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Solar energy is magic, really. You place a bulky panel in the sun and electricity is created from thin air, ready to power anything you need. It’s cheap, pays for itself in a relatively short period of time, and it’s absolutely renewable. Of course, the cost of installing a solar panel system at your home can be kind of terrifying—on average, it’ll cost you about $25,000. A lot of that cost is labor and other materials, but the solar panels themselves aren’t exactly cheap, ranging in price from around $200 to $300 depending on wattage and the type of panel.

Those prices might lead you to wonder if you can’t just make your own solar panels. The answer is, you sure can. If you’re moderately handy, have ever used a soldering iron, and understand basic electricity principles, you can definitely whip up your own solar panels. All the stuff you need can be ordered online or found at your local hardware store, and the process isn’t very difficult. Keep in mind, however, that building your own panel will likely cost as much if not more than buying a professionally-assembled panel, so you shouldn’t think of this as a way to save a lot of money.

Solar panel DIY materials

Solar panels are surprisingly simple things. You need just a few basic materials:

  • Photovoltaic (PV) cells. This is the silicon-based material that actually absorbs sunlight and converts it to electricity. You can buy these online pretty easily, so it’s just a matter of deciding how much power you want to generate and purchasing enough to get you there. If you’re looking for a super cheap DIY approach, you could even buy a bunch of $1.50 solar lights from a dollar store and extract the small cells in them for a cheap array of solar cells.

    If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can go full-on DIY—using copper sheets, you can create your own PV cells. But the cells you make in your kitchen won’t last nearly as long or produce nearly as much power as even the cheapest manufactured cells, so if your goal is power over DIY cred you should just buy your cells.

  • Tabbing wire. This is flat wire used to connect cells together into “strings.”

  • Liquid silicone. This will be used to seal your connected PV cells. John Burke, chair of the American Solar Energy Society Photovoltaics Division, recommends DC 184 from Dow for this, but any clear liquid silicone will work.

  • Solder and soldering iron. If you don’t already have these, you can pick up lead-free solder and an iron at any hardware store.

  • Caulk or glue. Use 100% silicone caulk to seal up your panel. In a pinch, a strong glue can also be used, but won’t be as waterproof as caulk.

  • Encapsulation material. Once you’ve connected your cells into strings and sealed them in silicone, you’ll need to encapsulate them further—PV cells are delicate things and need to be kept free from dirt and damage. Your best bet is to seal them between two sheets of glass. But if you have or have access to a laminating machine, you can also laminate your panel. This won’t be as durable as glass, but will work just fine.

  • Multimeter. A multimeter tool is optional, but recommended because you should test your connections throughout the assembly to ensure that nothing has broken or become detached, and that you’re getting the wattage you expected.

If you’re more focused on the fun of assembling your own solar panel, keep in mind you can purchase DIY kits that provide everything you’ll need to build a small panel.

How to make DIY solar panels

Once you have all your materials, you can begin assembling your DIY solar panel:

  1. Lay out your PV cells in a grid. You’re setting up “strings” of cells—a line of cells that will be wired together into one connected row. A typical panel layout is four strings of nine cells each, for a total of 36 cells. It’s a good idea to use a ruler and create a neat grid so that all your wiring lines up perfectly. You can use tile spacers to ensure you’ve got a tight layout.

  2. Measure your tabbing wire so you have two lengths that will stretch from top to bottom of your strings.

  3. Solder the tabbing wire from the front of the first PV cell to the back of the next one, connecting positive to negative. Repeat until your strings of cells are all soldered together. If you’re using multiple strings, connect them by running wire across the top and bottom where the wires stick out and soldering it all together.

  4. Test. This is a good moment to break out that multimeter and make sure your connections are good and you’re getting the power you expect from them. if you’re not, investigate and re-solder where necessary.

  5. First encapsulation with liquid silicone. Mix your silicone and then gently apply, using a soft brush to spread the silicone. Make sure you leave our wires out so they can be connected to a battery or whatever it is you plan to charge. Let the first layer dry, then apply a second coat.

  6. Second encapsulation. Place your cell strings on a glass plate. Making sure no dirt or other contaminants get inside, place a second glass plate on top. Again, make sure your wires are outside the encapsulation so they can be connected. Seal with caulk.

That’s it. If you connected everything correctly, you should now get some usable juice when you place your panel in the sun. You can build a plywood frame for the glass panels for extra durability, if desired.

If you want to get a little fancier with your DIY solar panel you can incorporate more durable frames, pegboards for a super tight grid, and other enhancements. If you want a bit of a deep dive into the science and engineering behind solar energy and DIY solar panels, you can download the free PDF To Catch the Sun by Lonny Grafman, an Instructor of Environmental Resources Engineering and Appropriate Technology at Humboldt State University and Joshua Pearce, a professor at Western University in Ontario.

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