How to Set Up Your 1st Solar Panel System

In this tutorial, I’m going to show you exactly how to set up your first solar panel system, step by step.

In fact:

These are the same steps I used to make my own solar power system.

Let’s get started.

Materials & Tools

Materials

Main components:

To connect charge controller to battery:

To connect inverter to battery:

To connect solar panel to charge controller:

Note: You can copy my solar panel setup as is or adjust the sizes of the various components and wiring products for your energy needs.

Tools

Necessary:

  • Screwdriver

Only needed if making your own battery cables:

Step 1: Understand the Solar Wiring Diagram

Here’s the solar panel wiring diagram for this system:

Here are the main points to understand about it:

  • A basic solar panel setup consists of 4 main components. These are a battery, solar panel, charge controller, and inverter.
  • Don’t connect the solar panel directly to the battery. Doing so can damage the battery. You need to instead connect both to a charge controller that regulates the incoming solar energy to safely charge the battery. Most charge controllers require you to connect the battery first and then the solar panel (and reverse this order when doing disconnections). Consult your controller’s manual for the recommended installation order.
  • Protect your system with a fuse between each connection. Place a fuse between the battery and charge controller, battery and inverter, and solar panel and charge controller (on the positive wires of each connection).
  • Don’t overdischarge the battery. Some batteries, such as lead acid batteries, don’t have a built-in BMS to protect against overdischarge. Give yourself some cushion when sizing your battery, and monitor your battery’s voltage through the LED indicators on your charge controller.

Step 2: Connect the Inverter and Charge Controller to the Battery

Now that you know how the system works…

…it’s time to get building!

If you decided to make your own battery cables, follow Step 2 in my tutorial on connecting a solar panel to a battery to learn how to make them.

If you decided to buy pre-made battery cables, bolt the ANL fuse to the positive battery cable.

Next, plug the Bestek inverter’s 12V plug into the 12V socket on the NOCO GC018.

Now we’re going to be connecting the ring terminal connectors on the battery cables and NOCO GC018 cables to the terminals on the battery.

Connect the positive cables from the inverter and battery cables to the positive terminal on the battery. (I just tightened the terminal bolts by hand. You can use a ratchet if needed.)

Connect the negative cables to the negative battery terminal. (Make sure the stripped ends on the charge controller cables don’t touch and short the battery!)

Here’s what my system looked like at this point:

Once you connect both sets of cables, your inverter is connected to your battery. Most inverters will have an LED indicator light up when it’s properly connected to let you know it’s on. For instance, a green light lit up on mine.

Before moving on, I decided to test the inverter by plugging in my wireless headphones first into the AC outlet using a wall adapter. When I did, the red light on my headphones lit up to let me know they were charging.

Then I plugged the headphones directly into the inverter’s USB outlet. Once again, the red charging light lit up.

My inverter works!

Now to finish connecting the charge controller.

To do so, first locate the battery terminals on your charge controller. Most charge controllers, like mine, indicate them with a battery icon.

Insert the stripped end of the negative battery cable into the negative battery terminal on the charge controller. Tighten the screw terminal shut with a screwdriver.

Note: In my experience, order doesn’t matter here. You could also connect the positive battery cable first. I just arbitrarily chose to connect the negative cable first.

Give the battery cable a little tug to make sure it doesn’t come out. It should be in there tight.

I completed the connection from battery to charge controller by repeating this process for the positive battery cable. I inserted its stripped end into the positive battery terminal on the charge controller and tightened the terminal shut with a screwdriver.

At this point, your charge controller and inverter should both be on. Two LED indicators lit up on my charge controller to indicate it was properly connected to the battery. And, as we saw before, a green light lit up on my inverter.

Consult your controller’s manual for instructions on how to program it for your battery type and voltage.

On my controller, the Wanderer 30A, I held the grey button until the LED started flashing. Then I pressed the button until the LED turned the color code for my sealed lead acid battery. Then I held the button until the flashing stopped.

Inverter, charge controller, and battery are now all connected!

Now there’s only one last thing to connect:

The solar panel.

Step 3: Connect the Solar Panel to the Charge Controller

Place your solar panel face down on the ground (on top of a towel or cushioned surface to prevent scratches). Doing so gives you better access to the panel’s cables and limits your chance of getting shocked.

Locate the positive solar cable on your solar panel. I found it on mine from the small plus sign on the junction box on the back of the panel.

You can also usually find it by looking for the male MC4 connector, which has a red rubber ring around it and occasionally a small plus sign on the connector body. (The male connector is on the positive wire on every solar panel I’ve worked with.)

Connect the MC4 inline fuse to the positive solar panel cable.

Connect the positive solar cable, positive solar extension cable (if using) and charge controller adapter cable like so:

Repeat the process for the negative solar cable (excluding the fuse). So for my setup, I connected the solar panel cable, extension cable, and adapter cable like so:

And here’s what they looked like when connected:

Now your solar panel is ready to be connected to your solar charge controller!

Locate the solar panel (PV) terminals on your charge controller. Mine has an icon of a solar panel indicating which ones they are.

Insert the stripped end of the negative solar cable in the screw terminal and use a screwdriver to screw it shut.

Do the same for the stripped end of the positive solar cable.

As you can see, once I inserted the positive solar cable, the PV indicator light on my charge controller turned on, telling me the solar panel was properly connected.

It held a steady green, which — according to the instruction manual — means the solar panel was not yet charging the battery. (This is expected because my solar panel was face down on the ground.)

To get your solar panel to start charging your battery, you just need to put it out in the sun.

Step 4: Test Your Solar Panel Setup

Take your solar panel outside and place it in direct sunlight.

Now look at your charge controller for an indication that the battery is charging. The PV light on mine started flashing green to let me know that the solar panel was charging the battery.

Here’s a video walkthrough of my complete solar panel setup:

Like I said, the green blinking light means my solar panel is charging my battery. Nice!

And here’s one final look at all the connections:

And that’s it — you now know how to set up your first solar panel system!

This system is a great beginner solar power project because it’s cheap, you learn a lot, and it can be used as is or expanded in countless ways.

How to Mount and Use This Solar Power System

1. Mount the solar panel at the best tilt angle for your location. You can use our solar panel angle calculator (or browse our list of the best solar panel angles by zip code) to find yours and mount it wherever you want — on the ground, on your roof, on a wall. One option is to use our simple DIY solar panel stand.

A solar panel standing in a yard with a DIY solar panel mounting stand on its back
Our $11 DIY adjustable solar panel stand makes it easy to mount your solar panel at your optimal tilt angle.

2. Mount the battery, inverter, and solar charge controller indoors, such as in a utility closet or cabinet. Ideally they are placed somewhere with AC to maximize the battery’s lifespan.

When I solar powered my dad’s shed, I wall mounted the charge controller and fuse block. I placed the 12V battery on a beam.

3. Plug your devices into the inverter. You can plug your phone charger, for example, directly into a USB outlet. You can plug some lights or a laptop charger into the AC outlet. Calculate the combined wattage of all your devices before connecting them to make sure you don’t overload the inverter.

Plug your devices, such as your electric bike, into the outlets on the inverter.

That’s it! The solar panel will collect *free* solar energy during the day and store it in the battery for you to use whenever you want.

Add-ons and Upgrades

1. Add LED lighting. LED lights are bright and energy efficient. They’re the perfect choice for solar panel systems. You can plug them into the inverter or connect them directly to the battery like I do in my tutorial on how to solar power LED lights.

2. Add a battery temperature sensor. The Renogy Wanderer 30A used in this tutorial has a port for a battery temperature sensor whose probe you can tape to the battery for a more accurate battery temperature reading. This helps the charge controller maximize your battery’s lifespan by adjusting its charging parameters based on battery temperature.

3. Add Bluetooth monitoring. If using a compatible Renogy charge controller, you can remotely monitor your solar system from your phone with the Renogy BT-1 Bluetooth Module. Plug it in to your charge controller and connect your phone to it via the Renogy DC Home app. The app lets you monitor real-time system specs such as battery voltage, charging current, and more.

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Alex Beale
Alex Beale
Hi, I'm Alex. I started Footprint Hero to help people reduce their environmental impact. My current obsession is DIY solar power projects, which I've been building since 2020.

14 thoughts on “How to Set Up Your 1st Solar Panel System”

  1. Hello Alex
    Thank you so much . Ive been trying to find a tutorial like this. Many greetings from Italy irene

  2. I just bought all the pieces of a miniature solar system because I want to build some confidence and one day assemble a larger system that would provide 3 hours of backup power for our house. (Code compliant of course)

    For now I’m creating a system to back up the internet router… 12v 1.5A. The components are: SLA battery, charge controller, 10W panel, and an automatic relay that switches to battery power when the normal power goes out.

    Do you have any suggestions?

  3. Thanks I’ve been thinking about how to set up a solar system for my RV. I’m guessing this will work for me on camping trips . Let me know if I need to do anything different for that purpose

    1. Nope, should work just fine for camping and RVs. Of course, you’ll have to size the system to your energy needs. And if you want to mount the panels on the roof of your RV you’ll have to research roof mounts.

  4. Hey, this is a great tutorial! Coming from building computers for 20 years, building a solar powered inverter is hard! I linked your project in my hackaday page, and is a near copy of your project. I also liked the LifePO4 article you recently wrote! Keep it up!

    1. Thanks Gio! I appreciate that. Yep there’s so much to consider when doing a DIY solar build, it gets overwhelming lol.

  5. Absolutely the best article I have ever seen on the subject. And including the links to the parts makes it even better.

  6. Hi Alex

    I love your website. Very detailed and filled with key information no time wasting. Thank you for that

    I have been researching and an a new comer at this. I first looked at the PWM controller and now am keen to purchase a MPPT. But then discovered you can purchase all-in-one unit. So have been researching and camer accorss this “EPEVER UPower Pure Sine Inverter 3000W 24V MPPT Solar Charger 780W(UP3000-M3322)” and “1000W 12V Iconica hybrid pure sine inverter with solar MPPT and AC mains charger” Yes different watts. I am intrested to find out what are your htoughts on there type of units and have you had the chnace to setup an all-in-one.

    1. Hi Sal, thanks for the kind words. I haven’t had any experience with all-in-one units yet. From what I’ve read about them, they frankly sound like an easier way of building a solar power system. Definitely worth considering if fits your needs.

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