DIY Solar Panels: The Ultimate Guide (Update 2018)

DIY solar panelsKnowing how to install solar panels is great.

Knowing how to build solar panels is great.

But when you can do BOTH?

That’s when you can slap an “S” on your chest…

…because you’ll be a real DIY Superman.

And today I have something that will make you feel like you have superpowers:

How to build DIY solar panels that are cooler than Tesla’s solar roof.

I first started researching this topic back in 2009. I reached out to several residential solar companies and solar professionals for advice.

What they told me is that building and installing solar is very complicated. And that I would have to pass a special training to be able 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 learned about cansolair solar furnace. It took me less than 0.5 seconds to realize how awesome this project is. I instantly decided to start building similar do-it-yourself solar panel.

After studying their commercial version of solar system I have learned that even simplest solar construction could easily produce 2 KiloWatts of power. That makes such solar panel perfect for supplemental home heating.
Note: This post was first published in 2013. I recently gave it a much needed update and added a lot of great tips and enhancement that I recently learned. Enjoy!

Want to know the best part?

My first DIY solar collector was almost entirely built with empty soda cans!

Look:
 
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 something new.

Today you’re going to learn if DIY solar is for you and how to build diy solar panels.

In fact, going solar has 4 major benefit for homeowners:

  • Solar increases the value of your home;
  • Decreases environment pollution by lowering the carbon footprint;
  • Solar brings considerable savings by lowering electricity expenses;
  • It makes you feel good (because you did something right!).

Because of high price tags on commercial systems, solar can be a big investment. To save money, many homeowners are turning to DIY or buying solar kits.

To help you make a decision to DIY (or not to DIY) a solar system, I have compiled a list of 4 basic solar project steps. You only need to check them and figure out if this is something you can do or not.

4 Step Process to DIY Solar Panels

These are the exact steps that I will be explaining in depth with this solar guide:

  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. Get solar system components (solar cells, racking, solar inverter);
  4. Build and install solar panels, connect them to your home.

How DIY Solar Panels Work?

Let`s take a look at how DIY solar thermal system actually works. When it is sunny, regardless of outdoor temperature, black solar cells heat up very quickly. The fan drives cold air from the inside of the home, through heated solar cells and then back into the room.

Moving air acts as a medium for collecting solar power from each cell and then brings the heat back into the room. The room, solar panel, air inlet and air outlet form a closed loop air circulation system.

The air can not escape outside of the solar cell walls (tube out of pop cans) which helps to avoid fogging and deposition of dust on the inner side of Plexiglas. The following image shows a simplified sketch of all solar power system elements for air heating.

how diy solar panels for heating work

Ok, let`s summarize how this thing works:

Fan draws cold air from the room, into the solar panel. The air goes through the filter and passes a one-way-pass-valve. To distribute the air through the solar system, there are separate air-directing compartments made of aluminum sheet 1 mm (0.04 inches).

These boxes are strategically placed on the lower and upper part of the solar system. The bottom of the collector’s housing is channeling the air into solar cells (tunnels constructed using pop cans). The air gets warm in contact with solar cell wall. It raises and goes toward the output located in the upper corner of the room which is being heated.
 
DIY solar panels are sun powered, but electricity is stil needed to drive the airflow. If you are living in a remote place (and off-the-grid), simply hook up a small PV solar panel 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, you’ll need to conduct a thorough assessment of your home insulation. Idea is to improve heating efficiency and cut all possible losses.

Why is this step so important?

Because you can actually install smaller solar panels after reducing heat losses in your home. And also get the same result as with the twice bigger solar system.

If you want to achieve this with only one simple (and dirt cheap) hack, then check out my post on how to improve thermal efficiency of your home using bubble wrap insulation on windows.

Do-It-Yourself Solar Panel Construction

Housing for diy solar panels is made using plywood (15mm/0.6in thick), while its front is polycarbonate sheet, 3mm/0.12in thick. Tempered glass can be used as well but it will make your solar panels much heavier. The back side 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 matte-black (paint resistant to high temperature). The top 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

I have to warn you – solar installation is not very easy for the complete and total beginner. But do not get discouraged – that is basically why I have created this do-it-yourself solar guide. I’ll walk you through the exact procedure and steps that I used, step-by-step.

Let’s dive right in.

First, let’s collect empty pop cans for solar panel assembly. Wash them thoroughly to prevent strange odors from showing up during the first run of solar collector. Cans are generally produced out of aluminum, but there are some made of iron. For this solar project we need aluminum cans. You can test them easily with magnet.

Try to cut and form small fins at the top of each can as precisely as you 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 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. You can find more details 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 completing the drilling, 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 your bare hands!

Remove grease and dirt from the surface of cans. Any synthetic de-grease 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 (up to 200°C/400°F). There are products 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. Image 4 shows inside view of two pop cans glued together, while series of stacked and finished cans is shown on img 5.

Picture 4 Picture 5 Picture 6

cans-for-solar-panel

Image 7 Image 8 Image 9

Picture 10

Prepare a template for stacking cans – “L” profile shown on image 6. You can use two ordinary flat wooden planks and nail them together. Wooden template will provide necessary support for solar pipe during the drying process. Also secure the cans onto a template using jar rubbers.

Images 7, 8 and 9 show the gluing process. Series of glued cans form a solar pipe. Image 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 (img. 13).

Let the adhesive dry for at least 24 hours.

Solar cell perfectly fits into wooden casing (img. 14). Back side of solar panel box is made out of plywood. Rock wool or styrodur is used as insulation – image 15. Special attention is needed for insulating openings around solar collector air intake/outlet.

How to Install Solar Panels Yourself Step by Step

Next step is preparation, protection and painting of a wooden box (solar panel housing). Special hooks have to be attached to all four corners of the solar collector, so that it can be mounted on the wall (img. 16) using 10mm/0.4in screws (img. 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

Finally, we have painted our diy solar panel (black matte) and placed it inside the wooden case. The case is covered with poly-carbonate sheet, and thoroughly corked with silicone. To prevent bending when the unit is extremely heated during the summer, we have bent the poly-carbonate / plexiglass and made is slightly curved (convex).

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

solar energy radiation angle for mounting solar panels

Ideally, solar panels should be installed south-facing. If that is not possible then the south-east or south-west side is acceptable as well. When determining the position for solar collector mounting, consider the angle of the sun’s rays in the winter season.
 
Instead of a roof or ground mounting (with 60° angle), we have installed our solar panels on the wall in a vertical position (90° angle). Not perfect, but it is the most practical solution. It also prevents overheating during the summer.

Discover the Benefits of Solar Powered Home (for Few Hundred Bucks)

Hit the play button to see how my solar panel works:

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

Video shows how solar panel operates on a clear sunny day. After only 20 minutes, temperature of air entering the solar powered home quickly went up to 50°C/122°F.

Differential thermostat (snap disc) controls the fan. You can get it from almost any electronic component store. Thermostat has two sensors:
  • one sensor inside the top opening (hot air),
  • second sensor inside the bottom opening (cold air supply).

If on/off temperature values are set correctly, diy solar panels are able to produce an average 2 kWatt of free energy for home heating. Solar power output generally depends on how much sun do we have during the day.

Homemade Solar Panel Test Drive

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

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

With our solar panels installed, the outside temperature fell 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. Hot air temperature went up to +72°C/162°F (measured with digital thermometer).

To calculate total energy production of solar furnace, we have entered the air flow and average air temperature output into formula. Calculated solar power output from DIY solar panels was approximately 1950 W (watts) which is almost 3 HP (3 horsepower)!!!

Pros and Cons of DIY Solar

CONS: This solar thermal system does not have battery bank. It 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 solar collector air supply, otherwise the room will begin to cool off. This can be solved by installing shut-off valve, which reduces unnecessary heat loss.
PROS: Solar kits are easier to install comparing to DIY solar. Given the cost effectiveness and great results, conclusion is that DIY solar panels are definitely worth making. Solar collector, at the very least, can be used for additional heating of your home. It is up to you to calculate and figure out how much money you can save with renewable energy.

By building cheap DIY solar panels, you can achieve significant savings during the heating season. Depending on construction and material quality, one square meter of solar heating system can supply soler energy for 10 – 15 m² of your living space. In other words, 2x1m solar panels (2 square meters covered with pop cans) can heat up to 30m² (square meters) of your home.

The bottom line?

DIY Solar panels can be quite efficient and quite cheap at the same time. In New York City latitude, the sun delivers up to 1000 Watts per m².

PhotoVoltaic panels can capture around 200 W / m² out of those 1000 Watts. Same size DIY solar thermal system can capture 500 –  800W / m² which is up to four times more!

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, without rebate, solar tax credit or solar financing.

What do you think, to DIY or not to DIY? Let me know in the comments section.

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24 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.

  17. LARRY J KRALIK says:

    I MADE THIS PANEL………..WAITING FOR COOL WEATHER…….IT TOOK CLOSE TO 300 CANS WHICH WAS THE HARDEST TO COLLECT……….I CHECKED PRICES ALL AROUND BUT IT STILL COST 500. DOLLARS TO BUILD…I MOUNTED IT ON MY DECK POINTING SOUTH. I ALSO MOUNTED THE BOTTOM ON PINS SO I COULD ADJUST TO THE SUN DIRECTLY……I WILL LET YOU KNOW IF IT WORKS AS WELL AS I THINK IT WILL………..

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