As soon as the Halloween decorations are taken off shelves, Christmas items will take their place and this year you are likely to see more solar string lights alongside other outdoor decorations.
The reasons: the need to save on electricity bills; growing demand for “green” products; and increasing variety and quality of solar lights with prices more comparable to quality alternatives.
While it makes sense to consider solar lighting to supplement or replace energy-hogging Christmas lights this season, here are some things that will determine whether your experience is naughty or nice.
Figure out How Solar Lights Fit into Your Holiday Plans
Let’s be frank: if you want the biggest and brightest Christmas display in the neighborhood, solar lights aren’t for you.
The sheer quantity of lights need for elaborate displays make solar lights impractical. First of all, the cost of quality solar lights versus cheap alternatives that just don’t work well would be high and it would take years to recoup your investment. Solar lighting has come a long way in the past couple of years, it is going to take a while yet before solar lights can reliably chase, race and flash the way that fancy electric Christmas lights often do.
When Solar Holiday Lights Make Sense:
For those who want a low key display or if you want to add some color and sparkle to areas of your property where extension cords aren’t feasible or candles would be dangerous, solar lights are a great option.
And there are lots choices: strings of lights, lanterns, and orbs that look like tree ornaments; tasteful crosses; colorful accent lights; and specialty Christmas displays.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you select decorative solar lights, and some workarounds that you may find helpful. If you plan to use solar strings to complement existing electrical ones, think carefully about how you will use them.
If you plan to use solar strings to complement existing electrical ones, think carefully about how you will use them.
Another crucial thing is that you have to be realistic about the weather in your area, and the amount of flashing, twinkling and other special effects you want.
With Solar, You Usually Get What You Pay For
Whatever you do, please don’t buy “super discount” holiday lights, especially at the beginning of the holiday sales season.
Odds are that they are left over from past Christmases, or discontinued models that use dated technology. And, since rechargeable batteries don’t work well after a one or two years in the box, odds are you’ll be buying batteries that are dead or dying.
If you are using lights from last year, play it safe and replace the batteries. It’s easier to do it before you set up your display than when you see the quality of light deteriorating a week or so into the season.
You get what you pay for, so look for lights with panels that can be separated from strings, with NiMH or Li-Ion batteries as opposed to NiCad batteries, and look for lights that can work on less than six hours of sun.
These aren’t as cheap or as easy to find as many lights, but you’ll find the price will pay off due to the flexibility you get.
Solar Lights Work When It’s Dark
Not only do solar lights not work during the day time, most lights will not stay on if there is a stronger light source nearby.
That’s one reason that using a combination of solar and electric strings in the same area doesn’t work well.
Decorative solar lights must be placed away from illumination such as other decorations, streetlights, lamp posts, spot lights and floodlights.
Place solar lighting in the ground or on shrubs, trees, fences or other architectural features around parts of your property that would otherwise require ugly and potentially dangerous electrical cords, candles, kerosene, etc.
You also can “trick” most solar lights into thinking it is dark by covering the sensor that detects darkness or light. Usually, the sensor is near or built into the solar panel.
We take a plant pot and just cover the solar panel around dusk so that our solar string lights stay on when motion-detection spot and floods go on. Just remember to remove the planter each morning so that the solar battery recharges when daylight comes.
Can’t Get Around It: Solar Lights Need Sun
The solar panel needs to be placed where it can absorb the most possible energy from the sun during the day. At least five hours of sun is necessary for 6 to 8 strong hours of evening light.
Position the solar panel so that it is tilted toward the sun when the sun is strongest throughout the day. Depending on your property, this could be before or after noontime.
A few types of solar lights can provide good illumination with only 2 to 4 hours of sun, but be careful. You really need to read packages or product description carefully. If you’re not sure, ask the store about the capabilities. If a store doesn’t answer your questions, go elsewhere.
Sometimes, no matter how well you place the lights, the sun just won’t cooperate with your plans.
Get the Best Light during Short Days, Especially when It’s Overcast
The first step is buying the best solar lights you can afford. Higher priced lights use better batteries, better technology and are worth the money, particularly during periods of less sunlight.
But, what if it’s overcast. There are some things you can do. First, look for solar lights with “amorphous solar panels” (like the ones to the left) which can provide bright light even on the cloudiest days.
Say you want a holiday display for a Saturday night but clouds are forecast for Friday and Saturday. If you have a good light with sound batteries, simply turning the lights to the “off” position before dusk on Thursday will conserve energy stored in the battery.
When you turn the lights back on around dusk on Saturday, you’ll have lights for at least four to five hours. (Note: this won’t work well with the cheapest string lights available as they just don’t store power very well.)
There hard to find, but try to find solar lights with a panel that can be separated from the string. (The light pictured at the top of this post has such a panel.) This lets you leave the display alone and bring the panels inside. Turn them to the “off” position” and keep the panel in a lit room (a kitchen or living room light where people need light anyway) the night before your special day.
You can also place solar panels under a bright florescent or LED fixture the day of your event. Any light source charges solar panels, but halogens or incandescent bulbs are far less efficient than CFL or LED bulbs.
Does this defeat the purpose of going solar?
Maybe, but if only do this only a couple of times during the 3 week period most Americans use holiday lights, you’ll still use far less electricity than if you go completely non-solar.
On the other hand, if you want to add more decorations without burning more fuel, solar can work for you. Just make sure your expectations are reasonable, that you buy quality products, and use them wisely.
Be nice to your lights and odds are solar lights can help make Christmas a bit merrier without turning you into Scrooge when you see your January electric bill.