Building Solar Panels Is Not Rocket Science… Even The Mechanically Challenged Can Do It
An article written by: Ken Korczak
Even people who consider themselves mechanically challenged can start building solar panels if they put their mind to it and follow some basic instruction to get the job done. The main reason for building solar panels DIY (Do It Yourself) style is obvious — you save cash. In general, you can save about 50% of the cost of a solar panel with a DIY approach over buying commercial solar panels. High quality solar panel cost about $250 -$330 each. If you are really crafty and clever, you can build a 36-cell solar panel for about $100 to $150.
Now, there are many kinds of solar panels, but for the purpose of this article, we are talking about a panel that contains 36 individual solar cells of 3 by 6-inches each. Each cell produces about ½ volt so the whole panel will generate about 18 volts of electricity. So your first task is to buy the cells. (Note: You could make your own cells but that requires a whole other level of skills and steps which would make for a whole different article).
If you really want to scrimp, buy used, slightly damaged or blemished solar cells which can be purchased for maybe $1 each from sites like eBay. However, these will not perform as well as new cells, so it it may pay to buy lots of new solar cells. With a little luck, you can get the 36 your need for about $50. If you buy in greater quantity you can save even more, and have what you need for building solar panels in the future.
Next you need to build the panel itself which you will affix your individual cells to. A piece of 3/8-inch thick plywood works well. This will be a rectable measuring 20 ¾-inches wide by 45 3/4 inches long. Place ¾ by ¾ strips around the edges to create a shallow “box.”
The wooden panel will be fitted with a sheet of Masonite pegboard drilled with ¼-inch venting holes to stabilize the air pressure inside the panel after it is sealed. This will be done with Plexiglas which you place over the top of the solar cells after you glue them down onto the panel. Most people who build solar panels chose to coat both the board and Masonite panels with white paint.
When the paint is dry you’re ready to draw a grid pattern on your panel to make it easy to place each cell evenly across the board.
Each cell must be soldered together using soldering tabs to link each cell to each other. Use a low-wattage soldering iron and fine rosin core solder. You have to be careful because the cells are thin and delicate. You don’t want to break any! Also, do some research on the proper way to connect solar cells with soldering. The negative tabs from the top of one cell are soldered to the positive tab at the bottom of the cell next to it. When you get done you’ll have six strings of connected cells of six cells each. These three strings need to be wired to each other with copper wire so they all work together – find some detailed instructions to make sure you are doing this right. Such diagrams are easily available online.
Now you are ready to glue down your strings of cells, and this is best done using silicone caulk, using a small blog for each individual cell. This can be tricky because you’ll be flipping and manipulating your string of delicately soldered and wired cells, and you don’t want to break any of your painstaking work. People when building solar panels report that this is where they tend to slip up most — so forewarned is forearmed.
Once you have your cell strings glued down on their Masonite boards, it’s time to drop them into your frame and fasten them down with screws! You’re almost done!
Now – building solar panels need something called a blocking diode to prevent it from discharging the battery at night, or when it is cloudy. Diodes are cheap and you can buy them on eBay or elsewhere for just a few dollars. Again, it is advisable that you find a diagram and exact instructions on how and where to attach the diodes. It’s not difficult, but needs to be done right. Once the diodes are in place – it’s time to seal up your panel by placing the plexiglass on top!
This article is designed to describe to you the basic steps to building solar panels. The task will obviously be made easier if you get your hands of some actual diagrams and spec, including pictures, to help guide you through the process, and these are available free online from a variety of sources. No one should think they cannot build solar panels. You can! You may even enjoy it! You might want to watch this step-by-step video that shows you how it’s done. And if your interested in building solar panels you should check out these reviews on a few of the better known kits that are available online