Introduction: Super Basic Solar Lighting Under $75

Picture of Super Basic Solar Lighting Under $75

If you are looking for a simple, inexpensive but durable solar lighting setup for your shed or outbuilding then this tutorial is perfect for you. There are many tutorials on this site but we wanted to make our system as frugally as we could and still have a quality setup that would serve most people's basic lighting needs. Our total budget for this whole project was about $75USD and I hope to get many years of maintenance free use from this system. I set up three lights because I love good lighting but this could easily be cut down to just two (interior and exterior) and would work great.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Picture of Gather Your Materials

I was not just trying to make a cheap solar setup, I was making an inexpensive, durable, practical, versatile, quality solar setup that would last. I'm sure you can find cheaper parts than what I have listed here, but this was as basic as I felt I could go and reliably get a quality end result. You can always order larger solar panels or more batteries but most people only use shed lights occasionally and this setup is very good for around $75. The easiest way to save money is ordering parts online that are shipped directly from China found on various websites, of course the downside of this is that it can takes 4 to 6 weeks for delivery so plan accordingly.

1 ea Solar Panel with Inverter kit. I purchased an Instapark 5W mono-crystalline setup from Amazon for $32. You can find cheaper panels but I wanted to make sure I had one in a sturdy aluminum frame, heavy backing and tempered glass. This is not the best or worst panel out there, just good enough to do the job.

1 ea 12v deep cycle battery, SLA (Sealed Lead Acid), these vary greatly in price depending on your needs but a good basic one can be found for less than $15

1 ea 12v Terminal Block, these can be found on Amazon for less than $4

2 ea 12v switches. These can be found on ebay for as little as $1 ea but may take weeks to ship

1 ea 12v Exterior Grade LED Light. These are in a wide range of styles and prices depending on your taste and budget. I would recommend something less than a 5W. I used a waterproof boat light found on ebay for $8.

1ea 12v Interior Grade LED Light. Again this is available in a wide range of options. I will demonstrate a simple 3W LED fixture that I put together for less than $4 ordering parts from ebay

2 ea Car Fuses and Fuse Holders sized for your system. Also available from ebay for a few dollars.

A few feet of size appropriate Heat Shrink Tape which can also be ordered from ebay for around $1

A tiny amount of Caulk for sealing around exposed areas (this is probably sitting in your garage somewhere)

A Solar Panel Mounting Kit, for mounting the panel on your roof. I'm putting this down reluctantly because it cost $6.99 and it just seems like there must be a more frugal way to do this. You may have a few scrap bolts or some metal pieces lying around you could recycle for this and shave $6.99 off your cost.

You may need some additional 12v Wiring, the kit I ordered came with enough that with a little planning I was able to splice it up for all my wiring needs.

Step 2: Tools

You only need a few basic tools to put this thing together

Wire Stripper

screw driver with misc bits (the screws on the charge controller are very small)

Solder Gun with Solder

A lighter or matches for heat shrink tubing

Drill and a variety of bits for mounting the panel and drilling holes as necessary

possibly pliers for help mounting some of the lights or the panels

Step 3: A Special Note Before You Begin

Picture of A Special Note Before You Begin

If your not experienced with working with electricity this is a great starter project so don't be intimidated. This entire system is 12v and very safe to work with compared to what is in your home. Think of electricity as a river flowing from the positive (+) to the negative (-). The electricity flows from the battery like water but is stopped at the switch that serves like a dam. When the dam is opened (the switch is turned on) the electricity flows through the light bulb lighting the light and back to the negative side of the battery. For this reason it is always important to keep track of which wire is positive and which is negative. These are usually color coded and in our case you can see that the red is the positive and the green is the negative.

The most difficult skill you will need to master is splicing wires which you will have to do at some point during this operation. They make all kinds of fancy connectors that you can buy for this purpose. However since we are trying to build something durable and cheap we will be splicing everything with heat shrink tape and a dab of solder. If you have not used heat shrink tape before then you may want to test out a bit on some scrap wire. Basically heating the tape with flame will shrink it around the wires and keep them nice and tight but don't over heat. Osgeld made an excellent instructable "Master a perfect inline wire splice everytime" which is well worth a read if you have not done this before.

Step 4: Mounting Your Panel

Picture of Mounting Your Panel

There are many website dedicated to finding the correct placement and angle for your solar panels. I however wanted something discreet so I just mounted at my sheds generally south facing roof angle and close to the edge. Even with my heavily treed lot in the cloudy Pacific Northwest this setup still provides plenty of power for hours of light usage when I need it.

Follow the directions for your solar mounting hardware and remember you will need to screw it into your roof. Rubber washers and a little caulk go a long way in preventing any leaks. I mounted my panel close to where my charge controller and battery were going to be mounted to minimize expose and to be able to use as little resources as possible. I didn't like the hardware that came with my mounting kit so I ended up using a larger exterior grade screw that was long enough to grip into my sheathing and rubber washers between the junctions to seal out any moisture.

Step 5: Mount Your Charge Controller and Battery

Picture of Mount Your Charge Controller and Battery

I mounted my charge controller and battery close to the roof of my shed where the panel is located. This helps minimize the length of wire needed and neatly mounts the system neatly out of the way but still within reach. It is easy to monitor but I'm not constantly running into it. You will need to cut and strip the wires to mount these.

Step 6: Make Your Control Panel

Picture of Make Your Control Panel

Your control panel is where it all comes together and this can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be.

In my example I just used a small piece of scrap wood and drilled a few appropriate sized holes for my switches.

On the back you will need to mount your terminal block and run a wire either from the outlet side of your charge controller or directly from your battery. I've seen it work either way but I had several recommendations to run directly from the battery.

I'm showing a photo here of an alternate attachment strategy. Since I'm trying to be cheap I order my electronic parts directly from China and I still had not received my terminal block at this point since sometimes it takes 4 to 6 weeks for shipping. Instead I just spliced all of the wires together and soldered them together and covered with heat shrink tape. A terminal block is not only safer, but it is expandable and I would have to fix this all later.

Step 7: Wire Exterior Lights

Picture of Wire Exterior Lights

There are many varieties of 12v exterior lights available. Usually sold for cars or boats, shop around to find the best deal and style for your application.

In my case I found a waterproof light designed for boats for around $8. I simply mounted it on the outside of my shed. Drilled a small hole for the wire and ran it through the side of the shed (I also added a small bead of caulk here to make sure it was weather tight). Then ran a wire to one of my switches.

Step 8: Wire Interior Lights

Picture of Wire Interior Lights

Interior lights don't need to be weather proof, but they do need to be sturdy enough to withstand an occasional accidental bumping. The most basic setup I could come up with that would give adequate lighting was to use a 12v 3w MR16 LED bulb and Bi-Pin Socket Ceramic Body, both of which were available for a few dollars on ebay. Obviously there are many choices available here also and for a few bucks more there is a world of 12v car and boat lighting available.

I spliced my wires together and ran them back to my second switch. I then mounted my fixture inside an old tin can and literally made a cheap and sturdy can light. You could wire several of these together around your shed to where you need them.

Step 9: Safety Last!

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Safety is always first, but in this case I added a little safety last by adding two inline fuses. I added these last because I wanted to make sure all of my wiring and lights worked and were placed correctly before splicing in some fuses. Some people do not add fuses and I think this is an oversight. 12v systems like this are much safer than what is in most people's homes but adding a few fuses can greatly increase the longevity of your system and its components.

We purchased a few inline 12v fuse holders like those that are normally used in cars. The first one we added between the battery and the charge controller. Even small batteries (like 20Ah) have very high maximum currents that will destroy your charge-controller, so if you have a 20A controller, use a 20 Amp fuse, this can be a (DC) circuit breaker or a regular blade-car fuse between the battery and the controller. These come in many different styles, the one we use here is just an example.

On the output you can either use one fuse between you controller (or battery) for all the lights or multiple fuses for each light. One fuse is sufficient, but all the wiring needs to be able to accept the current rating of that one fuse. If you use more fuses you could use thinner cables, but more importantly, you won't lose power everywhere if you blow just the one. A small schedule can be found here

Step 10: Adding Extras and Conclusion

Picture of Adding Extras and Conclusion

I kept this system as basic, frugal and sturdy as I could without sacrificing quality. However this system is easily expandable depending on your needs. I added a string of 12v fairy lights to go around my yard for parties ($5 from ebay) but there is an amazing variety of 12v products on the market and low wattage LED's make your power draw very small.

The solar panel is the heart of the system, however it is also the most expensive. My system will give you hours of lighting and is adequate for most people's needs. However adding a larger panel would allow the system to recharge faster if you are using it daily. You can also add more batteries which would allow for more power storage but again this will add more cost and is not necessary for an occasional use outbuilding.

Probably the two most common additions would be a small inverter that would allow you to plug in 'normal' electronics. You could also easily expand from your control panel to add a USB outlet or a 12v 'cigarette lighter' that would allow a variety of additional products to be plugged in. Some charge controllers come with a battery monitor that will let you know how much electricity is still available, its best to not let your battery run below 20% so this might be a good addition if you are using it frequently. I'm probably going to add a 12v motion detecting switch at some point in the future so the lights will go on when I'm approaching.

We developed this system for our budget and Eco-friendly Recycled Modern Shed and have enjoyed hours of light at night from this basic setup. I hope you liked our tutorial and enjoy your own free electricity from the sun!

Comments

Two Paddles Design (author)2015-07-09

I wanted to say thanks to techie66, I could not have done this without you!

techie66 (author)2016-02-21

Love the new text, this is a very complete instructable now.

thanks! Sorry, somehow I missed your comment and just noticed it. I'm thinking that I will actually do an update on this guide with a few tweeks we added over the year and we are working on another similar system that I will post once I can figure out the bugs in that one.

brodezign (author)2015-07-29

Hey, what was the exact listing title for that boat light on eBay? I'm wanting to get the same one for my setup. Thanks.

I found it searching for "underwater lights" http://m.ebay.com/itm/IP68-10W-LED-RGB-White-Underwater-Light-Fountain-Pond-Outdoor-Spotlight-Lamp-12V-/371217470225?nav=SEARCH

JGUZMANO (author)2015-07-17

Great project in most aspects. Thanks for sharing. I'd just like some more explanation about the charging / discharging process of this battery, but the rest is great!

I wasn't sure how to address that aspect. This is a small setup and I really wanted to focus on just the building part. We are working on more solar projects and pushing what we can do with this project so we will post more in the future. Thanks for checking us out.

pandadude (author)2015-07-16

Many instructables these days have flashy pictures and interesting sounding ideas, but quite poor documentation and advice. This instructable is great on all fronts: an extremely useful contribution to low power solar set-ups.

Thank you! We still have a few technical additions and photos that we will add to this but we are also officially working on more solar projects for bringing power to some unusual places. Hope to post more soon.

wazalac18 (author)2015-07-09

just noticed that the wire was touching the sharp edge of thecorrugated roofing and it would cause
shorts overtime, i think you should add something to prevent it...

Okay, I finally got around to getting some better photos, Here is one of the panel installed and I think you can see my big glob of caulk used where the wire entered. Not sexy but hopefully functional.

thanks, that is a good observation. I actually don't have any photos of my final installation of the panel (hence the drawing), I actually ended up taking the wire directly through the roof with a whole lot of caulk. I'm not sure it was the best solution, I'm open to suggestions.

Hi Lumpy, I would use a rubber grommet for the pass-through and then caulk the bejeezus out of it. Nice instructable.

Thanks Blkcoffeeme, this looks like a good solution and I will post an update if I can figure out a good way to do this. I don't think I mentioned it here anywhere but where the wire went into the back of the panel seemed a little lose anyway so I added some caulk there as well.

i honestly think that "through the roof and caulking" would do...

neaton1 (author)2015-07-15

Honestly, when I first saw this, I thought of the old outhouses, and how this would be perfect for lighting and to run a vent fan for it... But I'd assume you'd have to limit it down to a 12v system, like you'd have for an camping trailer's bathroom, as to not put too strong a draw over the system...

Well, I'm not sure exactly what is going on in your outhouse, but I think a small system like this would probably be great! Many composting toilets are already setup for 12v and of course there are many 12v fans that would work great also. You could probably set up a circuit that would run the fan constantly then only turns off as the battery runs low keeping some juice available for lighting. Don't think of a 12v system as 'limiting', just think of it as a creative challenge.

purdyplease (author)2015-07-14

I think this was very well prepared and explained. I enjoyed reading and learning how to install solar lighting. The marine lighting for exterior purposes is an excellent idea. Thank you for all the work and time it took to accomplish this.

Thank you for reading! We will be posting a few technical updates and diagrams in the near future if you want more details.

manuka (author)2015-07-12

12 V 7Ah SLA (Sealed Lead Acid) batteries have been a global standard for decades, & you can often pick them up from the likes of security firms for scrap value. (As their life is only ~5-7 years they often are replaced earlier in critical applications). I used to be offered boxes of them for free when teaching electronics.

However LiFePO4 cells are now much more reliable, & are often now the norm with modern solar security lights. Such LED systems sell in most hardware stores in the US$30-$50 range,
with some almost dazzling at full brightness. I've several up here in NZ
that haven't missed a beat in 3 years.- see pix below.

FWIW - there's often little point in having a light blazing away all night,
as it may attract insects,drain batteries & annoy neighbours. PIR (Passive Infra Red) sensors are the norm & greatly assist in alerting to zombies raiding your tomatoes at 3am.

Undoubtedly the battery is the weak point in any solar setup including this one. Its quite possible that the LED bulbs I installed here could last the rest of my life and although the panel will lose efficiency over the years I have little doubt that it will still be kicking out enough juice 20 years from now to power this little setup.

One of my main goals with this design was frugality and I still think that SLA batteries give the best bang for your buck. A 12v LiFePO4 cell sufficient enough for this system would have cost more than everything else combined so I can't quite bring myself to recommend them yet.

I have an electric lawnmower with a SLA battery that has been going strong for over 8 years now. I'm sure it has lost power over the years but since its already over kill for my small yard I have not noticed. I'm hoping for the same reliability from this system and regardless, I'm hoping we will have a lot more frugal battery choices seven years from now than what is currently available.

I'm shopping for the best motion sensor now as that will be my next addition to this setup.

I wasn't suggesting a "12V" LiFePO4 (actually 3.2V x 4 = 12.8V) be used here, as they can be still quite costly. All manner of great value Hobby King style LiFePO4 packs are however available  =>  http://hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/__218__85__Batteries_Accessories-LiFePo4.html

Rather I'd thought just a SINGLE 3.2V LiFePO4 may do!  White LEDs of course run a treat directly on 3.2V, as do most of today's electronic circuits. As a passive IR sensor can mean a LED lamp may spend spend most of it's time idling ( at perhaps just a few mA),  the likes of a 1200 mAh 18650 LiFePO4 (18mm x 65mm) may well suffice.

pete.hohensee (author)2015-07-13

AND occasional accidental bumping?

It actually takes many different skills to create an instructable, technical proficiency, story telling, organization, even photography and graphic design. Unfortunately for me this list also includes spelling and grammer which are not my strong points.

One can always improve.

grammar

One could also actually publish an 'ible before just sitting there and criticising.

He who can does, he who can't [doesn't contribute much to the discussion]

One could be less thin-skinned and more open to learning.

SEE?!? I'm having flashbacks to my fourth grade teacher telling me I would always be terrible at grammar and spelling. Your not my teacher coming back to haunt me?

Okay, I meant to say " *you're* not my teacher coming back to haunt me?", at least I caught my own mistake before anyone else had a chance to point it out. I think I should quit now while I'm still ahead.

Darryldisanto (author)2015-07-13

Outstanding tutorial!! Pictures of all needed equipment, descriptions, costs and where to get it all and great detailed step by step instuctables! Couldn't ask for more! Thanks!

I'm glad you liked it, we are working on some 12v built in fence lights that would work well with this. please follow if you would like to see more

waxan12 (author)2015-07-12

This is fantastic many thanks

Thank you, we have several 12v and solar projects in the works so please follow us if you would like to see more.

bassman1950 (author)2015-07-13

It would be nice if you showed the schematic. Now here do you show exactly how to connect every thing. You leave us guessing is resistor needed for the led.

Great pictures but no schematic.

You are correct. I honestly didn't think of it until after this was posted. I was trying to keep this a simple and accessible tutorial but I realize that there are some technical shortcomings. I'm hoping to find some time this week to draw up a schematic and post a few more technical details that people have had questions about.

I'm still waiting patiently by my mailbox for my terminal block to come in so I can install that as well.

dollarseed (author)2015-07-13

In my 20 x 22 wood shop, we use only 12v LED lights. We have 3 flood panels for over the work bench areas, and strip lights to brighten up the darker areas around the walls, and under our overhead storage areas. Most of the lights are run through a small 12 VDC convertor, and are run by the regular 120VAC light switch. I do have some that are only on when you are walking around inside my shop using a passive infrared detector. These are great for when you just need to walk in and grab something real quick. One thing great about using LED lighting is that they turn on instantly, regardless of the surrounding temperature. My whole shop lighting costs around $10 per year to run. Great instructable. I wouldn't have thought of looking into the auto industry for for lights. Most of my electronics comes from China as well, and they ship really slow but are very cheap.

MVZ_MODs (author)2015-07-09

does that panel keep the battery charged enough to keep the lights on all night and use a photocell to switch off during the day

Honestly, it depends. If you had full sun exposure I'm sure that you could run at least one of the lights all night. It is a 5v panel and the interior lights are 3v, from what I understand you can only reliably count on 75% of that absorbed power to be available for lighting after losses due to charging, battery storage etc. So you could probably get 12 solid hours of light usage out of it under perfect conditions with 12 hours of light absorption. But I don't have it set up that way. If you really wanted to use it that way I would probably recommend a larger panel.

Im assumeing you mean 5watt panel and 3w lights?

assumeing?

Ha! You caught me. thank you

TammyS9 (author)2015-07-12

Can I please ask where you got a battery for $15.

hi Tammy, we are having a technical debate behind the scenes right now specifically about what Amp battery is appropriate for this setup. I will be posting some more details (and photos) later this week.

D6equj5 (author)2015-07-12

Nice instructable - thanks for some good ideas.

Ca. RAFAEL FELIXXO (author)2015-07-09

GRACIAS MUY ILUSTRATIVO, saludos paz y bien

su nada, me alegro de mis habilidades de construcción son mejor que mi español

jwreed4130 (author)2015-07-09

I really like the light that you used can you add a link to where you bought it?

I found it on ebay, which as you know is always changing. Here is one similar off of Amazon but with a color changing remote!

http://www.amazon.com/Lemonbest-resistant-Underwater-Landscape-Fountain/dp/B00E0IYESW/ref=sr_1_17?s=hi&ie=UTF8&qid=1436532762&sr=1-17&keywords=12v+led+boat+light

Cool thanks for the link, It actually looks like it is 5-6 inches in diameter. I was surprised when I saw how small it actually is. Does it give off a good amount of light?

Well, I think so but its not like a flood light that will go across your yard. We really wanted something to light up the front of the garden shed so you could see what you are doing when you approach. I will try to figure out how to take some night shots so people can get a better idea on the level of lighting here.

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