Have you been wanting to add solar panels, but are concerned about the high price?
That’s totally understandable! Buying PV solar panels and having them installed can be really expensive.
A quick Google price search for solar panels shows that for a small “starter” installation (around 50-100W), you can expect to be paying between $2-4/watt for the panels (so around $100-400), plus more for mounts and installation. In addition, you’ll be paying for cables, electronics, and batteries to store all the electricity you’ve harnessed from the sun. All this will typically add up to $1000 to $2000 if you were to get a “basic” RV setup from a solar energy dealer.
But the great news is… If you’re handy, you can save a ton! The more skill you have with basic installation and electronics assembly, the more you can save. In fact, if you’re able and willing to go the total DIY route and invest some of your own workshop time, you can build your own panels for just $1/watt or even much less.
The first tip for those of you who are willing to do some assembly and soldering is to purchase your panels in “kit” form. DIY solar kits come in a lot of different combinations, but you’re essentially looking at a boxed kit with panels, cables, mounts, and possibly a charge controller, which you’ll hook up to your own batteries using their instructions. To find these kits, just Google “RV solar energy kit” or better, “diy solar kit”.
Assembling your panels from a kit is a great idea if you like building things and would enjoy learning how the whole system works. You’ll save a bit of money in the process, in exchange for your own time and effort.
Really the best part, though, is that once you learn for yourself how a solar energy system works, you’ll be in an even better position to save a lot more on your upgrade. Once you’re comfortable with how the whole thing works, you’ll begin to figure out which of the modular parts are easy to upgrade and you can be on the lookout for deals on panels, cables, and electronics. In fact, if you buy a good kit, it probably has suggestions for upgrading.
Once you’ve gotten your head around how it all works, you’re in a position to really save a lot of money by assembling components closer to actually building them totally “from scratch.” Of course it will likely never be economical to actually create your own high-output solar cells, because the volume manufacturing process is what brings the cost down. But what you can do to save a lot of money is to buy the individual solar cells yourself and solder them together to make your own solar panel, at whatever wattage configuration you like. In fact if you’re smart about how you wire them together, you can even make them work better than the manufactured ones.
The easiest way to find individual solar cells is to search Ebay for ‘solar cells.’ You should be able to find packs of PV squares available for about $1/watt or less! (Get the tabbed kind to make it way easier on yourself.)
Watch the video below to get an idea how to solder them together. Basically all you need to do is series-connect together however many you need to reach your target voltage — around 14.8V plus a pre-chosen fudge factor of a few volts — and parallel a few lines of those to add wattage.
BUT what if you could save even more?? Let’s say, cut the cost down from $1/watt to about 30-40 cents per watt… Would you be interested in that?
If you’re a fan of dirt cheap “function over form” DIY, ie. if you don’t mind how things look if it’s way cheaper and works just as well…
A further way to cut your costs in half or even a third is to search Ebay for “broken solar cells”. What you’ll find is a few creative sellers who cater to DIYers who realize that broken solar cells work just as well as whole ones. They may be fragments, or they may have just a small chip in them — either way, they can’t sell them as “perfect” so they need to get rid of them.
Study a few listings and ask the seller questions to make you’ll be able to work with them. Since they’re broken, some or all of them may not have tabs, so you’ll have to solder them yourself. No biggie, but it does take more work. If you’re willing to put in the research, you can save a ton on panels, or for the same money, you could build a much bigger system.
Of course with a bigger panel system, you’ll need to upgrade the other components as well. You’ll likely want bigger cables, more battery storage, and a charge controller that can handle the higher current. Realistically, it would be best to plan your installation from the beginning to account for future upgrades. In another article I’ll explain how to calculate your needs and how to save lots of cash on the other components as well.