Springtime Tips for Solar Lights and Products!

With spring just around the corner, it’s a great time to take stock of your exterior solar and low voltage lighting.

Here are some pointers on taking care of your lighting fixtures, whether they were taken in for storage during the winter or left outside.

We hope you review these tips to protect the investments you’ve made as simple things can easily destroy lights, particularly solar lighting fixtures.

Check for Contraction Damage from Freezing

Rapid Freezing and Thaws Can Damage Some Products

Check all of your fixtures to see that they made it through the winter without damage. No matter what how your lights are powered, the contraction caused by freezing temperatures can sometimes contribute to damage. The most common thing that you may see is moisture within your fixture.

This is seen more often in plastic than metal or glass objects simply because plastic is less rigid.  It is not necessarily a sign of a poorly made light, some products (particularly accent lights or water features) really shouldn’t be left outdoors during freezing temperatures. It’s just physics.

As long as the fixture works (and check the batteries, discussed below, before throwing anything out), this is a pretty easy fix.

Moisture Is Not Horrible, But a Warning Sign

If the item can be taken indoors (such as many spotlights, accent lights) do so and keep it in a dry location for a few days until the moisture is gone.  Then, take some clear caulk and put a thin layer over all seams.

If your fixture cannot be taken inside (such as a mounted solar lamp), wait for a period of a few dry sunny days when any moisture of fog has dried out. Then, use clear caulk over any visible seams.  This means inspecting the housing and glass for cracks, evaluating the finish, and thinking about both the performance and utility costs over the past year.

Check Batteries and Replace Them Properly

The Best Battery is the Kind That Came with Your Product (Click on Image to See Our Post on How Not to Commit Assault with Your Batteries.)

Whether you leave fixtures outside or take them in during fall clean-up (a good idea to protect accent lights in particular from rakes, snow/ice, snow shovels or plows), the first thing to check if a solar lighting fixture doesn’t work is the battery.  However, if you do store a product over the winter, it’s best to remove batteries beforehand and clearly mark which batteries go with which product.

Two very important things to remember are:

  • Always use the correct battery
  • Buy batteries wisely.

The best battery for your fixture is the one for which it was designed!  Each year, customers call and say that they replaced batteries and the fixture soon died.  Each year, we have to tell them that warranty or not, if they used the wrong battery, they are responsible for the fixtures failure and any warranty is voided.

Some batteries don’t have good shelf lives, and if you buy a product that been in a warehouse or on a shelf for a while without being used, the batteries may die very quickly. Unfortunately, we get many calls from people who think that a “better battery” will solve the problem.  Trust us: it’s just a bad idea.

We read on blogs and various solar lighting forums how people claim to get better performance by using different batteries (such as lead AAA batteries instead of AAA NiCad batteries.)

This may work for a few days, maybe even a week or so.  But within a relatively short period, using the wrong battery will inevitably destroy the lighting fixture.

This isn’t something specific to solar products: using the wrong battery will also destroy flashlights, cell phones, laptops, or any electronic product.

Buy Batteries Wisely!

It’s always a good idea to save any instructions that come with any electronic product or appliance.  If you didn’t, most batteries are stamped with the type and size.  If this isn’t there or has worn off, just take the batteries to a good hardware store or home center and ask what they are. Experienced staff will be able to identify what they are.  If not, call the store where you got the item and they will probably know what batteries you need.

If you have a set of lights and one battery goes, you should replace all batteries within the set. May seem like a big cost, but buying in bulk is often far cheaper, and you’ll also save a lot of time.

Cleaning Solar Lights and Solar Panels Fixtures

Wet Soft Rags, No Brushes or Abrasive Materials

To get the most out of your solar lights, you should regularly clean the panes as well as the glass panel.  This is best done with a cotton cloth (such as a rag from an old t-shirt) that is soaked in hot water.  Gentle strokes are best (even if you need to let the rag set on the fixture for a while) and you should avoid all brushes or any abrasive cleaners or pads.

Since exterior lights are made to resist water and strong sunshine, lots of warm or hot water is better than detergent.   In fact, detergents should be used only when necessary such as when sap or bird droppings sully the glass or covering the solar panel.   A mild, oil-free solution such dish washing liquid is best. Windex and other glass cleaners should be avoided if possible, as they could damage any protective seals.

No matter how much you may be tempted, never attempt to scrape sap or any other substance from the solar panel, as you are likely to permanently damage it.  Just let the hot water melt as much as you can and let the rest wear off.

Caring for Metal Housing and Posts

Most metal on solar lamps is covered by some sort of polyurethane or clear coating, another reason why brushes and abrasive cleaners are bad news. You may want to treat any metal features with a thin coat of mineral oil to protect them and add some shine. Just make sure that the oil does not get on the glass or any plastic elements.

Whenever Possible, Move to More Efficient Light Bulbs

Given how much more energy incandescent bulbs use than alternatives, your springtime routing should include replacing incandescent bulbs with halogen, compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) or LED alternatives.  You’ll quickly start to see a return on your investment, the less incandescent bulbs you use, the more you’ll save!

While LEDs cost the most, LED lights lasts anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 hours before burning out.  Not only do LEDs use the least amount of energy, they last several years before replacement, unless they are broken. And, because they don’t have filaments, they are downright tough especially in a light with a well-constructed housing.

And, the types of LEDs readily available at hardware stores and home centers expand all the time and the costs continually, though gradually, are decreasing.

Halogen batteries are more efficient than incandescent bulbs, but the extreme heat they generate means that careful placement is a must. Halogen bulbs, for example, should not be used in crowded sheds or outbuildings especially those that house gasoline-operated gardening equipment such as lawnmowers or leaf blowers.  Similarly, if you have a spot light (solar or electric) attached to any building where dry leaves accumulate; they could also pose a fire hazard.

CFLs are the cheapest alternative, but some don’t work as great in extreme cold or hot temperatures as other bulbs.  Many take a few seconds to fully “turn-on” and some make an annoying buzz which frankly is more of a nuisance indoors than outside. However, CFLs contain mercury and must be disposed of in the same way that you would dispose of household hazards such as some paints, paint thinners, chemicals, etc.  All in all, however, CFLs are the cheapest and easiest to find replacements for

Sooner or Later, All Things Come to an End

No matter how well things are taken care of, there does come a point where something has “seen its better days.” Perhaps the fixture’s finish is shot or the glass is badly scratched or worn. At this point, consider whether outdoor solar lights are an appropriate option. Continually advancing technology in batteries, solar panels, bulbs and housing means better, more reliable options are available every season.  This includes products designed for areas that do not get great sunlight!

When checking your solar and non-solar products, it’s also worthwhile to evaluate your products’ performance last year.  If you weren’t happy with a particular item, if some lights are looking dated or worn, or you want lower utility bills, March and April is the time when many new solar lights hit the market.

But that’s another story.

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

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