Beautiful swimming pool
Swimming Pool Heater Guide
In todays environment-conscious world with ever increasing energy costs, solar pool heating has some immediately obvious benefits:

Heating A Pool With Free Solar Energy

~ Who else wants to extend their swim season? ~
cheap to operate as the sun is the heat source
long lifespan - generally 10-20 years with proper installation and maintenance
fairly easy to add to an existing pool as it utilizes your pool pump
can be used to cool a pool in hot climates by running at night
some DIY kits are available for the handyperson.
There are, however, some downsides which must be considered:
won't work in overcast conditions
solar collector requires large amount of space
if roof mounted, load bearing capacity of roof must be considered
local government approval may be needed for roof mounting
Solar Heating Diagram

The basic principles of heating an above-ground pool and an in-ground pool are the same. The only real differences are in the size and location of the system. Because your investment in a heating system is for the long term it is wise to consider carefully your goal before making any investment.

A useful addition for solar systems (some systems include one as standard) is a controller unit. This device will control the flow of water through the solar panels to keep the water temperature within a set range. This prevents the water becoming overheated during hot weather which can happen if water is constantly flowing through the heater panels.

In the situation where the pool water is too warm, running the system at night will actually cool the water down.

Generally, an above-ground pool will require a smaller system of panels to heat and maintain the water temperature. If the volume or surface area is particularly large, however, more panels may be required to boost the water temperature up to the required level. Usually, additional panels are simple to add - for example, you may purchase a 4 panel kit which contains everything required then simply purchase an extra panel (or more) plus extra add-on panel fitting kits.

Above-ground solar pool heater systems can be mounted on a house or shed roof or ground mounted. Naturally, a roof-mounted system is more complicated and will require structural considerations. Also, it would be wise to check with the company supplying your system if your existing pump will have the capacity to be able to pump water up to the necessary height. Ground systems are particularly handy if your pool is not a permanent fixture - much easier to disassemble it and pack for the next season or move. Either way you need to consider the angle of the sun and possible shade areas. The angle of the sun changes depending on what area of the US you live and your dealer will be able to help out with the best orientation for your system.

Above Ground Solar Pool Heating

Locations for Above-Ground Solar Pool Heaters

Ground-Mounted Pool Heater
Solar Sun Rings
Roof-Mounted Solar Heater
South The ideal orientation for your solar panels is a south-facing pitched roof, near the pool, with enough space for mounting the required number of panels.
West An installation on a west-facing roof works well for summer heating, in some installations the panel area may need to be increased.
East Eastern exposures tend to be less effective and, therefore, less economical. Increasing the panel area is the recommended approach for an eastern orientation.
North Northern exposures are not usually recommended, except in certain areas of the country.
Table Courtesy of Specialty Pool Products
Solar panels come in a range of sizes and are modular - you can use as many panels as you require depending on your needs. As a rough rule of thumb, the total area of solar collector required will be at least 50% of the area of the pool surface and possibly as much as 100%.

For example, if you have a rectangular pool which is 20' by 40' this is a surface area of 800 square feet so you need about 400 square feet of solar panels at least. If the panels are 4' by 10' that's 40 square feet each so you need 10 panels or more (more panels equals warmer water).

Usually, you would purchase a basic kit which will include about 4 panels complete with mounting hardware and plumbing fittings. Additional panels require additional mountings and extra plumbing fittings - some manufacturers will provide a kit with the required number of panels complete with all mounting and plumbing fittings - all you need do is specify the number of panels required.

Going the Do-It-Yourself Path

If you are something of a handyperson and would like to have a try at building a solar pool heater yourself there are a couple of ebooks available on the subject:

You can make your own solar pool heater with some easily-obtained products. Even black poly pipe (trickle tube for gardens) can be used with varying levels of efficiency. Just remember - there are no 10 year guarantees and support when you go the DIY path but the savings can be substantial if you have the urge to try.

Another useful site for information and solar installations is Energy Conservation Services of N. Fl Inc. Go to their website and click on the ECS Solar link for a wealth of knowledge to either help you make the decision about the path you want to follow or for some DIY help. You can find ECS on the following link: Sick of your Cold Pool? Swim year round affordably Pro Solar pool heater installations

The following suppliers can supply you with a solar pool heating system:
"Build A Solar Pool Heater For Under $100." Click Here!
Solar Hot Water Bible: Do-It-Yourselfers & Contractors - Learn from the solar water heaters industry leader
"DIY Solar Water Heater" (This is a set of 12 guides, one of which is for a solar pool heater)
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Solar heaters can be used all year round. The main consideration is their efficiency. A solar collector will even work when the  temperature is below freezing so long as the heat exchanger is filled with anti-freeze - glazed solar collectors are usually recommended for colder climates.

Naturally, in colder extremes, an indoor pool would be a better solution but a good insulating pool cover will help maintain some warmth. In fact, a pool loses around 70% of its heat through evaporation and a cover will reduce evaporation by up to a staggering 95% - secondary benefits are less wastage of water topping up your pool and a reduction in chemical usage of between 35% and 60%.
Ground systems can often be conveniently located close to the pool which helps with the plumbing. This is dependent on not being shaded and being able to orient the collector panels to make best use of the sun. This is a useful alternative if your pool pump is not powerful enough to lift the water to the height of a roof-mounted system.
There are smaller solar pool heaters on the market which can provide a boost in temperature with a less complicated installation. Handy for extending your swimming season or just lifting the temperature to a more comfortable level. The AquaQuik takes up less space than a standard solar panel and is simple to connect up. More than one AquaQuik can be "daisychained" together to provide additional heating.
Solar Sun Rings are another easy addition and they do not involve any plumbing - simply place on the water surface. They are double layer vinyl rings which work by trapping the suns heat between the layers and using it to heat the water directly under the rings. They perform an extra function by helping prevent excessive evaporation and so maintaining the temperature for longer. Magnets are used in the outer ring to hold the rings together in a "blanket". Handy if you have the worry of being trapped under a standard pool blanket as the rings will separate.
Another easy option is the Solar Pill or Liquid Solar Blanket. This is a chemical which creates an invisible layer on the water surface inhibiting evaporation which helps to maintain water temperature. The pill is simply dropped into the pump basket and should treat a 12,000 gallon pool for around 30 days. Although it does not actually increase the water temperature itself, it is another option if you are not using a pool blanket.
Ground-Mounted Systems
Solar Sun Rings
Solar Pill
For an in-ground pool, the solar system will most likely be permanent so the best mounting site will usually be a roof area. You can still mount it on the ground if you have the space and an area not susceptible to shade. This can be a house roof or an outbuilding roof so long as it is capable of taking the additional weight.

Local council building restrictions must also be taken into account as some areas may not allow certain types of solar panel installation.

Shaded areas must be watched for - trees and taller buildings being the main culprits - and don't forget the sun moves so obstructions may not cast shade at certain times of the day or season but will at others. It would be rather disappointing to discover your expensive solar panels disappear into the shade when summer is on the way out and you really need their help!

The angle the panels are mounted on will change their efficiency also. The best year-round angle is the same as your latitude - if you live in Boston, for instance, at 42° North then you need to angle the panels at about 42° from the horizontal or if you are in a southern area like Miami at 25° North then 25° is what you need. This changes with the seasons so for summer use the angle can be decreased by about 10-15° and for winter, increased by about 10-15°. It is more important to have the correct orientation than angle however. The following table summarizes the options available.
Roof-Mounted Systems
Northern Hemisphere Solar Panel Orientation Chart