Instructables
AKA: Solar powered walkway version 2

This is my second use of a distributed solar lighting system, where the panel can sit somewhere in the sun and send power to the lights that are in a shaded spot.  I guess its kind of a half step between solar garden lights and wiring your home for solar power.  The result in this case is a single panel mounted to a sunny spot on a wall that sends power to a string of glass bottles underneath a grape arbor.

At some point after I built my Solar Powered Walkway, my brother and his family came over for a visit. Everyone seemed quite impressed with the lights, especially his wife. Ted had just finished building a massively oversized grape arbor for the gigantic grapevine that's been cluttering up his backyard for the last several years, and Michelle asked if she could have a set of the lights to put under the arbor. I thought this was a great idea and told them that if they paid for the materials I'd be happy to build something for them.

Of course, since I'm never happy to just leave well enough alone I decided the original design could use some work. So, I started tweaking things, a little here, a little there, and soon enough the result was something quite different from my original design.

About halfway through building this I got to thinking about the fact that I never get my sister-in-law anything for birthdays and Christmas, as I'm never really sure what she'd like. I am awful at buying presents for people. However, here I'd been presented with something that I knew for certain she'd like, and her birthday was even coming up soon! I ended up finishing the build the week before her birthday, and presented it to her the weekend before her party so we'd have time to set it up in the arbor.

 
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Step 1: Stuff you'll need

Some of this stuff you can buy from online stores, but other parts you'll have to be creative to obtain.

Most importantly, you'll need a set of solar powered Christmas lights. I used a set from dealextreme.com and then altered it to make it work for my purposes. If you don't feel like making some major changes to the electronics, I'd recommend you find a different brand. These were not the best quality, the brightness of the LEDs was somewhat disappointing, the battery they came with didn't work, and the solar panel wasn't able to charge any battery enough to run the lights for more than a few hours. That being said, I was able to make it bigger, better, and stronger with some work and extra parts.

If you go with a different brand of Christmas lights you may or may not need the following items, but if you go with the dealextreme lights you definitely will:
  • A solar panel that puts out about 2v@600ma (I built one out of fractured panels from Electronics Goldmine)
  • A pair of decent rechargeable NiMH or NiCd AA's, 1.2v@2500ma each
  • Around 150-200' of light gauge speaker wire
  • A 2xAA (or two 1xAA) battery holder wired in parallel, not in series (I hacked up some old electronic gadget and rewired it for this)
  • Some sort of case to hold your new solar panel (I built mine out of . . . well, you'll see that in a future step)
  • Some cedar boards (I used a single cedar fence picket)

You definitely will need:
  • Epoxy
  • Silicone sealant
  • Paper towels
  • Stiff wire
  • Electrical tape
  • Nails/screws
  • Krylon clear matte spray
  • Clear glass bottles/jars/vases (get them second hand)


As to tools, you'll need the usual assortment of modern tinkerer's tools:
  • Dremel
  • Hot glue gun
  • Hammer
  • Screw driver
  • Wire cutters
  • Pliers
  • Soldering iron

Step 2: Prep the Bottles / Shameless Krylon Plug

A note on obtaining the bottles--I picked mine up from a local Goodwill, for $0.50 for the smallest ones up to $2.00 for a nice Patron bottle. Some of the jars had potpourri and glitter and such in them and had to be cleaned out, others were actually small vases. In all I ended up with 13 of them for less than ten bucks.

After you've cleaned them out, allow them to dry completely.  I wanted to frost the glass like I do when I'm making sun jars, but I didn't want to use the same opaque frosting spray I've been using.  I wanted something a bit more transparent for these lights, more fogged than frosted.  I ended up settling on Krylon matte finish, which worked out great.  Take each jar and lightly spray a bit of the matte finish into each bottle, then allow to dry.

Step 3: Install the Lights and Extend the Wires

Picture 5878.jpg
Picture 5879.jpg
Be warned, this is a fairly long and arduous step!

The reason a strand of solar powered Christmas lights works so well for this project is that it has a centralized driver that runs 60 individual lights.  The big drawback of course is that you're going to have to extend the wires a bit unless you want all the bottles clustered in one spot.

With sixty lights to install in thirteen bottles, I couldn't just divide them up equally.  What I ended up doing was putting four in each small bottle, five in each large one, and six in the big Patron bottle.

Before you begin putting the lights in the bottles, cut several lengths of speaker wire about three feet long.  The measurement doesn't have to be precise as long as all of the strands are about the same length.  Strip about 1/2" of insulation from each end.

Start at the end of the Christmas lights farthest away from the battery.  Pick your first bottle and decide how many lights are going into it.  In the middle of one of the wires between the last light going into your bottle and the next one in line that isn't going in, cut it in half and strip 1/2" of insulation from the wire.  With the set of lights I was working on there were five wires between each light, which meant making sure to have at least that many lengths of speaker wire handy, one of which would have been separated into two separate wires.

Splice the wires Christmas light wire and the speaker wire at each end and solder them up.  Cut another Christmas light wire and repeat, until you've done them all and that section of wire has been extended.  Wrap each of the spliced sections in electrical tape, making sure none of the bare wires are touching. 

Stuff the LEDs into the bottle.  Take a strip from a paper towel, fold it up a few times and wrap it around the wires just above the electrical tape.  You need just enough paper towel to create an interference fit between the paper towel and the neck of he bottle, holding the wires in place temporarily. 

Once this is done,  get another bottle ready and repeat.

Step 4: Seal in that LED Goodness

Next you'll want to keep out the constant rain that comes 9 months out of the year . . . what's that you say?  It doesn't rain incessantly where you live?  Preposterous!  Even if that were true, you'd want to keep out the morning dew and the occasional drizzle, so that's what we'll do in this step.

Get a decent silicone sealant that's suitable for outdoors applications.  Get all of your bottles set upright and make sure you've got 1/4 to 1/2 inch of room above each of the paper towel plugs.  Squeeze in some sealant, making sure to get plenty in amongst the bundle of wires.  Allow to dry overnight and vacate the area, uncured silicone is nasty stuff!

When it's all done you should have a strong but flexible silicone plug at the top of each bottle.

Step 5: Juice that power supply!

If you bought a higher quality set of solar Christmas lights, you can probably skip this step unless you really want to increase the capacity of the lights.  I've not tested this yet, but I suspect the solar panel I used will be able to send enough power to the battery to light the bottles up for a while even on a gray and short day.

Testing the solar panel revealed that it was producing about 1.4 volts at around 100ma, which SHOULD be BARELY enough to charge the supplied 1.2v 1000ma battery.  What I discovered was that the battery was a dud right out of the box, and even putting a functional battery in its place resulted in about an hour's worth of full power and two to three hours of steadily declining brightness. 

Obviously this would not do.

My solution was to gut the whole thing, get a new and better solar panel and replace the single 1.2v 1000ma battery with a pair of parallel wired batteries that would work as a single 1.2v 5000ma battery.  This is clearly overkill, but hey, it will definitely keep it's brightness for quite a while like this!

First you'll need to dismantle the solar panel and driver.  Really, the only part we're keeping here is the circuit board. 

Next up, find or build a better solar panel that can charge your new and improved battery pack.  There are already instructables detailing both how to build a solar panel out of broken solar panels as well as how much power you'll need to charge a battery with the sun, so I won't duplicate them here.  The general rule of thumb when determining how much juice you'll need is that you match of slightly exceed the voltage of the battery and get about 10-15% of the maximum amperage of the battery.  I know that's not a super technical or precise explanation, but living by those guidelines I've never set a battery on fire or anything.  The solar panel I made puts out about 2v at 600ma in full sunlight, more than enough to charge the batteries I used.

Speaking of batteries, I used two standard NiMH AA batteries for this project, wired in parallel.  That means positive to positive and negative to negative, rather than in series (positive to negative) like you see in most electronics.   The difference is that when you wire in series you add the batteries' voltages, but when you wire in parallel you add their amperage.  Since I knew the circuit board was designed to operate at 1.2v, I figured I'd keep that and just increase the amount of power available to it by 5 times!

After you've got your parts, you'll need to build some sort of water resistant case with a clear panel to shove everything into.  I used the paper catch tray from an old Epson CX5400 and a sheet of perspex from Home Depot, but you could use pretty  much anything of the right size and shape!

Basically, I just installed everything as best I could and started hitting it with the epoxy and silicone.  What I ended up with was a panel about 1 foot by 8 inches that had the solar panel in the middle, the circuit board on one side (with the control switch sticking through the back), and the batteries on the other.  Check the pictures below and image notes for more details if you need them, but this is really just a step where you'll need to improvise.

After that was done, I built a little stand for it to be mounted to the top of the arbor, hopefully avoiding the grape leaves.  I used cedar as I've heard about a million times that cedar is weather resistant.

After this is done, I recommend taking everything outside for a day and making darn sure it works before installing!

Step 6: Install and Enjoy

If you're in the northern hemisphere, find a good south facing spot for the solar panel near where you've decided to hang the arbor lights.  My brother nailed the panel to the south wall of this kids' playhouse.

We actually started the install on the far end of the arbor and put the panel up last, but before we did anything we just lay it all out on the ground below.  Once the lights were positioned roughly where Michelle wanted them, it was time to start hanging the lights.  While Ted got up on the ladder and put a nail in the arbor,  I would wrap about a foot of wire around the neck of the bottle.  Then we hung each one, moving back towards the planned destination of the solar panel.

Once all the bottles were hung, the panel was nailed to the wall and we were done!

Step 7: Final Thoughts

Picture of Final Thoughts
Ah, another fun project come to an end!  The night of Michelle's birthday party she totally bragged on me and the lights I built for her, and everyone seemed pretty impressed, so I really hope it makes up for all the presents I haven't bought her!

All in all, this one was a lot of work!  I totally think it was worth it, but if I ever make something like this for someone else I will most  definitely make sure to buy a better set of solar lights.  These ones were just too much work.

I must truly apologize for the quality of the night time pictures!  My cat, who I love but sometimes want to strangle, knocked my camera on the floor the night before I installed these.  While the camera still works, the buttons that allow me to control light sensitivity and shutter speed are broken.  It is currently impossible for me to take a decent long exposure at night so the full effect of the lights is lost somewhat.  I will post some better ones once I get a new camera, but that probably won't be soon due to financial constraints.  If anyone out there has some recommendations for a reasonably good quality but low priced camera with basic manual controls, I would really like to know about it!

As always, please take a moment to comment, rate, and/or subscribe!  I really like hearing from people about their thought regarding my instructables.  Also, if you build something based on or inspired by my project, post some pictures and I'll send you a digital patch!   Oh, and I'm experimenting with boldfacing important points in my instructable.  What do you think?  Good idea or kind of stupid?

I see the term "goodwill" used a lot on here... would it be our version (in the UK) of a charity shop, where goods are donated to a charity and are then sold to raise funds for that charity.
Well done for the 'ible... very inspiring, we have a chain of shops in the UK called Poundland, everything is priced at one pound, and things like LED garden/christmas lights can be obtained here - very useful for us who make - do you have 1.59313 Dollarland I wonder?
depotdevoid (author)  I am in the shed!2 years ago
Hi JayDub,

Goodwill is just that, a national organization that accepts donations of old stuff and resells it.  They use the proceeds for job training, job creation, and employing those with special needs.  They're a pretty good organization all around!

We've got Dollar Tree here in the US, I imagine we must have lower quality stuff in our version, if a pound is currently going for $1.59!  LED gizmos are fairly common, but very crappy.  I've got a stack of their solar garden stakes in my shop, just looking for a project . . .
If I had a solar cell that puts out 6V , 50mA would this setup work if I put the batteries in series or is that a current requirement that needs to be met in order for all of the LEDs to be lit up?
depotdevoid (author)  solarstudent2 years ago
Batteries in series add their voltages--this will work fine if you need 2.4 volts, but if you need 1.2 volts, then you need to wire in parallel. This also provides more amperage to run more LEDs.
KittyF3 years ago
my problem is I don't understand the electrical terms. is it something I need to take a class for? is it something I could learn on the net? is it something I even need to learn or should I just follow the directions blindly and assume that I don't need to understand them?

I assume that this project will be a one off project without understanding though, so I always strive for understanding so I can use the ideas in another project.
depotdevoid (author)  KittyF3 years ago
Hi KittyF! You don't need to take a class, all that info is available on the internet. If you have specific questions I'd be happy to answer them myself, or google is a good tool. If general understanding of basic electronics is your goal I HIGHLY recommend Radioshack's electronics learning lab, that's how I got started.  It was very hands on and got me started on this path before I even found instructables.
I'lll have to look for that. it looks like it would be useful stuff to know. . thanks
bwelkin3 years ago
To those readers intending to make a similar project let me suggest that you use "heat shrink" instead of electrical tape to insulate your soldered connections. Heat shrink comes in many diameters; pick one just bigger than the twisted-wire-soldered connection will be and slide a two inch piece up one wire before joining your wires together. Slide the 'shrink down and heat with a lighter. Not only does it contract, the insides melt and coat your solder job with a weatherproofing kind of tar. It also make it a prettier job.
depotdevoid (author)  bwelkin3 years ago
True, it is prettier and makes a better seal.

I went with electrical tape for a couple of reasons though.  The ends are sealed inside the bottles, mainly you are insulating the wires from each other and don't have to worry about weather in this case.  Their location in the neck of the bottle, near the top, should make them hard to see so appearance shouldn't matter too much.  Also, electrical tape is cheaper and doesn't require a heat source to set up.

You are right though, in most circumstances heat shrink tubing is WAY better than electrical tape!
antling3 years ago
I totally liked solar projects and in the midst of coverting everything in my house to 12VDC and getting ready for all-solar-living (at least 80%).
in this instructible, the new panel you made consist of more than 1 "crappy" panels right?
how many to be exact? the shapes seems "off" can you tell me more on that?
depotdevoid (author)  antling3 years ago
Hi antling, that's a pretty ambitious (and awesome!) project, going mostly solar!

Take a closer look at step 5, there's a link to another instructable that I pilfered the idea from. Basically, there are several retailers that sell fractured solar panels for really cheap. All you have to do is properly wire them together and you end up with a nice solar panel for much less than you'd pay for it prebuilt.

Thanks for commenting and don't hesitate to ask if you have any other questions. Also, speaking as a person who's really into solar power, I'd love to see an instructable about how to go solar at home!
Basically My wife and I had just bought a house and moved in about 3 months ago. Since it is a new house, we decided first hand to change all the concealed cable from 1.2mm to 2.2mm (I'm using BS in Malaysia). you may need to calculate suitable cabling size for your cables if you are interested in going solar.
Fundamentally, in Malaysia, our general standard domestic voltage is 240V. bty changing to solar, I am looking at all 12VDC without any means of inverter as it is additional cost to me.

My plan is simple and will take up a long time to conceive (5 years)

STAGE 1.
By reducing the voltage to 12VDC, we will expect all equipment to have to utilize higher current (V=IR). Hence to avoid meltdown or cable fault. we decided to check all cables and finally stage 1 is already completed. all our cables are now 2.2mm instead of local developer standard of 1.2mm. this is an easy step.

STAGE 2. - Let there be light.
Lamp and all basic utilities are now running on 12VDC with the help of a little 12VDC power supply (inverter).

My staircase and night lamp is now consisted of 12V LED only!

STAGE 3 - Important appliances.
AIR-CONDITION UNITS (it is average 89F here year round!)
FRIDGES, WASHING MACHINE, Etc... All new machine will be checked before purchase. Only machines with 12VDC compatible is sought. That means, go for machines that runs on inverter, 12/24VDC is ok... It is just about when I will take off the inverters and run in DC. (This is almost complete except for our fridge and washing machine, which is quite new and I made a mistake purchase based on cost and not forward compatibilty)

STAGE 3 1/2 - Calculation.

STAGE 4 - Purchase of relevant power generation equipments.

STAGE 5 - Installation of the PG equipments and power up.

STAGE 6 - (5 years later) My solar home.. :-)
24 hours climate control and off-grid... yippee!!!
12VDC.jpg
lancruz antling3 years ago
You probably don't have to deal with home owners association. Where I live you can't sneeze without HOA giving you a hard time.
antling lancruz3 years ago
Then you should cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze! actually, you can always do it descreetly as a part of small DIY stuffs. Just think of it as hanging a new flower pots somewhere, and also, do it in small manageable steps so it doesnt attract too much attention.
depotdevoid (author)  antling3 years ago
Very interesting, I like the idea of doing the conversion in small, easy to manage steps over a long period of time. My parents are crazy and think the American president is going to ruin everything, so they're currently in the process of going all solar. However, they're going to do it all in one go this summer. They showed me the estimate from the contracting firm that's going to do the work, and I was shocked! I don't have that kind of money to make the transition myself, but again, I really like your idea of doing it one bit at a time. That way, the cost would be minimal and there wouldn't be the problem of "sticker shock."
You are right!
The cost may not be reduced, but the pain can be minimized.. LOL.
Handshake for a person that share the same thought as I am.
At this rate, I guess, not only Obama is going to screw up. My country is going backward. Yet, this is for another forum.
Let us be less depending on the grid and do our part for the earth.
huttarl4 years ago
Nice project. But like many, I wish people would describe in more detail what a project *is* on the front page, before launching into the history behind it, who they presented it to, the materials needed, etc. Especially with an unclear title like "sun bottles". "Solar-powered walkway" helps, but it's not a walkway... My best guess at this point is that it's a string of solar-powered lights in bottles. But life is too short to read the whole instructable just to find out if it's something I would actually be interested in making.
depotdevoid (author)  huttarl4 years ago
Solid point huttarl, though I had kind of figured the pictures would speak for themselves. I've updated the intro step, do you think this would be better?
@saehn... touche. But with the complaint, I have the chance that the author will clarify the 'ible (which he did), and save time for both me and a bunch of other readers. Maybe it will even help influence other authors to make their front pages clearer.

@depot, thanks for being responsive! The pictures somewhat spoke for themselves, but they were mostly close-ups, so it wasn't clear what the big picture was. Much better now, with the extra pics and expanded description! Thank you.
saehn huttarl4 years ago
But it's not too short to write out a complaint, is it? ;-)
EngEC4 years ago
Awsome man! Great idea for an instructable, glad you made it. And sure your sister-in-law had saw that delightful work. Thanks man!
depotdevoid (author)  EngEC4 years ago
Thank you for the kind comment sir, I'm glad you liked it!
Very interesting and full of possibilities for different uses. Nice job. Thanks!
depotdevoid (author)  nicholas19514 years ago
Thanks Nicholas, glad you liked it!
Pedalit4 years ago
Great idea! It reminds me of solar indoor lights. In places with no electricity people hang water filled bottles in the ceiling. The light refracts and illuminates the structure. P.S. It rains a cumulative 5 days a year where I live. We only have a roof on our house so the sun doesn't catch us on fire.
depotdevoid (author)  Pedalit4 years ago
Thanks Pedalit! I guess I shouldn't complain too much about the rain, it's just what we do here in Oregon, grump about the rain while enjoying lush forests and beautiful waterways.