Easy DIY Solar Lighting

Learn renewable energy basics and generate serious solar excitement with DIY solar lighting.

| April/May 2007

  • Safety Disconnect
    The safety disconnect holds two 30-amp fuses.
    Photo courtesy MATTHEW T. STALLBAUMER
  • DIY Lighting
    The Mother Earth News Low-voltage Solar Light System
    Photo courtesy MATTHEW T. STALLBAUMER
  • Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb
    A 15-watt compact fluorescent produces as much light as a 60-watt conventional bulb while using a quarter of the energy.
    Photo courtesy MATTHEW T. STALLBAUMER
  • Solar Lighting Tools
    One person using simple tools needed only about seven hours to build the system.
    Photo courtesy MATTHEW T. STALLBAUMER
  • DIY PV System
    Author Charles Higginson sits surrounded by a DIY PV solar system in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS offices. The lights on our demo unit came on the first time we flipped the switches. 
    Photo courtesy CHERYL LONG
  • Circuit Protecting Fuses
    Five-amp fuses protect each circuit.
    Photo courtesy MATTHEW T. STALLBAUMER

  • Safety Disconnect
  • DIY Lighting
  • Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb
  • Solar Lighting Tools
  • DIY PV System
  • Circuit Protecting Fuses

Many people dream of solar-electric power for their homes, but can’t afford whole-house systems. Here’s an affordable, entry-level system with which you can have fun and get to know the basics of solar power. This setup, built with a small photovoltaic (PV) panel, one battery and low-power direct current (DC) lighting fixtures, can bring solar lighting into your home or remote locations. If you can turn a screwdriver, you can install it yourself.

This project can augment your existing 110-volt lighting circuits. It’s a great introduction to simple solar circuitry, it’s easy to build, and it produces useful light for several hours a day. Not only will it impress your friends and neighbors, but you’ll also enjoy the satisfaction of using clean, renewable energy.

In most home settings, it probably won’t save you money, but in other circumstances this system could save you a bundle. If you want lights in a cabin, garage, barn or garden shed that’s far from installed power lines, this project could be far less expensive than hiring professionals to extend standard power to the building.

Our friends at Gaiam Real Goods, the pioneering retailer of renewable energy products, helped us design the Mother Earth News Low-Voltage Solar Light System. The key is its use of energy-efficient loads and low-voltage, DC components and circuitry. That combination keeps total power demand low and simplifies installation. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are available in 12-volt DC forms, and they’re ideal components for a small, off-grid supplemental lighting system. You can easily build a system that will run, say, two or three CFLs for two hours each evening and an LED for five hours — all powered by a small battery charged by a small solar panel.

We spent about $760 on solar components and about $80 on other parts.

Once installed, the system has no operating cost and needs little maintenance. The light bulbs are rated to operate for thousands of hours, so they will survive for years when lit for a few hours a day. Both kinds of bulbs cost more than regular incandescent bulbs, but prices are dropping, and they will save you money over the long term. Plus, with this system you won’t pay a penny for electricity. The PV panel in our kit is warranted to produce at least 80 percent of its rated output for 25 years. The battery has the shortest life of all the components; the type we used will typically last three to five years.

Charles Higginson_2
8/6/2008 4:41:07 PM

Hi, Jami. I appreciate your concern, but you've been misinformed. Although it is necessary to clean up a broken CFL carefully, it is NOT necessary to leave the house, seal off the room, or hire a hazmat team. Articles posted on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_fluorescent_lamp and Snopes, the rumor debunker http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/cfl.asp explain the true situation in more detail than ought to be posted here. The bottom line is, if your electricity comes from coal (about half of U.S. electricity does), using a CFL will result in less mercury released into the environment than using the equivalent four or five incandescent bulbs. Little in life is perfect, and I don't know of any free lunches, but as CFLs continue to improve and fall in price they represent a genuine advance.

8/1/2008 3:42:37 PM

The compact fluorescent light bulbs are a toxic nightmare! They contain mercury, and if broken you are to leave the building with your kids and pets until you can pay a HAZMAT Team to come and safely clean up the toxic dust - Oy! The energy saved is not worth the possible exposure to the heavy metals!!!!!!!!

Jay Draiman
1/17/2008 10:10:15 AM

ERV Energy Recovery Ventilation Systems Reduce Long Term Costs and Improve Indoor Air Quality Is the indoor air your breathe is as fresh and healthy as it can be? As building science professionals have known for some time, an effective ventilation strategy is an absolute requirement for all homes. Mechanical ventilators exchange air inside the home with fresh air from the outside. This helps to reduce indoor pollution levels, and greatly increases the comfort level inside the home. Many ventilation designs are including Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) to improve the system efficiency. Besides providing controlled ventilation, ERVs are able to filter, humidify, dehumidify, heat, or cool the incoming fresh air. The most popular design of ERVs utilizes a desiccant wheel to remove both heat and a significant amount of moisture from the incoming air, which reduces the load on the air-conditioning system. But while ventilators and ERVs can add tremendously to the comfort and efficiency of a home, they must be installed correctly. One of the more recent developments in the ‘green’ technology industry is the creation of environmentally-friendly buildings that use energy-efficient technologies to reduce power consumption. Energy consultants point out that creating ‘green’ buildings and improving the air quality inside such facilities utilizing ERV can and do go hand-in-hand. ERV Systems that reduce demand for energy while improving ventilation are increasingly in demand. ERV – Energy Recovery Ventilation systems saves energy, increases indoor air quality, reduces contaminates and odors. The use of ERV technology “energy recovery ventilation systems,” or ERVs. Such systems are designed to reduce energy consumption and improve indoor air quality (IAQ) by capturing and recycling building energy to humidify, pre-cool or dehumidify incoming air. ERVs, the research first said, are most popular in areas with more extreme outdoor temperatures, like N



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