Solar collectors have come a long way since the Carnegie Steel Company tested copper coils to collect solar energy in 1908. Over the past decade, solar technology improvements have resulted in brighter, longer-lasting light, making solar lights an ideal fit for outdoor applications. The basic technology relies on adequate sunlight to recharge a battery via small solar panels embedded in the top of the fixture. When a small photocell determines it is getting dark, it signals a tiny LED bulb to turn on. The light burns until its stored energy is depleted. The battery’s energy storage is renewed each day when the sun hits the solar collector.
LED bulbs require little energy, which aids in the lights’ longevity. At peak performance, solar landscape lights produce less light than most low-voltage fixtures, but enough to light a 3'- to 4'-wide garden path. Like a flashlight, the quality of the light gets dimmer as the energy depletes—but with eight to 10 hours of sunlight, most lights will provide eight hours of illumination. Batteries usually can be replaced, but the LED bulbs generally are not replaceable.
Solar lights are easy to install, requiring no wiring and no switches. Many lights on the market today are designed to mimic traditional colonial, Victorian, or Arts & Crafts fixtures. Choose a lighting style that best complements the period style of your home.
Head to Head Test
Fixtures with frosted glass or light sources hidden in the canopy of the luminaire produce less glare than those with clear glass and exposed bulbs, but frosted glass limits the effective spread of the light beam. The LED bulbs in solar fixtures produce warm (yellow) or cool (blue) tones of light that can affect the coloring of nearby plants and path materials. Choose lights with the least glare, the highest light production, and the right color tones for your garden.
–Lucinda Brockway, Landscape Designer