Posts Tagged ‘do it yourself’

bulk-cells

There are many places online that offer information about do it yourself solar panels (Photo Voltaic).  Some of  them are great resources and some are downright scams.  In this post I discuss why making your own panels can be a bad idea and links where to find FREE how to guides should you want to build them anyway.

5 Reasons why NOT to make your own solar panels.

  • Cost effectiveness:  Over the past several years the cost of solar panels has decreased dramatically.  You can purchase really inexpensive price per watt panels (mostly made in China) at places like Harbor Freight or Costco.  The time in sourcing the materials and  manual labor in assembly no longer offers a tremendous cost savings over store bought units.
  • What You’re Getting:  When you build your own, they are typically put together from individual “scratch and chip” cells, purchased in bulk,  from manufacturer rejects.  Although the lack of uniformity usually doesn’t effect output much, you’re starting with components already deemed inadequate by retail standards.  Also, the quality of the pieces will differ from one retailer to the next so essentially it’s a pig in a poke opening the box.
  • Lifespan:  Homemade panels typically do not last as long and have a decrease in power output more quickly than manufactured ones.  There is also no warranty, or recourse, should they stop functioning properly.
  • No Qualification / Law:  DIY solar panels are not eligible for any type of tax credits or incentives due to their lack of certification.  They would likely not be compliant with electrical mandates, building codes or insurance specifications.
  • Potential Hazards:  Besides the potential blisters from soldering the cells, working with electricity can also be dangerous.  Another issue can be fire hazards.  Building your own solar panels consists of using materials like, cardboard, wood, plastics, glues, etc.  Setting a unit up in the sun and having electricity run through it can potentially create a fire if done incorrectly.

Why would you make your own solar panels?

  • Satisfaction:  There is a great deal of gratification in building things yourself.  The satisfaction of being more self reliant is also a big draw.
  • Learning:  Putting together your own panels is a constructive way to learn or teach someone about solar power and it’s potential.
  • Small Projects:  If you aren’t looking to power your whole home, a DIY solar kit or individually sourced pieces, can be a fun, affordable and sensible way to complete a small endeavor like lighting a shed.

Before I get to far into resources, let me preface by saying…if you have spent anytime at all looking online, then you will have undoubtedly come across websites whose only aim is to sell guides on DIY solar panels.  The cost of these programs / instructional documents will vary but, they’re almost always a complete ripoff.  The information they contain is readily available online, for free, or is completely inaccurate / misleading.  I would not personally recommend spending a nickle for info on how to assemble your own panels.  Below are some places to get started.

Here is a good video for how it’s generally done (part 1 of 2)…

A couple websites with step by step instructions, parts lists and photos…

Instructables: Home Solar Panel Guides (many projects)

Mikes’  Build Experience (parts list, pics & good info)

Have another quality resource?  Share it!

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Want to Build a Solar Something?

Basic_DIY_Tools

Are you looking for a fun, do it yourself, solar powered project?  Or, maybe you are looking out of some sort of necessity like saving money on heating bills?  Either way, I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 best solar DIY websites & a review of each.  I’ve chosen not to put them in any particular order because placement would depend on relevance to your objective.  (for example: a project to complete with the kids or looking to solar power your home in an emergency even)  At my other website, I have a list of specific DIY endeavors that I find interesting – Solar Powered DIY Projects.  Anyway, here’s the best..

Instructables – This site came online in 2006 and houses over 100,000 DIY projects.  The projects are uploaded by the community and vary widely in scope.  The vast majority of them contain excellent step by step instructions and photos.  Many contain videos and access to the maker through posts.  They’ll include a list of tools and materials required to make the object.  Some have external websites dedicated to their build.  Basically, the things shown at Instructables are typically very well documented and easy to follow.  The link provided will take you to the DIY solar channel of the site.

Build it Solar – Site started in 2005 by Gary, a retired airplane product development engineer.  Contains TONS of links to DIY solar topics & great onsite guides for solar projects.  It seems many are geared toward home energy, like solar thermal & electric.  One benefit of this site is that it contains links to many different projects where the creators may be making the same things but, approaching it in different ways.  This site contains allot of very useful information & is extensive in size.  If your looking to build or make a homemade solar anything, definitely worth a view.  Careful not to fall into a rabbit hole when visiting this one though!

Hack a Day – This site has been around for a few years that I am familiar with but, the website doesn’t give any indication as to when it was started.  I may be a bit bias in adding this to the list as many of the projects don’t contain clearly defined instructions or documentation.  However, the projects are usually very “techie” and that is right in my wheel house so I find them appealing.  There is a forum to exchange ideas / questions and the site is very active – frequently updated.

Make – Started in 2005 by Dale Dougherty.  Extensive site contains DIY makers projects, kit reviews, forums and blog.  There is also a quarterly magazine for $36 a year.  (I check mine out from the library)  Solar projects you can make are categorized into easy, moderate and difficult.  All of the things to build here are documented very well, broken into steps & presented in a very professional manner.  Certainly worth a visit.

DIY Network –  If you have cable or satellite I’m sure you have seen this channel listed in your guide.  The website has step by step guides, fluffy articles and several well produced videos of DIY solar projects.  They are mostly general overviews and do not contain extensive materials or tool lists.  However, if used as an informational resource in conjunction with a project from above it can be a very handy supplement.

Ok, there are the top 5 best solar power project websites I know of!  If you have a site that you think should be included in this list, let me know!

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How the Solar Power System is Setup

OK, so you’ve buttoned up your house and it is as energy efficient as is practical and are now familiar with some of the hardware.  The next step is to decide what configuration you’ll choose for setting it all up.  There’s almost an infinite number of ways to accomplish your objective.  For the purpose of brevity, I’m going to go into just three potential solar power system setups…simple on-grid without battery backup, on grid with battery backup, and hybrid wind & solar on grid.  (I didn’t include off-grid because it is basically the same as on-grid w/ battery, just not connected to the utility company.)  I’ve included some simple wiring diagrams and videos for reference.  Later I will include a post with useful links for finding additional information and DIY solar power kits that are easy to install.

Please keep in mind that each of these can be done in different ways, and with different equipment than I show below but, they should give you enough information to get your gears turning.

Simple On Grid System:  This is the type of setup that you would use if you want to power your homes appliances and potentially sell power back to the utility company (if you make more energy than you use).  You can either save or make money with this type configuration.  Also know that there will be no batteries involved and the system will NOT provide emergency backup power regardless of it’s size!  It is technically possible to do but against regulation / law / code pretty much everywhere in the US.  I think this is do to safety concerns with ‘islanding‘ but, don’t quote me on that.  Anyway, this is a simpler and cheaper setup compared to the others.  You can also scale it up easily over time by adding more solar panels.

grid-no-battery

Below is a video discussing some specifics regarding a simple grid tied inverter.  He explains about running straight through to the utility and skipping the battery bank.

On Grid with Battery Backup:  This system can do what the one above does in addition to providing power during a power outage.  It differs in the fact that partial shade on your panels can keep all of your panels from producing power if wired in a series.  It’s more expensive but much more versatile.

grid-with-battery

The two videos below demonstrate good grid tied solar power systems with battery backup.  If you open the second video in a new window, below it (click more on description) he lists links to all of the individual parts.

Wind Turbine & Solar Grid Tied with Battery Backup:  This type of system can provide power when the sun isn’t shining.  It can also make electricity when there is no wind.  It costs more but is very reliable and will pay for itself over time.

wind-solar-grid-battery

Next, will be useful resources for each of these steps and links to do it yourself solar electric power kits.

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Getting Familiar with Equipment

Before going any further you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the different solar products and what they do.  Depending on how you are going to setup your solar power system, individual components may be combined into another pieces of hardware or may not be used at all.  It is however essential to know what all these things are and whether you’ll need them.

DC Power – (Direct Current) This is the type of current produced by solar panels and wind turbines.  It is also the type of current stored and discharged from batteries.  DC cannot power traditional home appliances by itself.  Solar power systems are usually 12 or 24 volts.  The blowhard Thomas Edison is mostly credited for DC power and erroneously, electricity in general.

AC Power – (Alternating Current) This is current powering your home today and is commonly referred to as 110v.  If you are going to feed power back to the utility company, this is what they will want.  The genius Nikola Tesla is the true inventor of modern electricity, Edison be damned.

Solar Power Panels – (also known as PV Panels or Photovoltaics) These are essential to any solar project.  They are what converts the suns rays into electric power.  They can be made out of different materials and have differing amounts of efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity.  They also will vary widely in size and cost.  Here is a site that gives a brief run down of the major types of solar panels.

Power Inverter – This is a device that converts DC power created by your solar panels and changes it to AC current to supply energy for your home or the power grid.  A power invert usually has standard AC outlets that you can plug things into & it can be connected to your homes circuit breaker for power distribution through the house.  It can be a stand alone device in your system or some modern panels come with micro-inverters integrated into them.  The integrated kind could only be used in a grid-tied setup that doesn’t need to charge batteries.  (panels would ultimately be producing AC power & batteries need DC)

Grid Tie Inverter w/ Battery Backup – A special type of inverter that is needed in a hybrid solar power setup where you are able to feed excess energy to the power grid and have emergency battery backup power when the grid is down.  You should check with the utility company to see if they will allow this type of connection to their infrastructure.  It may also need to be installed by a certified electrician and meet certain specifications.

Charge Controller – (also known as Solar Regulators) This is what moderates the energy to and from your batteries to ensure that they are not under or over charged.  The input to the charge controller comes from the solar panels.  The output is usually connected to the storage batteries and inverter.  The charge controller may also be included inside another component of the system depending on your setup.  The stand alone controllers are relatively inexpensive but play an important role.

Solar Power Storage Batteries – These are needed if your system is to provide backup / emergency power or if you’re living off grid.  For residential solar power storage, deep cycle (or deep cell) lead acid batteries are typically used due to their properties.  You can use marine, golf cart, car batteries, etc.  There are many technical things to consider when buying this expensive component.  I’ll provide some links for more battery information at the end of this guide.

Inline Fuses – These cheap little guys sacrifice themselves in the event of short circuit or over voltage.  They protect the devices connected to them from electrical damage by breaking the circuit.  They are usually found between panels and charge controllers.  The inverter will also be fused.

Battery Tender / Trickle Charger –  These are plugged into an AC power outlet and fed to your batteries.  They ensure that the batteries remain fully charged regardless of the amount of energy your panels are producing.  The chargers can also provide diagnostic data and the charge within the batteries.  They help extend the life of your batteries and are pretty inexpensive.

Desulfater / Desulfation Device –  Product that is connected to the batteries to drastically extend their life by doing some wiz-bang stuff with the batteries internal chemistry.  Some chargers have these integrated or can be separate units.

Wiring – Insulated conductors used to transport electricity. (hehe)  The size / type of wiring between solar power components should be considered carefully.  Choosing the wrong gauge can waste energy & even be very dangerous.

OK, those are most of the components used in setting up a DIY solar power system.  Next I’ll explore where these things fit into your particular system.

Rules, Codes and Regulations

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So you’ve decided what you’d like to accomplish.  Before you get ahead of yourself, you’ll want to get in contact with any, and every, entity that could have a say in what you can do with your ‘personal’ property.  Installing a solar power system will require some construction and installation.  There will be solar panels either on your roof or in your yard.  If you intend to have a grid-tied (net metering) system, the utility company will need to be contacted to determine their rules and safety requirements.  Local building codes will need to be consulted.  Your neighborhood association, city zoning and county laws should be investigated.  You may even want to discuss your intended project with your immediate neighbors.  Not only can they create hassles for you during construction (i.e. “There was this truck blocking my drive for 5 minutes.” or “They are making quite a racket over there & I want something done about it!”, etc, etc.), what if the neighbor decides to plant trees that will block the sunlight to your panels?  Basically, confer with everybody, down to the area dog catcher, to alleviate potential headaches later.  Here is a link to a checklist needed by the City of Berkeley,  CA, in order to be issued a permit to install a solar power system.  It should give you an idea of what your local authority my require.

permit-checklist

Although there are laws, codes, regulations, stipulations and opinions that can be a real drag but depending on where you live, some governing rules can actually be of assistance completing a DIY solar power system project.  The State of California, in general,  is a good example where laws are favorable & residence are encouraged toward green energy through legislation.

A good place to get started learning solar law and policy in your state is DSIRE. (some local info may be available there too)  I would recommend searching the Internet and using the phone book to learn about the rules applicable to your specific location.

Of course all of the rules about setting it up will be unique to your particular locale.  The same thing is also true regarding incentives, rebates and tax credits.  At the time of this posting, the Federal Government offers many incentives to encourage residential solar power.  In addition to DSIRE also look at energy.gov and energystar.gov for substantial savings relating to all aspects of installing a solar power system.  You should also ask your local government if they offer any incentives or rebates.

The next step will be things to consider about the physical setup of your system.  Things like estimating your solar power requirements, available solar energy (sunlight) in your area and home energy conservation.