How to Build a Solar Panel

Last Updated: 5 March, 2019 by Alexander Thomas

How to Build a Solar Panel

Solar energy is a great way to make your home more sustainable and reduce your electricity bills, but the cost of an entire solar power system can be overwhelming. If you’re handy with your tools, then you might be able to learn how to make a solar panel in order to cut down on some of the initial expenses.

The process is fairly straightforward, but it isn’t necessarily easy to put into practice. Unless you have previous experience with electrical work, it may take a few attempts before you are able to make your own solar panel and use the final product in an actual system. Nevertheless, this can be an amazing learning experience and science experiment, so let’s get started.

How to Make a Solar Panel: 4 Steps

If this is your first time looking up how to build a solar panel, you might want to ask a more experienced friend or a seasoned electrician for help. If this is not a possibility, then carefully consider the following basic steps and plan your experiment accordingly. Throughout the process, do not forget that you are working with electricity, so take all necessary precautions before carrying out any instructions.

Step 1: Getting your equipment ready

To build a solar panel from scratch, you’ll need the following materials and equipment:

  • Solar power cells
  • A backing board
  • Tabbing wire
  • A diode
  • Soldering lead and a soldering gun
  • A flux pen
  • Glue and silicone
  • A saw and protective glasses
  • A multimeter that measures amperage and voltage
  • Pencil and ruler

Perhaps the most important of the above are, of course, the solar PV (or photovoltaic) cells, which you can purchase from most online retailers, as well as some local hardware stores. You’ll find that there are a variety of solar cells to choose from when you learn how to make a solar panel. Good options are PV cells made in the US, China, and Japan, though not all manufacturers will offer the same guarantees for their products.

Although not the most efficient option, polycrystalline cells are the most effective in terms of cost-to-quality. As a rule of thumb, you should not pay more than $1.3 per Watt when you purchase your solar PV cells. Consider what type of system you intend to build with these solar panels (the system output, in particular) and buy a few extras in case any of them are damaged during transportation or you damage them yourself as you learn how to handle them properly.  

Step 2: Wire your solar cells together

When you learn how to build a solar panel, the first step is to wire the solar cells together. You’ll notice that each polycrystalline cell has two types of lines on it – the first is long and frequent, in one direction, while the second is shorter, larger, and running in the other direction. You want to measure the second lines (also called the short distance) and cut two pieces of tabbing wire double their size for each panel.

Next, you’ll wire the solar cells together by running tabbing wire across each short distance of a panel and connecting it to the back of the next solar cell in the array. If you’re working with pre-soldered tabbing wire, then this part of the project is done. Otherwise, you’ll have to solder the wiring yourself using a soldering gun. Before you do so, remember to use a flux pen across the short length of each cell (and its back) in order to prevent oxidation.

Step 3: Create the frame

The frame will be a board large enough to fit your solar cells, so measure and cut your material accordingly. You’ll also need some extra room at both ends of the frame to include the wiring that connects all the rows together. You can make these boards out of any non-conductive material, including wood, plastic, and glass. Before you choose, consider that you’ll have to drill holes through the board for the wiring, which often makes wood a more convenient candidate.

Once you’re done, glue each solar cell on the board so that all the cells on one row are connected to one another in the manner described in step 2. On each row, the tabbing wire should run in the direction opposite to the row above and below it. Finally, use bus wire to connect the multiple rows together in a series. Then, measure the board once again and create a panel box (also from non-conductive material) to frame it. Attach the box to the board using screws.

Step 4: Wire and seal the solar panel

To complete the wiring on your DIY solar panel, connect the lowest bus wire to a diode using silicone. Connect the darker side of the diode to the negative side of your panel since you’ll later connect the opposite end to a charge controller. Then, attach a terminal block to the back of your panel and connect both the diode and the remaining bus wire (from the panel) to the block.

When you add a charge controller to the system, use the diode wire to plug into the controller’s positive slot and the remaining bus wire to connect to its negative. Finally, connect your rechargeable battery to the charge controller and the battery to the appliances you wish to power according to manufacturer instructions.

To seal your panel, you’ll need a surface of plexiglass (much more flexible than actual glass). Place the plexiglass on top of the solar cells, but only after you’ve ensured the two do not touch using properly measured wooden blocks (in four corners). Secure the glass with silicone and with that, you’ve successfully learned how to make a solar panel.

How to Make a Solar Panel: Can You Do It from Scratch?

The short answer is yes, you most certainly can make your own solar panel from scratch. The long answer is that you’ll need a lot of supplies, many tools, some experience with electrical networks, as well as with soldering. If you have no previous experience with electricity, you might fail a couple of times, so patience is a must.

The fact is that the cost of solar panels has come down quite a bit in the past years. This trend is likely to continue as more homeowners and businesses are making the switch to solar energy, which makes the entire enterprise close to breaking even nowadays. However, if you want to learn how to make a solar panel from scratch as a personal skill or as a science project, this is most definitely worth doing.

Particularly as an activity with your children or family, learning how to build a solar panel is a great way to spend time together in a constructive manner. It’s practical, it requires a wide range of skills, and it has a substantial finality. If done right, it can even be fun. The best approach is to divide this project into manageable components – start with the easy parts, such as the panel frame and glass, then work your way through the fine print of the electronic installation, and connecting the cells to it.

Where to Buy Equipment for DIY Solar Panels

Let’s say you’ve decided to learn how to make a solar panel over the summer break. The next logical step is to find the right place to buy your supplies from. In order for this enterprise to be profitable, you’ll have to choose wisely, as some retailers often overcharge on the small stuff. The core component of your DIY project is the solar cells themselves, which, depending on where you shop, can often be second-rate. Therefore, it is important that you find a vendor that is not in the habit of selling chipped, subpar, or overall lower quality solar cells.

Because they’re not as widely available as the other components, you’ll likely spend a bit of time finding the best manufacturer for solar PV cells. The easiest and safest way to go about this is to find a manufacturer that’s nearby and to go straight to them.

If this is not an option, cells are also easy to obtain online, but beware of where you purchase them. Some vendors are less reliable than most. Something you need to look out for is their level of frankness. Wholesale solar cells will almost always have certain imperfections and blemishes. Everything else you need for the frame, soldering, and electrical system should be readily available at your local DIY store.

How to Build a Solar Panel: Costs and Savings

Given the current affordability of factory made solar panels, which, by the way, you can have shipped from producers and install yourself if you want to save money on that initial purchase, learning how to build your own solar panel isn’t really worth the trouble. In the U.S., you can purchase one of these solar panel kits for about $1.5 per watt. Depending on the size of your solar system, you can save anywhere between $2,000 to $4,000 and even upwards on installation alone.

Experienced DIYers have just about managed to break even with their attempts to show that you can make your own solar panel, especially if you take into consideration the time they spend putting everything together (and possibly failing on several accounts). However, education is priceless, so if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of renewable energy, this is a great way to do so. From a budget perspective, switching to solar energy can cash in big time for your savings. Depending on how much (and how wisely) you use the generated electricity, you can save an average of $1,400 a month by using a solar power system.

Is a DIY Solar Panel Appropriate for your System?

If you want to find out how to make a solar panel for a small-scale system that operates off grid, such as a small supply shack or a way to recharge your phone and other related devices while travelling with an RV, this is definitely the right choice. Experimentation is the way that we’ve gained all of our knowledge. It has pushed us forward even when we were oblivious to facts and phenomena that were right under our noses. Don’t be afraid to try it, especially since you might even surprise yourself with the results.

However, if you’re looking to make the switch to solar energy for your personal business or for your home, pre-made panels might be a better choice. Moreover, having them installed by a professional is recommended, as you’ll have warranty and possibly a maintenance contract set-up. The latter two can be particularly important if you’re looking to save money in the long run, since these systems can experience their share of glitches. When you install the system yourself, there’s nobody to call when something goes wrong – you just have to pull up your sleeves once more and find a way to deal with it.

How to Install Your DIY Solar Panels

There’s some paperwork similar to building permits that you’ll have to handle if you’re looking to install your DIY solar panels on your home. Some states can be quite specific in their requirements for installing such systems, so a bit of research will be necessary. Afterwards, you need to find a racking system to support your panels, figure out where they will go (remember that orientation can be crucial), and calculate the best angle they can have in order to get optimal sunlight.

Especially if you want to do to this for the roof of your home, you can find numerous videos explaining what you need to do step-by-step. The information is important because it will help you better account for the finer details of installing solar panels, such as where you should drill in your roof, the order of each component, where and how to put things together, and any additional components to your solar power system.

Ultimately, making a solar panel from scratch is a journey more than it is a science project. You can even make your own solar cell to begin with, just so you can boast that there’s no part of the solar system that you’re not knowledgeable about. Despite this, it’s unlikely that a DIY solar panel will be worth it given the affordability of their factory made counterparts on the U.S. market.