The solar accent lights, originally selling at $3.99 were on sale for $2.99 each. I bought one to compare them to the ones we use for our own own home. At checkout, the clerk told me “people haven’t been that happy with those.”
I figured as much. Right now, I’m letting the discount light’s battery get a good strong 2-day solar before posting a detailed comparison between a discount light and quality solar light.
But, I did decide it was time to write this post, which I’ve been putting off for a while: There are significant advantages to buying solar lights made and sold by solar lighting specialists.
You Get What You Pay for With Solar Lights
Negative opinions of solar lights are often based on solar lights bought years ago, or those bought as special discounts or close-outs to “try them out.” Usually, super low prices mean the solar lights are discontinued models, and most likely for good reasons.
On one hand, why buy anything until you are comfortable with the technology. However, if you never used a computer before, would you buy a discount computer from say 2007 to see how the computer met your needs today? Unlikely.
Like computers, technological advancements in solar lighting occur at a rapid fire pace. And it’s not only the lighting fixture to think about. Technology for batteries and LEDs (the most common bulbs used for solar lights) also see rapid advancements.
That’s why we recommend not only buying solar lights from solar lighting specialty stores and buying solar lights manufactured by solar lighting specialists.
3 General Types of Solar Lighting Manufacturers
There are exceptions to any generalization, but usually the three following types of solar lights are readily available.
Solar lighting designed and manufactured overseas, many of whom regularly “dump” large quantities of lights with the United States. These are often the cheapest, but usually of the poorest quality. Solar companies in the Americas and Europe often say that the solar panel market is largely dominated by the Chinese not because of innovative technological improvements: it’s due to sheer numbers. We feel the same way about solar lights and many mega-online stores/sites with huge discounts tend to sell a lot these types of lights.)
Along with cheap accent lights you see in spring or summer, a lot of string lights are on sale at “great prices” at hardware and dollar stores around Christmas time. And these are the worst lights you can buy, unless you want a specific look for a specific occasion, for example a large outdoor event, in which case you want quantity and aesthetics opposed to long-term reliability.
The second type of solar lights are those made by traditional lighting manufacturers that moved into solar in recent years. Unfortunately, the technology many use (and the services and parts associated with the lights), usually is not as advanced as what is offered by solar lighting specialists.
Our recommendation: buy solar lighting designed and manufactured by US specialists. Yes, these are usually the most expensive. Usually (we don’t like it, but it’s an economic reality) these lights have parts made in China or the Pacific Rim. Sometimes they are assembled in US factories, others are designed in by American companies and made overseas.
Solar lighting is not widely made in the USA because not enough Americans are willing to pay the premium prices that an all-USA made light would cost. It’s the same reason that an estimated that 80 percent of items in any US home are made in China or Pacific Rim countries: American labor costs are expensive. Do we like this? No, it’s just a fact of life these days.
Advantages of Solar Lighting Specialists
Solar lighting specialists, unlike traditional outdoor lighting manufacturers who started selling mass amounts of solar lights in recent years, often have 10 to 15 years or more experienced focused specifically on solar lights.
This means they not only know solar lighting technology better than the other types of manufacturers, their products, sales channels, and service options have many advantages over the competition.
Solar lamps by solar lighting experts, for example, often have patented items to enhance the light. This often means reflectors, advanced technology of how the battery interacts with the light, as well as aesthetic improvements such as warm (more yellow) as opposed to cool white LEDs. The photo below highlights some of the things you should expect to see in high-end solar lamps.
We chose solar lamps because these are among the most-expensive types of solar lighting for residential use and also the solar lights where you see the largest differences in cost. Assuming the strength of the lights are the same, odds are you are far better off investing in a more expensive light.
Access to Replacement Parts
Westinghouse is a good example of why we prefer solar lighting specialists. An excellent company to be sure, but we looked at their FAQ page and found some things we didn’t like.
One thing we really found disappointing was that they “At this time do not have a system in place for customers to buy replacement parts. Which means that if a if a pane or a key part of the light is damaged, you’ll need to buy an entirely new fixture.
Whether it’s expired batteries or replacing parts of lights damaged by accident (such as being hit by a baseball or wind-strewn object) or severe weather (hailstorm, tornadoes or hurricanes), you’re usually better with a solar lighting specialist as most do have systems in place to replace key solar lighting parts.
The two most common parts of solar lights prone to accidental damage that needing replacement are:
- Glass panes, as glass is glass; and
- Solar panels, as panels struck with force by a hard object may be damaged
While we do sell vandal-resistant lights, the bottom line is that lights are lights and being outside, accidents will happen. This is one reason why so few solar lights, other than solar lamps, actually use glass. Some lamps and quality security or accent lights use UV protected Polycarbonate for panes or domes. Many, however, use acrylic or clear plastic.
With quality solar lamps costing averaging between 150.00 to 300.00 (lamp head only), why replace a whole fixture if only one small, relatively inexpensive portion is damaged?
In General: Newer Technology is Better Technology
We agreed with much of what was on Westinghouse’s FAQ page, but many answers reflected the fact that their lights use older technology. Here are some examples:
Their website states that their “solar lights must have a minimum of 8 – 10 hours of direct sun per day.” That may have been true 3 to 5 years ago, but today’s better quality lights with state-of-the-art technology usually work perfectly fine with 6 hours of sunlight per day.
The site also said “solar lights are usually not as bright as other forms of landscape lighting, such as low voltage units.” Again, this is a dead give-away that their technology is dated as the latest in quality lights are often equivalent to or brighter than many “low voltage” electrical lights.
Are the lights Westinghouse sells garbage? No, in fact we like many of them very much. But, they just aren’t in the league as lights made, for example, by manufacturers such as Gama Sonic, Sunmia or Maxsa Innovations: all of whom have focused on solar lights for over 10 years.
Quality Customer Service: Before and After Purchase
We also disagree with Westinghouse’s FAQs about batteries, particularly that NiCad and NiMH batteries are interchangeable, and that using stronger batteries could enhance performance.
While NiCAD or NiMH batteries should never be used in fixtures designed for li-ion batteries, we disagree with the part about interchanging NiCAD and NiMH batteries.
Fiddling with batteries does work in some lights, but not all. In fact, we get notices from specialty manufacturers each spring to remind customers that batteries should only be replaced with the same type and strength that came with the original light.
If you want a stronger light, buy a new and better quality fixture. Fiddling around with batteries is no way to try to enhance an inferior light’s performance.
Can you try to enhance a cheap light’s performance by putting a stronger NiMH battery in instead of the lower strength NiCAD battery that came with it? Sure, it may work, but the practice often fries key components and most certainly will void any warranty. The best battery for any solar light is the strength and type of battery that came with the product. Period.
If You’re Unsure About What to Get, Call an Expert
Any store you call should be able to discuss the different types of solar lights (including batteries) with you, as well as your concerns for light strength, maintenance and aesthetics.
If you don’t good answers before a purchase, what type of help will you get after the sale is complete? The people answering phones at large stores simply are highly unlikely to have a strong knowledge of solar lights.
Incidentally, large stores do not offer the same range of solar lights choices as specialty stores, nor do large stores offer better prices or shipping costs.