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Produce Your Own Energy With A Solar Panel Kit From A Hardware Store

Updated on August 26, 2012

Producing Power With Solar Panels

Four panels arranged on a makeshift ground frame in the yard.  The panel on the far left did not come with the original kit yet it works just fine with the other three and they all produce 60 watts in full sun.
Four panels arranged on a makeshift ground frame in the yard. The panel on the far left did not come with the original kit yet it works just fine with the other three and they all produce 60 watts in full sun. | Source

Research Your Options And Make a Decision


Producing your own power can be a fun and easy project that could grow into an addictive hobby. When I was younger, I always dreamed of making my own electricity from solar panels but was discouraged by how expensive the panels and equipment were. As an adult, I was thrilled when I saw that many hardware retailers, such as Norther Tool and Harbor Freight as well as online retailers, were offering extremely affordable kits consisting of solar panels, a charge controller, wiring, a frame for the panels and in most cases, even including a few fluorescent lights that could be used with the charge controller. While researching which kit I would buy and from what retailer, I discovered that most of the kits ranged in price from about $160 to $300 and produced 45 watts worth of energy.

Harbor Freight 45 Watt Solar Kit

The charge controller and power distribution point that came with my kit.  It includes a 12 volt outlet, a USB port, and various other low voltage DC outlets.  Also, it features a handy digital display that shows system voltage.
The charge controller and power distribution point that came with my kit. It includes a 12 volt outlet, a USB port, and various other low voltage DC outlets. Also, it features a handy digital display that shows system voltage. | Source
My netbook charging from the energy produced by the solar panels and stored in the 12 volt battery.  Note the DC car charger connected to the controller.
My netbook charging from the energy produced by the solar panels and stored in the 12 volt battery. Note the DC car charger connected to the controller. | Source

How I Use My System


I settled on a 45 watt kit from Harbor Freight that was on sale for $159.99 and used a 20% off coupon from their flier, bringing my total to $127.99. It consisted of a charge controller with a digital volt-meter, two fluorescent lights that plug into the controller, wiring to connect everything, a metal frame to mount the panels to, as well as three 15 watt solar panels, that together produce a total of 45 watts of electricity in full sunlight.

That might not sound like a lot, but that's the maximum amount of energy the panels produce at any given instant in full sunlight. The sun shines for several hours a day and those panels will produce quite a bit of total energy by the time the sun goes down. You see, electrical energy is measured in watts and electrical consumption is measured as watt-hours. In one hour of full sunlight, those panels could produce 45 watt-hours or 0.045 kilowatt-hours. In two hours, we will have harnessed 90 watt-hours or 0.09 kilowatt-hours, and so on...

At the end of the day, that's a lot of useful electricity we can capture. But we need somewhere to store it for when the sun isn't out. That's why we need what is called a deep cycle battery. These are similar to car batteries, but internally, they're different. I won't go into the details of the variety of deep cycle batteries as that would require quite too much explanation for the scope of this hub. What we need to know is that deep cycle batteries in general, are meant to be charged and discharged more often than car batteries. These are not part of the kits as you can purchase batteries of any capacity that you need to meet your requirements.

For example, I decided to stay cheap, yet go for a large capacity battery. I purchased a 12 volt marine deep cycle battery from Autozone for $89 and it is rated to store approximately 85 amp-hours. In terms of watt-hours, we multiply the 12 volts by the 85 amp-hours to find that it stores 1020 watt-hours. This is equivalent to just shy of 23 hours worth of sun shining on the solar panels.

With the charge controller, its easy to use this energy because it includes a 12 volt direct current or DC outlet. I use this to plug in my laptop's car charger to recharge its battery and run on clean energy produced from the sun. In order to power household devices and things that operate on alternating current or AC, we'll need what's called an inverter. Inverters change 12 volt DC electricity into 120 volt AC electricity that can be used to power televisions, lamps, chargers, etc. Inverters come in various sizes, capacity and features. I don't recommend trying run a many devices from this type of kit and battery, but it can provide many hours of lighting at night with a compact fluorescent or LED bulb or enough juice to recharge a few laptops, so an inverter that can provide at most 500 watts of electricity is appropriate for this setup.

This was a relatively inexpensive way for me to get my feet wet and try to produce my own energy. I'm also ready to start expanding this setup to produce and store more energy and become a little less dependent upon fossil fuel generated electricity.

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    • jesimpki profile image
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      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      With apartments or flats, it can be complicated, especially with regulations and fire safety codes and the fact that you're typically not allowed to modify the structure in order to run the wiring for solar panels.

    • A_K profile image

      Ajit Kumar Jha 5 years ago from Delhi

      Very informative post. I live in a flat on the first floor and do not get constant sunlight. I wonder where can I keep the solar panel? Thanks

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks jpcmc!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I installed 120 watts of solar panels on our motor home, with a charge controller, and two 6 volt Trojan batteries in series. That provides enough power to run the furnace, a TV/satellite system, and LED lighting.

      Interesting Hub.

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Awesome hub! I always wanted to make solar panels and save on electrical bills.

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thank you Local Damage!

    • Local Damage profile image

      Local Damage 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Pretty cool man!

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks ripplemaker! I'd love to have a solar hot water system set up for our home.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      This is awesome! We have solar heater in the house right now...but it would be so cool to use for lights too!

      Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination. To all who would like to read and vote and support the Hubnuggets, this way please: https://hubpages.com/community/HubNugget-Mystery-T...

    • profile image

      jay baker 5 years ago

      these panels can be mounted on a frame to fill an inside window space in an apartment and swing out of the space on hinges to enjoy the view at night. they are amorphorus so need not angle incident to sunlight to gather energy. power outages can be ridden out with ease with car stereos, cb s, and weather radios hooked up

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks BrightMeadow, I'll agree that real life experience is much more valuable than something claimed by a manufacturer.

    • BrightMeadow profile image

      BrightMeadow 5 years ago from a room of one's own

      This is some really great info. Thank you for sharing your experience, too. I have an inerest in self-sufficiency. It makes the information that much more valuable to hear a testimonial and know that it's not just theoretical. I'm totally bookmarking this one.

    • jesimpki profile image
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      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks for the comment Melovy :)

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 5 years ago from UK

      Very interesting hub. I admire you for your determination and dedication. You are doing a great job.

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks K9keystrokes! I'm glad you liked my hub. And thanks for the welcome, I feel like HubPages is a great online community to share with others.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 5 years ago from Northern, California

      Outstanding information and so clearly presented that even I can grasp the concept of converting the sun into practical service energy. Great idea to start small (monetarily and manageable assembly)and then work up to a more elaborate configuration. Excellent good job of explaining how to produce your own solar powered energy from a basic kit! Up and awesome jesimpki!

      And Welcome to HubPages, you're off to a wonderful start!

      Cheers~

      K9

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Simone, I haven't actually calculated the payback time on it, but its worth it when the power is out! :)

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks ryokowaren :)

    • ryokowaren profile image

      ryokowaren 5 years ago from USA

      Good hub. Voted up.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, this kit sounds so cool, and it's so inexpensive! How long will it be before it pays for itself?

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      You're welcome cr00059n and thank you for the comment. :)

    • profile image

      cr00059n 5 years ago

      Quite an illustrious and articulate hubpage. Nice way to save some much needed energy. Thanks.

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      FalconSays, I despise HOAs. Maybe that'll change in the future!

      wordscribe43, you're welcome!

    • wordscribe43 profile image

      Elsie Nelson 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      Those dimensions aren't too bad, really. Plus, you're right... when I see others who have them all I can think is "man are they smart!" Thanks for the motivation to look more deeply into this. :-D

    • FalconSays profile image

      Karen S. Falcon 5 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I love solar too, but I'm in a bottom-unit condo in a home-owner's-association and am not allowed to put up panels, boo :-(

      Great Hub!

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      Harbor Freight lists the measurements of the panels as: "Solar panel dimensions: 12.40" x 36.42" x 0.75" each" so all three together will be 3.1 feet long and 3 feet tall. Of course, they'll be mounted to the frame and tilted back at an angle. Personally, I don't think of them as an eyesore (I think they're gorgeous :D), but you can see the panels on the store's website. Also, Amazon sells a kit similar to this one.

    • wordscribe43 profile image

      Elsie Nelson 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      I'm jealous... I need to look into this. How big is the panel (and how big of an eyesore?)

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      I think that this may qualify for the federal tax credit. I'm glad you found it interesting. If you get the chance to do this, its really fun. I love writing my hubs on my netbook with it plugged into my battery when the sun is out. ;)

    • wordscribe43 profile image

      Elsie Nelson 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      I wonder if you can get any state or federal tax credits for solar generation. I know Oregon has this incentive. Very interesting hub, by the way. I'd love to do this!

    • jesimpki profile image
      Author

      jesimpki 5 years ago from Radford, VA

      I'm glad you liked it! I've always been interested in solar but as a student, I don't have a lot of cash to get heavily invested in it, yet I have fun with what I've got.

    • mljdgulley354 profile image

      mljdgulley354 5 years ago

      This was a very interesting and informative hub. My sister's husband has their whole house set up on solar energy.