DIY Solar Projects Made Simple – Even Forrest Gump Could Do This

by Michael C

DIY Solar ProjectsMost folks have the “idea” that solar costs lots of big bucks. But the truth of the matter is – solar energy is an investment. Like big power company’s that buy a nuclear power plant. There is a big (one time) upfront investment for the company that will usually pay off later.

You would do the same thing – invest in a pile of components that will become your personal utility. The cost of taking care of your utility is minimal – after the initial purchase. You don’t have any monthly bills – it is YOUR utility. Why is solar worth having? Because it gives you power. The power comes from the sun and goes into your pocket – if you got it. Solar power is nice and quiet – use a night-light to go to the bathroom.

A few people can tell you how to build a solar energy system. But, going into wire sizes, battery sizes, panel sizes and everything else is sure to confuse you to the point of “puttin’ it off”. So, I am going to just describe systems that I made. I am going to describe 3 different sized systems – that you can copy – for your own use. You should copy – but, keep in mind that you can adapt your system to the materials you have. If you have a 100 Watt panel lying around – use it – instead of the 80W panel I used in my medium system.

Small system

A small system for me is just some thin-film panels, taped to a piece of stretch proof plastic sheet (from the post office plastic mailer) with wires soldered on. Most productive for recharging batteries or powering a small device. A common connector is style “M” which can be found at Radio Shack.

solar projects diy

I added diodes (…N1001) to each solar panel (since they are all in parallel) to block all reverse current – I did not want any panel to “leak” power backward. At this size of alternate energy system – most of your connections would be soldered. The cost for each thin-film sheet was about $17 (USD) and the wire was cheap speaker wire (24 gage).

The solar panels can be soldered together in parallel, series or both for the voltage/amperage needed. (The thin-film panels can be bought in various sizes too.) At about 12 volts you might consider a 12V solar panel to avoid all the soldering. Thin film panels work great in this case because they are very lightweight and portable. You could have these in your BOB, GHB or with your GPS.

Medium System

This alternate energy system is larger, uses regular components like a framed solar panel. This system is still portable – if you have an electric chainsaw, you can roll into the woods and use it. I use a $30 (USD) hand truck from Harbor Freight to “mount” the parts.

The parts consist of an 80W solar panel, Xantrex C30 charge controller, 2 – 6 Volt 225 Amp hour batteries, 2 – inverters (400 & 1200 Watt), desulphator and a 12V car outlet. The batteries are inside the wood box, the inverters, desulphator, and outlet are on top.

solar projects diy

The components of this system can be separated – the battery box is strapped to the hand truck and the solar panel is mounted on the handle with 2 U-clamps. Mounting the panel this way allows me to “swing” the panel up into the sun, I use a stick to keep it there. I used a short extension cord (cut in two) to connect the panel to the battery so I can “unplug” the panel.

Connections from the battery to charge controller (and from the solar panel to charge controller) are fused using common automotive blade style fuses. The inverters and power outlet have their own (blade style) fusing. The battery and solar panel are the biggest cost in this system. The cost for the panel was $400 (at the time) and the batteries were $150 each.

This system does have 120V AC output but, if you’ll notice – you’re not going to touch it, at all. All components that you handle are only 12 volts, the inverter will be connected to the battery with the cables that they give you.

This system has an 80 Watt solar panel so the output is 80 Watts per hour or 80 Whrs. In a 10 hour sunny day, you would get 800 Whrs – enough for 5 – 24W CFL’s for over 6 hours. (This system is bigger then MD’ Creekmore’s system that’s in his book Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat.)

Large System

The large solar power setup is just like you see in magazines with solar panels on the roof, a wall full of components and kids playing in the yard. I have 3 – 90W and 6 – 80W (total 750W) solar panels on top and a Solar Boost 50 (charge control), Prosine 2 (2 kW inverter), Xantrex breaker box, Link 10 battery meter (fuel gauge), 8 – Trojan L16 batteries (20 kW storage). All components except batteries and panels are mounted on 3/4″ plywood. This means that I have 3 major connections: solar panels, batteries and AC output from the board.

solar projects diy

This type of system is best bought as a kit – I bought the first 3 panels with an inverter and added the other solar panels and charge controller later. You get almost all the pieces – including roof mounting hardware for the solar panels and the right size wires.

The trick with building this system is to put most of the stuff on a plywood board. I set the parts on plywood and arranged it to my liking. The breaker box should be located close to all the other stuff to minimize wire length. I had my panels mounted on the ground for good snow removal but, after thinking about theft (nice shiny blue panels) I mounted them on the roof. I use a snow rake and angle the panels steep (70 degrees).

The best feature of this kit was the inverter. The inverter has an automatic transfer switch (the thing that goes click in a UPS when the power goes out) and 3 stage battery charger built-in. It is true sine wave (yes, had it hooked up to my scope meter). I added the breaker box because you just can’t get 300 amp DC rated fuses from the electric store.

solar projects diy

I normally use cheap grid power for running everything but, when the power goes out – its solar time. If you have heard neighbors say something like “I have 100 amp service” then this inverter gives you 15 amp service. You can run up to 15 amps at 100% duty, it will surge to 30 amps (4 kW). This inverter is not grid tie but, UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) tied. I have my fridge on this inverter in case of power outage.

Here is my little lead in on efficiency. My fridge (19 cf. Kenmore side by side) uses 1.12 kW a day, in 2 hours of sun – my panels will generate 1.5 kW – enough to cover my fridge power (and inverter overhead) use for a day. This fridge is 20% more efficient than every other fridge in its class (19-21 cubic foot). It cost $700 (USD) when I bought it. In the years that I have had it (about 8) it paid for itself in lower electric costs. It will always “pay you” to buy a new fridge.

Final Notes

Try to place the panels where they get sunlight, I should say “where they get the most sunlight”. If you have a tree that shades your panels at 2 pm – move the panels so that the tree shades them at 6 pm. I know that my roof space is limited but, I plan on getting the “best” light (10 am-3 pm) that I can. Losing energy in the winter because the tree shades at 2 pm is very costly (especially after all the money you paid for solar!)

SAFETY for the small system consists of not burning yourself with the soldering iron. The medium system has batteries that could weld your tools to the posts, wrap electrical tape around “good” tools used near the battery, have a tap for the post threads.

The batteries in my medium and large systems are flooded lead acid which means that I have to fill them with pure (distilled) water, I wear rubber gloves for this task and goggles. I also keep the family sized baking soda bucket nearby in case a mouse chews the corner (for water) – a lot of solution (more than a gallon) in a 120-pound battery. Lead acid batteries generate hydrogen gas which is explosive, a vented battery box is recommended.

The medium system uses a (cheaper, easier to find) flooded lead-acid battery, not the best type (AGM Absorbed Glass Mat or Gel Cell) for this application. Since it could tilt past 40 degrees (max fluid to cap angle) the solution can leak. I installed plastic inside the box to contain any fluid and am aware of this limitation in my system. The box is strapped to the hand truck for quick release to move into a truck bed.

The lead acid batteries that I used were bought before I found out about Edison batteries. Admittedly, the lead-acid battery has more power per pound than the Edison (Alkaline based Nickel-Iron) battery but, have become the “throw away” part of every solar power system. Edison batteries will (have) last for a hundred years, don’t sulfate, don’t break down (lead plate flaking) and if they run dry – simply refill. In fact, replacing the alkaline solution would only take Berky water and wood ash (lye is alkaline) solution. Last but not least – no chance for an explosion, does not generate hydrogen.

If you have read “31 Days to Survival” then you know that there is a chapter on alternate energy. I think that any of these systems will count for that day. Please share your comments and thoughts in the comments below.

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15 Responses

  1. Forearmed says:

    Unless a home owner knows how to use Excel and calculates exactly what his bills are each month, he’ll generally buy what the Solar salesman tells him. Much of it total BS. Calculate your actual saving each month which is the difference between what you pay on your Solar loan verses your average electric bill. If your bill per month is higher than your old average electric bill then you have not saved. Do this year after year until you have paid off your solar panel system. Then you can calculate how many years you can continue using those panels before you would have used up any savings they may have brought you. Now calculate what the cost of replacing those panels 20 years down thee road would cost you when the dollar has lost value and the panel cost are through the roof.
    At least with a home used as an investment increases in value year after year, while your solar panel system does not, so when you break it down solar is not an investment because in the end you haven’t saved a thing.
    This is where solar is today, at least until engineers figure out how to make those cells out of Graphene !

    • David says:

      Forearmed, you are correct.. I have been in the solar business for many years and the only way to make money is if the local utility is paying more than what it really cost for the system. Where I live, some of my customers were getting 80 cents/kw. I never sold a system on the basis of it saving money Another thing, is if one doesn’t manage the system carefully, making sure the voltage doesn’t drop below the critical point or the batteries won’t last long if the system is powering the home. Solar panels never generate as much power as they are rated for (internal efficiency, weather, clouds, exposure angle, etc).

    • Forearmed,

      Now calculate what the cost of replacing those panels 20 years down thee road would cost you when the dollar has lost value and the panel cost are through the roof.

      I’ve been looking at and playing with different types of solar panels throughout my 40+ year career, and the prices have only gotten better, so I think your “through the roof” comment is a bit overkill.

      At least with a home used as an investment increases in value year after year, while your solar panel system does not, so when you break it down solar is not an investment because in the end you haven’t saved a thing.

      A home used as an investment is generally not all that good unless you plan to live in it for a substantially long time or use it as a rental, with all of the subsequent hassles of keeping it rented and doing or paying for maintenance.

      This is where solar is today, at least until engineers figure out how to make those cells out of Graphene !

      While grapheme cells would be better (lighter and higher energy density) than what we currently use, thin film cells keep getting less expensive as we perfect the process for making large sheets of semiconductors without flaws. The most obvious example of these processing advances, are the large screen (50 inch and larger) LED monitors and panels that have gotten extremely inexpensive in recent years.
      I have friends who purchased a 48” HDTV years ago that cost them around $1200.00. I have a 55” in our living room and a 50” in my office that were only $399.00 each. I’m typing this on a system with a 32” curved LED monitor I purchased recently for $198.00.
      Our biggest issue today for alternative energy sources (wind and solar) is how we store any excess energy when it’s being produced for use later when it’s dark and the wind isn’t blowing.
      One final note is that alternate energy systems like my propane powered whole house generator with automatic start & transfer switch, are not necessarily installed to save energy; but, to keep things going when there is no grid power. This happened to me just this past week for 52 minutes; but, in recent times in places like Texas and Florida, the outage lasted for weeks.

    • Forearmed,

      Now calculate what the cost of replacing those panels 20 years down thee road would cost you when the dollar has lost value and the panel cost are through the roof.

      I’ve been looking at and playing with different types of solar panels throughout my 40+ year career, and the prices have only gotten better, so I think your “through the roof” comment is a bit overkill.

      At least with a home used as an investment increases in value year after year, while your solar panel system does not, so when you break it down solar is not an investment because in the end you haven’t saved a thing.

      A home used as an investment is generally not all that good unless you plan to live in it for a substantially long time or use it as a rental, with all of the subsequent hassles of keeping it rented and doing or paying for maintenance.

      This is where solar is today, at least until engineers figure out how to make those cells out of Graphene !

      While grapheme cells would be better (lighter and higher energy density) than what we currently use, thin film cells keep getting less expensive as we perfect the process for making large sheets of semiconductors without flaws. The most obvious example of these processing advances, are the large screen (50 inch and larger) LED monitors and panels that have gotten extremely inexpensive in recent years.
      I have friends who purchased a 48” HDTV years ago that cost them around $1200.00. I have a 55” in our living room and a 50” in my office that were only $399.00 each. I’m typing this on a system with a 32” curved LED monitor I purchased recently for $198.00.
      Our biggest issue today for alternative energy sources (wind and solar) is how we store any excess energy when it’s being produced for use later when it’s dark and the wind isn’t blowing.

  2. JP in MT says:

    Several years ago I bought a “solar generator”. I have never set it up, as it uses lead-acid batteries, and I wanted them available for emergencies only. Everthing fits on a wheeled hand truck.

    • JP ,

      Several years ago I bought a “solar generator”. I have never set it up, as it uses lead-acid batteries, and I wanted them available for emergencies only.

      Are the batteries external & supplied by you or are they an integrated part of the system? Lead acid batteries need to be maintained. For real liquid filled lead acid batteries like vehicle batteries, a battery maintainer (float charger) can keep these in pretty good shape. All of our vehicles including lawn tractors and mowers use one of these, available inexpensively from Harbor Freight.
      For AGM SLA) Absorbed Glass Mat, Sealed Lead Acid) “Gel Cells” you can keep them fully charged ait a 13.8 volt power supply connected to them or brought up to full charge with 14.4 VDC until they hold their charge. O have numerous UPS units that is the NP7-12 CLS batteries.

      Everthing fits on a wheeled hand truck

      That’s really a good way to mount and use the system ; but, like many battery powered electronic systems, they need to be used now and then to keep things from degrading, keeping in mind that the batteries are actually chemically bases devices that will degrade over time and lose charge when just sitting around. This is called “self discharge”.

      • JP in MT says:

        TOP:

        That’s why I never really fired it up. It did come with 2 sets of batteries, external to the system. As we get more space, we will be setting it up with the “old” batteries, then order some more replacements.

  3. Lux says:

    Uses for dead car batteries:

    https://www.instructables.com/id/Uses-For-Dead-Car-Batteries-And-Sealed-Lead-Acid-B/

    5 watt and 20 watt solar setups. Low current 12 volt

  4. Thor1 says:

    I love my Kodiak solar generator. I have a total of 400w in panels now and it can handle up to 600w of panels.

    Its enough to get you by but not enough to run the whole house.

  5. Grammyprepper says:

    We recently got one of the Harbor Freight 100W solar set ups. Now that spring/summer is finally here, we will get to try it out. Have realistic expectations of it. If it will power a few small devices, it’s a good learning curve for us. We got it mostly for camping, but also to see if solar is something we want to explore further.

    • Grammyprepper,

      We recently got one of the Harbor Freight 100W solar set ups. Now that spring/summer is finally here, we will get to try it out. Have realistic expectations of it. If it will power a few small devices, it’s a good learning curve for us. We got it mostly for camping, but also to see if solar is something we want to explore further.

      I’ve been looking at those same systems. I was waiting for the weather to warm and dry up, and since that has finally happened; now I’m just waiting for the right coupon to get the best deal on a system. For now it will be mostly to play and try to charge the battery banks I already have in some of my large UPS systems.

  6. Frank says:

    What I like about this article was the listing of parts and not just a bunch of examples and theories. If a person has a book that explains how to setup a solar system then they can manage otherwise one can follow directions and build a system they like.

    The problem with going solar is that it costs a lot, but I think a system that supplements our usage and can still be replicated or expanded allows us to really match it to our needs or past that level without that huge initial financial output.

    The biggest advantage of a solar system is to have power when there is a power outage or blackout. If you can manage to really cut back and use your solar power you could use some of your free energy, but only those who build a house with solar when young and live in it for 20+ years will really be living on it. When the power is out it will mean a world of difference and reduced discomfort if you have some power.

    For most of us, a system powerful enough to run a computer, charge cell phones and batteries and maybe run a television or a radio all day would be nice. I think this is the path to take. We’re still in the infancy of solar power and so it’s hard to break even and achieve that state of experiencing free electricity that exceeds the initial investment.

  7. JDC says:

    I’ve had an 80 watt system for awhile, and have thought about setting it up on a hand cart like yours. However, I’m thinking more in the lines now of a trailer set up which would allow me to store bug out gear, and use it as a power source in remote locations.

    When my daughter graduated college and was commissioned I bought her a small trailer called a “Yuppie Wagon” for her initial military moves. While doing research on the trailer, I discovered they made a small flat topped trailer and that they offered this with solar power options. One of those “wow, why didn’t I think about that” moments.
    Here’s a link. I haven’t priced out a system. I’d probably like to build my own, just because I like to tinker:
    http://www.sporttrailer.co/SOLAR/SOLAR%20EQUIPMENT%20HOME%20PAGE.htm The trailer looks good.

    OBTW, despite the horrendous name, my daughter loves her small trailer. I put bearing buddies on it, and she can use it for lockable storage, or just tilt it up in a corner of the garage. Great set up.