Solar Lighting: The Real Deal

Solar LightSome people swear by solar lighting.  Others won’t  go near it.

While the naysayers cite “good reasons,” their dissatisfaction is not warranted in 2012.

Solar lighting continues to gain in popularity, largely due to the “Go Green” movement and rising utility costs.  Installing lights without electricians or disrupting your garden beds, lawn, landscape or paved or stoned areas certainly doesn’t hurt either.

More and more, solar lighting is highlighted on popular television channels such as HGTV, the DIY Network and the Fine Living Network.

How to Install Outdoor Solar Lighting

Not Again, It'll Never Work

It'll Never Work

So why do some people still believe that solar lighting is  less reliable than traditional low-voltage electrical outdoor lighting?  Let’s sort out some myths often cited by people who aren’t exactly fans of solar lighting.

Myth: They Just Don’t Work

A neighbor of ours purchased several strings of inexpensive solar Christmas lights at a local discount store. “What a deal!” he thought.  Within a week, he put his old electricity hogs back up.

Fact: Avoid Common Don’ts

He made mistakes often common to first-time solar lighting users.  He didn’t realize that other lights (lamp posts, street lights and other Christmas lights) interfered with the solar lights’ “Auto On at Dark”  feature.   And, the solar panels were placed in a site that didn’t get a lot enough sun.

Even with these easy fixes, he was unhappy and the underlying reason was that he purchased discontinued lights at a cheap price.

Myth:  Solar Lights are All the Same

Some people have tried solar lighting in the past and been disappointed.   Some wanted to help the help the environment and save on electric bills.  Others found it appealing that solar lighting allowed them to install illumination without the hassle and landscape disruptions associated with electrical wiring.  They had the right idea, they just went about it the wrong way.

Fact:   Solar Lights Aren’t Created Equal

Solar lighting  technology has advanced rapidly over the past couple of years, and will continue to do so for a while still.  That doesn’t mean that all solar lights incorporate the latest technological advances, or that they even incorporate basic design common to any quality lighting feature.

The lifetime of any outdoor light depends greatly on its construction.   While more expensive solar lighting fixtures make this a priority, not so for cheaper models.

Some lighting manufacturers (solar and traditional electrical) can take short-cuts that impact both the initial quality of the light output, as well as the lifespan of the fixture.

LED reflector

LED Flood Light uses 80 LEDs and Reflectors to Intensify Light

One reason solar lighting gets a bad name is because many inexpensive fixtures use inferior techniques for the solar panel, the bulb (be it LEDs, halogen, CFLs or incandescent), not to mention the solar panel and the housing.

Small amounts of moisture fog the lens, reducing illumination; larger amounts destroy fixtures completely.  When selecting solar lighting, look for the words “rust-proof,” “weather-proof,” or “weather-resistant.”

And, make sure that the manufacturer uses the latest technologies, and this doesn’t mean just the LED itself.  While accent lights generally are fine with an LED alone, lamp posts and flood/spot lights should incorporate an additional type of mechanism, such a reflector, to maximize illumination.

Not Enough Sun Around Here

Myth: It’s Not Sunny Enough

Many people that think solar lighting can only work in geographic regions that are known for sunshine such as Southern California, Arizona, or Hawaii.

Sure, if you install solar lights in a shady area or have an extended span of bad weather, the quality of light output will be reduced.

Fact:   Solar is Practical Throughout the US

Okay, maybe not during the Winter in Alaska, when it can be dark up to 24 hours a day.  But you’d be surprised.    Pennsylvania? Connecticut? Oregon? Yes, indeed.

They mayor of Philadelphia recently opened a new park called Race Street Pier.  Among its features are “200 LED solar lights in the pavement that compliment the lights of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Philly skyline.”

Businesses and universities throughout the Northeast including Massachusetts-based “Stop & Shop” and Wesleyan University in Middleton, CT have all been in the news lately because they moved significant amounts of electrical demand from traditional grids to solar panels.

Solar's Used Throughout The USAIn the Pacific Northwest, Oregon is often recognized as a “national leader” in solar energy.   Not only are several solar panel companies located in the state, through 2011, Oregon homeowners can use state and federal incentive to cover the cost of up to 80 percent of solar panel installation.

Nearly all states have tax or rebate incentives in one form or another that encourage residential and commercial customers to move towards renewable energy, including solar and wind technology.  The variety of programs (and what is covered) varies greatly from state to state.

While some of these states are recognized to be “sunny” or in the “sunbelt,” many are not.

According to DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, states that lead the nation in promoting solar technology for homeowners include Arizona, California and Hawaii (which you would expect). But Oregon, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and others all offer considerable incentives for renewable energies and a lot of it is solar.  In Wisconsin, Madison Gas & Electric even has a “Clean Power Partner Solar Buyback Program.”

What does this have to do with solar lighting?

If major grocers are willing to place their meat and product in the hands of solar power, sun, if municipalities throughout the country rely on it for power and public lighting, why wouldn’t quality solar lighting work for your property?

Myth:  If a Seller says a Solar Light is Made in the USA, It’s Got to be True.

Many online retailers will do anything to get an edge on the competition.  We just got a call from somebody saying an e-store said the product was made in America and even had a US flag next to it.  To quote him, “The first thing I saw when it came out of the box was ‘Made in China’ so I returned it.”

Fact:  Most Solar Lights Aren’t Made in the USA, but Many are Assembled in USA

There is a big debate going on right now about having all solar imports from China being subject to 100% tariff and there are different opinions as to what this will mean to the price of US-made products. However, this most directly impacts (or doesn’t impact) large-scale solar products such as panels for the production of large amounts of electricity such as for homes, commercial or institutional installations, and large-scale off-grid energy production.

Right now, as with devices from toasters to cell phones to televisions, very few appliances are made in the United States.  This is because while many want US-made products, they can’t or won’t pay the extra money it would cost to produce them here.  Our e-store, has custom lighting that is 100% made in USA, and solar lights that are assembled in USA of both USA and off-shore components.

But, when we direct customer to those products, they often balk at the prices.  It’s kind of the chicken and the egg situation.  Which comes first: USA-made solar products, or people with jobs that would allow them to pay for USA-made solar products.

For consumers:  be wary of what retailers say, especially if you see the same site on another e-store (and it’s easy enough to do this through Google, Bing or Yahoo searches).  We are updating our inventory (some online, some not yet posted) with new spring products and lower prices for “off-season” items.  And, we do look at competing sites to see their prices.

What we found shocking, but not surprising, was a retailer who shall remain nameless (for now) that claims over half of the store’s inventory is made in the USA.  Shocking because it is a bold-faced lie easily proven.  Not only do we have the very same inventory in our store, we have the manufacturer’s catalog (which is also available online) and they clearly outline where all of their offices are (most in the USA) and where all of their manufacturing facilities and factories are.  Most were in China or the Pacific Rim: not one was located in the USA or even USA territories such as Puerto Rico.

For this reason, we only work with manufacturers that are owned and operated in the USA, though we get emails from China and India daily asking us to sell their wares.   For both large-scale solar applications and solar lights, one thing is for sure: while American and European products seek to take the industry lead by designing innovative products, China’s goal is to take the industry lead by glutting the markets. Which they can easily due.

Myth: Incandescent Bulbs Give Best Light

Okay this isn’t a myth, it’s a preference. this Many people dislike solar lighting because it relies on LED bulbs and to a lesser extent, halogen or compact florescent bulbs, rather than incandescents.   This is largely because incandescent bulbs provide an amber hue and the other options generally do not.   It’s also because people are familiar with, and used to, the “feel” of incandescent fixtures.

Incandescent bulbs fading awayFact:   Incandescent Bulbs Are History

Incandescent bulbs are going away.   The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 imposed new restrictions on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.  A key part of this bill will phase out incandescent light bulbs in favor of lower-wattage, energy-saving bulbs.  Low-wattage bulbs means LEDs, CFLs, and to a lesser extent, halogen.

Manufacturers of these bulbs recognize that the amber tones of incandescent bulbs are what most people are used to and continue to work way to get this kind of light into their fixtures.    So as much as people don’t like it, incandescent bulbs will be hard to find in a few short years.

By 2017, China (who makes 70% of incandescent bulbs) will no longer produce them.

Still doubt the progress solar lighting is making?  Look at this video produced by the DIY network in 2008, only three years ago.  Then look at what outdoor solar lights are available today for your home, lawn or garden.

Copyright 2011, AM McElroy, www.SolarFlairLighting.comwww.SolarLightingSmart

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