Features ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Solar lighting brightens gardens, lightens energy bill

Posted on May 8, 2008 by Sonoma Valley Sun

As the days keep getting longer, everyone gets accustomed to abundant sunshine. Why not capture some of it for lighting up the night, especially in outdoor spaces? Solar-powered lights for gardens, paths, stairways and decks are better than ever: newer models emit more light than their predecessors. Of course they can’t replace lamplight, but at least they stay bright even in the event of an electrical outage. And when the days do start getting shorter, after June 21, extra night lighting will become even more valuable.
Homeowners can use these lights in places where electrical wiring would be difficult, impossible or just plain dangerous, such as in rock gardens, water features and tree branches. Another advantage over traditional lights is the low risk of electrocution.
Advances in technology warrant a closer look at landscaping with solar lights, which got a bad rap when they first emerged on the consumer scene several years ago. In addition to money-savings – there are almost no costs beyond the initial purchase price and the occasional battery replacement – solar and low-voltage units are also green because they neither use electricity nor emit pollutants.

How do they work?
Basically, solar lights store power during the day and release it after dark. Not so obvious is the placement factor. The sunnier the location, the more power the lights will absorb. Most manufacturers guarantee that lights placed in full sunlight will produce illumination within 15 minutes. Lights placed in shade or partial sunlight will, logically, deliver more slowly because it will take more time for the lights’ solar cells to charge, and the illumination they do produce won’t be as strong.
A solar lamp consists of an outer casing (usually plastic), a top-mounted solar cell, a single AA NiCad battery, a small controller board, a photo resistor to detect darkness and a light emitting diode (LED) light source.
Simply put, LEDs are light bulbs tiny enough to fit easily into an electrical circuit. But unlike ordinary incandescent bulbs, they don’t have a filament that will burn out, and they don’t get especially hot. Illuminated solely by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material, they last as long as a standard transistor.
For best results, replace batteries annually, clean the solar top from occasional dust and debris and make sure to place the fixture in fully lit areas. Most important, do not place under trees or next to buildings, which might compromise the solar collection’s effectiveness.
Whether you opt for lights that are suspended or simply staked in the ground, installation is simple, takes less than an hour and rarely requires any tools other than a screw-driver. The easiest of all to install are the newly developed pond lights, which merely float on the water’s surface.
Selecting the best lights for your home
When it comes to options, the sky’s the limit. Choosing the right lights depends on your landscaping goals, security concerns, taste and budget. Solar lights can be used to spotlight your home’s architectural features, accent night-blooming plants or other dramatic focal points, provide readable signage for your address (especially for emergency fire or health personnel trying to find your house at night) and illuminate paths, steps and deck edging that are hard to negotiate in the dark.
Manufacturers’ Web sites list myriad options for style, cost and special features. Depending on the model, most charge times range from two to three hours and operating times (how long the unit emits light), from five to 15 hours. Some turn off automatically while others operate manually. Prices start at under $20 for solar lights made of plastic and rise to around $250 for those made with finer materials and complex construction facets.
Solar lights can be high profile or almost invisible. Lantern types can be suspended from stakes or from hooks beneath eaves.
The simplest upright models are the short ones – five inches to a foot or more – that can be staked into the ground either alone, in groups or evenly spaced. They can be found in stores or on line starting at $16. (See recommended Web sites below.) For a few dollars more, you can find ones that are taller – although the taller they are, the more likely they are to be easily uprooted; six inches is a good height – and ones that come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
You can match the solar light casings to your architecture, be it Victorian, Cape Cod, country, Art Deco, English cottage or whatever. Shoppers have there pick of decorative frames – lighthouses, frogs, flowers, seashells, barns and countless more – and, to a lesser extent, display colors (mostly white, amber or blue). Exotic examples use fiber optic strands to create the image of, say, a bird of paradise, a colorful tropical plant.
Before you start deciding among various styles of lights, make a list of places you want to illuminate in your garden and where you’d like accents. Leading locations include the entrance – front gate as well as front porch – a walkway, a favorite spot where your best plants are located, including trees and large shrubs.
You’re probably familiar with how your outdoors space looks during daylight, but it’s a good idea to take the time to go outside when the moon is shining to get an idea of its natural effects on your yard. What works? What doesn’t?
You can enhance natural light, which of course comes and goes during the month, by backlighting shrubs with dramatic leaf shapes or uplighting trees that have intriguing branches.
In addition to beauty, you may want to install solar lights for safety (steps, decks, etc.) and/or for security (beneath windows, for example, or behind bushes or in deep corners normally obscured from view after dark.
It’s fun to mix and match different types of lights, as well as colors, but the same rule applies here as it does with grouping plants: too much variation, with one or two of the same thing, reduces the impact and makes the space look unorganized and busy.
Lastly, think of specialty lighting. If you’d like a holiday tree in your yard, for instance, it might be easy to decorate it with colorful solar lighting rather than with conventional lights that require extension cords.

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