DIY Solar Panels

DIY Solar Panels: The Ultimate Building Guide [Update 2019]

dr Drashco
dr Drashco How To Guides

Knowing how to install solar panels is great.

Knowing how to build solar panels is even better.

But when you can do BOTH?

That's when you can slap an "S" on your chest...

...because you'll be a real DIY Superman.

And today I have something that will make you feel like you have superpowers:

Learn how to build DIY Solar Panels that are cooler than Tesla's solar roof

Want to know the best part?

I built my first DIY solar collector almost entirely with empty soda cans!

In this guide, you'll learn:

Look:

I first started researching this topic back in 2009.

I reached out to several residential solar companies and professional solar installers for advice.

What they told me is that building and installing solar is very complicated. And I would have to pass a specialized training to be able to install and build solar energy systems myself.

And guess what? They were all wrong!

Thanks to Gary Reysa and Mother Earth News, I stumbled across the cansolair solar furnace on the internet.

It took me less than 1 second to realize how awesome this project is. I instantly decided to start working on a similar do-it-yourself solar panel.

After studying their commercial version of the solar system, I have learned that even simple solar constructions could produce 2 KiloWatts of power. That makes such solar panels perfect for supplemental home heating.

Note: This post was first published in 2013. I recently gave it a much-needed update and added a lot of great tips and enhancement that I recently learned. Enjoy!

Let's face it:

The concept of building and installing solar panels yourself is not new.

Some homeowners choose DIY to save a few bucks.

Others do it for fun or simply because they want to build something useful and learn something new.

The first thing you're going to learn today is how to figure out if DIY solar is for you and also how to build DIY solar panels.

In fact, going solar has significant benefits for homeowners:

  • Solar increases the value of your home;
  • Decreases environment pollution by lowering the carbon footprint;
  • Solar brings considerable savings by reducing electricity expenses;
  • It makes you feel good (because you did something right!).

Because of high price tags on commercial systems, solar can be a significant investment. To save money, many homeowners are turning to DIY or buying solar kits.

To help you decide on the commercial or DIY solar system, I have compiled a list of 4 necessary solar project steps. You only need to check them and figure out if this is something you can do or not.

Four-Step Process to DIY Solar Panels

These are the exact steps that I will be explaining in-depth with this solar guide:

  1. Determine energy consumption and optimal energy needs for your home;
  2. Choose the size and design of your system: photovoltaic solar PV system or solar thermal;
  3. Get solar system components (solar cells, racking, solar inverter);
  4. Build and install solar panels, connect them to your home.

How DIY Solar Panels Work?

Let's take a look at how a DIY solar thermal system works. When it's sunny, regardless of outdoor temperature, black solar cells heat up very quickly. The fan drives cold air from the inside of the home, through heated solar cells and then back into the room.

solar heating tromb wall

Moving air acts as a medium for collecting solar power from each cell and then brings the heat back into the room. The room, solar panel, air inlet, and air outlet form a closed-loop air circulation system.

The air cannot escape outside of the solar cell walls (tube out of pop cans), which helps to avoid fogging and deposition of dust on the inner side of Plexiglas. The following image shows a simplified sketch of all solar power system elements for air heating.

solar panel for heating - functional diagram

Ok, let's summarize how this thing works:

The fan draws cold air from the room into the solar panel. The air goes through the filter and passes a one-way-pass-valve. Separate air-directing compartments (made of aluminum sheet 1 mm / 0.04 inches) distribute the air throughout the solar system.

We have strategically placed these boxes on the lower and upper part of the solar system. The bottom of the collector's housing is channeling the air into solar cells (tunnels constructed using pop cans). The air gets warm in contact with the solar cell wall. It raises and goes toward the output located in the upper corner of the room.

DIY solar panels are sun-powered, but electricity is still needed to drive the airflow. If you are living in a remote place (and off-grid), hook up a small PV solar panel or wind turbine to power the air blower.

If you manage to build a fully autonomous DIY solar panel aided with wind generator - you'll be a master of sustainable living.

But before you do, make sure to read the next technique on my list…

First Step - Cut Your Home's Heat Loss

Before going solar, you'll need to conduct a thorough assessment of your home insulation. The idea is to improve heating efficiency and cut all possible losses.

Why is this part so important?

Because you can install smaller solar panels after reducing heat losses in your home, and also get the same result as with the twice bigger solar system.

If you want to achieve this with a single hack, check out my post on how to improve the thermal efficiency of your home using bubble wrap insulation on windows.

Do-It-Yourself Solar Panel Construction

Housing for DIY solar panels is made using plywood (15mm/0.6in thick), while its front is a polycarbonate sheet, 3mm/0.12in thick. You can use tempered glass here, but it will make your solar panels much heavier. We have insulated the backside of the solar collector with 20mm/0.8in rock-wool or styrodur.

The solar collector's main ingredients are aluminum cans (beer or soda cans, painted matte-black). The top of each can is cut and bent in a way to ensure efficient heat exchange between the pop cans and the flowing air.

Step by Step Guide: Building DIY Solar Panels

I have to warn you – solar installation is not very easy for the complete and total beginner. But do not get discouraged – that is why I have created this do-it-yourself solar guide. I'll walk you through the exact procedure that I used, step-by-step.

Let's dive right in.

First, let's collect empty pop cans for solar panel assembly. Wash them thoroughly to prevent strange odors from showing up during the first run of solar collector. Pop-cans generally contain aluminum, but there are some made of iron. For this solar project, we need aluminum cans. You can test them quickly with a magnet.

Carefully cut the top of each can with a sharp can-opener, then remove the loose top out of the can. You need to carefully punch the bottom of the can with a large Philips screwdriver, and then widen the hole up to max 1/3 of the can top radius.

The shape of the bottom hole in the form of a star has a task to provide turbulent airflow, which in return, will enhance heat transfer from the can wall to the passing air.

The idea is to encourage turbulent airflow inside pop cans so that air passing through the tube can collect more heat from the warm wall of pop cans.

It is essential to do this before gluing the cans together. You can find more details about the exact steps on youtube: DIY solar panels video guide.

001-preparation-of-pop-cans-for-DIY-solar-panels

Image 1 Image 2 Image 3

BE CAREFUL! This procedure is hazardous because of a thin pop can wall. Sharp parts may cause hand injury.

After completing the punching of the bottom hole, small parts of the metal could remain in the can. Use pliers to remove these parts.

Do not remove pieces of sheet metal and debris with your bare hands!

Remove grease and dirt from the surface of cans. Any synthetic de-grease agent will do the job. Do this outdoors or in a well-ventilated room.

BE CAREFUL! This procedure is flammable! It is dangerous to do this near an open flame or cigarette!!!

Glue all cans together using adhesive silicone resistant to high temperatures (up to 200°C/400°F). Some products can easily withstand temperatures up to 300°C/570°F. The top and bottom of pop cans are compatible and fit ideally one onto another.

Put some glue or silicone on the edge of one can and press it against the other. In this way, the glue/silicone will not run away from the side. Picture 4 shows the inside view of two pop cans glued together, while a series of stacked and finished cans is in image 5.

Picture 4 Picture 5 Picture 6

cans-for-solar-panel

Image 7 Image 8 Image 9

Picture 10

Prepare a template for stacking cans - "L" profile shown on image 6. You can use two ordinary flat wooden planks and nail them together. A wooden template will provide the necessary support for solar pipe during the drying process. Also, do not forget to secure the cans onto a template using jar rubbers.

Images 7, 8, and 9 show the gluing process. A series of glued cans form a solar pipe. Picture 10 shows the tube in a fixed position until the glue gets completely dry.

solar-thermal-panel-air-intake

Image 11 Image 12 Image 13

Air intake and exhaust junction box for DIY solar panels are made using wood or aluminum, 1mm/0.04in thick (Images 11 and 12). We have filled the gaps around the edges with adhesive tape or heat-resistant silicone. 55mm/2.16in diameter cut-outs are drilled on one side of the intake/exhaust box.

Drilled parts can be seen in images 12 and 13. This is where the first row of cans will be glued to the air intake/exhaust boxes. Check out how it looks when all parts are assembled and prepared for painting (img. 13).

Let the adhesive dry for at least 24 hours.

Solar cell perfectly fits into the wooden casing (img. 14). The backside of the solar panel box is made out of plywood. Rock wool or styrodur is used as insulation - image 15. You need to pay special attention when insulating openings around the solar collector air intake or outlet.

How to Install Solar Panels Yourself Step by Step

The next step is preparation, protection, and painting of a wooden box (solar panel housing). Special hooks have to be attached to all four corners of the solar collector so that we can mount it on the wall (img. 16) using 10mm/0.4in screws (img. 17). We have placed an empty box on the wall to precisely mark the spot for drilling the air inlet/exhaust.

Picture 14 Picture 15 Picture 16 Picture 17

finished-solar-thermal-panel

Picture 18 Picture 19 Picture 20

Finally, we have painted our DIY solar panel in matte-black and placed it inside the wooden case. The case cover is a polycarbonate sheet thoroughly corked with silicone. To prevent bending during the extreme heat throughout the summer, we have bent the polycarbonate/ plexiglass and made is slightly curved (convex).

Picture 18 shows installed solar cells without plexiglass. A completed solar collector is shown on image 19. Finally, image 20 shows the installed solar power system. You have probably noticed there is no ground mount.

solar energy radiation angle for mounting solar panels

Ideally, you should install solar panels to face the south. If that is not possible, then the south-east or south-west side is acceptable as well. When determining the position for solar collector mounting, consider the angle of the sun's rays in the winter season.

Instead of a roof or ground mounting (with a 60° angle), we have used a vertical wall mount (90° angle) for the installation of our solar panels. Not perfect, but it is the most practical solution. It also prevents overheating during the summer.

What Does it Cost to Build Pop Can Solar Panel?

The following table contains parts needed for assembling pop can DIY solar panels.

It is a list of parts and calculation of the cost without elements damaged and wasted during the experimenting and prototyping process. In the last row, you can see that the total solar panel cost will be around $200 if you strictly follow instructions from our "do it yourself" guide.

PART QTY $
Plexiglass 2.5m2 70
Alu-Sheet 0.6m2 7.5
Wood 3.7m2 29.5
WoodPaint 2cans 10.5
Blk. Paint 3cans 15.5
Styrodur 4m2 11.5
Silicon 4cans 17
El. Fan 1 pc 23.5
Alu-Profile 6.6m 11
Snap Disc 1 pc 9
TOTAL   $205

Using Recycled Parts Can Lower Solar panel Cost

You could substantially reduce the price of solar panels if you make an effort to use parts that are otherwise collecting dust lying around in your garage. Besides, you will need to collect empty soda or beer cans. If you don't drink beer or soda, you can ask for empty cans in any restaurant or gas station. It is also important to get all the necessary tools before you start building.

The most expensive parts of a solar panel are plexiglass sheets, fans, and wooden elements. If your budget is low, there are some cheaper part alternatives. For example, you can make the solar panel front cover using Lexan. Comparing to the UV resistant polycarbonate sheet, Lexan is a lot cheaper, but also less efficient.

Before you start collecting parts for the homemade solar panel, do not forget the importance of solving any thermal leakage and insulation problems in your home. With proper insulation, you will be able to heat your home with less energy and with a much smaller solar panel. That also means you will spend less money on parts for your home heating DIY project and lower the solar panel costs to less than $200...

DIY Solar panels technical specs:

Panel Width: 1.09m
Panel Hight: 2.2m
Panel Depth: 160mm
Total Area: 2,4m2
Effective Area: 2,3m2
Weight: 66 kg
Intake diameter: 100mm
Outlet diameter: 125mm
No. of cans: 225pcs
Orientation: vert/horiz.

Discover the Benefits of Solar Powered Home (for a Few Hundred Bucks)

Hit the play button to see how my solar panel works:

Video shows how solar panel operates on a bright sunny day. After only 20 minutes, the temperature of the air entering our solar-powered home went up quickly to 50°C/122°F.

Differential thermostat (snap disc) controls the fan. You can get it from almost any electronic component store. The thermostat has two sensors:

  • one sensor inside the top opening (hot air),
  • a second sensor inside the bottom opening (cold air supply).

If on/off temperature values are set correctly, DIY solar panels can produce an average of 2 kiloWatt of free energy for home heating. Solar power output generally depends on how much sun you have during the day.

Homemade Solar Panel Test Drive

The first test of the solar collector was carried out in the backyard on a sunny winter day without any clouds. After only 10 minutes in the sun, solar furnace started to blow hot air (70°C/158°F)! We have used big cooler extracted from a faulty PC power supply as an air blower fan.

Test results and solar panel efficiency encouraged us to have the panels installed on the house as soon as possible.

With our solar panels installed, the outside temperature fell below -3°C/26°F, and surprisingly solar collector was already supplying the room with 3m3/min (3 cubic meters per minute) of warm air. At the same time, we have switched to a more powerful fan. Hot air temperature went up to +72°C/162°F (measured with a digital thermometer).

To calculate the total energy production of a solar furnace, we have entered into a formula the airflow and average air temperature output. Calculated solar power output from DIY solar panels was approximately 1950 W (watts), which is almost 3 HP (3 horsepower)!!!

Pros and Cons of DIY Solar

CONS: This solar thermal system does not have a battery bank. It is not able to accumulate thermal energy after producing it. When it's sunny, solar collector produces heat, but it is necessary to use it instantly. If the sun does not shine, it is required to block the solar collector air supply; otherwise, the room will begin to cool off. You can solve this by installing a shut-off valve, which reduces unnecessary heat loss.

PROS: Solar kits are much easier to install compared to DIY solar. Given the cost-effectiveness and excellent results, the conclusion is that DIY solar panels are worth making. Solar collector, at the very least, can be used for additional heating of your home. It's up to you to calculate and figure out how much money you can save with renewable energy.

By building cheap DIY solar panels, you can achieve significant savings during the heating season. Depending on the construction and material quality, one square meter of solar heating system can supply solar energy for 10 - 15 m² of your living space. In other words, 2x1m solar panels (2 square meters covered with pop cans) can heat up to 30m² (square meters) of your home.

The bottom line?

DIY Solar panels can be quite efficient and quite cheap at the same time. In New York City latitude, the sun delivers up to 1000 Watts per m².

Out of those 1000 Watts, photovoltaic panels can capture around 200 W / m². At the same time, a DIY solar thermal system of the same size can capture 500 - 800W / m² which is up to four times more!

On top of everything, I saved almost $1K on my electric bill last year, thanks to this solar furnace.

But wait, there's more...

Subscribe to FreeOnPlate.com notifications, and you'll also learn how I lowered the cost of solar, including the payback period, without a rebate, solar tax credit, or solar financing.

So what do you think, to DIY or not to DIY? Let me know in the comments section.