How do you build your own solar panel system?

Updated

Guy standing in front of home with solar panels

Solar panels are a great option for renewable energy generation, and you can even build them on your own. Building your own solar system to harness solar energy is a big undertaking, but for many DIY-ers or anyone interested in engineering, it can be a fun and rewarding project. 

Building an entire system yourself will take a lot of research and planning, including sourcing the right materials and getting the proper permitting from your town. 

It makes the most sense if you want to build a panel for a small project like as backup power for an RV. We do not recommend building your own solar panel system for use on your home, there are too many errors that can occur and lead to unsafe panels. 

We will walk you through what you need to know, review the pros and cons of DIY panels, and why working with a professional installer may be a safer bet.

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    Is it possible to build your own solar panels?

    Yes, it is possible to build your own solar system - and even the solar panels - from scratch. Although, it can be risky since faulty workmanship will lead to breaks and system failure. 

    Solar panels are made by soldering together solar cells into strings, joining these strings together, and connecting them to a junction box. Once joined together, the components must be sealed so that the active parts of the solar panel are waterproof. Then the front is sealed with a transparent waterproof product for protection. Silicon is then used to seal the panel around the edges so that moisture does not get in.

    It is not technically difficult to make a single solar panel, it is mainly soldering wires and solar cells.  

    The biggest issue is finding quality material to build the panels. Normally, the materials are purchased in an ad hoc fashion from many different distributors, so quality is hard to track. Building solar panels from non-quality equipment can lead to damaged panels or risk of fire from faulty craftsmanship.  

    If you want to build your own panels, we recommend building them on a smaller scale, for things like running electricity to your shed, instead of an entire house. Small projects will keep power demands low, which makes DIY installation manageable and less likely to break.

    For someone with little to no experience in solar equipment, it can be dangerous to build and install a system large enough to power your home. 

    How do I build a solar panel system?

    You can follow the step-by-step process below. 

    Note, before sourcing your equipment, it is important to keep in mind that solar cells offered on websites are usually seconds that didn't make it past quality control. They can be chipped, blemished, or otherwise damaged, which is definitely not ideal.

    How to build a solar panel system
    Step 1 Design and determine size of your system
    Step 2 Purchase components for solar panels
    Step 3 Purchase inverters and racking
    Step 4 Install racking
    Step 5 Connect solar panels to racking
    Step 6 Install solar inverter

    1. Design and determine the size of your system based on your energy needs 

    To determine how many solar panels you will need, you need to know how much energy you plan to use on average per month, and how much sun exposure you can expect throughout the year. Once you know that, you can pick out which brand and model of solar panel will make sense for you. 

    Learn more: How many solar panels do I need?

    If you are building panels for a small project or appliance, you will need fewer panels. Simply determine the kWh the appliance will require, then figure out how many panels to build from there. 

    2. Purchase the components that make up a solar panel 

    You will need:

    • Solar cells
    • Pre-soldered wiring
    • Non-conductive material (wood, glass, or plastic)
    • Plexiglass

    Solar cells 

    Image source: Energy.gov

    Solar cells are what converts the sun’s energy into electricity, each solar panel consists of about 36 solar cells.

    Pre-soldered wiring 

    Image source: Amazon.com

    Buying pre-soldered tabbing wire will cut some steps out of the process, but you will still need a soldering iron to solder the wiring to the back of the solar cells and string the wire correctly to connect the solar cells. 

    Non-conductive material to attach the cells to, like wood, glass or plastic 

    solar panel breakdown

    For DIY solar panels, wood usually works best as backing because it is easy to drill holes for the wiring. Once you have your solar cells wired together, you can glue these to the wood backing and then attach all of the wires and solder each solar cell together. 

    After wiring, you then connect these wires to a charge controller, which regulates the volts of energy. Wood can also be used to build a box to protect the solar cells and then to lay the plexiglass on top for moisture protection.

    Seal the solar panel with plexiglass 

    Once your solar cells are wired and glued to the wood backing, you need to seal them with plexiglass for protection from heat, debris, and moisture. 

    3. Purchase additional solar equipment like inverters and racking 

    If you do not trust yourself to build solar panels from scratch, you can purchase a solar panel kit which will come with more specific instructions (and usually racking) to help secure your panels. Purchasing a solar kit might actually be more useful since it will include racking already. 

    Racking is tricky, you will need to determine which racking equipment works for your specific roof type or ground mount. There is almost an overwhelming amount of options of clamping and mounting equipment available if you look at wholesale distributor sites. 

    4. Install the racking for your solar panels 

    When purchasing racking, choosing which option to buy depends on where your panels will go. For instance, will they be ground mounted, or on your RV? This will determine the type of racking you need to buy. Once you pick your racking, you need to map out where you will drill the holes to secure the racking to your structure.

    5. Connect the solar panels to the racking equipment 

    To secure solar panels to the racking equipment, you will need clamps, or connectors, that are made for the racking you choose. Buying them together and from the same distributor is a good way to make sure they are built for each other. Solar panel kits generally come with racking but if you buy everything separately, make sure you do the research to build a fully functioning solar power system.

    6. Install the proper solar inverter 

    Installing a solar inverter takes expertise because it will need to be hooked up the electrical grid. For this, we recommend utilizing the help from a professional installer, as they will do this safely and effectively with the right permits.

    Request quotes from top-rated solar installers in your area

    Are you skilled enough to build your own solar panels?

    Solar panels are relatively simple enough to build, but for them to remain functional for a long period of time, they need to be built with extreme precision. Solar panels need to be able to maintain their integrity in harsh weather conditions and from consistent exposure to heat and sunlight. 

    Safety is the biggest concern with homemade solar panels. Moisture can get inside and ruin them and there is the potential for improperly built panels to catch fire from the sun’s heat. Mastering the soldering and electrical wiring is a challenge that generally takes the knowledge of a skilled electrician or engineer. 

    Building a system requires a willingness to research, make mistakes, and gain experience in electrical wiring skills and soldering techniques. So if you are an experienced engineer or electrician, this can be a bit easier to master but it is definitely not a quick weekend’s worth of DIY-ing. 

    How do you build your own solar panel system with a kit?

    While building solar panels from scratch and then retrofitting an entire solar system is possible, most people usually want to build a solar system from pre-made equipment and then install the system.

    The main advantage of buying a packaged solar kit, like one from Grape Solar versus buying all of the material separately, is that the equipment within the kit is guaranteed to work together. That is not necessarily the case if you buy each item ad hoc. For example, certain solar panels and inverters can only work with each other within defined electrical specifications. 

    grape solar panel kit

    Solar panel kits come with most of the parts you will need to complete your small-scale solar project. Image source: Amazon 

    Unless you're determined to build a system from the ground up, a solar panel kit is a better option and will be less expensive and confusing. 

    What are the pros and cons of DIY solar panels and solar systems?

    Most DIY projects have their pros and cons, but because solar systems deliver electricity to your home, having properly made panels is very important. It is the difference between saving a few thousand dollars versus having solar panels that you know will be safe. 

    As you can see, the cons greatly outweigh the pros.

    Pros and cons of building your own solar system
    Pros Cons
    Plans and instructions are available Can cause fires
    Can be a great learning experience Materials can be poor quality or sold second-hand
      Homemade systems often violate electrical codes
      Not eligible for rebates or tax credits
      Warranties will be invalid

    Pros 

    • Plans and instructions are readily available online at little to no cost. Being able to follow the steps to building a panel is definitely possible, but it is a large project to take on.
    • Manufacturing your own solar panels for small off-grid projects can be a great learning experience. If you have an engineering mindset and are curious about how solar panels work, this could be a fun challenge for you.

    Cons 

    • Homemade solar panels configured incorrectly can cause fires due to intense heat buildup on hot, sunny days.
    • If you choose to buy secondhand from sites like eBay, you’re likely purchasing factory seconds, rejected, or damaged solar cells. Buying any of those materials is bound to lead to system failure.
    • Homemade systems often violate electrical codes, this will lead to issues in permitting. It’s easier to rely on a solar company to handle electrical codes.
    • Homemade panels are not eligible for incentives, like the federal tax credit, or rebates which help bring down the cost of home solar systems.
    • Warranties on any parts will be invalidated, model warranties are usually only covered if installed by a professional.
    • The amount of money you save might have a short shelf life. If your panels break, you will be on the hook for that cost. Not to mention, homemade panels will not last as long as professionally-built panels. 

    How much does building your own solar panel system or solar panel kits cost?

    Solar panel kits range in price, a 6kW system can cost anywhere from $7,000 - $15,000 before the 26% federal tax credit. However, this does not include permitting costs or installation, which is included if you work with a professional. 

    As of April 2021, the average cost of a 6kW system is about $17,100 before the tax credit; after which would make the system $12,654. This relatively higher cost is worth it because it comes with a system you can trust for a lifespan of 25 years. 

    As for building solar panels from scratch, the costs of solar cells, wiring, inverters, permitting, etc. does vary, and it might add up to be less than the cost of working with a professional. But, these panels might not work and you will not have manufacturer support or warranties to rely on if your system stops working or you have questions. 

    What are other benefits of professional installations?

    The cost of a solar system installation can be intimidating - however, there are many financing options like solar loans, as well as incentives for homeowners that can drastically reduce the price. 

    While solar system installation costs are expensive, installers have decades of hands-on experience – something no amount of research or instructions can duplicate.

    Check out our list of the 100 best installers in the U.S.

    At the end of 2020, the federal tax credit was extended, so you can get a tax credit of 26% on your solar system until 2023. To reiterate, you would not be eligible for this incentive if you built and installed the panels yourself.

    DIY solar panels and solar systems are possible but are best left for science projects or small-scale use. Professional installations might not give you the satisfaction of completing a project, but they can give you peace of mind. 

    Find out how much it will cost to install solar panels on your specific roof

    Key takeaways

    • Building solar panels from scratch takes dedication and precision, it is best suited for small-scale projects.
    • Solar panel kits include all of the components you need, leading to an easier project.
    • If you build your own solar system, you do not get monetary incentives, warranties, or support from manufacturers.
    • Working with professional installers guarantees safe, reliable and warranted panels for 25 years.
     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Ana Almerini

    Web Content Specialist

    Ana is a web content specialist at SolarReviews. She has 5 years of marketing experience blended with 2 years of experience in climate communications and holds a master of arts degree in climate and society from Columbia University. Ana frequently volunteers for environmental causes ranging from oyster reef restoration in NJ to expanding bike sharing in Naples, Italy.

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