Choosing a Workspace, Securing “WIP”, and Patience - DIY Solar Panels (2017)

DIY Solar Panels (2017)

Section #1 Choosing a Workspace, Securing “WIP”, and Patience

The first step must be to find a reasonably secure work area because it can mean the difference between satisfaction when working on a solar panel, or ghastly frustration when someone or something breaks your work-in-progress. I speak from experience. I learned the hard way that delicate solar cells break about as easily as Pringles. As you progress in the steps required to complete your solar panel, you will gradually and temporarily need to enlarge your “secure” workspace to encompass an area at least as long, and wide as the project you are currently working. What does “secure” mean? I will answer that question below, but I want to touch on a vocabulary matter you may encounter very quickly. I refer to the construction of your solar panel as “handcrafted” because you are indeed building a useful survival tool with your wits, hands, and tools. There is tremendous satisfaction connected to this activity because every aspect of what you are doing is positive. It is healthy for you, your wallet, the environment, and as a positive example for family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. You are displaying a sense of stewardship for this planet on which we depend for our own lives, yet are depleting at alarming rates. I also refer to this activity as a “trade”, because in a sense, you are learning a skillset which may become a source of income for you at some point in the future. At the very least you are employing the skills to SAVE money if directed towards offsetting your grid-supplied electricity. Every watt you generate for free is a watt the electric utility provider won’t charge you for.

Secure means a work space that can provide protection for your WIP (work in progress) from accidental damage of all types throughout the life of the project. I cannot stress enough how frustrating it is to discover that a careless incident has shattered a string of solar cells nearing completion, or worse, the entire solar panel. The waste of time and money notwithstanding, it is demoralizing to see the results of your loving attention destroyed by random carelessness. It is the type of thing that makes one want to throw in the towel, so don’t let it happen to you. The vulnerability increases once you walk away from your work area because your WIP will be laying out, unprotected, for all to see and, well, drop things on. It is a phenomenon experienced by many in the trade, the physics-defying ability of sensitive and fragile solar cells to attract foreign objects to fall on them almost as if they are magnetic! I joke of course, but the point is that the statistical probability of damage by foreign object is directly proportional to the frailty of the objects in danger. I made that up even though it sure does sound scientific, but oddly, it seems to hold significant validity. I have a whole picture worth of proof on the next page to support my theory on the matter that solar cells break easily when impacted by anything more solid than say, a few grains of sand dropped from about 2 mm.

One of the most important considerations when selecting a work area will be to provide physical protection for the WIP from the moment the solar cells get exposed; to the day you transition the finished product to use generating clean, free electricity. The initial work area will require a small footprint, approximately the size of two solar cells wide (whichever type solar cell you are using) for soldering pairs, the first component needed to start putting STRINGS together. Since any sizeable solar panel will contain multiple STRINGS of solar cells soldered together in order to form the complete unit, building the requisite number of STRINGS takes a few days. The completed STRINGS will require a very safe place to sit while the remaining STRINGS are hand-crafted, somewhere safe from accidental contact with foreign objects, dust, or liquid. I suggest using those plastic storage tubs that are designed to hold wrapping paper and narrow enough to fit under a bed. They are long, flat, and can indeed be used to shield the waiting solar panel components until being mated with a substrate and protective cover. There are so many options that you are limited only by the boundaries of imagination.

I warn you in the most urgent terms avoid the foolish notion that because you live alone, or only with other adults, or with fellow hobby enthusiasts, that nothing could happen to your WIP. Please, don’t tempt fate, your siblings, your rivals, your children, in-laws; I think you get the idea. I once watched in seemingly slow-motion as my son absentmindedly tossed a hard cover book onto a desk where I had left my project unprotected. The book landed squarely on top of a newly soldered 4-cell mini-STRING shattering them all and while angry, I had only myself to blame. From the moment you open the protective wrapping around the bundle of solar cells until they rest under the protection of their final covering they are vulnerable. Breakage is the first threat because as I hinted earlier, they are indeed very fragile and they do break easily if handled roughly or if impacted by falling objects. I have many examples as you can see below.

FIGURE 1.1 This is a collection of broken cells from a decade of handcrafting solar panels, and while it may seem daunting, it is just part of the territory when practicing this trade. The goal here is to learn from my mistakes so you don’t end up with a collection such as this. If you DO happen to break solar cells, it is not a problem, you will get the feel for how to handle them in short order, but it will save you lots of grief by paying heed to my warnings about securing your work areas.

Patience: I would be remiss if I failed to touch on the issue of patience. There is a learning curve associated with any new activity, no matter if it is learning to play soccer, or learning this fine trade of handcrafting solar panels. There is no such thing as an established timeline to gaining total proficiency in all aspects related to handcrafting solar panels because every person has a unique learning ability. I recall vividly the first time I had solar cells laid out to solder for the first time, never even having soldered wire before, hands shaking; confident I had gathered as much information about doing it as humanly possible. All that was left was to dive in, and to be honest, it wasn’t pretty in the beginning. I broke many solar cells as you see above, but as I honed my skills, the occurrence of broken cells became less frequent. You will also achieve proficiency in your own time, so keep the occurrence of broken solar cells in perspective and remember, it is part of the learning curve.

The project is NOT a foot race; you are not in a contest measuring your speed against anyone else. Take your time, focus on the task at hand, and recognize that there is nothing gained by working too quickly, perhaps outstripping your skill level. I like to refer to the old adage, “measure twice, cut once” taking extra time to verify my measurements, wire lengths, cell positioning, etc., before committing permanently via solder, bolting, or encapsulating. Hurrying a project will only increase the likelihood that a mistake will be made, a solar cell or two broken, and the possibility that your solar panel will not generate electricity. If you have made an error due to impatience, it is not likely that you will catch the error until the point at which you are testing it in the sun, at which time it is too late to make adjustments to the project, and you will be frustrated beyond words. Of course it is far better to avoid the mistake in the first place, but mistakes do happen, I make them, as will you, the trick is to learn from them and move on. Generally, if you are able to recognize an error early on, there is nothing that cannot be repaired or redone, but ONLY if you catch the error before encapsulating the solar panel. After that, the chances for repair are slim at best; such is the nature of encapsulants, since they provide permanent protection against the elements as well as human fingers attempting repairs. If you cover the solar cell with Plexiglas instead of using encapsulants, there might be a chance of repair but do you really want to be tearing apart a solar panel at the point where you would otherwise be putting it to work? Let me answer that for you, No! Time is better spent doing it correctly the first time around.

Frustration: On occasion you will run into situations that find your patience stretched to the limit. If you are learning this trade from the ground floor, you may encounter situations that you are unfamiliar and perhaps uncertain how to proceed. That is normal in any learning situation, it is how you react to sticking points that will determine whether you can move forward and overcome the obstacle. Getting mad and letting your anger get the best of you will only set you back and possibly thwart further development. Unfortunately when we get frustrated and angry, the things our bodies do to prepare us for either fight, or flight, are counterproductive to the task at hand. Adrenalin coursing through our veins does nothing for hand stability, something absolutely necessary for soldering and keeping the solar cells in-tact. Nor does it lead to rational problem solving, again another critical ingredient for success. It happens, it is natural, and it can be a destructive force if it gets away from you. Once that point is reached whereby vile curses are rolling off your normally mild mannered tongue and you are looking around wild-eyed for some lesser creature to go take out frustration on (don’t do that!!), all is lost for the moment. Once to that point of broiling frustration it is time to push away from the project and go take a break.

Related directly to this point is a set of instructions I once read in a manual about the use of lock picking tools. The manual stated that the reader will encounter locks that defy initial attempts to defeat during the learning process, and then goes on to reassure the reader that frustration was normal, and that it is perfectly fine to take a five-minute break. What caught my interest was the next line which I now paraphrase and offer to you as advice, and that is to return to the project after cooling off! Very important that you return to the project and get a positive success for the session to maintain your enthusiasm. Like anything else in life worth doing, it takes time to learn proficiency. If we gave up on new things simply over frustration, life would be a very narrow tunnel indeed. Like the saying about riding bicycles or bucking Bronco’s, if you fall off, take a deep breath, steady yourself and get right back on. They say that if you don’t, it will be a long time if ever before you screw up the courage again. Besides, you have an advantage over the hapless bicycle or Bronco riders in our example because unlike them, you aren’t thrown from the abruptly stopped or violently bucking Bronco and hence, don’t have to suck wind back into your impact-deflated lungs or pick pebbles and sticks out of your bicycle road-rash. The WIP is there waiting for you once the calm has returned and you are ready to face the obstacle and win the day. Once calm, I have always found the resolution laughably simple and nothing I should have become excited about in the first place. I trust you will find the same condition to be true and I will take it farther and state with confidence that when you look back after completing the project, the sense of accomplishment will far outweigh any frustration along the way. The ensuing solar panel projects will be smoother, quicker, and you will not likely be held up by the same type obstacles because you will be developing proficiency.

Timing: I find this to be a very relaxing activity, the process of soldering and creating something with my hands. I enjoy soldering solar cell pairs while listening to talk radio or podcast, and you may find other ways to make the experience not just enjoyable, but therapeutic. Try to make a daily routine you spend perhaps just thirty minutes soldering pairs of solar cells together, working steadily towards the completion of another solar panel. It should not be a chore to handcraft a solar panel because if you see it as such, you will avoid doing it. Always return to the core reasons you chose to get involved whether founded in environmental concerns, or purely economic reasons; then slowly and steadily work towards your personal goals.