...and cutting thousands in costs
Solar power is hyped as free energy from the sun, and rightly so. The only snag is that it runs you a whopping $20,000 to get a solar power system installed, before state and federal tax incentives (which may not even help much). Many homeowners are rolling up their sleeves and building homemade solar panels instead.
Amazingly, it’s not as difficult as you might think—only basic electrical knowledge is required to get started. It does take some patience, as a good deal of time and labor must be invested for each panel. Just know that building the panel yourself will likely erase any hope of government rebates or tax exemptions. But don’t worry about that—your costs will be drastically lower and you’ll gain fun experience in hands-on energy manufacturing.
Plan Your Project
Like any DIY project, the key to success is a good plan. There are several ways to go about it:
- The first is simple, inefficient and cheap. This option isn’t so much about creating energy for home use, but instruction, inspiration, and evidence of solar energy potential. Check out this example made with little more than a small sheet of copper, salt water, alligator clips and an old water bottle.
- For the panels you’re more likely to see on the neighbor’s rooftop, you’ll need a slightly more complicated (but widely available) plan of action. Equipment includes a soldering gun, solder, plywood, wood framing, glass pane and the solar cells. Used solar cells should be fairly easy to find on eBay.
Read tutorials from others who’ve succeeded at DIY solar, such as this panel-building astronomer. To spend a bit more dough up front, but get better, detailed instructions, you can buy how-to guides online. These manuals will guide you through the process, from actually building the panel to wiring it into your home. GreenEarth4Energy.com has excellent & highly rated guides for solar electric, solar hot water and wind turbine systems.
Most materials you’ll need are also available on eBay. If you’re lucky, someone on Craigslist or a similar site may have some locally. Individual crystalline silicon solar cells or damaged, broken, or otherwise used solar panels are what you’re looking for. As the solar movement grows, so does the frequency of solar products on eBay, so you should be able to find them fairly fast and at a very reasonable cost. It takes 36 solar cells to make up your average panel (enough to produce about 18 volts).
The rest of the materials can be bought new, or for the truly heroic, salvaged from dumps, backyards, or scrap piles. Two very important components: wood (including a sheet of plywood) to build the frame, and glass to act as glazing above the panel. Wood is fairly cheap, of course. And although a large, in-tact pane of glass may be tough to find at a salvage yard, it’s always worth a look.
Smaller materials include nails, screws and fasteners, silicone caulk for water proofing and adhesion, and solder. You’re basic tools are a saw, drill, caulking and soldering guns, and a volt meter.
Lucky for you, most of the tools and materials—minus the solar cells—are stuff that many DIYers already have lying about. And the internet is your best friend for DIY projects. Just be sure to double-check your sources.
The Sietch Blog - Build your own solar thermal panel
Residential Solar Power
Photo credit: Heliotropics