To DIY or Not to DIY Solar: The Ultimate Guide (Update 2018)

Diy solar panels made of pop cans

Today you’re going to learn if DIY solar is for you and how to build and install cheap, energy efficient diy solar panels, fully homemade from scratch. Trust me, these are much cooler than teslas solar roofs.

The concept of building a solar panel system by yourself is not new – some homeowners choose diy to save a few bucks, others do it for fun or simply because they want to build something useful and learn along the way.

Let me know later in the comments section which homeowner group do you belong?

First I have to warn you – solar installation is not very easy for the complete and total beginner. But do not be discouraged – that is basically why I have created this step-by-step guide for do-it-yourself solar projects.

Note: This post was first published in 2013. I recently gave it a much needed update and added a lot of great tips that I recently learned. Enjoy!

First, you need to know that Going solar has 3 major benefit for homeowners:

  • it increases the value of your home
  • decreases pollution while reducing monthly electricity cost
  • makes you feel good (because you did something right and lowered the carbon footprint along the way)

Because of high price tags of commercial systems, solar can be a big investment. In order to save money, many homeowners are considering DIY. Before making a decision to DIY (or not to DIY) solar, I have compiled a list of 4 basic steps that you need to evaluate before starting with do it yourself solar energy project.

Step by Step Process to DIY Solar Panels

  1. Determine energy consumption and optimal energy needs for your home
  2. Choose size and design of your system: photovoltaic solar PV system or solar thermal
  3. Acquire solar system components (solar cells, racking, solar inverters)
  4. Build and install solar panels, connect them to your home

Back in in 2009 when I first started researching this topic, I reached out to several residential solar companies and professional solar panel system installers for advice.

What they told me is that installing solar is complicated, and that I would have to pass a special training in order to install and build solar energy systems myself.

And guess what? They were all wrong!

Thanks to Gary Reysa and Mother Earth News, I have stumbled across cansolair solar furnace on the internet and instantly decided to build similar do-it-yourself solar projects.

By studying their commercial version of solar system I have learned that even simple solar construction can produce around 2KW of power. This makes such solar panel perfect for supplemental home heating.

Want to know the best part?

This DIY solar collector is almost entirely constructed with empty soda cans!

Between renewable (ecological), and conventional (dirty) energy sources, the first choice for exploitation is always conventional energy with profit as the only important factor. For example, high profit is obtained by monopoly on strategic crude-oil reserves…

How DIY Solar Panels Work?

When it is sunny, regardless of outdoor temperature, pop cans (painted black) heat up very quickly. The fan drives cold air from inside of the home, through heated pop-cans and then back into the room. During this journey air collects the heat from can wall and brings it into the room. Read the following post if you are looking for more details about how solar thermal system actually works.

Although DIY solar panels are powered by the sun, electricity is stil needed to supply the fan for driving airflow. For those living in remote places, or those who want to achieve full off-grid autonomy, simply hook up small PV solar panels or wind generator to power the air blower.

If you manage to build a fully autonomous diy solar panel aided with wind generator – you’ll be a master of sustainable living.

But before you do, make sure to read the next technique on my list…

First Step – Cut Your Home`s Heat Loss

Before going solar, it is advisable to perform thorough assessment of your home insulation in order to improve heating efficiency and minimize all possible losses. This is very important because after minimizing heat loss in your home, you can actually install smaller solar system and get the same result as with the twice bigger heating system. To size your system efficiently and learn more check out my post on how to improve thermal efficiency of your home with bubble wrap insulation on windows.

Do-It-Yourself Solar Panel Construction

Housing for diy solar panels is made with plywood (15mm/0.6in thick), while its front is polycarbonate sheet, 3mm/0.12in thick. Tempered glass can be used as well. The back of the solar collector is insulated with 20mm/0.8in rock wool or styrodur.

Solar collector is made with aluminum beer and soda cans, painted in matte-black (paint resistant to high temperature). The top part of each can is cut and bent in a way to ensure efficient heat exchange between the pop cans and the flowing air.

Step by Step Guide: Building DIY Solar Panels

In this post I’ll walk you through the exact procedure and steps that I used, step-by-step.

First, let`s collect empty pop cans for solar panel assembly. Wash them thoroughly, otherwise strange odors will begin to spread very quickly. Attention! Cans are generally produced out of aluminum, but there are some made of iron. You can test different cans easily with magnet.

Please pay attention and try to precisely cut and form small fins at the top of each can. Idea is to encourage turbulent airflow inside pop cans so that air passing through the tube can collect more heat from the warm wall of pop cans.

Carefully cut the top of the can in the form of a star, and then distort free parts using pliers (Image no. 1). It is important to do all this before gluing the cans together. We have marked three holes on each can with a nail, then drilled the bottom using tools shown on images 2 and 3. More details can be found on diy solar panels video tutorial page.

001-preparation-of-pop-cans-for-DIY-solar-panels

Image 1 Image 2 Image 3

BE CAREFUL! This procedure is extremely dangerous because pop can walls are very thin. Sharp parts may cause hand injury.

After drilling is completed, small parts of the metal could remain in the can. Use pliers to remove these parts.

Do not remove pieces of sheet metal and debris with bare hands!

Remove grease and dirt from the surface of cans. Any synthetic degrease agent will do the job. Do this outdoors or in a well-ventilated room.

BE CAREFUL! This procedure is flammable! It is dangerous to do this near open flame or cigarette!!!

Glue all cans together using adhesive silicone resistant to high temperatures, at least up to 200°C/400°F. There are glues and silicons on the market that can easily withstand temperatures up to 300°C/570°F. Top and bottom of all pop cans are compatible and fit perfectly one onto another. Put some glue or silicone on the edge of one can and press it against the other. In this way the glue/silicone will not run away from the edge. Picture 4 shows inside view of two pop cans glued together, while series of stacked and finished cans is shown in Picture 5.

Picture 4 Picture 5 Picture 6

cans-for-solar-panel

Picture 7 Picture 8 Picture 9

Picture 10

Prepare a template for stacking cans – “L” profile shown in Figure 6. You can use two ordinary flat wooden planks and nail them together. Template will provide necessary support for solar pipe during the drying process. In addition, secure the cans onto a template using ordinary jar rubber.

Pictures 7, 8 and 9 show the gluing process. Series of glued cans form a solar pipe. Picture 10 shows the pipe fixed in motionless position until the glue gets completely dry.

solar-thermal-panel-air-intake

Image 11 Image 12 Image 13

Air intake and exhaust junction box for diy solar panels is made using wood or aluminum, 1mm/0.04in thick (Images 11 and 12). Gaps around the edges are filled with adhesive tape or heat-resistant silicone. 55mm/2.16in diameter cut-outs are drilled on one side of intake/exhaust box. Drilled parts can be seen on images 12 and 13. This is where the first row of cans will be glued to the air intake/exhaust boxes. Check out how it looks when all parts are assembled and prepared for painting (Image 13).

The adhesive dries very slowly. Leave it to dry for at least 24 hours.

Solar absorber fits in the casing made of wood (Fig. 14). Back side of diy solar panels box is made out of plywood. Insulation of solar panel is achieved by applying rock wool or styrodur. Installed insulation can be seen in Figure 15. Pay special attention onto insulation around the openings for the solar collector air inlet/outlet.

How to Install Solar Panels Yourself Step by Step

Next step is preparation, protection and painting of timber box (solar panel housing). Special hooks have to be attached to all four corners of the solar collector, so that it can be easily mounted on the wall (Fig. 16) using 10mm/0.4in screws (Fig. 17). Empty box is placed on the wall in order to precisely mark the spot for drilling the air inlet/exhaust.

Picture 14 Picture 15 Picture 16 Picture 17

finished-solar-thermal-panel

Picture 18 Picture 19 Picture 20

At the end, solar collector was painted black and placed inside the case. The casing of diy solar panels is covered with poly-carbonate sheet fixed onto frame and thoroughly corked with silicone. Polycarbonate / plexiglass is slightly convex in order to gain additional strength.

Installed solar absorber without plexiglass is shown on picture 18. Complete solar collector is shown on Picture 19, and finally, installed solar power system can be seen in Picture 20. You have probably noticed that we have decided not to use the ground mount.

Free Home Heating with Pop Can Solar Panels – Very hot air: 80C

Check out our diy solar panels on YouTube. Video shows how solar panel operates on a bright sunny day. After first 20 minutes, panel raised the air temperature inside living room to 50°C/122°F.

Differential thermostat (snap disc) controls the fan. This thermostat can be bought in better-equipped electronic component stores. Thermostat has two sensors. One placed inside the top opening for warm air, the other inside the lower opening for the supply of cold air in the solar collector.

If on/off temperatures are set carefully, diy solar panels are able to produce an average 2 kW of energy for home heating. This generally depends on how much sun do we have during the day.

Homemade Solar Panel Test Drive

Solar collector dress rehearsal was carried out in the backyard before installing the system on the house. It was a sunny winter day, without clouds. For air blower fan we have actually used a big PC cooler extracted from a faulty PC power supply. After only 10 minutes in the sun, solar furnace started to blow very hot air (70°C/158°F)!

The test results and solar panel efficiency have encouraged us to have the panels installed on the house as soon as possible.

With our solar panels installed, we were waiting for the outside temperature to drop below -3°C/26°F, and surprisingly solar collector was already supplying the room with 3 m3/min (3 cubic meters per minute) of warm air. At the same time we have switched to more powerful fan than the one for testing. Hot air temperature went up to +72°C/162°F (measured with digital thermometer). To calculate total energy production of the furnace, we took into calculation the air flow and average air temperature on output. Calculated power which DIY solar panels produced, was approximately 1950 W (watts) which is almost 3 HP (3 horsepowers)!!!

Pros and Cons of DIY Solar

CONS: This solar thermal system does not have battery bank and is not able to accumulate thermal energy after producing it. When it’s sunny, solar collector produces heat, but it is necessary to use it instantly for space heating. If the sun does not shine, it is necessary to block the air supply to the solar collector, otherwise the room will begin to slowly cool off. This can be solved by installing shut-off valve, which should reduce unnecessary heat loss.

PROS: Solar kits are easier to install comparing to DIY solar install, but given the cost effectiveness and satisfactory results, conclusion is that DIY solar panels are definitely worth making. The collector, at the very least, can be used for additional heating of your home, and it is up to you to calculate and figure out how much money you can save with renewable energy…

The bottom line?

On top of everything I have saved almost $1K on my electric bill last year thanks to this solar furnace.

But wait, there’s more…

…Subscribe to FreeOnPlate.com notifications and you’ll also learn how I lowered the cost of solar including the payback period, even without solar tax credit or solar financing.

What do you think, to DIY or not to DIY?

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23 Responses

  1. Ali says:

    We (themamasgirls) are wondering, does this only work while it is sunny outside? Is there a way to collect and store the heat energy to use through the dark hours?

  2. shivam says:

    is it profitable or efficient to use these tin can solar panel in heavy commercial use??//

  3. JP says:

    Can I clarify the answer above . . . I assume this will work in daylight even when it is cloudy, just less efficiently than in sunshine.

    • RN says:

      No, it has to be sunny… But just like Dr Drashco above said,” You can combine it with passive solar heat storage units.”

    • Robyn says:

      No, it has to be sunny but like he said above your comment, you can combine it with passive solar heat storage units. That will take care of your back up solution when its cloudy for a few days or so.

  4. Gijs says:

    Hi Mr Drashco,

    As I am preparing myself to build me a solar can heater of my own I have read your article with great interest.

    Yet I have still some questions:

    – Is there a difference in output of heat and airflow when you install your heater horizontal and vertical?

    – What is the ideal gap between the cans and the plexiglass? I’m thinking that the bigger the gap is, the bigger the losses are because you are heating unused air. But when the gap is almost 0, your cans are affected by the colder outside temperature.

    • Joe Johns says:

      I know this is old… but I figure, the sun is heating that air whether it’s inside the Plexiglas or outside. By putting it inside, you trap it and it helps heat the cans.

  5. Ryan says:

    What is your opinion on taller vs wider panels? I am limited in making my heater by the size of glazing (glass, poly, etc) and am curious if you think taller or wider is better.

  6. Skynet says:

    Woow this is so amezing i like Solar Panels with Pop Cans !

  7. Cristian Alloatti says:

    Hi Mr Drashco , my name is Cristian , I am writing from Argentina , I read your article “How To Build DIY Solar Panels With Pop Cans ” and I found it very interesting !! I congratulate you for your time and your work !!

    My question is this : galvanized pipes can be used instead of aluminum cans ?. In the place where I live it is difficult to get aluminum cans.

    I hope your answer, and thank you very much , Cristian .

    • dr Drashco says:

      Hi Cristian, the thing is, aluminum is preferred, but you can choose from other material that you have available. The only difference is in efficiency of the solar panel.
      What is the exact thickness of the pipe wall you would like to use? Pipe wall should be very thin, similar to aluminum can in order to make it work…

    • Jim says:

      Where do you live

  8. austin moss says:

    how many cans to use on the solar panel because i am wondering

  9. Richard says:

    Dr. D,
    Thanks for sharing your design and encouraging non-tekies like me consider a project like this.

    I have a 15W Northern tool solar panel. If I were to match this up with DC fans, would you expect it to stop the fans at night and when the sun wasn’t bright enough for effective heat transfer? Where would you shop for appropriate fans? Thanks

  10. John Killin says:

    which is better to use? Glass or Plexiglass for the solar collector??

  11. Gingerbaker says:

    Thinking I may make one or two of these, but will use 1″ rigid insulation sheets instead of wood to reduce cost (4′ x8′ x1″ sheet – $13.00), weight, and increase insulative value.

  12. Brian says:

    Hi Richard and community, this idea was very interesting and it raised a question to me. Can this panel be effectively used to use electricity to power a small home?

  13. Tracy says:

    Would it help to intensify the heat inside of the unit if you used double glass…like a slidling glass door? And mount it to an adjustable frame that you could angle towards the sun?
    This would work great for a chicken coop or a little greenhouse.

  14. Shelden says:

    Wrong! W I L L WORK in clouds. Next cloudy day, go sit in a car in an UNcovered parking lot. . .
    Can’t imagine why it’s so ah……………….warm?
    UV my friend. UV penetrates water vapor, ie clouds/light ground fog.
    It won’t burn U’r skin BUT U will B able 2 extract BTUs from thin air, even in winter.
    More proof needed? Stand in front of a NON “E” window after Christmas; facing the Sun obviously.
    Black Paint & Clean/Clear NON E glass R key in this construction.

  15. That’s really great. I always value projects like this. As sea level is rising, we are bound to reduce use of fossil fuels and maximize solar power harvesting.

  16. Alejandro says:

    Do you thing Adding double plexiglass with small air gap would be benefitial for heat-loss, and therefore increase heat inside the can chamber? Interesting to see if this can be applied where i live. Houses here are made of bricks and cement. This makes installation more complex.

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