In a "close-coupled" SWH system the storage tank is horizontally mounted immediately above the solar collectors on the roof. No pumping is required as the hot water naturally rises into the tank through thermosiphon flow. In a "pump-circulated" system the storage tank is ground- or floor-mounted and is below the level of the collectors; a circulating pump moves water or heat transfer fluid between the tank and the collectors.
SWH systems are designed to deliver hot water for most of the year. However, in winter there sometimes may not be sufficient solar heat gain to deliver sufficient hot water. In this case a gas or electric booster is used to heat the water.
Residential solar thermal installations fall into two groups: passive (sometimes called "compact") and active (sometimes called "pumped") systems. Both typically include an auxiliary energy source (electric heating element or connection to a gas or fuel oil central heating system) which is activated when the water in the tank falls below a minimum temperature setting such as 55 ° C. Hence, hot water is always available. The combination of solar water heating and using the back-up heat from a wood stove chimney to heat water can enable a hot water system to work all year round in cooler climates, without the supplemental heat requirement of a solar water heating system being met with fossil fuels or electricity.
When a solar water heating and hot-water central heating system are used in conjunction, solar heat will either be concentrated in a pre-heating tank that feeds into the tank heated by the central heating, or the solar heat exchanger will replace the lower heating element and the upper element will remain in place to provide for any heating that solar cannot provide. However, the primary need for central heating is at night and in winter when solar gain is lower. Therefore, solar water heating for washing and bathing is often a better application than central heating because supply and demand are better matched. In many climates, a solar hot water system can provide up to 85% of domestic hot water energy. This can include domestic non-electric concentrating solar thermal systems.