DIY On-board Solar Power: Cheap, Quick and Dirty

Mounting solar panels on a small canoe stern boat requires a bit of creativity

One of the key part of acquiring location independence as a sailor, is to make your boat as self-sufficient as possible. An on-board power source would be a first step. For our own boat, we have chosen solar power. We have mounted two solar panels that can be moved in two directions, without paying the premium price. We did it the cheap, quick and dirty way! In this post I will explain what we did and what kind of choices we made. As you will see, a bit of creativity and some DIY can get you very far..

Our DIY, low-cost, movable solar panel mount.

Our Wish List
We installed our solar panels in 2013, before our ten-week trip to the Channel Islands. We wanted to make use of our electronic tiller pilot, without being restricted to spending the night in marinas only (in order to recharge our batteries). At that time, we were in the middle of the preparations for our big trip, so we did not have a lot of time on our hands. Also we did not want to make serious modifications to our boat. The whole thing had to be quick and dirty. And cheap, or course.

Being a double-ender, our boat is definitely not an easy boat to mount solar panels on. It gets even harder if you want those panels to actually work. There is simply no room for a reasonably-sized panel. So we had to think of other ways to meet our demand for power. If there is no room for a reasonably-sized panel, maybe we could use little panels instead. We could put them on a mount that could be turned towards the sun, increasing their yield. In this way, they could make up for their small size.

But at the same time, we wanted to keep things simple. We did not want to drill holes in the hull, or mount a completely new metal support system. That means we were restricted to using existing appendages, like our back stay and the stern railing of our boat. How does one manage to come up with a solar panel mount that satisfies all those seemingly conflicting requirements?

Our DIY solar panel mount
Quite a challenge! But after a lot of sketching, puzzling and contemplation, my boyfriend came up with an idea that actually works. He mounted two small panels on a U-shaped stainless steel pipe. This U shaped pipe, is in turn, mounted on the stern rail. The pipe is also connected to the back stay, with a small line. The length of the line can be adjusted. By doing this, the U-shaped solar panel mount can be moved up and down.

For mounting the panels on the U-shaped mount, he used movable clamps, allowing the panels to be adjusted individually. They can be turned left and right, around the axis of the metal tube. So the panels are movable in two directions. This means we have a lot of freedom to direct them towards the sun. This increases their power output. A picture often says more than a thousand words, so I made a (schematic) drawing of our solar panel mount.

DIY Fitting solar panels on a boat, the cheap way

Schematic drawing of our solar panel mount

Fitting the solar panels onto our boat
Coming up with a solution is one thing, actually fitting the panels on the boat is quite another. To keep the whole thing as low-cost as possible, some DIY and creativity is required. We made our U-shaped solar panel mount from a stainless steel pipe. The pipe has a diameter of 2,5 centimeter (about one inch). You may find these at hardware stores. My dad used to be a metal worker, so he bended the pipe into a U shape for us. Of course not everybody happens to have such a handy dad. An alternative solution would be to connect three shorter pieces of pipe with flush joiners, creating a U-shaped mount.

alternative mount for solar panels

An U-shaped mount can also be created by using three pieces of pipe and connect them with flush joiners

To attach the panels to the U-shaped mount, truss clamps were used. These clamps are normally used for building up stages (during college, my boyfriend had a side job as a stage technician). These clamps are movable, so the panels can be turned in a leftward and rightward direction. Truss clamps may not be the most elegant solution, and they are prone to rusting. But they come in very handy for jobs like this. Also, they are very reasonably priced. The cheapest ones are about five to seven Euros, and can be ordered online.

Movable truss clamps are used to attach the panels on the solar panel mount

At first, these truss clamps were also used to attach the U-shaped mount to the stern rail. But we were not happy with this. On our boat, the helmsman sits with his or her back against the stern rail. Since truss clamps are quite bulky, this was pretty uncomfortable. Therefore, another solution was chosen. The panel mount is now attached to the stern rail with T-shaped flush joiners. These are a bit more expensive, but in this case, the extra comfort is well worth it!

The panel mount is attached to the stern rail with T-shaped flush joiners

The panels themselves are standard panels, ordered at a cheap web shop. They are thirty Watts each. We use a Victron MPPT 75/15 ‘smart’ solar charge controller, to maximize power output to our batteries. This controller may be a bit over specced for only two thirty Watt panels. But our solar panel mount was only meant as a temporary solution, so we wanted to keep our options open. Perhaps, in the future, we may scale things up a little. A smart solar controller is a bit expensive (around a hundred Euro) but it enables us to get more output from our panels. An after all, that is what we bought them for!

Cheap, quick and dirty
Because we attached our solar panel mount to existing parts of our boat, the panels are easy to remove. When the sailing season is over, we simply take the panels off the boat and put them back next spring. When we placed the mount, we thought it would be only a temporary solution, but we are still quite happy with it (kudos to my boyfriend!). And not to forget, the whole thing didn’t cost us a fortune!

This solution, does not work for each and every sailing yacht. Each boat is different. But with this post, I hope to show that with a bit of creativity and DIY, a lot is possible..

As you can see, the panels can be moved independently of each other

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