The contemporary low-voltage light fixture above uses the most efficient LEDs for its light source.
Want to add some outside lighting pizzazz without installing wiring or impacting your electric bill?
As prices for solar technology drop, many manufacturers are harnessing the sun to help consumers add solar “flair” outdoors. While solar lights aren’t typically as bright as traditional outdoor light options, by keeping a few rules of thumb in mind you can get the brightest benefit from sun-powered lights.
What to consider
Solar lighting takes many forms: stakes, lampposts, hanging jars, and more. But every unit follows the same basic principle: the mechanism generates and stores energy during the day, then releases it at night.
Each light includes a miniature solar panel, typically a four-cell array measuring 2-by-2 inches. On the inside of the light fixture, the solar panel attaches to a rechargeable battery, at least one light-emitting diode (LED), a controller board, and a photoresistor (light sensor) to manage when the light shines and when it recharges.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) advises consumers to consider geographic and site-specific variables. Solar lights will only work if they receive the recommended amount of sunlight—generally 8 to12 hours a day. Fewer hours of sunlight translate into fewer hours of yard light—shorter winter days typically result in a 30–50 percent output decline.
Avoid shade from shrubs, trees or buildings, and check the miniature solar panels periodically for bird droppings, leaves, insects, or other debris that might block the sun. Not only does a lack of sun impact light output; receiving less sunlight than recommended could shorten the battery life, too.
Before buying solar lights, think about the need it will fill. There are three different types of outdoor lights: accent lights, path lights, and task lights.
Accent lights add a glow to a landscape, but do not illuminate spaces well. Offering a lower light output, they’re generally more affordable than other solar lighting options.
Search for solar lighting on Etsy.com, a popular online handmade marketplace, and on any given day almost 200 accent lighting options appear. Creative recyclers use Mason jars, soft drink bottles, lamp bases, bird cages, and other lidded antiques to house the light. The fixture’s base doesn’t matter—interchangeable lids contain the solar array and bulb.
Accent lights can be colorful—online retailers like EarthTech Products offer illuminated glass-blown bulbs or stylized glass flowers. Amber LEDs are often used as an alternative to white, casting a softer glow but still revealing only a limited amount of area outside of the light.
Consider using accent lights to mark hazards (stones, low walls) or as part of a garden feature, but do not rely on them for visual aid at night.
Solar lights fill an important role when used for path lighting. Commonly sold in sets of four or eight, these lights often come with stakes or hanging hooks to be placed at regular intervals along a path or driveway.
Path lights focus light downward and typically illuminate an area up to 20 feet away from the base, depending on the strength of the light. Some sets offer automatic on/off settings triggered by outside light; others include a six-hour or 10-hour setting. An on/off switch may also be included, allowing owners to soak in the sun for several days, then turn the lights on for a special nighttime event.
Suspended lights are not the only option; manufacturers like HomeBrite Solar produce stepping-stone solar lights. Solar “stones” are also available for outdoor lighting that blends in with the environment.
The sun also fuels practical outdoor lighting needs like floodlights and security motion sensors. These types of solar lighting generally provide high light output—though not as bright as traditional spotlights—and are more expensive than other solar lighting options.
Solar lampposts from manufacturers like Gama Sonic offer between eight hours and 10 hours of light with an output equivalent to 450 lumens (40 watts). Security lights are often ready to mount to a wall—as with all solar lighting, be sure the building or trees do not block the solar array. Some models have the solar array separate from the light to allow for prime sun placement.
Although LEDs work well in cold temperatures, consider bringing accent and path lighting solar fixtures inside during harsh weather (freezing temperatures, heavy downpours, etc.). All outdoor solar lighting should be water resistant, but task lighting tends to be hardy and can withstand fiercer weather. And although it’s fun to bring bits of solar flair inside for parties, remember to put all solar-charged items back outside to charge—leaving a solar jar on a windowsill will not work because of UV protection films and overhangs on many windows.
Read user reviews before buying a product online or in the store. Some solar lighting sets may not last long, and the DOE advises consumers to make sure replacement bulbs and batteries are available.
A variety of solar-powered lighting options are available at stores like Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and several online retailers. To learn more about these and other lighting options, visit energysavers.gov/lighting.