Legions of companies offer ready-built solar energy devices ranging in size from a thumbnail sufficient to drive a pocket calculator up to roof-sized affairs adequate to power an entire building in clear weather. Some are expensive and some are unduly fragile, but most all of them come assembled and offer true plug-and-play technology. By contrast, Lofty Energy allows you to wade into the science behind the device.
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I have learned a fair number of things in my travels but I know relatively little about electricity. I know it lives in the wall, that it can be lethal and you really don’t want to get any of it on you. The point being, if I can figure this stuff out, then you can, too.
Lofty Energy kits come in 10- and 30-watt varieties, with a larger 100-watt version currently in the works. The typical kit includes everything you need to build your own solar arrays at home, except a decent soldering iron, a pair of Plexiglas sheets and a tube of clear silicone caulk. A voltmeter or multimeter is also handy to make sure everything is connected properly and functioning as intended. None of that stuff is particularly expensive. The kit comes with individual solar cells, plenty of ribbon wire for connections, solder, flux, an instructional DVD, plastic spacers, a connection box and a couple of pieces of connecting wire.
Before my daughter and I embarked upon this project, neither of us really knew which end of a soldering iron to hold. Leave the device plugged in for a while and this becomes readily apparent, but I had never soldered anything of consequence prior to this undertaking. By the time we were done we were the solder kings. This Lofty Energy kit will indeed teach you some nifty new skills.
The 10-watt kit is designed to employ 35 individual solar cells connected in series, one after another. The solar cells are quite fragile and, despite our best efforts, we broke a couple. Fortunately, the kit includes several extras. The 10-watt kit is designed to use 18-by-18-inch sheets of Plexiglas. My local home supply store only stocks 10-by-14-inch sheets so we had to adjust our layout accordingly.
For starters, you solder a small strip of connecting wire to the center of each of maybe 40 solar cells. Be assured that this gets tedious, but you really do develop some proper soldering skills in the process.
The flux comes in the form of a nifty pen that kept us from making a mess. You simply run a stripe of liquid flux down the center of each cell and hold the strip of wire to be soldered. We used hemostats but a small screwdriver works fine, too. Touch the tip of the soldering iron to the end of the solder and a smidgeon of the stuff liquefies and wraps around the end of the iron. Now run the hot iron down the top of the wire to be affixed and the flux material draws the liquid solder into the joint automatically. To be honest, I have no idea how it works. Our first few efforts looked chimp-built. The last ones, however, could pass for a factory product.
Drill a couple of 1/4-inch holes in one sheet of Plexiglas and then glue the connector box in place to the outside using silicone caulk. Care must be taken with all seams to ensure that they are completely waterproof. This component is the bit that allows the wires from the completed array to connect with whatever you want to drive.
Arrange The Cells
Once the cells are wired, they are arranged in series, positive to negative, in rows arranged to fit the dimensions of your Plexiglas. More soldering connects these cells in rows. Once the rows are arranged as needed, they are connected with a wider material called bus wire. The final ends of bus wire are routed through the holes in the Plexiglas to the connector box and soldered in place.
With all the cells appropriately connected, tested and arranged, you glue small plastic spacers throughout to keep the two sheets of clear plastic separated. Now the two Plexiglas sheets are pressed together and sealed liberally around their circumference with silicone. Leave this assembly overnight to set under the weight of a book or two. We installed the external connecting wires and sealed them with silicone as well. Depending upon your level of soldering expertise, the entire project takes about an afternoon as long as you have a good helper.
Beyond teaching some new skills and beautifully illustrating the science behind electricity in general and solar energy in particular, the Lofty Energy solar cells can be used for any number of practical applications around a rural homestead or at any remote site that lacks commercial power. A modest DC fan or light runs like a champ. Illuminating a remote chicken coop on a timer keeps the hens laying when they might otherwise be loafing.
With an additional inexpensive charge controller, your new homebuilt solar array will charge a vehicle battery or power an electric fence to keep critters out of your garden. With a little extra effort, you could potentially even use such a contrivance to charge a cell phone or similar portable device. Applications for this clean, renewable power source are limited only by your imagination.
Everything in life these days seems to be disposable. One of the selling points for my new sports car was that three quarters of the thing was recyclable. In an era when we pick up the stuff we need at the local box store, wear it out in short order and discard it in favor of a newer version, it is refreshing to actually build something useful from component parts.
The Lofty Energy solar panel kits are well reasoned and effective, going so far as to include stuff like flux and solder that a neophyte like me would likely find confusing had I needed to dig it up myself. The included instructional DVD demonstrates the techniques you need to master.
Additionally, while this project can be done solo, it works best with a friend. In my case, my homeschooled daughter and I whiled away a delightful afternoon learning how to solder together while discussing the intricacies of electricity. I have yet to meet an older person who complained of having spent too much time with their children when they were young. The Lofty Energy solar energy kit would make for a splendid science fair project that is as practically useful as it is educational.
We live in a weird world that gets weirder daily. Urban sprawl makes true wilderness harder and harder to find while weather gone wild never ceases to impress me. Meanwhile, the rarefied limits to which man will go to be mean to his fellow man are expanded daily yet further, all of which conspire to make peace, quiet and solitude a more and more desirable commodity. With this unfortunate tapestry as a backdrop, many of us strive to live out our years as far back into the sticks as is practical. Within such parameters, a portable, reliable source of electrical power is hugely beneficial.
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Little is greener than a solar array you build yourself on the dining room table and, while the actual construction is admittedly tedious at times, the inherent satisfaction that results is hard to beat. The cost of this project adds up a bit when you factor in Plexiglas and a few basic tools, but it is still cheaper than its store-bought counterparts. Add to this the priceless opportunity to explain the difference between series and parallel circuits to a kid enthusiastic to learn and you have an ideal way to kill a slow Saturday afternoon.
For more information, visit loftyenergy.com.
This article is from the fall 2015 issue of The New Pioneer. To subscribe, please visit RealWorldSurvivor.com/subscribe