Solar Tips and Information
- Common Types of Solar Lights: Accent Lights, Spot/Flood Lights, and Post Lights
- Maximize Your Outdoor Solar Lighting Experience
- Seasonal Tips
- Batteries for Solar Lighting Fixtures
- Halogen Vs. LED: What’s The Difference, and Benefits Over Incandescent and Fluorescent
- Links to More Info on Outdoor Solar Lighting and Renewable Energy
Important note: Many outdoor solar light users replacing the original batteries that came with their product with another type of battery. While this MAY work for a very short time, the practice will irreparably damage the solar lighting fixture, or any other electronic product. A recent blog post discusses this very topic.
Designing a Lighting Plan
When starting your solar lighting design plan, you’ll want to determine the number and style of fixtures you need.
Think about the purpose the light will serve, as the strength of accent lights is extremely different from light generated by floodlights, spotlights or solar lamps. If may help to draw a rough outline of your yard noting areas to be illuminated.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, just make sure you note things like decks, paths, stairs, patios, walkways, shrubbery and your gardens areas. Also note things that cast shadows for large portions of the day such as fences, houses, or trees.
Walk around your home and yard with a flash light at dusk and see how the light, positioned in different ways, gives different effects. This can help you plan the location and types of solar lighting fixtures you need, especially if you have lots of lights to replace or if you are buying or building a new residence.
Think about what things you want to highlight, where you want solar lights to light walkways, or where you want security lights for safety.
Accent lights in particular are very easy to change, making it easy to try things out.
One advantage of solar lights is that you generally avoid a long-term commitment to any given location and can easily move solar lighting fixtures throughout the year. This is useful if you want to highlight seasonal flowering shrubs or perennial gardens.
Lamp posts can require more effort to relocate, so think carefully when placing these solar lights. You might want to set the lamp on the ground a couple of days to make sure it gathers enough sun to be efficient at night.
Our motion detection spotlights are generally easy to be move, and a benefit of most designs is that they come with a cord between the solar panel and the light fixture to maximize flexibility.
Solar spotlights and floodlights for example, often are used to light sheds, barns, and other outdoor structures.
Note: Fixtures with halogen bulbs should not be used inside small structures as halogen bulbs generate significant heat.
Three primary types of solar lights are most commonly used for landscape and garden lighting, and picking the right ones that meet your needs is critical to getting what you want expect in terms of performance.
- Accent lights
- Lamps and Lamp Posts
All of these work very differently, so here’s a brief review of what’s what to help you select lights meet your expectations.
Solar lights for accent lighting are generally designed to provide soft lighting to accentuate certain fixtures are areas of your garden; they are not meant to provide strong light. For example, they show where a path is, but you should not expect them to provide the same level of light as an overhead or post fixture.
If you want a stronger accent light, select a Solar Accent Spot Light, which provide much brighter illumination and can also serve as safety guides for walkways. This video shows how accent lights can help delineate a walkway or path.
Security Spot Lights and Flood Lights are designed to provide a strong solar lighting within a larger distance than accent lights or post lights; flood lights usually are stronger than spot lights and have a larger range of light and motion detection.
Many solar-powered spotlights and floodlights are motion-detection and have manual on/off switches. Most also have cords that allow you to place the solar panel up to 9 to 15 feet away from the solar light, providing flexibility for lighting difficult areas.
Solar lights for security can provide safety lighting, particularly in areas where electrical lighting would be impossible, costly, or disruptive to your existing landscape. And, solar lighting means considerable savings in non-renewable energy and utility costs.
Lamps or Lamp Posts can refer to solar lights mounted to a wall, on a formal metal post, or on a deck, fence, wooden post or most flat horizontal surfaces.
Lamp solar lighting give strong lighting within a given area, similar to a traditional front door light, or any low-voltage post-mounted electrical feature as shown in this video.
Complete lamp post sets can be bought, or you can install a “fitter” solar light on an existing post used for a low-voltage electric or gas light.
To view a comparison of some solar lamps that the owners of SolarLightingSmart.com sell, please view this document (pdf): Solar_Lamp_Comparison.
All solar lights work best when they are placed and used properly. While maximum benefits are seen during the summertime when the sun’s light is strongest, there are many ways to take maximize the advantages of solar lighting throughout the year.
Solar lighting technology has come a long way over the past couple of years. Better ways to use LED lighting, more weather-tight construction, and better designs make it the smart choice. When going solar, make sure that you buy quality products that use the latest in technology and design for both the light source and the housing.
Like many evolving technologies, solar lighting is definitely one where you get what you pay for in terms of appearance, reliability, product lifespan, and light quality.
Regardless of what type of solar lighting fixture you purchase, there are guidelines to follow so you get the most out of your solar lights. Many tips listed below take less time than changing a traditional electrical light bulb.
Read and Save Solar Light Instructions
Carefully read the installation instruction before assembling or installing your solar lights. Taking a few minutes will save you time in the long run and ensure that you do not unintentionally damage your merchandise.
Charge Batteries for Two Sunny Days Before Using Solar Lights
When you first receive your solar lighting product, solar lights should be charged for two sunny days before
using them. This is one reason why on and off switches are valuable; another reason is they give you more choices in how to use solar lights.
You also should save the instructions that come with your original purchase for down the road in a couple of years when the batteries need replacement.
Mount Solar Panels in Sunny Places
Solar lighting panels need to be placed where they will receive the maximum sunlight throughout the day. Shadows cast by houses, trees and other structures move and lengthen during the day. Six hours of sunlight generally is enough for a “full-charge.” Too much shade and your solar light will be less efficient.
A properly positioned panel is often means satisfaction or disappointment about the the performance of your solar lights.
The fewer obstructions between the sun and your solar panel, the better your solar lights will perform.
Even “amorphous solar panels” that work during cloudy or rainy days, need to be placed in an area with some sunshine.
If your solar lighting fixture does not come on at dusk and you have followed the above tips, try the following:
1) Make sure that the solar lights are not impacted by another light source (such as a street light), as solar lights have a sensor that makes them light up on at dusk.
2) Make sure the solar panel is not in the shade a large portion of the day. Even “amorphous” solar panels that work on cloudy or rainy days need sun.
3) Make sure the solar lights’ switches are in the “ON” position, if they have one.
4) Check that the batteries are installed correctly. (Please check the installation instructions that came with your solar lighting product).
Tips for Spring and Fall:
Make sure that falling or blowing leaves to do not obstruct the solar light panel. In the spring, you also want to occasionally clean pollen off of solar panels.
We remove many of our garden accent lights before fall cleanup so they are not damaged by rakes or blowers, and to make sure that no plow or shovel hits them during the winter.
In the spring, we clean the solar lights and the solar panels with a cotton ball dampened with alcohol or vinegar.
Keep snow and debris cleaned off the solar panels so the batteries can recharge. If the solar lighting fixtures are covered with snow for an extended period of time, let the solar panels charge in full sunlight for at least 6 hours after the thaw comes to obtain maximum capacity from your solar lights.
There are basically three types of rechargeable batteries used for outdoor solar products:
- Nickel Cadmium (NICD, Ni-CD or Ni-CAD)
- Nickel Metal Hydride (NIMH or NiMH); and
- Lithium Ion (Li-ion or Li-Ion)
Other batteries are used, but not very often. And always remember that replacement batteries should be of the same size and type for which your was designed.
If you don’t remember or didn’t keep the instructions that came with the solar light, just take the batteries to a local hardware or home improvement store when you shop. (Most batteries also have markings on them that note their size and type.)
For example, do not use an ordinary lead AA battery in place of a rechargeable NI-Cd of NI-MH battery. And while Li-ion batteries are the latest technology for solar lighting, do not use them in fixtures designed for other batteries. A substitute may work initially, but with in a short time it will destroy your solar lighting fixture or other solar product.
Below is a table of summarizing the different rechargeable batteries commonly used for solar lighting fixtures. For a more thorough discussion, please read our recent article about batteries.
|Nickel Cadmium (NiCD, Ni-CD or Ni-CAD)||Known technology: one of the first types of rechargeable batteries used for solar lightingOlder technology with little effort focused on upgradesLots of high quality solar lighting products using NICD batteries are still sold, particularly accent lights.||Take new solar charges well, even after long storage periods
Less sensitive to temperatures changes than batteries, particularly Li-Ions
Useful for items that need high discharge rates
|Technology advances for have virtually stopped
Not as powerful or as adaptable as other alternatives
Contain hazardous materials and require special disposal techniques
|Nickel Metal Hydride (NIMH or NiMH)||Similar to their older NiCD counterparts, but generally considered to be a “better choice”
Commonly used in electronic devices because of their affordability, long life span and high charge rate
Approximately twice as powerful as NiCD batteries Easily purchased in a variety of sizes
|Unlike NiCD, they are not impacted by “Memory Effect.” (In simplest terms, memory effect means a battery does not work as well as it could or should.)
Designed to provide strong performance in high-drain devices, such as solar lighting fixtures
Long life, about two years or up to 500 to 1,000 charge / discharge cycles
|Can begin to lose charging capacity when stored, but easy fix is to set solar product in the sun for two days before using at night
Discharge rate (rate at which current is spent) is higher than alternatives
Considerable improvements have been made in NiMH batteries but limitations remain
Often viewed as an “interim step” towards lithium-ion technology
(Li Ion or Li-Ion)
|Continual improvements expected
Will be used more frequently moving forward
Strongest form of batteries, commonly used in consumer electronics
General life-span of over 500 charge / recharge cycles
|Contain no hazardous materials such as lithium, cadmium, lead or mercury
At any given wattage, weigh about half as much as NiCD or NiMH batteries of similar power
Suffer little or no “memory effect”
Maintain charge even when not used for long periods of time
|As an evolving technology, are not considered “mature”
Special circuit protection must be incorporated into the product design to maintain voltage and currents within safe limit
Many believe that they “do not age” well, but that this will improve as the technology evolve
More expensive and difficult to purchase
Fixtures using them are generally highest quality and more expensive
So, What Battery is the Best Choice?
The best choice is the type of battery used in your existing fixture. All three types of batteries are rechargeable and all last approximately 2 years before requiring replacement.
When purchasing a new solar lighting fixture, consider the following key factors not necessarily related to battery type.
Quality of Solar Fixture:
The best batteries will not compensate for a poorly constructed or dated solar panel, bulb or fixture housing.
Fixtures with Li-Ion batteries are usually more expensive. To a large degree, it is because these fixtures often are among the newest in the market and also incorporate significant advances in housing, solar panels, light configuration and other factors.
The “Look” You Want:
NiCD and NiMh are found in most solar lights and will be for some time to come. The cost of Li-Ion is often prohibitive for accent lights. There is a far greater diversity of styles for fixtures using NiCD or NiMh batteries.
While there is little question among experts that both halogen and LED are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs and more environmentally friendly than florescent bulbs, there are some differences of opinion regarding halogens or LED. If you do your own research on LEDs, make sure that you check when the information was written, as solar lighting technology and LED steadily move ahead at a rapid pace.
LED lights use “Light-Emitting-Diode” technology. Light is emitted by an LED is the byproduct of electrons moving through a semi-conductor material. Since no filaments are used, they have a long life span and do not generate “wasted heat,” such as the heat created by incandescent bulbs.
Solar lighting fixtures generally use “clusters” of LEDs, and often are accompanied by a reflective device to strengthen the light beam. State-of-the-art solar lights with LEDs, are generally much cooler to the touch than halogen, florescent or incandescent lights.
LEDs have extremely long lifetimes. In the past, the quality of LED lighting sometimes declined after two or three years, but with really isn’t any issue any more when quality LED and quality solar lights are used.
Good manufacturers of solar lights not only use the best in LED technology, they often supplement it with other things to maximize lighting output.
Along with using multiple LEDs per fixture, special cones or reflective technology is often built into solar lights to increase brightness.
The best lights utilize high quality LEDs, reflective light intensifiers as well as quality solar panels, housing and battery systems.
Halogen lights are similar to incandescent lights but last approximately 30 percent longer. Halogens do not last as long as typical compact florescent lights (CFLs), but they do not contain mercury.
The mercury content of florescent light fixtures is why many municipalities now require florescent bulbs to be disposed of as “hazardous materials” such as car oil, many painting supplies, and toxic chemicals.
While halogens do not last as long as LED lights, some people think the quality their light is steadier throughout the life time of the bulb or the any individual solar charge. However, this largely depends on the quality and purpose of the fixture.
Estimates vary and are dependent upon quality, but the average lifespan of an LED is up to 80,000 to 100,000 hours; halogen lights typically last between 5,000 to 10,000 hours depending on the model and technology.
More and more, the quality of LED lighting is pushing halogen into the “other” category.
Note: Halogen bulbs generate significant amounts of heat. We recommend LED or CFL bulbs for solar lighting fixtures to be used inside, such as solar spotlights or floodlight that can be used to illuminate structures such as sheds and barns.
Both LED and halogen lights produce a light that is “whiter” than incandescent lights, though it is the “color” of a halogen beam is “warmer” than that of an LED, which in general has a cool, bluish hue. This is the nature of these lighting types, not of solar lights.
Manufacturers, however, continue to find ways to make these lights more like the “traditional” bulbs most of us grew up with by enhancing the bulb technology itself as well as housing mechanisms so that a more “amber” hue is cast. However, incandescent bulbs are being phased out. As of January 2012, 100 watt incandescent bulbs will no longer be sold in the United States. China makes over 95% of all light bulbs in the world, and they are scaling back production at a steady rate. Within 10 years, China will no longer produce ANY incandescent bulbs.
Along with longer life and savings on your utility bills, both LED and halogen solar lighting fixtures are far more friendly to the environment than incandescent or florescent bulbs!
- Renewable Energy Resources, find renewable energy companies and information
- The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)
- ONID Limited, providing building lighting control systems
- The Garden Blog Directory – Great gardening and landscaping blogs are all listed here!