Assembling a Solar Panel Kit

With a solar panel kit you put together yourself, it's possible to slash the cost of solar water heating and still retain store-bought quality.


| May/June 1985



solar panel kit - fully assembled and mounted unit

When assembled and mounted, a solar panel kit might look something like this.


PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

In order for solar technology to be accepted, it must be affordable. Unfortunately, while many manufacturers go to great lengths to develop well-designed, functional products, they often fall short of achieving even tolerable cost-effectiveness.

Part of the problem is that a sizable portion of production cost lies in assembly. Many solar enthusiasts are circumventing that built-in thorn by fabricating their own system components, most notably the collector panels.

Understandably enough, though, not all of us have the skills — or the time and inclination — required to design and construct a state-of-the-art solar collector from scratch. However, kit assembly is within the realm of even a novice do-it-yourselfer. By presenting our experiences with a typical piece-together solar panel kit, we'll give you the chance to decide whether this alternative is your cup of tea.

Bought and Built

Strictly speaking, our test collector didn't come delivered as a kit. Instead, it was pieced together from mail-ordered and locally available manufactured parts. Solar Components Corporation proved to be an excellent source of solar energy products, accessible to anyone with a postage stamp; though it's possible to order certain parts directly from the manufacturer, the convenience of shopping by mail from one store can't be overlooked.

By the same token, it's pointless to send away for common items that are available in your local area. A glance at the materials list at the end of this article will allow you to determine which parts are best purchased in your own neighborhood.

Be aware that the panel we built is similar — if not nearly identical — to the flat plate hydronic collectors sold nationally by manufacturers and distributors. Our goal wasn't to make any technical advances, but to reduce costs to "volkspanel" proportions.

It's apparent from the Assembly Diagram that there's not a whole lot to this project. In fact, aside from cutting the panel frames, the insulation and hardboard, and the glazing — and joining the fintube to the headers — it won't require that you be proficient in any shop skills whatsoever.

john k. rupp jr._1
5/8/2010 5:54:12 PM

After hours of research, I found a 80 Gal stainless storage tank with a stainless coil, Made my own flat plate panel's. My local plumbing supply had all necessary valve's, piping, circulators, relief valves, etc, bought a differential control from a firm in Delaware, plexiglas for panels from vermont, High temp black heat absorbtion paint from Mass. and was on my way. This winter was 2nd winter of operation and if my figures are correct I've saved at least 25 % of yearly OIL bill. John Rupp JR, Egg Harbor City, N.J. 08215. Plus TAX break


don posey
5/17/2009 8:12:43 AM

A couple of tips: A glazier (window manufacturer) may be able to supply some of the "channel" type materiel for the frames, as they are used in the construction of patio doors, windows, etc. Just a thought. Sheet metal shops can be a godsend when special parts are needed. They seem to have been forgotten by most of us, yet are plentiful if you look! Your A/C contractor may have a sheet metal shop that can do fabrications for you rather inexpensively. Also keep in mind that this article appears to have been written in 1985, so mfr's mentioned may no longer exist. Modern designs incorporate a small PV panel to power a low voltage DC pump (El Sid, etc) for circulation of water or heating fluid. If you don't want 2 frames, incorporate the PV panel into the frame as well. 1 Frame for both solar units. For those concerned about thermal loss overnight, I recommend connections to the panel be made with galvanic (or insulated) unions These are unions with a built in insulator to inhibit transference of current to prevent galvanic corrosion, and are readily available at a PROPER plumbing supply house. They are typically used when connecting copper fittings to steel pipes or some other dis-similar metal. They would serve as a thermal barrier as well, being insulated as they are. Of course a check valve is the primary recommendation-it's practically mandatory.... For the gent looking for tanks....Ruud appears to be a supplier to a couple of Solar Tank Kit mfrs. I intend to contact Bradford-White however and see if they offer any. You could simply purchase a water heater and convert it. Right now, that appears to be the cheapest route, because once you say "Solar", the $$$ signs pop into the salesperson's head! The three big Wtr Htr mfrs in the US: Rheem/Ruud, A. O. Smith, and Bradford White. There are many others, but these are the big three, and provide tanks for many other brands (Sears, Kenmore, etc). Just


mike in beatty
1/6/2009 8:32:45 PM

I'm building flate plate solar collectors, and as Jim Todd stated, I can't find any aluminum frame materials as described in this article. Am looking at steel framing studs as an alternate. Most flanged aluminum in 4 inch widths is about $80 for a 10 foot piece. Any ideas welcome to construct a collector frame. No wood.


jim todd
9/3/2008 1:56:32 PM

Does anyone have any sources for the "corner key frame sections" and corner keys? I checked both Solar Components Corp. and Solar Usage Now and can't seem to find anything. Thanks, Jim


john k. rupp jr._1
6/28/2008 6:00:29 PM

This is the first time I've read any article from Mother earth. Presently I'm gathering info for a solar hot water, to heat my house with oil back up, since my heater is only 3 years old. My water storage tank will have a electric back up with 1 heat exchanger. I'm having a hard time finding the hot water storage tank. So looking up kalwall- Sun-lite panels I came across Mother earth. Thank you for the info. John Rupp


john k. rupp jr._2
6/28/2008 5:59:08 PM

This is the first time I've read any article from Mother earth. Presently I'm gathering info for a solar hot water, to heat my house with oil back up, since my heater is only 3 years old. My water storage tank will have a electric back up with 1 heat exchanger. I'm having a hard time finding the hot water storage tank. So looking up kalwall- Sun-lite panels I came across Mother earth. Thank you for the info. John Rupp






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