If you’ve researched solar energy solutions, you probably know that it’s possible to DIY your solar panel installation, often referred to as DIY solar. But as it turns out, DIY solar can mean something more than just installing your own solar panels — it can mean building your solar panels from scratch.
While not too common, if you have a knack for major DIY assembly projects, you may want to make your own solar panel components yourself. In our guide, we explain how to build a solar panel, step by step.
Table of contents:
- Step 1: Component Assembly
- Purchase Your Components
- Prepare Your Backing Board
- Prepare Your Tabbing Wire
- Bond the Tabbing Wire and the Cells
- Step 2: Solar Cell Connection
- Glue the Cells to Your Board
- Solder Your Rows Together
- Connect Your First Row Using a Small Bus Wire
- Connect All Other Rows Using a Long Bus Wire
- Step 3: Panel Box Construction
- Step 4: Panel Wiring
- Connect the Bus Wire to a Diode
- Run Wires to a Terminal Block
- Wire Your Panel to a Charge Controller
- Connect the Charge Controller to Your Battery System
- Step 5: Finishing Touches
Step 1: Component Assembly
There’s some important prep work to be done before you start connecting your components.
Purchase Your Components
Start with buying the solar cells themselves so that you can use them to determine the size of your entire panel. When buying your cells, keep the following tips in mind:
- Buy from a reputable vendor: Buying from an eBay or Craigslist seller is fine, but make sure they have a strong seller profile with positive reviews. When in doubt, you can also buy your cells from a hardware store.
- Buy extra cells: Solar cells are very fragile, so you’ll want to be prepared with extras in the event that anything goes wrong during the assembly process.
- Clean wax off of cells: Some manufacturers ship solar cells in a wax coating. If this is the case for yours, dip them in hot water before using them.
You’ll also want to purchase the following components:
- A backing board (made of wood, cardboard, glass, or plastic)
- A roll of tabbing wire: Flat copper wire normally prepared by rolling round copper wire into a flat shape
- A roll of solder: An alloy used to bond metal pieces together
- A soldering iron: A tool used to melt solder for the purpose of bonding metal pieces
- A flux pen: A pen filled with a substance that removes oxidation from metals and assists with the melting and fusing process
- A tube of silicone adhesive: An adhesive that offers a strong hold, excellent flexibility, and high heat resistance
- Bus wire: A type of metal wire that carries current well
- Two that are an inch longer than the space between your solar cells’ thick lines
- Additional longer wires (about three times that length) for every additional row of cells
- Four 1 inch (width) by 2 inch (height) pieces of plank
- Two sized to the length of your panel box (see Step 3)
- Two sized to the width of your panel box (see Step 3)
- A terminal block: A tool used to safely join two wires
- A charge controller: A device that regulates current to keep batteries from overcharging
- A battery (or batteries)
- Four 1 inch by 1 inch wooden block stops
- A large sheet of plexiglass (cut to fit your panel box — see Step 5)
Prepare Your Backing Board
Now that you have your cells, you’re ready to size your backing board. This is a piece of non-conductive material that you will connect your solar cells and wiring to.
- To create a backing board, purchase a thin board made of a non-conductive material such as wood, glass, cardboard, or plastic. Wood is ideal since it’s sturdy and easy to drill holes into.
- Space out your solar cells on the board, leaving a small gap between them.
- Measure the total area that all of your cells occupy, adding an extra two inches of space to each side.
- Cut the board to the dimensions you measured. You should end up with a large board that can hold all of your solar cells, with an extra two inches of board space on every end.
Pro tip: The fewer rows of solar cells you create, the better. Choose and cut your board in such a way that you have longer and fewer rows (e.g., four rows, each with 12 cells).
Prepare Your Tabbing Wire
You’ll use tabbing wire to connect the solar cells in each of your rows together.
Solar cells have several tiny lines running lengthwise and two thicker lines (contact pads) running across their width. Measure one of these contact pads and cut your tabbing wire into pieces that are double this length.
Your tabbing wires will run along the lines and will connect to the back of the next cell in your array, so you’ll need two tabbing wires per cell.
Since you’ll be using some heat to bond the tabbing wire to the cells, it’s a good idea to use a flux pen to flux the path that the wire will run, along the panel’s front contact pads and onto the backside of the next cell. This will prevent oxidation when heat is applied in the next step.
Pro tip: If you have the budget to do so, buy pre-soldered tabbing wire — it’ll save you time and hassle. Otherwise, you’ll have to solder your tabbing wire after cutting it to size.
Bond the Tabbing Wire and the Cells
Using solder and a soldering iron, you’ll then bond each piece of tabbing wire to the cells. Bond two tabbing wires onto the back of each cell, along the same path where the front of the cell’s contact pads run. Half of the wire’s length should extend beyond the cell to reach the front of the next cell.
Step 2: Solar Cell Connection
Once your solar cells are prepped, you can start bringing your panel to life — connecting the cells to your board and to one another.
Glue the Cells to Your Board
Add a small amount of silicone adhesive to the center back of your solar cells before placing them on your backing board to glue them down. Be sure to align them precisely so that your tabbing wire can run directly across the entire row in a straight line (from the back of one cell to the front of the next), connecting all the cells in the row.
When you connect your panels, be mindful of spacing and cell direction.
- Leave enough space between your cells that your tabbing wire can move from under one cell onto the front of the next.
- Leave an inch of extra space between the last cell in each row and the ends of the board.
- Each row’s cells should be wired in the opposite direction of the row before it. If the first row runs a left-to-right connection, the following row should run a right-to-left connection.
Solder Your Rows Together
It’s time for more heat, which means flux comes first. Remember, flux prevents oxidation and helps facilitate the metal melting and bonding process.
- Break out your flux pen and apply it to the two contact pads on the front of each of your cells.
- Grab the tabbing wire sticking up from the back of each cell and solder it across the full length of the front of the next cell, along each of the contact pads. The back of one cell should always connect to the front of the following cell.
Connect Your First Row Using a Small Bus Wire
Next, you’ll be using long bus wires to connect your rows of cells together and short bus wires to add ends to your top and bottom rows. We’ll start with adding an end to your first row.
- The front of the first cell in your first row doesn’t yet have any tabbing wire on it, since it started the chain. Cut two pieces of tabbing wire, each an inch longer than the length of that cell.
- Solder those wires across the cell’s contact pads. The extra inch of wire should extend toward the end of the board, where there should be an inch of extra space.
- Place a piece of bus wire that’s an inch longer than the space between your first cell’s contact pads in that extra space on your board.
- Solder the extra inch of wire from your cell’s contact pads together using the bus wire.
Pro tip: You will replicate this process exactly for your last row. Keep these steps in mind for after you’re finished wiring your rows together.
Connect All Other Rows Using a Long Bus Wire
Now let’s move to the other end of your first row. Attach a long piece of bus wire directly next to the last cell of your first row that leads to the first cell of the second row.
This cell (the first cell of the second row), since it’s starting the row, doesn’t have tabbing wire on its front yet, just as the first cell of the first row didn’t. You’ll need to solder more tabbing wire to this cell before continuing, as you did for the first cell in the first row.
Use your soldering iron and solder to bond the tabbing wires from the last cell in your first row and the tabbing wires of the first cell in your next row to the bus wire. Once this is done, your first and second rows are connected.
Then, repeat this process with all of your rows until every row is connected together. Remember to use another short piece of bus wire to finish off your series at the end of the final row. Once complete, your panel should look like the following image.
Step 3: Panel Box Construction
Your solar cells can’t just be exposed to the elements — all solar panels must house their cells inside of a sturdy compartment covered in protective glass. In this step, we walk through how to create a safe home for your solar cells.
Create Your Box Using Plank
When creating your box, be generous with your use of screws — you want to make sure everything is secure before connecting it to your backing board with your components.
- Take two of your 1 inch by 2 inch pieces of plank and measure them to fit the length of your backing board.
- Cut them to fit this measurement using a saw.
- Take your other two pieces of plank and measure them to fit in between the planks that go longways.
- Use deck screws and butt joints to secure the bottom, top, and sides together.
- Drill holes slightly bigger than your bus wire in the box next to the two ends of your panel (the places you put your small bus wires).
Attach the Box to the Panel Backing Board
Once your box is assembled, it’s time to connect it to your panel backing board. Add glue along the board’s perimeter and place the finished box onto your solar unit. Confirm that the box is secure and that no components are crushed or obstructed.
Step 4: Panel Wiring
It’s time to dive into the electrical side of things. Grab your wires, your charge controller, and your battery and let’s get started.
Connect the Bus Wire to a Diode
A diode keeps an electrical current flowing in the right direction — in this case, from the panel to the battery rather than from the battery to the panel.
Solder a wire to your last bus wire (the negative end of your solar panel) and connect that wire to the diode, with the diode’s light-colored line facing away from the wire and toward the battery.
In the same fashion, solder a wire (of a different color than that of your negative connection) to your first bus wire (the positive end of your solar panel).
Run Wires to a Terminal Block
You should now have two wires — a negatively charged wire that runs through a diode, and a positively charged wire. Mount a terminal block to the side of your panel box and run both wires through this.
Wire Your Panel to a Charge Controller
A charge controller regulates the current (amperage/voltage) flowing from the solar panel, making sure your battery doesn’t overcharge.
When connecting your panel wires from your terminal block to your charge controller, be sure to keep track of your positive and negative wires and connect everything correctly. This is where color-coded wires are especially important.
Connect the Charge Controller to Your Battery System
Now that your panel is ready to feed a current to the charge controller, you can connect your battery to the controller. Once again, use color-coded wires to avoid mixing up your positive and negative connections.
When choosing a battery, be mindful of how much energy you’ll be producing. If you’re only building one solar panel, you shouldn’t need a very large battery.
Step 5: Finishing Touches
Pat yourself on the back — you now have a functional solar panel! There are just a few more steps to make sure your panel stays safe and achieves its maximum potential.
Seal the Box
Every solar panel should have a layer of plexiglass to protect it from the elements.
- Visit your local hardware store to have your sheet of plexiglass sized to fit your solar panel box.
- Glue four 1 inch by 1 inch wooden block stops to the four corners of your backing board, inside the walls of your panel box.
- Place your plexiglass on top of the block stops so that it fits snugly and fully covers your solar panel components.
- Carefully screw your plexiglass onto the blocks.
- Use a silicone sealant to seal the edges of your box (where the plexiglass meets the box’s walls).
Position and Mount Your Panel(s)
You now get to decide where to mount your new panel (or panels). If you already have a specific purpose in mind, such as powering your RV, the answer is simple — you’ll want to get an RV mount or a stand that will be placed outside of your RV.
If you’re planning to use your panel(s) to help power your home, you have some options — you could install them on your roof, on a stand or ground mount, on an awning, or wherever else there is proper sun exposure.
Connect Your Devices to Your Battery System
Your system is now complete, and it’s finally time to use it. Once your battery system has had some time to charge, use it to start powering your devices. Refer to your battery's manual for detailed instructions on how to hook up your devices.
Homemade Solar Panels FAQ
Building your own solar panels is quite the DIY feat. As such, it takes a lot of time and effort. Below, we unpack some common questions about building homemade solar panels.
Is It Possible to Build Your Own Solar Panels?
Yes — it is possible to build your own solar panels from scratch. It may be challenging to replicate the caliber of a solar manufacturer that has years of research and experience behind it, but it can still be done.
Is It Cheaper to Build Your Own Solar Panels?
Initially, it’s likely that building your own solar panels will cost less. The materials are often cheaper than buying pre-made solar panels from a manufacturer.
However, the materials for homemade solar panels are often of poorer quality, and when not professionally manufactured, they may not last as long.
This could cost you more money in the long run, as you’re more likely to need to repair your panels or replace them altogether. And since you’re the manufacturer of homemade panels, there’s no warranty to cover the cost.
How Do You Make Homemade Solar Panels?
The process of making your own solar panels involves the following major steps:
- Purchasing components (solar cells, wires, backing board, planks, soldering materials, flux pen, charge controller, battery, etc.)
- Sizing a backing board for your solar cells
- Adding your solar cells, connecting them with tabbing wire and bus wires
- Building a box to hold your components
- Connecting your solar cells to a diode, then to a charge controller and battery
- Sealing your solar panel box and mounting your panel(s)
Homemade solar panels take DIY solar to the next level. For those who want to save money on solar energy, building solar panels from scratch can be a fun and rewarding challenge.
Once you have your homemade panel(s) assembled, check out our battery offerings to store the energy you produce.