How to Make a Solar Panel From Scratch
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Learning how to build a solar panel can be pretty beneficial if you know what you’re doing. Building your own from scratch can be affordable and allows you to work on your project whenever you want. Is it worth it to do it yourself?
Why Make Your Own Solar Panel?
Although you need a long materials list and some background knowledge of electricity, building a solar panel can be very rewarding. It can be a fun experience, and you can pick up the project on your own time. The benefit of building it yourself is you can progress whenever you have the free time and budget to continue.
Since sunlight reaches everywhere on Earth relatively equally, you can likely use solar panels wherever you live. It’s a great, affordable investment for those looking to be sustainable or save on their monthly energy bill.
There’s a further financial incentive to install one because the federal government allows homeowners to write off solar panels on their taxes. You can also get a large amount of tax relief if you install solar panels since installations are eligible for a 30% tax credit until 2032.
Is It Affordable to Build Your Own?
When you get a fully built solar panel, the manufacturing and installation labor factor into the cost. Getting a pre-made version and having workers install it can raise the overall cost significantly. The cost varies widely, but prices for a pre-made panel can range from $3,500 to $35,000 on average. It’s dependent on how large they are and which parts you choose. You have more control over the price if you pick out individual pieces.
What Should You Know Before Beginning?
You need background knowledge of electrician work before beginning. It’s relatively easy to source the materials and build a solar panel, but you deal with fairly complex soldering and wiring. Plus, some locations require you to have an electrician’s license before you begin.
Also, be aware the panels eventually require maintenance to keep functioning efficiently. You won’t have to do it often, so it’ll only cost around $150 a year for professional inspections and repairs. Those services don’t typically include cleaning, but panels only need to be washed once or twice a year on average. Anticipating costs beyond building and installation can be helpful when you’re preparing.
What Parts Will You Need?
It’s relatively easy to source each of the parts you need for your panel. The amount will vary based on the type of parts you get and the size you decide to build, but you’ll likely need a little of everything.
Here are some of the essentials:
- Solar cells: The solar cells are the parts that absorb the light so it can be converted into energy. Different types vary in price because of their efficiency and durability. You can find them at a hardware store or online.
- Wood: You need a flat sheet of wood for the backing and sides of your panel. Although you can use other materials, it is easy to work with and relatively inexpensive.
- Inverter: An inverter is a piece that makes the energy the panel generates usable by converting direct current electricity into alternating current. Choose which type to use depending on your project size and scope.
- Tempered glass: The cells must be able to receive sunlight, so tempered glass is used to protect and cover them because it’s transparent and sturdy.
- EVA film: EVA stands for ethylene-vinyl acetate. It goes in between different layers to seal and protect the cells from moisture and dust.
- Solar battery: A solar battery stores any excess electricity the solar cells generate. You don’t necessarily need one — only 4% of residential systems had one in 2020 — but having one for interruptions in the power grid or low-light conditions can be useful.
- Soldered wire: Tabbing wire connects the solar cells. You can get non-soldered wire if you want to spend less, but it can take a lot of time to solder everything manually.
- Flux pen: Flux pens are relatively cheap. They make soldering easy and help the solder work as it should.
- Busbar: A busbar is a flat metal strip necessary for power distribution. It connects the rows of solar cells in the panel together.
- Wood glue: Wood glue will keep the cells, plexiglass, and wooden backing board attached.
- Silicone: You need silicone to seal everything and keep the inside of the solar panel clean and dry.
While you can technically skip or substitute some of these parts, we created the list based on ease and affordability. It’s not exhaustive of all the materials you could use, so you have more options than these. For example, you could use acrylic backing instead of wood if you prefer.
How to Make a Solar Panel
To make a solar panel, you have to connect individual solar cells to each other, a backing board and a junction box. After that, you must properly treat them so they’re waterproof and weatherproof. Making one is not very difficult, but it’s a time-consuming process.
- Connect Your Solar Cells
To connect your solar cells, lay the soldered wire along the few larger horizontal lines you see and attach them to the back of the next cell. Line up these lines on the front of the first panel with the contact points on the back of the second panel.
To bond them, you have to gently solder the wire to each cell with a soldering iron. Use the flux pen on the area beforehand. You repeat this process with all of your solar cells to make a column. The purpose is to connect them all to have a full-sized panel.
- Attach the Cells to The Wood
Before you attach the cells, lay down a sheet of EVA measured to fit onto the backing board. You heat it to bond it, though you need to be careful to keep it airtight as you do so. It becomes clear after it cools back down.
When you glue the solar cells to your wooden backing board, place them gently because they’re pretty fragile. The wires’ ends should be sticking out between each cell. Make sure they’re easily adjustable. Each row needs to run in the opposite direction of the next, so the wire should stick out on alternating sides for each one.
- Solder the Cells Together
Use the flux pen along the two large horizontal lines of wire. Take the extra wire sticking out the back of each solar panel and solder it to those lines on the front of the next one. Once you’re at the end, you solder the tabbing wire to a busbar.
Place the busbar so it aligns evenly with the two horizontal wires. Leave a small gap between it and the solar cell. Repeat this process but use longer busbars for every row except the first and last. The long versions should span the length of four of the horizontal lines, meaning you would solder four wires to one busbar.
- Make Your Wooden Frame
The panel needs a box for protection. Measure the size of your panel and make it roughly the same size. Leave an inch or two of extra space around each side to fit everything correctly.
Measure and cut a plank of wood for each side of the box. You want them tall enough to protect the panel but not so tall that they accidentally shade it. Secure the pieces of wood together with multiple screws on each side to ensure it’s sturdy. Attach the frame to the backing with wood glue.
Using silicone, attach a junction box to the back of the panel for all the wiring you run. A diode lets the electrical current out of the panel but restricts electricity from going back in. Connect one by attaching it to the busbar with silicone. The positive end should be wired to the negative end of the panel.
Attach another wire to the positive end and run it to the junction box. Connect the other wire to the opposite side of the box. When you’re done with all the wiring, connect it to a charge controller to protect the solar battery from receiving too much energy at once.
Ensure the battery and inverter are the correct sizes for your panel. You then match the negative and positive terminals of the panel with the positive and negative terminals in the inverter.
- Finishing Touches
Once the wiring is complete, you can clean and attach the plexiglass. Keep it from touching the solar panels by using small pieces of wood to add a gap. Seal the glass with silicone, being careful not to use excess. Use it to seal the wires in place as well. Afterward, let the silicone completely dry.
Make Your Own Solar Panel
Check out your local regulations to see if you can build your own solar panels since you might need a license or knowledge of wiring. It might take a while to build, but it’s worth it to have a sustainable source of energy.
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About the author
Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.