Using solar lighting outdoors can be a lifesaver when outdoor outlets are not available. But do solar-powered lights really work? How do they measure up to hardwired electric lights? And what if your yard is shady or you live somewhere that rarely sees the sun? Here’s the full scoop on choosing and using solar-powered lights in your yard.
How solar lighting works. Photovoltaic cells absorb sunlight during the day to charge the batteries, which then light the bulb at night. Because solar lights are powered by the sun, they must be placed in an area that receives full sun — ideally eight or more hours per day.
What if you don’t have direct sun? If you are putting solar lights in your desert yard in Tucscon or Palm Springs, they are sure to operate at maximum strength — but what if you live in Seattle or simply have a heavily shaded yard? It’s not quite as simple, but you can still have solar-powered lights, even in a fully shaded area. A solar or landscape lighting pro can help position a remote photovoltaic panel on your roof or in a sunnier area of your yard, which can then be wired to the lights in the shady area.
If there simply isn’t much sunlight to be gathered, even on the roof (for example, you live somewhere like Seattle or Portland), the solar lights will still work, but they won’t shine as brightly or for as long each evening.
Types of Solar Lights
Solar path lights. These are small solar lights on stakes, which can be pushed into the ground alongside a walkway to softly illuminate the path at night. They are not as bright as electric path lights, so plan to use more (up to twice as many) to light your path with roughly the same glow as electric.
Where to use solar path lights. Solar path lights are ideal for illuminating walkways far from exterior outlets, and can provide an enchanting glow along winding garden paths.
Ambient and decorative solar lights. Decorative solar lights, including colorful blown glass, decorative lanterns and string lights, are not as bright as solar path lights. However, used in multiples or alongside path lights and spotlights, they can provide a warm ambient glow.
Where to use ambient solar lights. Place a few handblown glass solar lights on stakes in your garden beds for soft landscape lighting. Or hang solar string lights, like the charming mason jar lights shown here, over an outdoor dining table for a welcoming touch at your next gathering.
Solar-powered spotlights. The brightest solar lights available are called task lights or spotlights, and the best ones can provide light that’s roughly equivalent to a 40-watt incandescent bulb. That is still not as bright as a typical outdoor spotlight, so you may want to double or triple up in areas where you want bright, direct light.
Where to use solar spotlights. Motion-sensing solar spotlights can be used near doors and in the driveway. Spotlights can also be placed in the garden, with the beam of light directed at a tree or another landscape feature.
Pay attention to the hue. Since most solar-powered lights today use LED bulbs, the light they emit is bright white. If you want the look of incandescent bulbs, look for solar lights with tinted covers — they may be labeled “amber” or “soft white.”
You get what you pay for. The brightness of a solar light depends on the brightness of the sun and the amount of daylight it is exposed to — but it also depends on the quality of the photovoltaic cells and the size of the LED bulb. Higher-quality photovoltaic cells and larger LED bulbs tend to cost more, so to a certain extent, the higher-priced solar lights do tend to shine more brightly.