How To Construct A Solar Panel: A Step-by-Step Guide

Tim Hamlin
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Step 1: Construct a Frame

Building a solar panel is the same as building any other type of structure.

To begin, you will need wood, a hammer, nails and a saw to construct a frame. In this case, you will also need some tin snips. Before you get started on this step, ensure that your lumber is clean of any manufacturing debris and nails where the frame will be located. You can use some sandpaper to smooth any rough edges on the lumber, if you wish.

Now, you are ready to construct the frame. Only use one nails during this step, as you may need to disassemble your solar panel later on. Use the hammer to secure the wood pieces together. Make sure that the structure is sturdy. Now that your frame is created, measure the width of one side of your frame and cut two strips of wood that length. The side that you have measured, will get cut pieces on two sides and a single strip of wood on the other side. Nail the pieces into place, as in this photo.

Measuring and cutting will continue until you have two separate wooden strips that are the same size, for each side of the frame.

Now, you need to measure the height of your frame. Cut two more wood pieces for each side of the frame and nail them into place as before.

Step 2: Gathering Your Raw Materials

There are basically two types of solar projects you can build. The first is a battery charger that can be used to recharge cell phone, laptop, power drill batteries and any appliance that uses an A/C power adapter.

The second project is a small solar generator that can be used to power small appliances.

While the second project seems more complicated to build, there are many sites that offer a DIY kit that can make the process much easier. For the charger project, you will only need a few basic materials, including:

  • Bonding wire
  • PVC pipe/solar panel adapters (See Note 1)
  • Soldering iron
  • 1/8" diameter heat-shrink tubing
  • Wire nuts
  • Electrical tape
  • Heat gun
  • Solar panel (See Note 2)
  • AA NiMH battery charger
  • AC plug and cord

Note 1: You will need to match the connectors on the ends of the solar panels to the type of adapter on the ends of the panels (Fused is best on panels that plug directly into a USB port).

Note 2: If you live in a region with a lot of sunshine, you can use a panel with a higher wattage rating, however keep in mind that the higher rated the panel the more you will pay for the panels.

Step 3: Connecting the Tabbing Wire to Your Cells

Tabbing wire is a strip of insulated, copper wire with a very thin outer casing. Earlier in this tutorial, you removed the casing from each piece of bare copper. What remains is a tab of copper with a rectangle inset, and that’s where you will connect your tabbing wire.

Your tabbing wire should be just long enough to reach each tab when you are done, because you’ll be squeezing the copper tabs together.

When you’re connecting one tab to another, or to the negative wire, you want to have exactly the right length of copper wire. When your wire is too long, you run the risk of contacting another cell, or the frame of the panel itself.

When your wire is too short, it doesn’t look as neat.

You can avoid this problem by counting out exactly how much wire you need, measuring it out, and connecting each cell in a few small steps:

Cut your wire to the right length. Touch the end of your wire to your negative wire from the frame. Twist the wire together to connect them. Place your wire against one tab. Twist the wire and tab together. Repeat two more times for a total of four tabs.

Step 4: Connecting the Cells

Make sure to solder the positive lead from the second cell to the positive lead from the first soldered cell. Do the same for the negative leads from both cells. Connect the remaining soldered positive terminal of the final cell to the tinned steel wire of the first cell, then solder the final negative wire from the last cell to a clean area on the tin of the first cell. After the leads have been soldered to the first cell, simply wrap insulating tape around the joint to insulate it. Repeat the process for the other cells. Remember that the first cell is soldered to only one terminal on each of the subsequent cells.

Any wire that leads off of the solar panel to a different device will need to be soldered to it. To connect the leads to the solder tabs of the cells you built, you need to make sure the leads are thinner than the wire diameter of the solder tabs. This can be modified by heating the solder tab and bending the tab to the desired diameter of the lead to be connected.

Step 5: Attaching the Cells to The Frame

Once the backing is secured to the frame, you’re ready to attach the cells to the backing. Decide which side you want to face the sun and mark it with the whiteboard marker. That way, once the cells are attached, you’ll know which side to mount the panel on your project.

First, add the spacers to the edges of the cells, so they’re directly touching the frame (see picture above).

Next, add hot glue directly to the back of a cell, just one, and attach it to the frame. Hold your finger down on the glue until it hardens. Repeat with each cell, working your way around the frame. Then move to the next step.

Step 6: Inserting a Positive & Negative Connection

You can create holes for the wires to run through using a drill. Use a screwdriver to open the holes where you will be inserting the positive and negative wires. You can use a measuring tape to measure how many inches away you need to insert each hole. Apply a silicone sealant where each hole is located. This can prevent any water from entering the hole.

Be sure that you do not apply a silicone sealant over the hole. This may make it more difficult for the screws to secure the wires together.

Once the sealant is applied to the holes, place your solar cell in the holes. After the solar cell is secured into place, you can place the rubber jacket around the solar cell. Make sure that you use the correct type of screws that were included in the wires you purchased. Screw these into the positive and negative wires.

If you need to make any final adjustments, apply more sealant around any areas that need to be fixed.

A solar panel is most effective when placed in a location where it will receive a significant amount of sunlight throughout the day.

Step 7: Cover the Frame in Plexiglas

We need to finish covering our frame to protect it from the elements and to have a nice shiny surface. More importantly, we need to protect it from the UV rays of the sun.

Plexiglas is a poly, which makes it also known as safety glass. It is shatter-proof and has a reflective, shiny surface that creates a great view. It’s pretty easy to apply and if you use our window caulking, you can be assured that it will be waterproof.

Determine the height of your frame and then measure the width and length. Multiply the height by the length and divide that by two. This will give you the area you need to cover. We are going to cover this frame with 2 pieces of Plexiglas 8” x 12”. Cut the Plexiglas to fit the height of the frame and use the window caulk to secure the Plexiglas onto the frame.

You’ve Built Your Solar Panel, What Comes Next?

After a few hours or maybe a couple of days of work, you’ve built your solar panel. Now what? How to you make sure it works?

Start with the easy part: testing the system. Go ahead and hook up your panel to an LED light or a small calculator if you have one. If you make sure that the circuit works in the most basic way without any issues, before you begin connecting the panel to other things (like your laptop), then the system should function once you do connect it to something.

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Final Thoughts

By now, you’ve learned the ins-and-outs of the DIY Solar Panel. You know that solar energy is becoming more and more common, and you want to be part of the energy revolution. But, you don’t have the money to invest in solar panels. That's completely okay! You don't have to have all the money in the world to enjoy the benefits of the DIY Solar Panel.