Plan the Perfect Sunroom Addition

Your sunroom should be oriented so the glass faces as close to true south as possible.

Think of a sunroom, sometimes called a sunspace, as a productive living area in your home with different benefits in different seasons. In spring and summer, a sunroom provides a relaxing living space. In winter, it’s also a great place to grow food plants. Even better, a sunroom can help heat your home! I estimate that a well-designed sunroom addition can pay for itself in less than five years through savings on food and home heating.

To realize the full benefits from your sunroom addition, you’ll need to incorporate the basic elements of passive solar design: orientation, glazing, thermal mass, insulation and ventilation. If you apply these principles, you shouldn’t need to heat or air-condition your sunroom — you will be able to keep this living space at a comfortable temperature by using natural systems.

Would a sunroom work for your house? If your solar exposure gives you at least four hours of sunlight around midday in midwinter, the answer is probably yes! The sunroom design strategies described in this article will work in almost all U.S. climate zones and southern Canada. However, you may want to research beyond the level of detail presented here to fine-tune your design for your specific climate, especially if you’re trying to optimize your heating potential.

Site Your Sunroom

You will want to orient your sunroom toward “true south” (which is usually a few degrees different than “magnetic” south) to best take advantage of the sun’s low angle in winter. There are several methods for finding true south. In general, orienting the solar window 20 degrees off true south reduces your solar gain by only 4 to 5 percent. On the other hand, if your glass is oriented 45 degrees off true south, solar gain will be 18 to 22 percent less.

Think About Glass

There are several types of glazing you can use for your sunroom, but I recommend glass because it traps more heat energy than plastic and because it’s durable. Plastics do not work as well as glass for trapping long wave heat energy, polycarbonates can scratch and yellow over time, and films are just too fragile for a house.

Dual glazing should be used in all but the most temperate climates, such as southern Florida. In colder climates, including much of the Northeast and northern Great Plains, triple and sometimes even quadruple layers of glass work best. I recommend clear, uncoated glass for sunrooms. Avoid reflective glazings and the newer low-e glass because they prevent much of the solar energy from entering through the glass, and they reduce the solar spectrum. If you want to grow plants in the back area of your sunroom, I also recommend skylights to bring in overhead sunlight.

For optimum winter collection of light and heat, sunroom glazing should be tilted so it’s perpendicular to the sun’s angle at winter solstice (Dec. 21). However, for several practical reasons, I’ve selected vertical glazing for my ideal sunroom design. Believe me, I’ve tried the tilted glazing on sunrooms, and it’s not the best choice for a living space.

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SUNROOM WITH A VIEW – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Sunrooms are a simple way to bring the outdoors in.

Kirt and Dianne Frye used a custom-built sunroom to expand their dining room a mere six feet, but its floor-to-ceiling glass practically brings Lake Erie into their Ohio home. “The view is spectacular,” says Kirt, adding that the arch near the ceiling gives the room a “churchlike” effect.

But how smart is using a wall of glass to shield yourself from storms that scream off the Great Lakes? Actually, pretty smart, given the high quality of Tanglewood’s sunrooms. Kirt points out that the windows are hurricane-rated and that the ceiling glass is more than an inch thick. Compared to the noise that whistled in through their old, drafty windows on a windy day, “It’s amazing how quiet it is,” Kirt says.

Allowing more natural light into a house and mixing the outdoors with indoor living space are two of the strongest trends in home design. So it’s no wonder that sunrooms like the Frye’s are receiving a warm welcome from homeowners across the U.S. Adding a sunroom has become the fifth-most-popular remodeling project, according to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

If you’re shopping for a glassed-in room today, you’ll find the terms conservatory, solarium and sunroom used almost interchangeably. However, makers of higher-priced, more rococo structures generally prefer conservatory. What they all imply, though, is not glassed-in porches or decks livable when the temperature allows, but insulated rooms that are livable year-round.

The Fryes bought their 54-square-foot mahogany-and-glass sunroom addition from Tanglewood Conservatories, a company on Maryland ‘s Eastern Shore . They use the sunny space every day as their dining room. “In this area, you can’t be outside comfortably much more than six or seven months a year. In those months that you’re cooped up in the house, it helps to bring the outdoors in.”

In most locales though, keeping the sunroom comfortable on hot, sunny days is the greater challenge. Placement is one of the keys and so is the use of high performance glass. A room will best capture the sun if it’s on a house’s south side; but you have to properly prepare for it.

When John Salvatore was building a custom home near Newport , California , his architect and builder tried to warn him against building an all-glass conservatory on the house’s west side. “They were concerned that it would really get hot and uncomfortable, and the energy bills would go through the roof”, Salvatore recalls. But he insisted, and he hired Tanglewood Conservatories to design and install a 16 foot by 18 foot conservatory off the kitchen.

The conservatory uses special high-efficiency glass, has its own heating and air-conditioning system, and also has vents in the roof that open automatically when the air gets too warm. In late September, Salvatore filed a weather report from the conservatory which at the time wasn’t using extra air-conditioning: “Today we had 102-degree weather, but the conservatory stayed relatively cool”.

One last thing to remember: somebody has to clean the windows. “Washing the windows is a little bit tricky,” notes Salvatore . He recommends sticking with professional window cleaners, who can use telescoping poles and a power washer to leave the roof and walls spotless. Salvatore recently paid a commercial window washer $250 to clean the inside and outside of all 27 glass panels in the sunroom. “I think twice a year is plenty,” he says.