If you're growing your own fruit and vegetables, or just trying to eat the things that are produced locally, you come across one obvious problem: when something's in season, you have more than you can handle, and then there's nothing for the rest of the year. So the obvious solution is to preserve your food when you have it in abundance. Dehydration is an excellent preservation technique that's easy to do and that maintains a lot more of the original nutrients than canning or freezing.
However, a couple of years ago when we started to look around for a dehydrator to buy, we were sorely disappointed at what was available. A unit that could process any decent amount of produce was several hundred dollars, and they were all electric. We live off-grid, with solar and wind powering our home, so energy efficiency is a serious consideration for us. But it's also just common sense - why waste electricity on something when you have a perfectly good sun outside the window that can do the job just as well. So we got to working on making our own dryer, using the sun as the heat source, and it turned out not to be that hard or expensive. Within one weekend, we had the unit finished and ready to go, and we have been using it ever since.

So, what's the concept of a solar dryer? It's simple: move warm air over thinly sliced food.  The warmer the air, the more moisture it can remove from the food.  However, you don't want the air to move too quickly, as that will cause the temperature to decrease. Our design creates just enough air movement and warmth to dry food quickly.
The food is on trays, which sit behind a transparent polycarbonate sheeting.  Below the trays, there is a metal shelf, painted black, that serves as a heat absorber.  As heated air rises through the food, cool air is drawn in through the bottom vent, and the heated, moisture laden air flows out the exhaust at the top.
Because the dryer is something we plan to use for many years to come, we decided to make ours out of metal. If you do not have access to a welder, you can make the frame out of wood, but will have to adjust these plans accordingly. 

Step 1: Materials and Tools

  • 40 ft of 1" square tubing
  • 16 ft x 3 ft sheet metal
  • 2 ft x 8 ft polycarbonate greenhouse panel
  • 2 hinges
  • latch
  • silicon
  • 11 pieces of 8 ft long 1" x 2" lumber
  • 16 ft x 2 ft food-safe screen
  • 2 thin wooden moulding, 48” long
  • self tapping metal screws
  • wood screws
  • welder
  • metal chop saw
  • drill
  • tin snips
  • tape measure and marker
  • framing square
  • wood saw
  • box cutter
Stunning you did a great job.. I love it. I am going to try a smaller version of this. <br>Thanks for sharing.
I love it. wonderful idea. :) Much cheaper than using an indoor dehydrator that's loud and expensive to run all day and night.
<p>Drying food in Texas is WAY different than drying food here in Minnesota. Challenge your design by using it in the humid upper Midwest and you'll see how ineffective it really is. Pulling lots of semi-warmed air through the food simply moves more ambient humidity around it, slowing drying times. While temps in an empty flat dryer can reach 150F at the hottest point, that's not a real-world situation. Radiant heat from the collector heats the food, yes, as does any dryer. The whole point is to dry the food, not just heat the air, and radiant heat is far more effective than convected heat+humidity since it actually drives humidity out of the food. Granted, the flat design isn't the smallest, but we use the space below it for storage. After testing many designs and solar drying for over 30 years I don't need a lecture on what works or doesn't, I'm well aware. What works in Texas just won't cut it here.</p>
<p>Looks like the Fodor design from Mother Earth News. It lets UV-A hit the food, which destroys nutrients and color, and it mimics an electric box dryer in that humidity stagnates between screen layers and must be removed. The collector area to screen area ratio is much too small for this to work in humid or cool areas, but it might work well where it's warm and dry. We tested similar designs and many others back in the mid 80's before developing the radiant solar dryer found here: http://www.geopathfinder.com/Solar-Food-Drying.html . It's also found here on Instuctables. It has been in use world-wide since 1985, customized for many climates and crops. It doesn't let sunlight hit the food, it works even where it's cool and humid, it uses truly food-safe stainless steel screens, it doesn't require tracking to follow the sun, and food can even be left inside overnight for 2-day drying without spoilage.</p>
I've studied that design before, and while it is interesting, it is extremely bulky for the amount of food that can be dried. Also, by heating the food, nutrients are also destroyed, most commonly sensitive vitamins, like Vitamin C.<br><br>The whole point of a solar food dryer is to heat air so that it can hold more moisture. Heating the food is not the goal, nor is it desirable. Also, with a good design, the hot air moves through the food with a higher velocity, because of the solar chimney effect.<br><br>The flat design does not allow for the heated air to contact the food, nor significantly increase air velocity, so drying is mostly done by heat from the metal plate. It's more akin to a solar cooker, than a solar dryer. While I have no doubts it works, I am not convinced that it would work better than a chimney and hot air device like ours.<br><br>We rarely have to leave food overnight in our design, because it dries quickly, but we can leave it in there, even on cloudy days, with no spoilage or insect issues. No tracking is required, either. We can fit at least 4 times the food for the same footprint as the flat design and perform equally (most likely better) than a flat design.
<p>amazzzzing! wish I had welder!!</p>
<p>The sunlight should only be used to heat up the air, the radiation itself should be kept away from the food. The chamber should be dark and dry. For better air circulation you could mount some PC Fans powered by solar cells.</p><p>It just appears not to be...</p>
<p>Where is the exhaust at the top?</p>
<p>You guys are wonderful. I enjoyed this and exploring your blog. This project like your other work is a creative mix of inexpensive and fit for the purpose. You rightly say air movement is the major factor. I'm wondering if a black painted &quot;chimney&quot; added to the air outlet, might help. A small pop-can furnace (even laying flat) at the inlet end could raise the heat nicely if that is ever necessary</p>
Uhmm. How much do you think will it cost if we use wood instead of metal?
<p>It would be cheaper to buy wood than metal tubing. No reason it couldn't be made out of wood, especially if you didn't have access to a welder. Go to the hardware store and you can get an idea of the price difference.</p>
<p>I think using a white paint on the outside is counter productive. Paint is black and it will work even better.</p><p>Nice job otherwise and done very neatly.</p><p>Thanks</p>
you don't want it to heat up too much. We're trying to create an airflow inside the dryer to dry the food, not cook it.
<p>It's cool ( actually Hot ) idea . Brilliant work .</p>
B R I L L I A N T ! <br>
Hey congratulations on being a finalist in the weekend projects contest!
Thanks a lot. What a great turn-out for the competition! I think we lucked out to get onto the final 26.
Did you know you can make one from Boxes and aluminum Foil????
Cool thing! <br> <br>A few suggestions if i may? <br>- To increase the ammount of heat collected, paint all non-transparent sides black on the outside (useless if you want to insulate those sides). <br>- To minimise the heatloss, add insulation like styrofoam to all non transparent side on the inside (Useless if you want those sides to collect heat as well). <br> <br>I think i will use this basic idea and try to make a mini-one on teh cheap and simple for drying Biltong. <br>
we're not trying to collect heat. it's a dryer, not an oven. We want to collect heat in a specific area to create a flow of air through the dryer. Increased air movement is the main factor when drying food. If you heat too much, you can partially cook the food.
but, there are some foods (meats, especially chicken &amp; pork) that really NEED to be heated to a specific temperature for a certain length of time....and for meats, that is WELL over the 118F mentioned above.
dried meat is not cooked. chicken and pork are typically not used for jerky.
It may not be as commonplace to use chicken or pork, but it is done. Dehydrating chicken and pork is a great way to add a little diversity to backpacking meals. Packets of dehydrated meals can be QUITE spendy, and its not that hard to make your own.<br><br>Beef and venison (as long as you are sure the processing of the animal was done in very sanitary conditions) can be eaten raw with no ill effects, so the temps for those don't have to be as high. Chicken &amp; pork is a whole 'nuther story.
if you are going to be drying foods that require pasteurization, I think it is better to do that outside of the dehydrator.
Not necessarily, the sun is capable of providing the temps needed. You can boil water in a solar cooker. People just need to be aware of the temps necessary....to be safe.<br><br>I have an &quot;on-the-grid&quot; dehydrator, and it is thermostatically controlled....it is VERY possible for you terrific design to be 'tweaked' to provide the temps the I have to pay the utility company for.<br><br>Your design is great.<br>
yeah, I agree, we have a solar cooker as well, and it cooks at 400F. But, I think it is better to separate those functions, and not have the dryer and cooker as one machine. Low temp drying is much better for fruits and vegetables.
You are right. My bad ;)<br>
To dry biltong you would need a constant flow of air and preferably room tempreture to cool.. you could slice the meat into thin strips after marination and then slicing before spicing and placing on wire racks.. but you'll have to ad a fan to help with the constant circulation of air.
Careful to not over-spice your meat
The air doesn't need to be warm, and it can't move too fast. What you want is plenty of fast moving DRY air, below say, 120 degrees F. You want it cool enough to dry without cooking, and quick moving enough to dry the moisture before spoilage. This rig is a great concept, but I think I'd want more airflow to get rid of the humid air that's going to collect in the box as the food drys. Alton Brown did a couple detailed episodes on his show about dehydrating foods. One on making jerky, and one on drying fruits. And I think maybe an herb drying episode. They're on YouTube, check them out.
warm air can hold more moisture than cool air, that's why we try and increase the temperature. <br> <br>this unit works well for us, and dries most foods in a day or 2.
@vela Do you think if mirrors were used in place of paint in different areas in addition to closing the vent, would you also be able to use it as a solar oven? (Temps up to 500 degrees give or take)
AMDRO Home Defense available at Home Depot or Lowes and some garden centers will stop fire ants. Just sprinkle about a tablespoon full on/around the mound and the next day no more fire ants.
Your area in the picture looks as if it is a fairly arid climate. I'm wondering if this would work well in relatively high humidity such as is in Panama or Southern Florida?
I'm just finishing the trays for a solar dryer I've been working on. I built one using instructions from the book <a href="http://www.solarfooddryer.com/SFD_Book_Info.htm" rel="nofollow">The Solar Food Dryer</a>,&nbsp; which I requested from my public library.&nbsp; I was lucky to score two&nbsp; free sheets of tempered glass from a guy at a glass shop, which I combined into a frame made from cedar.&nbsp; I had to modify the dimensions a bit, but the book has excellent instructions and photos.&nbsp;<br> <br> The book has lots of info on the process of solar drying, along with sun charts based on your latitude.&nbsp; The author makes a good point about drying food in humid areas:&nbsp;<br> <br> Warm air masses are capable of holding more water vapor than cooler air masses.&nbsp; So as long as the temps inside your dryer are higher than outside temps, the air is able to absorb moisture from your food as it travels through the unit.&nbsp; Even if your ambient temps are around 100 F, the inside temp could be quite a bit higher.&nbsp; My unit has an adjustable screened top vent which allows you to control the temps somewhat.&nbsp;<br> <br> I've only just tested it today (a dry run with no food) and it was about 74 degrees outside here, and 134 inside at the hottest.&nbsp; It hung in the 110's for a lot of the day.&nbsp; I wish I had some pics to post right now, but go check out the website:&nbsp; <a href="http://www.solarfooddryer.com/" rel="nofollow">http://www.solarfooddryer.com/</a><br> <br> PS - you can order food-safe polypropylene screen over at that site.&nbsp; I'm going to try something else first though.&nbsp; It turns out deer netting is made of polypropylene, and I have a huge snarl of that around here in the shed.&nbsp; I'm going to run several layers of it across between the frames and try that.&nbsp;<br> <br> This was a really fun project!
Made one of these about 2 years ago and couldn't keep ants out of it. Ended up bringing it in my shop and retrofitting it with a heating element and some computer fans. Dries better than the one dad paid hundreds for.
If you have trouble with ants (ones that are so small, they can pass through the screen), raise the unit up on &quot;feet&quot; and put Diatomaceous Earth around them. This is not a poison (even pregnant women can consume it), it is the equivalent of an ant having to walk barefoot through a field of broken glass - they prefer not to.
Fire ants, nothing stops them. They trying to take over my bee hives also.
DE will certainly help. By adding legs to your hives (or putting them on a stand), you can create a bottleneck for the ants, and then focus on a barrier to prevent them crawling up the legs of the stand.
My hives are top bars on legs, sitting in cut down 5 gallon buckets of water now. The ants form a bridge to walk on. Even when poison in the water kills the ones it touches they still hang on to each other. Been fighting a loosing battle with them for over 10 years and not much I ain't tried, thanks tho.
If you put just a little dish soap in the water (or anything else that would break the surface tension) would they drown before they could build the bridge? If you've already tried this, sorry - just thought it worth a mention.
Let me total it up on the toxic. Polycarbonate and sheet metal (if it's galvanized steel) bad for food because both of the material can emit toxic fume when it is used in high temperature.
the temperatures are not high enough to cause off-gassing, and the unit is well ventilated. You can certainly use glass, but the cost and weight will increase considerably.
use glass instead of the polycarbonate.
If fire ants are true to form like other ants, they will eat almost anything. There is a way to get rid of them. You pour old corn meal, grits, or other (ground/milled) grain on the mound leading to their nest and anywhere else you see them -- around the base of your beehives might work well -- they take it back to the nest, they all eat the grain, they can't digest it so it swells up inside them and kills them -- no more ants and no poison to harm anything else. I KNOW this works because I've used it many times to kill ants in our yard.
I've had better success with this http://www.instructables.com/id/Ant-Invasion-Solution/ in my battle against ants! <br> <br>It IS a poison, but it is contained in such a way that ants have easy access....while nothing else does.
You can also have short &quot;legs&quot; on the dehydrator, and set each leg in a container of water (creating a 'moat')....you just have to be diligent about making sure the containers don't go dry. (I did this to the legs of my 'cricket box' when I raised crickets. Ants will wipe out your crickets!)

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Bio: Off Grid Homesteading Guides, Tutorials, and Books. http://VelaCreations.com/blog - latest updates.
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