Solar Water Heater

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Learners work in teams to design and build solar water heating devices that mimic those used in residences to capture energy in the form of solar radiation and convert it to thermal energy. This thermal energy is next transferred to water (to be used as domestic hot water) in the form of heat. In doing this, learners gain a better understanding of the three different types of heat transfer, each of which plays a role in the solar water heater design. Once the model devices are constructed, learners perform efficiency calculations and compare designs. Note: part of this activity must be conducted outdoors on a sunny day (it is okay if it's cold, but it must be sunny).

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
1 to 7 days

Estimated Materials Cost:
$10 - $20 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 14 - 18

Resource Types:
Activity, Experiment/Lab Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan, Model


Materials List (per group of students)

  • Water container large enough to hold at least 1 liter (.22 gal), such as a plastic container (easier to cut) or coffee can
  • Cardboard box, sized so it is about 1-inch (2.5 cm) bigger than the water container on all sides
  • Insulation material (such as Styrofoam pellets, cotton or crumpled newspaper)
  • 2 feet (61 cm) of plastic tubing (3/8-inch inside diameter, ½-inch outside diameter)
  • Cardboard box with transparent cover (4-inch deep box, ~12 x 12-inch, or 30 x 30 cm) with a transparent cover (sized to match box area dimensions) made from rigid clear plastic, saran wrap or other thin and transparent plastic material) or a disposable baking sheet pan, 9-inches x 13-inches x 2-inches deep (23 x 33 x 5 cm), that comes with a fitted clear plastic cover
  • Insulation material (such as Styrofoam pellets, cotton or crumpled newspaper)
  • Cardboard piece, same size as floor area of cardboard box or sheet pan
  • 3 feet (91 cm) soft copper tubing (3/8-inch outside diameter; available at hardware stores)
  • Stopwatch (or a watch or timer to keep track of the passage of time up to 20 minutes)
  • 4 Styrofoam cups (any size, but matching sizes so easy to double up for insulating purposes)
  • Solar Water Heater Design and Analysis Worksheet
  • Scissors, to cut plastic and cardboard
  • Packing or duct tape, and stapler, to make/modify cardboard boxes
  • Drill (optional), to make a hole in a metal container; bit sized to create hole for plastic tubing
  • Waterproof glue, such as epoxy or gorilla glue
  • Aluminum foil, to line inside walls and base of solar collector
  • Black spray paint
  • String or twine, to tape to coiled copper tubing to help with measuring
  • Copper tubing bender tool (see Figure 4; if not available, have learners use a rigid cylindrical surface to bend the tubing around)
  • Copper tubing cutter (see Figure 4; inexpensive and available at hardware stores) or a hack saw (cuts are not as clean)
  • Hammer (optional), to hammer out kinks in the copper tubing
  • Jug, to carry water outside
  • 1 liter measuring cup


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Processes
      • Weather and Climate
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
      • Atmosphere
    • Earth, Moon and Sun
    • Solar System
      • The Sun
  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Civil Engineering
      • Environmental Engineering
    • Technology
  • Physical Sciences
    • Heat and Thermodynamics
      • Heat and Temperature
      • Heat Transfer
      • Thermodynamics and Entropy
    • Electricity and Magnetism
    • Energy
  • Life Sciences
    • Ecology
      • Human Impact
  • Mathematics
    • Algebra
      • Equations and Inequalities
      • Variables and Expressions
    • Data Analysis and Probability
      • Data Analysis
      • Data Collection
      • Data Representation
    • Measurement
  • The Nature of Technology
    • Technology and Society
      • Impacts of Technology
      • Technology and the Environment
    • The Design Process
      • Invention and Innovation
      • Troubleshooting and Maintenance
  • The Nature of Science
    • Science and Society
      • Risks and Benefits
    • The Scientific Process
      • Asking Questions
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations
      • Communicating Results

Informal Categories

  • Model Building
  • Nature and Environment
  • Outdoor Activity


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read
  • be mobile
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves teamwork and communication skills
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Components that are part of this resource:

Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

Includes assesments for student learning:

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


  • Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder

Source Collection

  • TeachEngineering


  • All rights reserved, Regents of the University of Colorado, 2007