Build Solar Panels

In this write-up, I’ll walk you through exactly how to build solar panels, based on my own design and experience.  I found the original inspiration for DIY Solar Panels after stumbling upon a series of guides and videos from a group called Green DIY Energy.  I would highly recommend this kit for complete information on how to not only build solar panels, but for complete information on building portable, on grid, off-grid solar power systems.

The solar panel design instructions below will help you create 1 homemade solar panel, made up of 36 solar cells, producing a total of 20v and 3amps of power.  The finished size of the DIY solar panel is 21″ wide x 42″ high.

Here’s a list of parts that you’ll need (and the cost I paid for my materials):

(2) 1x2x8 BC grade pine (furring strips are cheaper)

$2.30 ($1.15ea)

(1) ¼”x2’x4’ BC grade plywood

$6.44

(1) tube acrylic latex caulk (35 yr or 50 yr recommended)

$2.25

(1) 1/8” clear acrylic (cut to exact specifications, 21”x42”)

$30.14

(36) 3”x6” solar cells (pre-tabbed)

$70.56

(1pkg) ¾” expandable sleeving (to house the wires)

$7.57

(10’) 16ga wire

$0.75

Silver Solder

$4.20

Flux Pen

$5.75

Total                                          $129.96

*Note: the solder and flux pen can be to build several solar panels

Here’s a list of tools that you’ll need:

  • Drill
  • Circular Saw or Table Saw
  • Mitre saw
  • Soldering Iron
  • Router w/ 1/4″ straight bit (You can still build solar panels without using a router)
  • Caulk gun
  • Staple gun
  • Phillips screwdriver

Step 1 – Solder the solar cells together

It helps if you have a large desktop area where you can lay out and solder the solar cells together.  Take a piece of masking tape and use it to make a long straight line.  This will be used as a guide to ensure the row of solar cells is straight. Next, layout a single solar cell face down and lay another solar cell next to it, where the tabbing wire overlays the solder points of the first solar cell. I used around 1/16″ gap between the solar cells.  Next, begin soldering your joints.  For instructions on soldering solar cells, watch the video below:

Continue soldering until you have joined 12 solar cells together with this method.  When your done, you should have something like this:

<will be posting pic soon>

Step 2 -Solder 2 more “rows” of solar cells

Repeat step 1 to produce 2 more rows of solar cells.  When your done, you’ll have 3 individual “rows” of solar cells, soldered together.  Each row will have 12 solar cells.  With 3 rows of 12 solar cells each, you should have a total of 36 solar cells.  Once you’ have your solar cell rows, be sure to test them out in the sun with a multi-meter.  You should expect .5v for each solar cell…so for a total of 12 solar cells, you should see ~6v.  Also, you should check the amps as well.  The amps will depend on the types of solar cells your using.  For mine, I was getting around 3amps.

Step 3 – Solder tabbing wire onto the open ends of each row

In order to join your rows of solar cells together, you’ll need to add some tabbing wire strips onto to the front side of each of your end runs.  Just use your flux pen and solder just like you did when you soldered your solar cells together earlier.

Adding tabbing wiring during a project to Build Solar Panels

Adding tabbing wiring during a project to Build Solar Panels

Once finished, simply set the solar cell rows aside, as we begin building the solar panel to actually house them.

Step 4 – Begin Building the Frame

You’re going to be using the 1X2 pieces to create the frame.  The frame will have a ½” channel routed along the inside of the wood, which will house the ¼” plywood.  Once pressed and glued together, it creates a very strong and durable panel.  My finished panels were 21” wide and 42” tall, housing 3 rows of 36 solar cells.  This leaves a ¾” gap between the cells and the side of the panel and ½” depth “box” where the solar cells are attached.  Let’s get started..

  1. Cut the 1×2 so that you have 2 pieces that are 21” in length with a 45⁰ miter cut on each end and 2 pieces that are 42” in length, also with a 45⁰ miter cut on each end.  When finished, all 4 pieces should lay together like a picture frame.
  2. Cut the plywood to 20 ¼” x 41 ¼”
  3. Use a router and a ¼” straight bit to cut a channel along the inside edge of the framed pieces.  The channel will start ½” down from the top, and be cut to a depth of 5/16”

A piece of 1x2 used for the edge of the DIY Solar Panel frame...notice the 1/4" channel cut along the inside

A piece of 1x2 used for the edge of the DIY Solar Panel frame...notice the 1/4" channel cut along the inside

This is how the frame will fit together when building our DIY Solar Panels...this makes for a very strong and durable solar panel

This is how the frame will fit together when building our DIY Solar Panels...this makes for a very strong and durable solar panel

Step 5 – Dry Fit the Frame and Plywood Together

With the frame and plywood cut, you’ll want to dry fit all the pieces together.  Start with 1 piece of the frame at a time and hammer the plywood into the groove.  I used a rubber mallet.  With all 4 pieces snugly on the plywood, the picture frame gaps should come together tightly.  The picture below is meant to give an example only and is not the correct size of the actual plywood.

Step 6 – It’s Time to Glue the Pieces Together

Next take 1 of the frame pieces off at a time (LEAVE THE REST OF THE PIECES IN PLACE).  Add wood glue into the channel and the ends.  Then, gently hammer the piece back onto the plywood.  Repeat with the rest of the 1×2 pieces until all 4 of the outside frame pieces are securely together.

**How to Build Solar Panels Even Thinner & Lighter**

To make solar panels even thinner and lighter, you could cut the 1×2 down, so that it’s only 1” wide.  This still gives you a ½” depth “box” to place the solar cells, which is plenty of space.

Step 7 – Paint Your New Solar Panel Frame

Be sure to use at least 2 coats of a primer, like Kiltz…either water based or enamel (water based is much easier to clean up).  Next, you can paint the solar panel in the color of your choice.  I chose to use a silver color, which is a light color to reflect the sun and keep the heat down, plus it looks just like a commercially made metal solar panel.

Waiting for final coat to dry on DIY Solar Panel

Waiting for final coat to dry on DIY Solar Panel

Step 8 – Mount the Solar Cells to the Solar Panel Frame

Use a tape measure to create marks 3/4″ away from each side of the frame and also along the half way point in the center (you’ll want an actual line across the middle).  These marks will help you align your solar cell rows on the frame when mounting.  By the way, I did this next step by myself, but it would sure help to have someone else there to assist you.  Make sure all of the solar cells are facing down.  Place a glob of caulk in the middle of each solar cell, like the picture below.  Important note: don’t caulk the entire solar cell…only place a glob of caulk in the middle.  The will provide plenty of adhesion and will allow the cell and frame to flex and contact with weather changes.  Once you have caulked the middle of each cell, get a friend to help you pickup the solar cell row and gently turn it over (it helps to turn over while holding the solar cells up and down), and place it on the frame aligned with the marks you made.  Do the same thing for the other 2 solar cell rows.

Step 9 – Connect the Solar Cell Rows together

Cut the tabbing wire on the end run solar cells to approximately 1/2″.  Next, use some of the bus wire that came with your solar cells to connect the positive to negative at the end runs.  You’ll end up having 2 rows wired together at one end of the solar panel and 2 rows connected at the other end of the solar panel. (this will need to be rewritten with hand drawn pic to show correct way to connect end runs)

Next step is to cut the tabbing wire back so that 1/2" is showing on your DIY Solar Panel

Just about to cut the tabbing wire back so that 1/2" is showing on your DIY Solar Panel

Connecting "2 rows" of solar cells with bus wiring

Connecting "2 rows" of solar cells with bus wiring

Step 10 – Connect Lead Wires to the Solar Panel

Start by drilling a small hole in the plywood at the exit point for the wiring.  The hole should be large enough for 2 16 ga wires.  Next solder a 16 ga wire onto each end of the the bus wire connections.  So, in total, you’ll have 2 wires coming from the solar cells.  I used black and white to show which is positive and which is negative. (this is not actually correct…will need to clarify here and show a handwritten image or pic from new panels for darin..)

Step 11 – Add a Blocking Diode

A blocking diode is used to keep the electricity from trying to enter the solar panel, like at night.  This will help keep the battery from draining unnecessarily.  You’ll want to wire the blocking diode in-line on the wire leg exiting from the back side of the solar cells.  The diode should be wired so that the gray band is pointed towards to the end of the wire (away from the solar panel).

Step 12 – Conceal the Wires Using Flexible Wire Mesh

I picked up the 3/4″ flexible mesh at Fry’s electronics for around $6.  You don’t have to use it…but it’s definitely worth it, imho, for 2 reasons.  First, it makes fastening the wires to the side of the solar panel a snap and 2nd, it makes your solar panel look more tidy and professional.  You’ll just want to run your wires through the mesh (cut to length) and then staple the wire mesh along the side of the solar panel frame.  Be sure not to staple into actual wires!

Using flexible wire mesh to hide wires in DIY Solar Panels

Using flexible wire mesh to hide wires in DIY Solar Panels

Step 13 – Add Plexiglass to Protect your Solar Cells

Check around locally to see who has the best price on acrylic (plexiglass).  I chose a plastics company in my hometown of Austin, TX called Regal Plastics and had them cut a piece of 1/8″ acrylic (plexiglass) to the exact dimensions of the solar panel (21″ x 42″).  It helps to drill holes through the edge of the plexiglass first, being sure to center the hole over the frame.  Next lay the plexiglass over the frame and make a mark with a pencil in each hole onto the frame.  Next, drill your frame.

Before mounting the plexiglass, be sure to test your new DIY solar panel in the sun with a multi-meter.

Once it checks out, go head and apply a bead of caulk around the top of the solar panel frame and fasten the plexiglass on with simple wood screws.  I used (20) 3/4″ panhead screws..

You’re DONE Building Your First Solar Panel!!!!!

Finished first of DIY Solar Panels

Finished first of DIY Solar Panels

I hope the information above helps you easily build solar panels for your own needs.  Once you have your DIY Solar Panels constructed, you can configure them to work in a portable setup.  I take mine camping and for various outdoor activities, where I want easy access to electricity.  You can also add several to an array and wire them for off-grid, on-grid, or remote use.  If your serious about DIY Solar Power, I would highly recommend the Guides and Videos from a group called Green DIY Energy.

Good luck in your own DIY solar power projects!

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