DIY Solar Panels

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

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?

My first DIY solar collector was almost entirely built 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 special 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 solar system I have learned that even the simplest solar construction could easily 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 a solar panel system by 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 4 major benefits for homeowners:

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

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

To help you make a decision to DIY (or not to DIY) a solar system, I have compiled a list of 4 basic 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 actually works. When it is 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. To distribute the air through the solar system, there are separate air-directing compartments made of aluminum sheet 1 mm (0.04 inches).

These boxes are strategically placed 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 which is being heated.

DIY solar panels are sun-powered, but electricity is stil needed to drive the airflow. If you are living in a remote place (and off-grid), simply 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. Idea is to improve heating efficiency and cut all possible losses.

Why is this part so important?

Because you can actually 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 only one simple (and dirt cheap) hack, then 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 polycarbonate sheet, 3mm/0.12in thick. Tempered glass can be used as well but it will make your solar panels much heavier. The back side of the solar collector is insulated with 20mm/0.8in rock-wool or styrodur.

The solar collector is made with aluminum beer and soda cans, painted matte-black (paint resistant to high temperature). 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 basically 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. Cans are generally produced out of aluminum, but there are some made of iron. For this solar project, we need aluminum cans. You can test them easily with a magnet.

Carefully cut the top of each can with a sharp can-opener, then remove the loose top out of the can. Bottom of the can have to be carefully punched 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 air flow which in return will enhance heat transfer from the can wall to the passing air.

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 important to do this before gluing the cans together. You can find more details about 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 extremely dangerous because pop can walls are very thin. Sharp parts may cause hand injury.

After completed 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 open flame or cigarette!!!

Glue all cans together using adhesive silicone resistant to high temperatures (up to 200°C/400°F). There are products that can easily withstand temperatures up to 300°C/570°F. Top and bottom of pop cans are compatible and fit perfectly 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 edge. Image 4 shows inside view of two pop cans glued together, while series of stacked and finished cans is shown on img 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. Wooden template will provide necessary support for solar pipe during the drying process. Also secure the cans onto a template using jar rubbers.

Images 7, 8 and 9 show the gluing process. Series of glued cans form a solar pipe. Image 10 shows the pipe fixed in motionless 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 is made using wood or aluminum, 1mm/0.04in thick (Images 11 and 12). Gaps around the edges are filled with adhesive tape or heat-resistant silicone. 55mm/2.16in diameter cut-outs are drilled on one side of intake/exhaust box.

Drilled parts can be seen on 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 wooden casing (img. 14). Back side of solar panel box is made out of plywood. Rock wool or styrodur is used as insulation - image 15. Special attention is needed for insulating openings around solar collector air intake/outlet.

How to Install Solar Panels Yourself Step by Step

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 it can be mounted on the wall (img. 16) using 10mm/0.4in screws (img. 17). Empty box is placed on the wall in order 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 (matte black) and placed it inside the wooden case. The case is covered with poly-carbonate sheet, and thoroughly corked with silicone. To prevent bending when the unit is extremely heated during the summer, we have bent the poly-carbonate / plexiglass and made is slightly curved (convex).

Installed solar cells without plexiglass are shown on picture 18. Complete solar collector is shown on image 19. Finally, installed solar power system can be seen in image 20. You have probably noticed that we have decided not to use the ground mount.

solar energy radiation angle for mounting solar panels

Ideally, solar panels should be installed south-facing. 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 60° angle), we have used a vertical wall mount (90° angle) for 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 for materials only, without man-hours and without materials damaged and wasted during the experimenting and prototyping process. In the last row, you can see that total solar panel cost will be around $200, if you strictly follow instructions from our "do it yourself" guide.

PARTQTY$
Plexiglass2.5m270
Alu-Sheet0.6m27.5
Wood3.7m229.5
WoodPaint2cans10.5
Blk. Paint3cans15.5
Styrodur4m211.5
Silicon4cans17
El. Fan1 pc23.5
Alu-Profile6.6m11
Snap Disc1 pc9
TOTAL $205

Using Recycled Parts Can Lower Solar panel Cost

If you make an effort to recycle and use parts that are lying around in your basement or garage collecting dust, you could substantialy reduce final amount. Of course, do not forget that in addition 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.

Plexiglass sheet, fan and wooden parts are most expensive items, so if budget or final solar panels price is the issue, there are some cheaper alternatives. In case if solar panel cost is important, you can make the front side (cover) of the panel using Lexan which is a lot cheaper (but also less efficient) than UV resistant clear poly-carbonate sheet.

Before you start collecting necessary parts from our list for solar thermal panel, let`s not forget how important is to solve any thermal leakage and insulation problems in your home. It can really make a difference because with proper insulation you will be able to heat your home with less energy and with much smaller solar panel. That also means you will spend less money on parts for your home heating DIY project and get solar panel cost down 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 Few Hundred Bucks)

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

Video shows how solar panel operates on a clear sunny day. After only 20 minutes, the temperature of the air entering our solar-powered home quickly went up 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 are able to produce an average of 2 kiloWatt of free energy for home heating. Solar power output generally depends on how much sun do we have during the day.

Homemade Solar Panel Test Drive

The first dress rehearsal 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 very hot air (70°C/158°F)! For air blower fan we have used big cooler extracted from a faulty PC power supply.

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 3 m3/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 the air flow and average air temperature output into a formula. 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 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 necessary 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 easier to install compared to DIY solar. Given the cost-effectiveness and great results, the conclusion is that DIY solar panels are definitely worth making. Solar collector, at the very least, can be used for additional heating of your home. It is 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.

PhotoVoltaic panels can capture around 200 W / m² out of those 1000 Watts. Same size DIY solar thermal system can capture 500 -  800W / m² which is up to four times more!

On top of everything, I have 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.