior envelope to:

  1. Slow heat transfer into a building. This involves an understanding or the mechanisms of heat transfer: heat conduction, convective heat transfer, and thermal radiation (primarily from the sun).
  2. Remove unwanted heat from a building. In mild climates with cool dry nights this can be done with ventilating. In hot humid climates with uncomfortable warm / humid nights, ventilation is counterproductive, and some type of solar air conditioning may be cost effective.

Solar Air Conditioning

This video starts with a visual montage of the sheer number of air conditioners used on our street in Cairo, Egypt, describing them as energy parasites that actually increase the heat of the surrounding air. It then shows the vacuum tube heat pipe solar absorption cooling air conditioning system installed by solar engineer Les Hamasaki at the Debs Park Audubon Environmental Center in Los Angeles. Les Hamasaki describes the 10-ton solar chiller and we conclude with a note about how solar chillers not only eliminate the need for air conditioners, but the need for entire power plants. They also produce hot water and can be used for sterilizing and desalinating contaminated water.

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Shading a building from solar radiation can be achieved in many ways.

Buildings should be orientated to take advantage of winter sun (longer in the East / West dimension), while shading walls and windows from direct hot summer sun. This can be achieved by designing location-specific wide eaves or overhangs above the Equator-side verticle windows (South side in the Northern hemisphere, North side in the Southern hemisphere.

Passive solar buildings should not use large glass areas directly into the living space. A greenhouse / solarium is usually integrated into the equator side of the building. It captures low winter sun, and blocks direct sunlight in the summer, when the sun’s altitude is 47 degrees higher. The outer glass of the solarium, plus interior glass between the solarium and the interior living quarters acts like a Thermal Buffer Zone. Two smaller temperature differentials produce much lower heat transfer than one large temperature differential.

Your Solar Home SolarSheat 1500GS Passive Solar Air Collector, Model# SH1500GS-BL

The quality of window-and-door fenestration can have a significant impact on heat transfer rate (and therefore on heating and cooling requirement). A solid wood door with no windows conducts heat about twelve times faster than a foam-filled Energy Star door. older fenestration, and lower-quality doors and windows can leak a lot of outside air infiltration, conduct and radiate a lot of undesirable heat transfer through the exterior envelope of a building, which can account for a major portion of heating and cooling energy bills. – Passive Solar

Andreas Delleske is a member of a private group that built a “passive house” that uses only 1.5 litres of oil per square meter per year for heating. An architect and a biologist worked together to combine alternative energy and alternative waste management concepts. They found friends who were also interested and involved in energy topics. In the end sixteen members decided to build the home together in 1997. The house is composed of twenty units. The price overall of the building was only 7% higher than conventional new built homes. The house has a higher value since the residents pay very little for energy to heat the home. The entire structure required, which includes twenty units, each unit having about 90 square metres, and the annual utility bill was only 140 euros. Often people pay ten times this amount annually. By building with a group there are also savings in terms of sales and marketing costs.
More info at

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For many good thermal reasons, roof-angled glass should never be used in any building in any climate. In the summer, it creates a solar furnace, with the sun nearly perpendicular to it. On cold winter days, the low angle of the sun mostly reflects off of roof-angled glass. Warm air rises by natural convection, touches the roof angled glass, and then conducts and radiates heat outside. Vertical equator-facing glass is far superior for solar gain, blocking summer heat, and daylighting throughout a well-designed passive solar building.

Awnings, shade screen, or trellises can be fitted to existing buildings for a similar effect. West-facing rooms are especially prone to overheating because the low afternoon sun penetrates deeper into rooms during the hottest part of the day. Methods of shading against low East and West sun are deciduous planting and vertical shutters or blinds. West-facing windows should be minimized or eliminated in passive solar design.

Eye on Design: Green Building in Park City

A tour of a certified-Green house which although larger than the average home, is still a move in the right direction.

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Solar heat also enters a building through its walls and roof. In temperate climates, a poorly insulated building can overheat in summer and it will require more heating in winter.

One sign of poor thermal design is an attic that gets hotter than the peak outside summer air temperature. This can be significantly reduced or eliminated with a cool roof or a green roof, which can reduce the roof surface temperature by 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) in the summer. Below the roof there should be a radiant barrier and an air gap, which blocks 97% of downward radiation from the sun.

Green and Cool Roof Installation

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Of the three mechanisms of heat transfer (conduction, convection and radiation) the most significant in most climates is radiation, and it is the least-well understood. There is a linear relationship between temperature differential and conductive / convective heat transfer rate. But, radiation is an exponential relationship, which is much more significant when the temperature differential is large (summer or winter).

The rate of heat transfer (which is related to heating-and-cooling requirement) is determined in part by the surface area of the building. Decorative corners can double or triple the exterior envelope surface area, and also create more opportunities for air infiltration leaks.

In mild arid climates with comfortable cool dry nights, two types of natural ventilation can be achieved through careful design: cross ventilation and passive-stack ventilation.

Cross ventilation requires openings on two sides of a room.

Passive-stack ventilation uses a vertical space, like a tower, that creates a vacuum as it rises by natural convection. An inlet for cool air at the bottom of this space creates an upward-moving air current.

A major problem arises when windows are used for fresh air ventilation. Window screens do NOT filter small bugs, dust, dust mites, mold, pollen, and other pollutants, air-borne toxins, and allergens. Opening and closing windows is an operational problem. Anything that creates a vacuum (like clothes dryer, fireplace, kitchen and bathroom vents) will draw unfiltered outside air in through every small air leak in a building.

An energy audit uses a calibrated exhaust fan to measure and locate poor-weatherization air-infiltration leaks cause by careless conventional construction.

Energy Audit – Blower Door Assembly

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Fresh air ventilation should be filtered through a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value MERV 8+ air filter – Avoid the use of window screens for direct unfiltered ventilation. Dust mite body parts and feces alone are the number one asthma trigger.

In hot humid climates with uncomfortable nights, fresh air ventilation should be controlled, filtered, dehumidified, and cooled (with the possible use of a zero energy heat pipe air exchanger. A solar air conditioner can be used to cool and dehumidify hot humid air. ASHRAE requires a minimum 0.35 air changes / hour AND 15 CFM of fresh air for each person in a room (year round regardless of outside conditions). Carbon dioxide monitors can be used to increase fresh air intake in high-occupancy rooms when the air becomes unhealthy.

In a climate that is cool at night and too warm in the day, thermal mass can be strategically placed and insulated to slow the heating of the building when the sun is hot. Specially-designed phase change can be designed to extract unwanted heat during the day, and release it at night.

Thermal Mass – Earthships 101

Earthship, a passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials with thermal mass construction for temperature stabilization. Renewable energy and integrated water systems make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.

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