Not all Solar Lamps are Equal: Purchasing the Right Lamp for Different Functional Areas

Solar Lamps and Lamp Posts are not Created EqualSolar lighting is not made equal and this is particularly true for solar lamps.

We get calls from potential customers who want the cheapest possible solar lamps available.  Our store doesn’t carry the “cheapest solar lamps” because we know that with solar lighting, you generally get what you pay for.

More importantly, our goal is to provide customers with a solar lights, particularly to select lamps designed and constructed to meet the needs of a particular site and how the area is used.

We have an article ready to post on our blog about rules for displaying the flag, and dates it should be displayed (including when it should be hung at half mast) but right now, the server is to busy.Even among quality solar lamps, there is a vast difference in the strength and duration of light that produced each night by lamps.  And, different solar lamps can produce reliable light for more days without sunshine than others.

Without getting really technical, this post tries to outline some of the things you should think about when selecting and purchasing solar lamps or solar lamp posts.

Knowing some basic terms is really the only way to get what you need and make sure that your salesperson is directing you to a product that meets your lighting requirements.

For Solar Lamps, Batteries DO Matter

Lithium Ion Battery

For many smaller solar lights, particularly accent lights, the type of battery for which the product was designed is the best battery for that product.

But there is a huge difference between the amount of light expected from garden accent or pathway lights and solar lamps. And, the best choice for solar lamps is lithium ion (Li-Ion) batteries.

Not only do Li-Ion batteries match up particularly well for the way that solar lamps work, a design using Li-Ion batteries is far more likely to incorporate other “state-of-the-art” solar lighting technology.


Reflector LED Technology, Characteristic of One of Our Favorite Type of Solar Lamps

Most solar lamps use LED bulbs and you really shouldn’t buy a lamp with another type of bulb, even if you can find them these days.  LEDs are the most efficient light bulbs available and therefore the right configuration of LEDs with other solar technology provides a far more efficient overall light than other types of bulbs. Some solar lighting manufacturers also incorporate specialized reflectors into lamp design to intensifies light.

Think Carefully:  What is the Function of the Solar Lamp?

Before going shopping for a solar lamp, think about the area to be illuminated.  Who uses it? How many people use it? Are there any potentially dangerous areas nearby, such as downward stairs, steep hills or waterways?

Work with a Retailer You Trust

Even if you don’t understand about voltage, charging capacity and other jargon and you want information about the best solar lamp for the area you want to illuminate, contact a couple of different stores.  If you are specific about the purposes and users of the property, a savvy and honest retailer should be able to recommend what is best.

Our store for example, has told people that the solar lights they wanted weren’t strong enough for the intended function.  When we tell customer that a significantly stronger lamp is called for given the layout and users of the property (say near a waterway, stairs, or used by many elderly folks), some listen to use and some insist on a less expensive model.

On occasion, we have told potential customers that lowest cost alternatives were inappropriate and we wouldn’t sell them.  We didn’t mind losing the sale because it would have been irresponsible to sell lamps for a function we knew they couldn’t perform.

The good news is that many customers have a pretty good idea of what their illumination needs are and are open to suggestions.  However, a tip: if a salesperson tries to sell you a more expensive model with the same technical specifications but say a  more ornate housing, especially when you are talking about lamps by the same manufacturer, they may be trying a higher and more costly “aesthetic quality.”

Engineering Aside, Some Basics You Need to Know

If a store, online or brick and mortar suggests a model different than what you have in mind, ask them why one lamp is more appropriate than another.  A knowledgeable retailer should be able to explain this to you in language you understand.

Other than having a lithium battery and quality LED bulbs, we’re going to put broadly define two basic terms:  voltage and charging capacity.

Note: The term “watts” is used a bit more loosely now that incandescent bulbs are fading away.  Some manufacturers still use the term 150 Watts, for example, for an LED bulb when what they really mean is what the strength would be if the bulb was incandescent.

Regardless of how the manufacturer describes the light, a good retailer, however, should be able to give  you a rough idea of what any LED (standard for most solar lights) is equal to in terms of “incandescent watts.” It will take quite a while before people stop thinking about lights in terms of 30, 60 or 100 watt incandescent bulbs.

Important of Voltage and Charging Capacity

When picking a solar lamp, “voltage” generally refers to the strength of power the battery will produce. “Charging capacity” generally refers to how much power the battery can store.  Different manufacturers use different terminology, so you often will have to rely on the store to help you compare items.

The biggest thing to look at is “voltage.” Below are three typical scenarios in which solar lamps are used and which provide baseline technical specifications best for each situation.

Example 1:

Smaller Solar Lamp Designed For Patios, Decks, Small Areas

Smaller Solar Lamp Designed For Patios, Decks, Small Areas

Let’s say you want to light a small entrance way, or maybe a patio or deck.  This is a private area and access to other light sources is nearby. In this case, a small solar lamp would suffice.

Typical specifications for such a solar lamp acceptable for this area could be as low as a 3.2 volt battery with a charging capacity of 1500mA (mA means milli-amperes).  1500 will provide a good, but not extremely strong or long-lasting light.

Most lights with these specifications are designed for small areas and the lamp typically will stay lit for 10 to 12 hours with a full day (5 to 6 hours) of sunlight.

Example 2:

In this scenario, the area to be lit is a common walkway for a residential complex or a large driveway for a private residence.

For the private residence, one high intensity lamp designed for residential purposes would be better than the smaller lamp used in Example 1.  For the residential complex, several lamps will be used each about 15 feet away from each other.

Let’s say that both areas are away from the street, doorways are nearby and there are no dangerous obstacles such as bodies of water or downward staircases.

In both cases, a stronger residential solar lamp would be ideal, with specifications such as 3.2 volts and 3000 mA. The picture below shows just a lamp, in a residential yard separated from the street with a home nearby.

Great Solar Lamp for Residential Purposes

Great Solar Lamp for Residential Purposes

A lamp with these specifications would illuminate larger areas, and could provide about 15 hours of reliable light after 4-6 hours of sunlight, enough most times of the years to provide light for 2 days with minimal sunshine.   The light is about 40 percent stronger than the lamp discussed in example 1.

Example 3:

In this case, the focus area is a small public parking lot or public area where there are no other lights. (For example, let’s say a small office building that accommodates 15 cars or a recreational area gathering point.)

Let’s assume that the site easily accommodates 15-20 cars and that three solar lamps will be used, installed equally around the parking lot’s perimeter.

Commercial Solar Lamp Strong Enough for Staircases

If this is the only light source and the property owner is concerned about liability, a stronger lamp capable of staying bright for more nights without sunny days is necessary, such as the one shown to the left.

As shown, the light is reliable and strong enough to illuminate dark staircase.  In the photo below, the solar lamp used is a dual head model in a heavily trafficked public area.

Solar Lamp Strong Enough for Heavily Used Public Space

Solar Lamp Strong Enough for Heavily Used Public Space

Certainly, the type of light should be stronger than required under Example 1 or Example 2.   In this case, we would recommend “commercial grade solar lamps.”

Typical specifications would be a 12 Volts, with 3000 mA.   Even though the charging capacity is the same, the voltage is 2.5 times that of the lamp in Example 2. The light would not only be significantly brighter, the battery would be able to store enough power so that the lamp could longer without sunny days.

For many businesses, commercial, institutional and industrial applications the scenario shown in is common.

Commercial Lamps vs. Solar Street Lights

While it’s true that a solar street light could provide stronger light for up to 5 or 6 days with minimal sunshine, the upfront costs would be, on average 8 times greater than a commercial grade solar lamp. Commercial grade solar lamps are a great way for people to go green with solar lighting with the smallest upfront cost.

While the cost of commercial grade solar lamps and lamp posts are higher than light fixtures that are great for residential applications, commercial solar lamps are a great bridge for those who want the economical and environmental benefits of solar without the upfront cost of solar street lights.

Copyright 2012, AM McElroy, www.SolarFlairLighting.comwww.SolarLightingSmart

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