Don't let the headline fool you. This article won't lead you to something for nothing nor will the mathematics be all that difficult. For those who have been thinking about alternative energy and going Green I will try to give you an idea of the knowledge and skills required to build a DIY (Do It Yourself) PVC (Photovoltaic) solar system that can provide as little as lighting a single low watt bulb to powering your entire house or business.
The basic ingredient in such a system is the solar cell. Each individual cell generates about 1.5 volts when exposed to sunlight. Small cell, large cell, size makes no difference, they all generate about the same voltage. This voltage, coincidently, is what we get from the flashlight batteries we are all familiar with. What does change with size is the wattage a cell puts out. A very small cell might give milliamps, a larger one as much as 5 or 6 amps. The cells currently available for DIY range generally from 1x1 to 6x6 inches with variations in between, i.e. 2x4,1x3, etc.
In order to build solar panels we have to link solar cells to each other with tabbing wires. Tabbing is a flat conductor used with solar cells in order to better fit between the glass in front and the material in back. We link them together in a particular way depending on how we are going to use our panels. When properly connected and placed between protective glass, backing and framing, we now have a solar panel. For our purposes solar panels will provide a nominal 16-18 volts which is just the right amount to use when charging a 12 volt battery. Our panels will contain 36 cells connected in such a way that 3 sets of 12 cells in series provide the 16-18 volts we need and then these sets are connected in parallel to provide 3 times the wattage produced by each set. This will link you to a site that has more specific information on wiring and building a solar panel.
Before going farther we need to talk a little about the math and the formulas that will answer many questions that may be running through your mind. How do I know what size of system I need? How many panels will I need? How many batteries? What will components cost and how will they be interconnected? The answers will depend on our understanding of PIE and how to arrive at specific numbers for our system. I could go into a primer here on basic electrical circuits, formulas and schematics but I won't. Instead I am going to link the reader to places on the Internet where this information is readily available. In doing this I am urging readers to dig deeper than a Newsvine article would allow me. Calculating electric power is covered here in a very basic manner. For those beyond the basic or wanting a more comprehensive site try this. To make actual calculations try here.
For those of you who followed the links you now have seen that there is an amazing amount of and variation in information available on line. Part of the reason I went directly to supplying links is that it will encourage the reader to go farther on their own than I can go with them hand in hand. Let's go a step farther and see what we can find about one of the basic skills we will need in making our own panels. Soldering. There are all kinds of skills taught on YouTube, soldering is just one of many YouTube videos on soldering. There is also a good tutorial here.
If you prefer not going through all this linking and learning, there are books available that will carry you through the necessary steps. I will tell you right now that those books are not likely to provide any more information than is available to the computer user searching and surfing for what they need to know. I do find that I buy a book now and then because it gives me all the info in one handy place and I can study it even in bed. I make one caution, if you do not care to learn what solar energy is all about then you probably don't want to build a DIY system. Such systems are only for those who understand them and are willing to devote the necessary time toward maintaining their system.
I will make another suggestion for those who decide to build their own solar system now or in the future. Take small steps in the beginning. Build the most inexpensive solar panel to start out. There will always be a use for that panel even if it doesn't fit into the system you ultimately want. Practice any skills you need on scraps or salvaged items when possible. You can buy broken cells at very reasonable prices for your first attempt. You will learn that handling cells requires a certain delicacy. Soldering may not come easy at first so practice on broken cells or just with plain old copper wire if necessary. Read and study as much as you can. There are reams of ebooks and government pdf's available. In later articles I will try to develop a list of links to what I feel are some of the best solar energy documents on the Internet. Thanks.