How to Build Solar Panels at Home

Before learning how to build solar panels at home, it will pay you to do some preliminary planning. You'll need to take an overview of your solar power project, as well as determine your available time, tools, and working space.

Your project will also be affected by its size (how many homemade panels you need to build) and your level of workshop experience.

Therefore, aside from learning how to build solar panels, you'll need to define your goals, prepare your workspace and allocate sufficient time to complete the task to have a successful project. This page explains how to go about it.

Making DIY PV Panels Efficiently

Determining How Many Solar Panels You'll Need

Solar Panel CalculatorSolar Panel Calculator

Your first step before learning how to build solar panels is to figure out how many photovoltaic (PV) panels you'll need. To help you with this step, I've prepared a handy Solar Panel Calculator that you can download from this site for free.

A home energy audit can help to determine your electricity needs. While installing solar panels can help make your home less dependent on local utilities, the wise approach is to audit your household electricity use before you begin to plan your home PV installation.

By exposing and eliminating wasteful habits of energy use and by putting new energy saving practices into place, you might be able to enjoy an immediate reduction in your electric power bill with very little effort.

The good news is that if your new energy saving habits result in a significant decrease in your electricity use, you'll be able to scale down your plans for a PV power system.

You won't be needing as many PV panels to meet your family's energy needs as you earlier thought. You'll not only save money by lowering your electricity bills, but you'll end up paying less for your homemade PV system. Fewer solar panels to build means less construction costs and greater savings.

How many PV panels you build in one session will depend a great deal on your current experience. If you've never built DIY solar panels before, it might be best to start off small by building one or two small panels to trickle charge your car's 12-volt battery or to power a small light in your garden shed.

As you work your way through the process, you'll not only be learning how to make solar panels, but you'll be learning about your own tools and resources, and the best way to manage them in your limited workspace. A small hands-on project offers the best way to learn how to build solar panels.

Your Project Workspace

Next, examine the space you have available to store your tools and materials. Do you have enough room to spread everything out during the construction process? You won't want to be constantly shifting materials around for lack of space.

Few people have a ready-made workshop in their basement that's suitable for PV panel construction. Chances are you'll need to convert an area of your basement, garage, or maybe a spare room into your panel assembly area. You'll need space to spread out your materials.

Whichever workspace you choose, it will need access to electrical outlets for your soldering iron and power tools. Plus, it needs to be well ventilated to exhaust the noxious fumes created by the hot soldering flux. When inhaled, rosin-based flux fume may be hazardous to your health. It can cause irritation to the eyes and upper respiratory tract and can make existing asthmatic conditions worse.

A driveway or flagstone patio might be a safe, well-ventilated workspace, using portable work tables or possibly saw horses and plywood to make a sturdy work surface. If the area can be shielded from the sun by an awning or canvas tarp, so much the better. Materials will need to be stored in a nearby garage or garden shed to protect them from rain and dew.

Estimating the Construction Time

Time is a crucial factor to consider in the preliminary planning stage. You'll not only need to arrange for the time it takes to build your own solar panels, but you'll need to allow yourself extra time for the learning process, depending on your level of experience.

If you don't know how to build solar panels and have never constructed a PV panel before, it's difficult for you to judge how long it's going to take. Plan on doubling your initial time estimate to be safe.

Also add extra time for troubleshooting mistakes and unexpected surprises such as running out of solder or copper wire or having to replace a cracked pane of tempered glass. There are always surprises with any solar project, especially when learning how to build solar panels.

Basic Tools and Materials

Building a Solar PanelHow to Build Solar Panels
(Source: © Lucarelli

Once you have an overview of your solar panel project and know how many homemade PV panels you need, and you've sorted out the workspace and scheduled your working time, then you can begin gathering the necessary tools and materials.

You will only need a basic set of tools for PV panel construction, so it's very likely that you already have most of them in your toolbox. Here's an overview of the tools and materials that you'll need:

  • Saw to cut the panel backing (substrate), but you can get by without one if you can get the wooden frame material cut to size at the lumber yard in exchange for a small cutting fee.

  • Power drill and a set of small screwdrivers, and a quantity of screws to assemble the panel frame.

  • Low-voltage soldering iron and lead flux to connect the solar cells and wire the panel to create the electrical circuit that will deliver the solar electricity to its destination.

  • Reliable voltage meter or multimeter to test and troubleshoot the numerous electrical connections in the power circuit, and the solar panel output in full, direct sunlight.

  • Calking gun and silicon caulk to seal the Plexiglas onto the panel frame to prevent moisture from entering the solar panel.

  • Paint brush and a can of quality UV-resistent paint to seal the backing from the elements.

Solar Panel Parts Needed

Solar power panels consist of no moving parts and only a few basic components: frame, backing, solar cells, wiring, and the top. Their simple construction is one reason why do-it-yourself solar panels have become so popular with the homeowner who's handy with tools and for those learning how to build solar panels.

PV Panel Frame (Enclosure)

When most people think of a PV panel, it's the frame or enclosure that they often visualize. Frames made from wood or metal are used to encapsulate the backing, photovoltaic cells, and the top protective layer of tempered glass or Plexiglas®.

Small, low-power PV panels might even be framed using ordinary picture frames or small plastic boxes, provided they are deep enough to accommodate the thickness of the three layers, and they will be somewhat protected from the elements.

As with the other PV panel parts, the frame needs to be UV-resistant to prevent its deterioration in strong, direct sunlight. Large frames will need custom metal racks for mounting on roofs or support poles. Some smaller frames can simply be mounted on or nearby the powered device.

PV Panel Backing (Substrate)

The solar panel substrate or backing is the sheet of wood or other sturdy material that the solar cells are mounted on to support them inside the panel enclosure. The substrate material needs to be UV-resistant to withstand prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Plywood can provide a durable, rigid backing to mount your series of solar cells on, but it must be thoroughly sealed with UV-resistent paint to protect it from sunlight and moisture.

PV Panel Top

You will need either Plexiglas® or tempered glass for the tops of your do-it-yourself solar panels. Be sure to buy tempered glass that's strong enough to withstand a falling tree branch or a hailstorm.

If you choose Plexiglas® for your DIY solar panels, use only the kind that's resistant to the sun's UV rays, or it's likely to turn yellow from prolonged exposure and compromise the efficiency of your homemade PV panel.

Tabbed Solar Power Cells

The main component of your project is the solar energy cell, usually of crystalline silicon, or indium copper selenide. Silicon is combined with metals and other materials to let the cell capture direct sunlight and convert it into usable electricity.

One way you can save some money is to buy "untabbed" solar cells and solder the tabs onto the cells yourself. Soldering solar cell tabs is a tedious job, though, and you don't save much money in the end.

If you can find a good deal on tabbed solar cells, you'll cut your soldering time by 50% or more and make the task of learning how to build solar panels that much easier.

PV Panel Wiring

You will need an adequate supply of tabbing wire to connect the photovoltaic cells together, as they need to be wired to each other in a series to generate the electrical current.

Copper bus wire is needed to connect the series of cells to other PV panels and to the storage batteries or the power inverter, or directly to the end device for a small PV panel installation such as an attic fan.

When you're first learning how to build solar panels, the wiring can seem complicated, but a good set of solar panel plans and step-by-step instructions will be of immense help.

Blocking Diode

If your PV power system includes a battery storage system, you'll need a small yet critical component called a blocking diode to prevent the electricity that's stored in the batteries from draining back into the solar array. Large solar power systems that feed into the grid employ a charge controller for the same purpose.

Knowing How to Build Solar Panels

Once you tackle the learning curve and build your first solar panel, the task becomes easier. Knowing how to build solar panels gives you confidence in what you're doing without any hesitation to slow you down. You'll know what materials you need, and the quantities needed to complete your solar power project.

You will also know the best ways to organize your tools and materials and how to arrange your workspace for an efficient assembly operation. You'll have come a long way. You'll know how to build solar panels at home for your own PV system.

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