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Build Your Own

DIY Solar Panel


Kit

Step by Step Instructions


December 2014.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike 3.0

About Demand Energy Equality


Demand Energy Equality is a Bristol based community energy project that seeks to
empower and power low-income households. We are a group working for systemic
change in the way energy is produced, distributed, controlled, delivered and used.
These aims are within the context of rising energy inequality (in the UK, at least), rising
fuel bills, climate change and the increasing cost of fossil fuel extraction. To fnd out
more about the project, and these issues in particular, please follow the hyper-links.
One method of tackling energy inequality is to increase affordable access to renewable
energy. We seek to do this through teaching skill-share DIY solar PV workshops, and by
publishing these guides. Currently access to solar PV is limited by a household's
available capital to invest as subsidy payments for solar PV are only made after panels
are installed, and do not contribute towards the up-front costs.
We encourage you to share the skills you learn with others through your own
workshops, particularly if you are able to target and work with low-income
communities. Please contact us for any support you feel you may need if you plan to do
this.
Through teaching people DIY solar PV skills we also aim to develop their relationship
with energy, and enable them to understand it better: where it comes from, how it is
used and how it relates to their demand and needs. Ultimately we aim for this to
change behaviour, leading to better use of energy and overall reduced demand.
Reduced energy use is an unavoidable fact of the relatively near future far better to
prepare now than be surprised later on.

Disclaimer
Demand Energy Equality take no responsibility for your safety in following this guide.
Be advised that certain activities within can be dangerous, particularly the chance of
burns from the use of soldering irons. Handle the soldering irons with care. Only touch
the blue handle once hot.
While Demand Energy Equality will make every attempt to help to you create a working
panel through the use of this guide we cannot guarantee that user error will not prevent
a working solar panel.
Please do contact us via our website if you have any questions or if you need assistance
troubleshooting your panel.
Most of all, enjoy making your DIY PV Solar Panel. We'd love to hear your experiences,
suggestions and feedback.
This guide and associated videos are licensed under the Creative Commons License.

A Little Bit of Theory


Why do we want to build a solar panel? To generate electricity from the sun, of course.
So what is this electricity? It is the thing the powers our phones, computers and gadgets.
Commonly we refer to is as power.
Power is a measure of electricity,
measured in watts. If you look on
the charger of your laptop or
phone you'll probably find the
power consumption, a number
with a W (for watts) after it: 60W
for example. This is the basic
unit of electricity. The panel we
are going to make is a 36W
panel, meaning the panel can
generate a maximum of 36W of
electricity every instant it is out
in full sun in summer.
So we use watts to measure our power. But we need to know more than this to build our
useful panel. Two more terms to introduce now: voltage and current.
Voltage is the potential to do work. It is measured in volts(V). To better understand
voltage let's imagine electricity like a flow of water turning a water wheel. The voltage is
like the height of the flow of water flowing into the water wheel. If the voltage is too low
the water will just flow underneath the water wheel and the water wheel won't turn. A
higher voltage will turn the wheel effectively. A voltage too high could be damaging to
the water wheel. In the same way a voltage too high for an appliance will damage the
appliance.
Current is the flow of electricity and is measured in amps (I). Using the same flow of
water analogy current is the amount of water flowing. Lots of flow allows the water
wheel to turn faster, less flow allows it to flow less quickly.
Power is directly related to voltage and current using the equation:

Essentially what this means is that the amount of power available increases if either the
volts or the amps increase, or of course if both increase. Similarly, the amount of power
available decreases if either the volts or the amps decrease, or if both decrease.
Now that we have a few concepts under our belt let's use them to build a useful solar
panel.

A Little Bit of Theory


We want to build a panel that is going to be useful to do some of the things we want to
do, like charge our phone. This desire to do useful things will indicate how we need to
design our panel. In the world of electricity it is useful to design to standards, because
then you can very cheaply find the different connectors and chargers you need for
different things. At home 240V is a standard, we know that when we use a 3 pin plug it
will work, and charge our phone or laptop because the charger was made to fit to this
standard. But 240V is a high voltage, a bit high for us and our little panel. There is another
standard, the standard used in cars 12V 12V fittings plug into car cigarette lighter sockets
and you can find chargers for phone and laptops as well as lights, kettles and other
appliances that fit in a car cigarette lighter socket.

A 3 pin plug for 240V mains power

12V is a safe voltage to work at. It is easy to find cheap


chargers and appliances that run from 12V. And it is easy to
find batteries at 12V. Batteries allow us to use our electricity
when the sun isn't shining, stored for a rainy day. So the panel
we are going to design will be designed to work with a 12V
system.

In fact, we are going to design a panel that is greater than 12V. We want our 12V battery
pack to be charging all through the day. To ensure this we need to design our panel to be
higher than 12V, so that we know that the flow of electricity can flow easily into the
battery pack. We want the voltage to be high enough that from the very start of the day
to the very end of the evening our batteries will be charging. For these reasons we're
going to design our panel to be 18V. At this voltage we get the most out of our panel.
Ok. We have a plan.... design an 18V panel. But how to do this?
Well, we know we are going to be working with the cells included. Lets find out a bit
more about them. Each cell generates for us 0.5V. They do this regardless of the surface
area of the cell. The surface area of the cell does have an affect on the current
generated by the cell. The current is generated when photons from the sun hit the cell
and start the flow of electrons around the circuit. The bigger the surface area, the more
photons that will hit the cell and so the more current.

A Little Bit of Theory


Like anything electrical, the cells have both a positive and a negative point, a terminal
that allows us to connect the cells together so we can do useful things with them. The
front of the cell is the negative terminal. The back of the cell is the positive terminal
The last bit of information we need to understand relates to how we connect these cells
together.
Electrical circuits behave in different ways depending on how they are connected. There
are two types of connections:

In series connections the terminals are connected together positive to negative. This
means that the voltage will sum across the cells connected in series while the current will
stay constant.
In parallel connections the terminals are connected together positive to positive,
negative to negative. This means that the voltage will be constant across the appliances
and the current will sum.
So that's all the theory we need to know...
We want to create a circuit in which the voltage gets to 18V.
We have a bunch of cells at 0.5V and
we know that if we connect them in series the
voltage will sum.
So we need a total of 36 cells to create an 18V circuit.
To connect these cells together in series we need to connect them positive
to negative, or back to front.
Sounds pretty simple, yeah?

What's in the Pack?


Pre cut quarter solar cells to make an 18V
panel... with quite a few spares in case you
break some.

An 80Watt soldering iron with stand. This


is a much more powerful soldering iron
than the standard ones used for
electronics. It needs to be powerful to
melt the tabbing wire but this extra power
means higher chances of burns.... a little
hint, the blue handle is the place to hold
it.

A flux pen for preparing the surface of the


cells for soldering. Flux is an alcohol based
cleaning agent that removes any
oxidisation along the conductive surface of
the cell.
Tabbing wire. Essentially just a flat
piece of wire for connecting the cells
together. We will solder this to the
front and backs of the cells.

Two sheets of UV stable polycarbonate. This is a


strong plastic that will form the casing of our
panel. Note that it has two sides, one with red
text that is UV stable and one with an opaque
with coating that is not.

EVA film for encapsulation of the cells in the panel.


The image shows it in a reel but in the pack are two
pre-cut sheets to the correct size. This EVA film melts
under heat, to cover the cells in a weather-proof
layer with minimal light diffusion. Basically it makes
the panel last much longer.

What's in the Pack? ... cont


A charge controller that regulates the charge from
the panels to the batteries and ensures that your
batteries are never drained to the point that they
become unusable.

A 10 AA battery holder to hold our


rechargable batteries and connect them
together in a useful way... all in series to sum
the voltage to 12V.

A female cigarette lighter socket. This


is a useful socket allowing us to plug
anything that plugs into a car socket
into our panel.

A 12V to USB adapter which allows us to


now plug any device that charges from USB
into our panel.

Plus we've included:


- Some sandpaper for cleaning the nib of your soldering iron if needed
- Nuts, bolts and washers for closing your panel
- Wire and connector blocks for wiring up

What's not in the Pack?


There are a few things we have not provided, mostly in the interest of using
resources sustainably.
- A hairdryer. Any should do but the more powerful the better. We'll use this to
melt the EVA.
- A screwdriver and spanner for tightening the nuts and bolts
- Rechargable AA batteries
- Scissors

- A multimeter for testing and debugging your panel if it doesn't quite work as
expected. If you don't have one at home ask around as someone you know will. If
you really can't find one to borrow you can buy them for under 5 online

Step One: Solder tabbing wire to the front of every cell.


The tabbing wire is what we will use to connect the cells together. Cut lengths of the
tabbing to be double to length of the cell, so we can solder all along the front of one
cell and, in a later step, all along the back of the next.
Plug in the soldering iron. This 80W soldering iron is very powerful and therefore gets
very hot. This is necessary to melt the solder on the tabbing wire.
Safety Tips:
1) Soldering irons are hot. Once it is on only touch the blue handle! Don't use a dry cloth
to wipe it clean, use a damp rag.
2) Soldering irons can make things catch fire. Use a hard, non-flammable surface as your
work surface.
3) Cells are fragile. You'll likely break a few, but that's ok.
4) Soldering takes patience. Take a break if you are getting tired or bored, as the more
reckless you become the more cells you will break.

See this step in action: StepOne in the videos folder.


Paint some flux from the flux pen over the white strip on the front (blue side) of the cell.
Press the nib of the flux pen up and down on a hard surface to ensure the flux is flowing.
The flux is just a cleaning agent to remove any residues from the cell. This ensures the
tabbing wire will bind effectively with the cells.
Now we are ready to solder. Position the tabbing wire on the cell. We want to cover as
much of the white conductive strip as possible, with the tabbing wire extending over just
one end. Do not allow the tabbing wire to extend over both ends, even by a millimetre.
Once you are happy with the positioning hold the soldering iron by the blue handle and
press the hot nib down on the tabbing wire. You'll see when the tabbing wire begins to
melt, it will go silvery like mercury. When this happens slowly move the soldering iron
along the tabbing wire until the whole white strip is covered and the tabbing wire is well
and truly stuck to the cell. You should be able to pick the cell up by the tail and see no
tabbing wire come away. That means it worked! If it does come away go back over with
the soldering iron, ensuring you move very slowly along the tabbing wire as you solder.

It's best to hold the soldering iron upright as you solder. This gives a better contact between the nib of
the iron and the tabbing wire, meaning better heat transfer.

Now repeat for all 36 cells that we need. You might find it worthwhile doing a few spares,
as we will likely break cells as we go.

Step Two: Connect the cells together in rows of six.


Now that we have all the fronts soldered, and at least 36 individually tabbed cells, we
want to start to connect these cells together. Our final panel is going to be mounted on
the clear sheets of UV stable polycarbonate plastic. This plastic has been cut to size to fit
six rows of six cells. So for the next step we are going to connect together six cells in a
row. To create our series connection we are going to ensure they are connected front to
back, front to back.
To do this, take two cells. Place them face down on the tile with both of the 'tails' or
tabbing wire pointing in the same direction. Place them so they are not touching, but very
close together. The tabbing wire attached to the front of one cell should now be resting
against the back side of the second cell. If the tabbing wire extends over the edge of the
second cell trim it back so that there is no overhang. Now, similarly to the front, we want
to solder the tabbing wire to the white conductive strip on the back of the cell. On the
back of the cells the conductive strips don't extend down the whole cell, they are just one
or two shorter strips. You only need to solder onto the white strips. Use the flux pen to
clear these strips, as you did on the front of the cell. Then, using the soldering iron,
carefully melt the tabbing wire into position.
Repeat this process until you have connected 6 cells in a row. This is your first row. Upon
completion of your first row you should have one tail poking out the end at one end of
the row, and one blank back at the other end of the row. Now solder an additional piece
of tabbing wire onto the blank back, the same length at the others so that it now
overhangs the end of the row. You should now have tabbing wire tails on both ends of the
row.
Now repeat all of these steps again until you have made 6 rows of 6 cells. Now we're
ready to position our cells on the panel.

See this step in action: StepTwo in the videos folder.

Cell Front. This is the blue side with white


strips. The white strips are conductive,
allowing electricity to flow along them.
Solder onto the thick white strip on the
front.

Cell Back. This is the grey side. The white


conductive strip may be whole (as pictured)
or in smaller sections. Solder onto the white
conductive strips only.

Step Three:

Fix the cells to the panel.

We're ready now to start constructing the whole panel. Take one of the clear sheets of
polycarbonate plastic. The sheet has two sides, both covered with protective plastic. One
side has a hazy white coloured coating and the other has a clear and red coating. The
clear and red side is the side that is UV stable, so this is the side that will face the sun. We
will leave the protective coating on this side until we have finished building the panel.
Place with side face down on the table. Now remove the hazy, white coating from the
back. Place a sheet of the EVA meltable plastic down on this side. Now position the cells
on top, blue side facing down.
When positioning the rows of cells we need to ensure we can connect each row together
to complete our series circuit, front to back. This is easy enough. Lay the first row of cells
down close to the edge of the sheet of polycarbonate. Take note of at which end the
overhanging tabbing wire is coming from the front of the cell and from which end the
overhanging tabbing wire is coming from the back of the cell. Now lay the second row
beside it. The second row needs to be positioned such that the cells are pointing in the
opposite direction. So, where the first row's tabbing wire was coming from the back of the
cell, the adjacent cell in the second row should have overhanging tabbing wire coming
from the front of the cell. Likewise, at the other end, the first rows tabbing wire
overhangs from the front of the cell, then the second row's adjacent cell should have
tabbing wire overhanging from the back of the cell.
Repeat this, laying down each of the rows in opposite directions until you have laid down
all six. Be careful that you don't lay the cells over the holes predrilled in the poly
carbonate. These holes will be used to fasten the back and front of the panel together. So
ensure the cells aren't in the way!
To check that you've laid them all down correctly follow the rows around with your
finger, travelling down one row, then back up the next, then down the next one and back
up the next. If you were to take the overhanging tabbing wire and connect it together you
should find that a back at the end of one row is connecting to the front at the start of the
next. And likewise the front at the end of any row is connecting to the back of the next.
You should be able to snake around in this way leaving just two terminals poking out the
edges of the panel, one from the front (this will be the negative terminal) and one from
the back (this will be the positive terminal). This is very important to ensure the following
steps work correctly.
Once you are confident the cells are positioned correctly pull out your hairdryer. The hair
dryer will melt the EVA and the stick the cells to the polycarbonate. Turn it on and hold it
close to the cells, slowly moving it evenly over the cells. Hold everything in place as you
melt the EVA evenly and thoroughly. This will take quite a while. Be patient, as you will
get a much better reults and more effective panel if you do. Be sure to melt the EVA fully
and evenly so ensure a smooth finish that won't refract any light from the sun away from
the cells themselves. You might find the polycarbonate bends a little during this process.
This is temporary and it will flatten again once cooled.

See this step in action: StepThree in the videos folder.

Step Four:

Connect the rows together.

Now all of the cells are fixed in position it's time to connect the rows so that we have a
full circuit. Starting from any corner, identify the overhanging tabbing wire in this corner
as one of your terminals (if it connects to the front of the cell it will be your negative
terminal and if it connects to the back of the cell this will be your positive terminal). Then
follow along the row to the other end. Connect the overhanging tabbing wire to the
overhanging tabbing wire of the next cell. This should connect one front and one back
together. Use the soldering iron to solder the two pieces of tabbing wire together. Now
follow down the next row and at the bottom connect the tabbing wire to the
overhanging tabbing wire of the next row. Again you should be connecting tabbing wire
from the front of one cell to tabbing wire from the back of the next cell.
Repeat this until you reach the other terminal, which doesn't connect to anything and
just overhangs at the end.
The Back of the Panel
Connect back to
front, negative to
positive

Connect back to
front, negative to
positive

Connect back to
front, negative to
positive
Terminal wire
from the back
(grey side) of the
cell. This is the
positive terminal.

Connect back to
front, negative to
positive

Connect back to
front, negative to
positive
Terminal wire
from the front
(blue side) of the
cell. This is the
negative
terminal.

See this step in action: StepFour in the videos folder.

Step Five:

Connect it all up and see if it works!

1) Connect the Battery Pack. Start by putting batteries into the battery block. Now
connect the positive (red) wire to the positive battery screw on the charge controller.
This will be the third screw in the row of six. Connect the negative (black) wire to the
negative battery screw on the charge controller. This will be the forth screw in the row
of six. On the charge controller you should now see the battery lights have lit up. If you
don't see this it may be that your rechargable batteries are flat or the charge controller
is not working.
2) Connect the solar panel. Use the connector blocks to attach wire to the terminals of
the panel so that you can easily connect it to the charge controller. Connect the positive
terminal (from the back of a cell) to the first screw on the charge controller. Connect the
negative terminal to the second screw on the charge controller. Now comes the real
test. Take the connected panel out into the sun, facing toward the light. You should now
see the charge light come on on the charge controller. If it does, you know your panel is
producing a voltage high enough to charge your batteries. Hooray!
If the charge light doesn't come on then the panel is not producing a voltage or current
high enough for the charge controller to charge the batteries. This could be for a
number of reasons.
Move on to the
Troubleshooting
section so we can fix
this.
You might like to read
through the
troubleshooting
section anyway as it is
a great way to better
understand your panel
and the electricity it
produces.
3) For when you wish
to use your panel
(finish step six first)...
Connect the positive
(red) socket wire to the
positive output/load
screw on the charge
controller. This will be
screw five in the row of
six. The negative
(black) wire connects
to screw six

Step Six:

Seal it all up.

Now that you know the panel is working as expected it's time to seal it all up.
Firstly, lay the second piece of EVA film over the panel. Take the hairdryer back out and
melt the EVA to sandwich the cells between the two layers. This will create a weatherproof seal around the cells and help your panel last for longer.
Weather, particularly moisture, is damaging to the panel. Moisture in an electrical circuit
causes galvanic corrosion which is essentially a fast rusting of your connections. This is
not something that you want. The EVA creates a weather-proof seal around the cells to
prevent this.
Turn on your hairdryer and hold it close to the cells, slowly moving it evenly over the
cells. Hold everything in place as you melt the EVA evenly and thoroughly. This will take
quite a while. During this process you will also better melt the EVA at the front of the
cells, which is a good thing as it will improve the results from step three. This time we
are sealing the backs of the cells, so the finish is less important than before. Our main
priority is to get a good seal.
Next we can fix the backing piece of polycarbonate to the front sheet. Align all of the
holes and put enough washers between to ensure that when you tighten the bolts you
don't squash the cells together and break them.
Once all the bolts are tightened you are done!
Your panel is totally portable but when you set it up make sure you none of it is in the
shade. Because all the cells are in series, just one shaded cell can stop any current from
charging the batteries.
Using the Panel
You can theoretically charge anything you could charge from a car cigarette lighter
socket. However the capacity of the AA battery pack is quite small so don't expect to
charge for long out of the sun. An average laptop might expect 24mins charging time
from these batteries.
You can calculate this by considering:

So assuming the rechargable batteries have a 2A capacity, the laptop will charge for
2Ih/5 = 0.4 hours = 24 minutes.
If you want to you can connect a larger battery to the panel. Ensure the panel is 12V.
Aim for leisure batteries or deep cycle batteries, that are intended to be used in this way
to ensure long life of the battery.

Troubleshooting:
Testing

To test you'll need to get your hands on a multimeter. This is a device used to test
electrical circuits. You'll find someone you know has one in their shed. Or try visiting the
Demand Energy Equality space in Bristol or London. Or perhaps a hack space. There are
friendly open workshop spaces that would be more than willing to lend you a multimeter
and show you how to use one.
Worst case scenario you can buy a multimeter online or from an electronics shop for
about a 5er.
Firstly, test the voltage of the whole panel in the sun, using a DC voltage option on the
multimeter. If it shows higher than 18V then it is working fine. The issue is with the
connections into the charge controller or battery pack. Check the polarity is correct (ie
positive and negative wires haven't accidentally been swapped around.)
Note if it is not a sunny day each cell might read a lower voltage. Also, indoor lighting
will not give a good reading. Full sunlight is the best option.
If the panel shows less than 18V one or more of the cells aren't working. This could be a
dud cell (though this is rare) or it could be a short circuit (much more common). Again set
the multimeter to a DC voltage. Test each row in the sun by holding the arms of the
multimeter to the tabbing wire at each end of the row, one at a time. Each row should
show over 3V. If one of them reads less then go through and test each cell in this row
cumulatively (ie start at the first, then test the first and second together, then the first,
second and third together etc etc) until you find the culprit. The voltage should increase
by 0.5V each cell, so when the voltage doesn't increase as expected you have found a cell
with an issue. Check carefully that this cell is not touching the cells around it. Check also
that the tabbing wire at either end of the cell is not touching the following tabbing wire,
causing a short circuit.

Replacing Cells

If you do discover a cell that needs to be replaced, because it is not connected in the
right way or is broken, then follow these steps. Note check out the following section Cracks
to check if a cracked cell needs to be replaced.

Firstly use the soldering iron to go back over the tabbing wire on the back of the cell, and
on the back of the cell it is connected to.
Next, use the hardryer to reheat the cell in question. This will melt the EVA so that, using
a knife you can gradually get the cell off the polycarbonate. You will definitely break this
cell, don't owrry about getting it up in pieces.
Now, solder tabbing wire to the front of a fresh cell. Use a spare bit of EVA to reposition
this cell back in place. Then solder the backing tabbing wire down again. Now test again.
This is quite arduous so it's good to be sure you definitely have ot replace the cell before
you do. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!
For a somewhat annoying but very clear instruction video on how to use a multimeter try this
You Tube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zb7WHaL_dz8

Cracked Cells:
Given the fragility of the cells it's pretty likely that you'll break a cell or 10 in the process of
building your panel. Breaking the cells in the later stages makes it much more difficult to
replace. As a rule of thumb, if you find a crack before you fix the cells to the panel,
replace it. After the cells have been fixed to the panel use the guide below to decide if
you do need to replace it.

If a cell has:

Less than 10% chipped: OKAY

Minor verticle crack: OKAY

Long crack parallel to the


conductive strip. If this crack
progresses half the cell
would be lost: REPLACE

More than 10% chipped: REPLACE

Minor Horizontal Crack: OKAY

Long crack across the conductive strip.


So long as there is tabbing wire across
the crack on both the front and back
this is okay. The cell effectively
becomes a parallel circuit, meaning the
two halves sum in current and maintain
their voltage to make one full cell:
OKAY