Development of a Low Cost Pyranometer

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  • UIdaho Kenneth Corbett Endowment
Team Name The Solar Sailors
Duration 2020 - 2021
Faculty Adviser
  • Dr. Feng Li
  • Dr. Brian Johnson
  • Steve Szablya / KiloWatts for Humanity [1]
Team Members
  • Adriana Oliveira (EE)
  • Lukas Vermeulen (EE)
  • Brady Jerome (EE)
  • Nickolas Borek (ME)

The goal of the project is to design and test a prototype of a pyranometer, to be used by KiloWatts for Humanity to test solar irradiance of solar panels. A pyranometer is a device that measures solar irradiance in W/m^2 that shows how much sunlight that a solar panel is receiving. This is useful to know the solar panel energy output, as well as how showing how much sunlight an area gets to decide if the solar panel is in an optimal location, or if the solar panel needs to be cleaned or maintained. The prototype pyranometer will be compared to various pyranometers to test accuracy and viability.

Problem Definition[edit]

After installation, it is important to continue maintaining and monitoring the solar panel installations. To verify that solar panels are absorbing light energy properly, pyranometers are installed. Commercial pyranometers include extra features and average at $200. This organization is looking for an accurate and affordable alternative in the $20 range.

Our solution is to create a basic design that only measures solar irradiance. This involves learning about different pyranometer designs and sensors types currently being used and creating our own budget friendly design.

We will test and adjust our prototype against three calibrated commercial models until we can produce accurate results. Our final product will include a parts list, code, and instructions that are easy to follow so that our client can create pyranometers for future power stations.


A pyranometer is a device that measures solar irradiance from sunlight. This is useful because it gives an accurate representation of how much light is hitting a solar panel. The value is measured in watts per squared meter to define how much light is hitting a section of the solar panel. Kilowatts for Humanity wants the pyranometer to measure the amount of sun light their solar panels are getting so that they can create more efficient way to generate energy and to make sure their solar panels are working properly.

Currently, Kilowatts for Humanity is using a $200 Apogee pyranometer that does more than they need it to. They have partnered with the University of Idaho to create a more affordable and effective pyranometer. The pyranometer that we create will be tested against the Apogee pyranometer, as well as another pyranometer from China. We hope to create a pyranometer that is just as accurate, if not more accurate than these pyranometers.

KiloWatts for Humanity logo


The client for this project is the KiloWatts for Humanity organization. This non-profit installs solar powered stations that provide essentials such as refrigeration, laptop and phone charging, and offline servers. Some of these places include: Zambia, Kenya, Panama, and Cameroon. The host and co-founder of KW4H, Steve Szablya, is overseeing this project through the University of Idaho's Senior Design class.


The goal for this project is to create a low-cost pyranometer that can be used by the Kilowatts for Humanity organization. The final goal is for the prototype to cost around twenty dollars and to output a W/m^2 value. The pyranometer must be able to read the irradiance value of sunlight that can hit a solar panel. This value is then put into a 0-5V output that can be read by a data logger and generate a graph by time that shows the amount of sunlight the solar panels are getting.


The pyranometer prototype should have a 180 degree viewing angle, be protected from the environment, cost around $80-20, and accurately measure solar irradiance. It must also be able to be replicated by high school students and have a current output to reduce loss.

The data from our device must be accurate. Compared to calibrated pyranometers, our results need to have less than 15% error.

Design Considerations[edit]

The pyranometer attaches onto the solar panel, so something to consider is the mounting. There are a few choices for how to solve this. One way is to have a bottom mount and attach it next to the solar panel. Another way is to have side mounts to attach to the side of the solar panel. There are other options to consider before making a final decision.

The pyranometer is preferred to have a 180 degree field of view to be able to capture all sunlight on the plane. The sensor that we are using has a viewing angle of 150 degrees. We can accommodate for this by using two sensors. What must be considered is overlap and useless data from the sensors. Overlap can be solved in many ways. One such way is to include a screen divider to prevent overlap. Another way is to paint part of the sensor black, preventing a light reading from that side.

There are also environmental considerations, like sand or heat. The pyranometer must be able to withstand basic environmental issues before the prototype is sent out. The prototype will be testing inside of an environmental chamber before completion, and adjust based on the results to withstand heat, sand, rain, wind, and other environmental concerns.

Project Learning[edit]

For this project, we needed to research into pyranometers. We looking into many different variations of pyranometers, including: Thermopile, Thermistor, Photodiode, and Phototransistor pyranometers. Through our research, we have found that phototransistors give a great viewing angle, while keeping the light that solar panels can receive. Are still looking into other options, and experimenting with the thermistor solution, to give us a better understanding of our decision, and hopefully decide the best option for our pyranometer.

We are also using an Arduino Mini Every as a microcontroller. This is used to take in the voltage outputted from the pyranometer, and scaling it to a 0-5V output. This is what will be observed in the data logger to represent solar irradiance. We chose this microcontroller because it is small and affordable. It does exactly what we need it to do for this project.

Below is a diagram of our microcontroller that we will be using. We are using the Arduino Nano Every. We chose this microcontroller because it is very small, which works best with our design. It also is cheaper to buy in bulk, with a 6-piece set coming out to $9.30 per microcontroller.

Arduino Nano Every

Final Design[edit]

Our final design is still in the making. We hope to have a working pyranometer prototype by the end of Spring 2021.

Below is the circuit design for our pyranometer. This is our final design before starting testing. Any changes to the circuit will be made after testing.

Design of our Circuit


We have yet to build and experiment with the pyranometer. Future updates will be applied later.

We are using two different pyranometers to test our design. The first one was given to us by KWH and is a hand-held pyranometer. The second one was provided to us by the University of Idaho. Below are images of those pyranometers. The third pyranometer is the one currently being used at KWH. It is an Apogee brand pyranometer.


Below is an image of our Design Validation Plan that shows our plans for virtual and physical testing planned in the future.

Design Validation Plan And Results

Team Members[edit]

[[File: |thumb|left]]

Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Coeur D'Alene, Idaho
Responsibility: Client Contact

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Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Budget Keeper


Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Athol, Idaho
Responsibility: Meeting Organizer

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Major:Mechanical Engineering
Responsibility: Document Keeper

Additional Documentation[edit]

Project Schedule

Media: GanntChart-SolarSailors.pdf

Meeting Minutes

File:Meeting Minutes 09-08-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-09-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-14-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-16-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-21-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-23-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-28-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 09-30-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 10-05-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 10-07-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 10-19-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 10-21-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 10-26-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 10-28-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 11-02-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 11-16-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 11-18-20.pdf
File:Meeting Minutes 11-27-20.pdf


File:Concept Review Fall 2020.pdf

Client Interview