In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to make DIY solar lights without using a single tool.
In fact, these are the steps I used recently to solar power my own lights.
I put these solar powered lights in a small shed, but this build is also a great starting point for vans, boats, RVs, and bigger sheds or buildings.
Let’s get started.
Here’s a video tutorial I made for this project. Check it out below, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel if you like DIY solar videos like this.
- 12V 7Ah lead acid battery — This is a good battery size if you’ll be using your lights infrequently and for short stretches of time. I discuss at the end of this article different battery sizes based on how long you want your lights to run for.
- 12V 10A solar charge controller — This one has a 2A USB port, which is necessary for this project.
- 12V 10W solar panel — Again, this is a good size for infrequent use. You can find different solar panel sizes based on your desired runtime at the end of this article.
- Double-sided mounting tape
- SAE pigtail
- SAE to battery alligator clips
- USB strip lights
Step 1: Mount the Charge Controller
Pick a place to mount the charge controller. Above all, I’d recommend taking into account where you’ll mount your solar panel and picking a place for the charge controller where the solar panel’s wires can reach. For mine, I picked a spot on the wall next to my shed’s doors.
With your mounting location picked, stick some of the double-sided mounting tape to the back of your charge controller.
Mount the charge controller to the wall.
Step 1 complete!
If you’ve ever mounted a charge controller before, you’ll know this is as easy as it gets.
Step 2: Connect the Charge Controller to the Battery
Note: Most charge controllers — including the one I’m using in this tutorial — require you to connect the battery first, so that’s the order of connection I’ll detail here. But always double-check the recommended connection order in your charge controller’s manual. Though rare, some call for connecting the solar panel first.
For this step, I picked up a couple adapter cables that make this process a cinch. Here’s one of them, which you’ll see already has a built-in fuse for overcurrent protection — a safety best practice in DIY solar power systems like this.
Connect the two adapter cables — the SAE pigtail and and the SAE to battery alligator clips — together.
Locate the battery terminals on your charge controller. They are usually labelled with a battery icon or the letters “BAT” or “BATT”.
Insert the positive wire end into the positive battery terminal and the negative wire end into the negative battery terminal. Use a pair of tweezers (or a small flathead screwdriver) to tighten the terminals.
Tip: Don’t have a flathead screwdriver? No worries. I didn’t use one — this is a zero-tools build after all! Beyond tweezers, other household alternatives include the nail cleaner on a pair of nail clippers, the flathead screwdriver on a multitool, a hair clip, and even a pocket knife.
Connect the battery alligator clips to their respective battery terminals on the 12V battery.
Tip: If your alligator clips don’t reach your battery terminals, just use an SAE extension cable.
If you want to make the connection a bit more permanent — such as in vehicles where things can get jostled around during transit — you can pick up some electrical tape and tape the alligator clips to the terminals.
Step 3: Select Your Battery Type
Once you’ve connected your battery, confirm that your charge controller turned on. The screen should turn on automatically and start displaying system specs such as battery voltage.
Follow the instructions in your charge controller’s manual to select your battery type. Your charge controller needs to know what type of battery you’re using to charge and discharge the battery to the right voltages. I selected the “SEL” option on mine, which stands for sealed lead acid batteries.
Note: If you know anything about batteries, you may be wondering why I’m not using a lithium battery for this project. The reason is simple: because this DIY solar lighting setup is in my uninsulated shed, the battery will experience temperatures below freezing. And lithium batteries shouldn’t be charged below freezing (unless they have low-temp charging protection, which is usually only available on larger lithium batteries, such as 100Ah sizes or greater).
Now your charge controller and battery are properly connected!
In my opinion, that was the hardest part of this project. All we have to do next is mount and connect the solar panel and lights and our DIY solar lights will be done.
Step 4: Mount & Connect the Solar Panel
Find a sunny spot on your shed’s roof to mount your solar panel. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, the optimal direction to face solar panels is due south. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, the optimal direction is due north. I recommend picking the roof whose direction is closest to your location’s optimal direction.
Tip: If you’re at all unsure what direction to face your solar panel, use our solar panel azimuth angle calculator. If you’re able to control the tilt angle of your solar panel, also check out our solar panel tilt angle calculator.
Stick the double-sided mounting tape to the back of your solar panel. I just put tape on my panel’s four corners, but you can do the whole frame if you’d like.
Note: If you’re mounting your solar panel to a vehicle, I don’t recommend using mounting tape. Instead, I’d get some solar panel mounting brackets.
Mount your solar panel to the roof.
Feed the solar panel’s wires through a gap in your shed wall. If you don’t have a gap or hole in your walls, you’ll have to get ahold of a drill and drill a small hole in the wall to feed the wires through. If you’re putting DIY solar powered lights in a vehicle or insulated building, I’d recommend using a solar cable entry gland.
Locate the solar terminals on your charge controller. They are usually labeled with a solar panel icon or the letters “PV”.
Insert the positive wire end into the positive solar terminal and the negative wire end into the negative solar terminal. Use tweezers or a small flathead screwdriver — or one of the household alternatives listed above — to tighten the terminals.
Once you’ve connected the solar panel, confirm that your solar panel is now charging your battery. As shown in the video near the top of this page, the battery icon should start flashing to indicate that it’s being charged.
Your solar panel is now properly connected and safely charging your battery!
Step 5: Connect the Lights
For the lights, I’m using these USB LED strip lights:
Plug the lights into the USB port on the charge controller.
Change the charge controller’s load setting to 15. The instructions for how to do so are in the manual. (Changing the setting to 15 lets you manually turn the USB port on and off just by pushing the bottom button on the charge controller.)
Press the bottom button (the ENTER button) on the charge controller to turn the USB port on. You should see a lightbulb appear on the charge controller’s screen which indicates the USB port and load terminals are now on. However, the lights won’t turn on just yet.
Next, press the power button on the lights to turn them on. If you want, you can adjust the brightness up or down as well. I turned mine all the way up to their max brightness.
Now all you have to do to turn the lights on and off is press the bottom button on the charge controller.
Note: I know this step is a little confusing. If you’re lost, I’d recommend watching the video at the top of this page. It makes this step a little clearer. (I discuss this step starting at the 3:17 mark.)
Only one thing left to do!
Step 6: Mount the Lights
Peel the adhesive liner off the back of the lights and stick them to your wall or ceiling.
Tip: If the lights aren’t long enough reach your desired mounting location, use a USB extension cable.
Test out your snazzy new DIY solar LED lights by pressing the bottom button on your charge controller to turn them on. It’s best to wait until nighttime to get a sense of their brightness.
Note: The lights may flicker for a few seconds before reaching full brightness. This is because it takes a moment for the USB port to boot up to full power. That’s why it’s important to get a charge controller with a 2A USB port — anything less and the lights may flicker or be dim.
And there you have it: a DIY solar lighting setup that works great in a range of scenarios, from small sheds and buildings to boats and vans.
What Size Solar Panel & Battery Do I Need to Run Lights?
For my setup, I used a small 10W 12V solar panel and a small 12V 7Ah battery because I’m not going to be using these lights that often — for at most 30 minutes at a time, and maybe twice a week on average. And these lights use as most 10 watts, which isn’t that much at all.
I plugged that info into my solar load calculator to figure out how much energy they use on average per day. Turns out they use an average of about 1.5 watt hours per day.
If you need your solar lights to last longer, all you have to do is pick up a bigger solar panel and a bigger battery. Here are some recommended sizes based on how long you may be wanting to run your lights:
|Solar Panel Size
Note: The recommended battery sizes in the above table are for lead acid batteries. Also, these recommended sizes are conservative because I don’t want your lights to die unexpectedly! 😄
One of the adapter cables I used comes with a 7.5A fuse, so make sure you get a solar panel that won’t exceed that current limit. In practical terms, that means around a 100 watt solar panel is the upper limit for this setup. And even then, some 12V 100 watt solar panels may output more than 7.5A in ideal conditions.
2 More DIY Solar Power Light Projects You Can Build Now
I’ve got even more DIY solar light projects for you.
Check ’em out:
A variation of this project lets you solar power lights for a larger shed!
This solar lighting circuit is similar to the solar powered LED lights you just made. And it’s well-suited for indoor and outdoor use.
You can hang the lights outside as solar outdoor string lights. You can hang them in your room as solar fairy lights. You can also put them up over the holidays as solar Christmas lights.