The Ultimate Guide to Building a Personal (and truly portable) Prepper’s Solar Generator
The following is a guest post provided by Michael Lemieux
Often times, you’ll see ads on the internet and television for these solar generators touting how efficient they are and never needing fuel to operate. While not technically true (you don’t need to “purchase” additional fuel to operate) it is a bit misleading as solar radiation is and can be used as a source of fuel. But yes, for now, sunlight is free to all who have access to it (presuming you are not in some deep underground cavern.)
The barrier for most of us though is the cost — hundreds or even thousands of dollars that most cannot afford to part with for just one item.
But for those willing to purchase a few common items and willingness to venture into the “Do it yourself” world you can build one yourself.
Overcoming the Solar DIY Hurdles
Most people may find it a bit daunting to tackle electronics and wiring to safely (and most importantly) build a dependable generator that will be there when we truly need it. But in truth it is not that hard and most of the “complexity” is taken out by getting the right components and using a bit of common sense.
The second barrier is the hesitation of not knowing what we don’t know. With the modern age of online research and more importantly looking at what others who have said about the components, the rating, of how well a product works.
As to the components I list here, they are ones that I have used and your research may lead you to other items that provide greater functionality and dependability. This is good, the more you know the better equipped you will be to prepare for the future and knowledge is power.
How to Build Your Personal DIY Solar Generator
To start things off, the only limitation on this generator is you, your budget, and needs. The solar generator I will be showing you how to build today is not going to power your whole house but will help you keep your hand-held devices charged, will even be able to run multiple lap tops, charge batteries, virtually anything with a USB, or even jump start a dead car, and run a few lights for a number of hours.
So to get right into it here is a list of the things you will need. I am a big fan of Amazon Prime for the free shipping and have found the prices quite comparable to other outlets but shop around locally and you may be able to save even more. But one word of caution, do not skimp on the battery as that is what provides the amount of power and how well and quickly it can recharge from the solar panel.
Here we go:
What You’ll Need
First off is the battery:
1) ML35-12 – 12V 35AH U1 Deep Cycle AGM Solar Battery
This is a deep cycle battery that maintains its power output during most all of the usage phase. These batteries are most commonly used for powered wheelchairs and give hours of use and high power.
2) Solar Charge Controller Esky Intelligent LCD 30A 12V/24V 360W/720W PWM Solar Panel Regulator Adapter Charge Controller
It is important to get a charge controller that will adjust for charging the battery but also load balance. This controller will allow for usage of the power output ports while charging and still maintain peak battery charging and will keep the battery charged even when demand is high.
3) Instapark® NEW All Black 10W High-Efficiency Mono-Crystalline Solar Panel
I chose a mono-crystalline over a poly because of the historically better electrical production of the panel output and the cost. I think I paid around $40 for this panel which can be paired with other panels to create as large a system as you need. I am only using one of these for this single battery system as I wanted a truly portable system and the larger your array is the less portable it becomes.
4) 12V Dash Sockets and Primary Output
Next are 2 – 12V dash sockets, or what used to be called a cigarette lighter socket. This is what we will use to attach the solar panel to the housing as well as to provide for a 12v outlet. These may vary in appearance but are cheap and can be found in most automotive and hardware stores for just a few bucks. (Optional based on how you wish to wire your system.)
You will also need to determine what your primary output use will be for your generator. I wanted to be able to charge multiple USB devices as well as run a 12v converter to convert from DC to 120ac or to power a 12v device directly from the generator. There are also two USB ports on the charge controller as well but I have the controller inside the lid of the housing and it was not convenient to open the housing every time.
5) The Housing
The box I chose was a 1612 Plano Field Box that would hold the battery and all the components as well as having a small compartment outside on the top of the lid to hold connectors/cables for charging different devices. These run less than $20 and are easy to cut to install all the devices. The tray is not used for this project.
6) The Electronics
You will need one spool of red and one spool of black 10awg electrical wire to make the connections. This can be purchased at most any hardware stores. I recommend using a single color (red) for positive connections and black for negative connections.
Because we are working with electronics it is imperative that we do not hook things up backwards or short the system. You can wire each of the components directly to the controller and bypass the use of the connectors. I recommend the use of connectors to aid in circuit isolation as well as ease in modifying the system later. You will see more on this as we proceed through the project.
To connect to the battery, and to protect the system, use a battery harness with a built in fuse like this one (Battery Tender 081-0069-6 Ring Terminal Harness with Black Fused 2-Pin Quick Disconnect Plug) which you can get on Amazon for about 6-8 dollars or locally at most automotive stores.
Other components can be added as you desire such as a digital readout of the battery level, an LED light to work with the system at night, etc. Your only limit is your imagination and physics of course.
The basic wiring drawing is shown below:
It really is this simple. The complexity is increased on how many items you want to add of each component and additional “features” such as an on/off switch, lights, etc. I recommend starting with the basic system to allow for simple energy in and energy out and then expand once the basic system is up and running.
The solar panel is connected to the solar array port on the charge controller. The charge controller then feeds the electricity from the panel through the battery port to the battery posts and monitors the battery charge level to ensure it does not over-charge the battery as well as isolates the solar panel from the battery when its voltage drops at night. The controller then/also feeds the output devices connected to the LOAD port on the controller.
To illustrate how simple this generator setup is, you could actually build your generator with just this information. Attach the red positive wire and black negative wire of the solar panel to the appropriate poles marked with the solar panel on the charge controller. Attach the positive and negative wires of the battery to the center or battery marked poles on the controller. Then lastly identify your positive and negative connections on your output device attach the appropriate colored wire and attach them to the output terminal on the controller marked by a light bulb.
That is all there is to it. Of course that would not be efficient and the lines could easily get tangled, shorted, or pulled off the devices. So we will put everything in a nice neat traveling case to keep our generator running for some time to come.
This will make more sense as we move through the build process…
Putting it all Together
The tools needed for this build will be:
- a drill or other means of cutting your holes in the case
- a drill bit the size of your output component
- wire cutters
- connectors – (type of your choosing)
- Phillips screw driver
- Electrical tape
- Silicone sealant
Step 1: Lay Out and Mount the Components
Once you have assembled all the parts you will need to lay out exactly how each component will fit into your housing. I suggest actually placing each part in its approximate position with the battery sitting inside the container. This will ensure that your desired positions will work and not be blocked by the biggest item in the box, the battery.
Once you have determined where each component will go you will need to drill the appropriate holes and mount all your components into place.
Mine is laid out like this:
You do not need to make yours just like mine, this is only an example and you may lay yours out how it would best fit your needs and how you intend to use the generator.
The two plugs on the left are a 12v cigarette lighter type outlet and a dual USB power output to charge any USB compatible devices from outside the box.
The battery sits in the middle (ish) to help balance weight. The closer the battery is to the center the easier it is to carry.
The switch and battery readout are optional and will only be briefly covered in this tutorial and is not necessary for the generator to run, it is simply there for ease of gaining information on the system without opening the box.
On the right is a 12V plug used for the input from the solar panel. I made it this way to allow for easy disconnect during non-charging periods and to facilitate quick movement without having wires hanging that could get snagged while moving.
Determine the size hole needed for each component that will be mounted on your box. Drill the desired holes and mount the device. I recommend adding silicone sealant to each device prior to inserting in the holes to make a water resistant seal to help protect the system if it is outside in the elements.
I have chosen to mount my controller on the inside of the box lid to keep it out of the elements and protected from snagging the wires connected to it. You may want to look for a box that has a larger storage area in the lid to provide for this protection but I went the less costly route for this build.
Once all your devices are mounted where they will be going then it is time to look at each component and how they are wired.
Step 2: Wire the Panel and Battery
Wiring the Panel
The first component we will look at is the solar panel.
The solar panel listed above comes with lead wire already pre-soldered to the panel. At this point you need to determine if you wish to direct wire the panel or utilize some type of connector.
I have added a 12v auto plug to the end so I can quickly attach it to the box. How you wire it is up to you. Some have added banana connectors or two pin trailer connectors, it really does not matter.
For a direct wire connection run your wires to the charge controller and attach the positive and negative leads as shown here:
For those wishing to go the connector route choose whatever connector you want to use that has been installed in your box and wire per directions for that particular connector. The greatest concern is to ensure that positive and negative connections do not get crossed.
The Pigtails on my connectors were red and white; others will be red and black or yellow and white. Though try to maintain uniformity so that when looking at the connections you will know which is positive and which is negative but the colors do not matter. If all you have is black wire get a roll of red tape and place a piece of red tape at each end of the connection for positive and your good to go.
I added a 12v auto connector to the wire leading from the solar panel as well as a couple feet of wire to make for easier deployment of the panel and give me the ability to have a small amount of separation between the battery and the solar panel. This was simply a convenience decision and one you will need to make for your own requirements.
That’s all that is needed to be done with the solar panel, so set that aside and well next look at the battery.
Wiring the Battery
The battery I have chosen is a Mighty Max ML35-12. It is a 12 volt 35 Amp Hr rated battery that completely sealed and requires no maintenance and will still operate in any position and at a wide temperature range. Also because the size is right (7.68 in x 5.16 in x 7.13 in) for placing inside our tool box.
The battery comes with square lead posts that have a hole through it and two sets of nuts and bolts for attaching your wires. Attach the red lead from the terminal harness with the built in fuse to the positive (red) side of the battery by running the bolt through the lead post and the ring of the harness and add a washer, nut and then tighten. Use caution and do not apply too much pressure, a ¼ to ½ turn after hand tightening is sufficient. Now do the same to the negative side with the other wire of the harness.
You will notice that the harness comes with a 2-pin quick disconnect plug. This was a primary consideration when designing my system as this was already on the harness I decided to continue the use this scheme throughout the system.
Step 3: Perform the Final Installation and Build
You should now have:
- a solar panel wired and ready
- Battery wired and ready
- Controller mounted in or on your box
- Box with outlets ready to wire up
Install the Battery
The next step now is to install the battery into the box. Though there is not very much room the battery will have a tendency to move about a bit. In the past I have used sticky backed hook and loop fasteners on the bottom to keep the battery from sliding about. Another option is to use high density packing foam to “wedge” the battery in place.
You will now need to cut a set of wires that will run from the controller to a mating connector that will connect to your battery harness. Ensure all connections are tight and no bare wires are exposed. Do not expose the wires at the controller end just yet to ensure we do not short the battery.
Once the connector harness is wired, loosen the two battery terminals corresponding to battery output on the controller. If you are using the same controller I am it will be the center two terminals. Trim the red wire back about a quarter inch and twist the wires to keep them from fraying. Slide the red wire into the + terminal on the controller and tighten. Give the wire a gentle tug to ensure it is clamped in place. Now repeat this process for the black wire and the – terminal. You will notice the controller light up as soon as the black wire is connected showing you have done it correctly.
Note: Your battery should have an initial charge for the system to operate correctly. If you battery is dead, please charge it in a conventional trickle charger before attempting completion.
If you have chosen to use quick disconnects on your components, as I have, then the next step is to cut corresponding lengths of red and black wires necessary to connect to the mating connector of the solar input. Make sure that the positive and negative wires pass through to the correct wires on the other side of the connector to prevent shorting the system. If you have chosen to wire directly then move on to the next paragraph.
Once this wire set is ready connect the solar panel positive (red) to the terminal on the controller marked + and the black to the one marked -. This is the left most set of terminals on the controller, if using the one I use, or the set marked by solar or a picture of a panel.
If the panel is now in the sun you will see a green light indicating the unit is charging in the top left corner of the controller.
Parallel Wiring of Your Components
Next, your output components will need to be wired up in parallel. That means all the red wires will be wired together and all the black wires will be wired together and all terminate (come together) into a single lead of one red wire and one black wire.
Measure a pair of wires to go from your output components to the controller. Connect the component red wires to the single lead to the controller for red and then black. Tape these connects together to ensure there is no bare wire and no chance for a short.
Like the other two terminals loosen and insert the red and black wires into the terminal blocks and tighten.
The Final Product
With your build complete, your new solar generator is now ready for operation and ready to travel….
This is the basic premise for all solar systems the only difference is scale (number of panels, batteries and output), otherwise they are the same.