Outdoor lighting seems like a really boring subject, but there are few things that class up the exterior of your home than some nice lighting. You can turn an average suburban garden into a nighttime wonderland by adding some lighting. There’s more to outdoor lighting than just looking pretty too. Clearly, it’s safer to walk around your garden if there’s some light, and it makes it easier to spot trouble from within your home.
Installing outdoor lighting is easier said than done, however. It requires that you lay some wiring, which could mean hiring an electrician and certainly digging small channels or hammering saddles into walls. In short, it’s a pain in the behind, but solar lights solve virtually all these problems.
They don’t need wiring. You just install them where they are needed and make sure they get enough light. The lights charge up during the day and then turn on at night, usually by way of a light sensor. A battery is used to store the solar energy during the day. Solar lights are generally inexpensive and easy to replace if they go wrong.
Examples of Solar Light Categories
There’s quite a lot to consider to choose the right light, but before we go into detailed outdoor solar lighting theory let’s first have a look at example products from these categories that you can actually buy. I’ve chosen products that appeal to me personally, but I think they have enough good qualities that they will appeal to most people as well.
Litom Solar Motion Sensing Lights
These Litom motion sensing solar lights are very popular. At first glance this might simply be because they’re inexpensive and come in packs of four, but this is a good brand of solar light and customers seem to have good experience with them. As for the design of these lights, they have a definite futuristic look to them. The angles are sharp and modern. The solar panel is already angled optimally and integrated nicely into the overall unit.
Litom has put together an impressive light cluster too. This is an LED-based solution with several bright LEDs set at multiple angles to give a wide spread of light. This provides nearly 17 square meters of light. It comes in a 4-pack, so you do the math on how much area can be covered. A very cool feature of this light is that it doesn’t actually switch off. It has a dim brightness level that acts as path illumination, but when it detects motion it switches to full power.
This is an IP65-rated light with a 24-month warranty. For the money and given how well-featured it is, I’d say this is one of the best deals for motion sensor lights on the market right now.
Urpower Waterproof Solar Spotlights
Solar spotlights are a great way to point out a part of your garden you really want people to pay attention to. They are also a great way to light an area you want to occupy when it’s dark. These solar spotlights from Urpower simply stick into the ground like path lights, but cast a strong beam of light wherever you need it. They also come in three different color temperatures so you can decide what mood you want to set. If the ground-stake use case isn’t for you, these also come with a wall-mounting option, so it’s a very versatile product.
The solar panel and light are independently adjustable, so you can make sure the sunlight is optimal and the spotlight shines where it is meant to. The four LEDs total 200 lumens of brightness, which is fine for most people who want to light a relatively modest area. You can use this as an automatic light with the built-in light sensor. With a full battery these lights are rated for up to nine hours of light. Charging the light to capacity typically takes between 6 and 8 hours. Urpower claims their light is adaptive and will work as well in bad weather as it does during a normal day. This light is IP64 rated, so a little rain should be no issue. A good deal all around!
Maggift Solar Pathway Lights
There really isn’t all that much to the typical solar pathway light. That’s how it should be though; simplicity is the name of the game when it comes to pathway lights!
These lights from Maggift are cheap as chips; so much so that they sell them in 12 packs. Each light consists of a spike, the light and lens, as well as the solar panel cap. The lights produce a paltry 2 lumens, which is not enough to read by, but perfect for making sure no one trips and falls in the dark.
These lights are rated IP44 for dust and liquid. That’s fine for waterproofing, but the dust and dirt resistance is relatively low. Maggift actually says you should keep the lights free of debris and dirt.
The feedback from people who have bought these seems overwhelmingly positive. The lights are reportedly very easy to install and use. They also look sleek and don’t stand out – a good thing for path lighting. At this low price you can afford to cover your garden in solar lights. It also means you can easily keep a pack in reserve for when some of the lights eventually die. These are certainly not the best path lights in absolute terms, but a better deal you probably won’t find that’s actually worth the money.
TomCare Solar Lanterns
Outdoor solar lighting is often just as much about the look of the light as it is about it’s performance. These solar lanterns from TomCare really appeal to me personally on an aesthetic level. They look perfect for a deck, patio, or front porch. You get a really cozy vibe from them even when they are off! These are not just plain lights, but a bit of a novelty item. The light has been designed to flicker as a flame would. So the overall effect is of old-school lanterns with fuel in them.
The lights have a quick release alligator clip which lets you remove them to be placed in the sun. TomCare says six hours of charging will get you ten hours of light. That’s handy, since plenty of places where you would hang these are under shade, such as a patio roof. If you do hang them where they will get light, they will switch on in the dark automatically. Of course, you can simply put them down as well, indoors or outdoors. Yes, these aren’t meant for strictly practical use, but I love the aesthetics of this product quite a lot. They are a good example of decorative solar lighting done right.
Mpow Solar String Lights
These lights are yet another example of decorative solar lights. Some people call them fairy lights, or string light, and they might even be confused for Christmas lights. Wrap them around a tree or string them along your porch railings – wherever you put them you’ll get a wonderful, almost magical aura of light.
The Mpow lights featured here have a solar panel on a plastic stake. Just stick it close to the object you want to light up and wrap the 10-meter cable with its 100 LEDs around whatever you like. You’ll get 10 hours of operation from a full charge and it automatically turns on at night. There are eight modes to choose from, so you can change things depending on the occasion.
These lights are IP64 dust and waterproof, which means putting them on a tree or other object that will get wind and rain should be no problem. They are also heat resistant, which is a nice bonus you rarely see advertised.
For such a small amount of money you can get an instant ambience boost for your home or garden. No wires and no hassle!
What’s Your Type (Of Solar Light?)
As said before, while all solar lights obviously have solar panels and a light-emitting device of some sort, they come in quite a few varieties. Most people will want a mix of these, but you should make a point of buying the right light for the right job. Here are a few things to consider.
One of the most common types is the solar pathway light. These are simple, minimalist lights that are sold in packs rather than one by one. You stick them into the earth alongside your garden path. You can also put them anywhere else you want to illuminate something, such as the outside edge of a flower bed. These lights cast downwards, with the solar panel integrated into the top cap.
These lights can be so cheap that you can buy a bag full of them for a dollar or two a piece. There are, however, much nicer ones that will last longer and look better in your garden that can cost quite a bit more. Keep in mind that the cheap ones will need replacing sooner!
As a rule these are very low-power lights. They are good enough to stop you tripping over your own feet in the darkness of night, but you can’t hold an outdoor party with them. These lights generally use an automatic light sensor. They are always on during the night, but since they are so dim it shouldn’t bother anyone.
Lights with motion sensors don’t use a light sensor to determine when to shine. Instead they use a motion sensor and will switch on whenever someone or something passes within the detection zone. As a security feature this is pretty good, since you can see immediately if something is moving on your property without your knowledge. It might also cause an intruder to think twice, making the assumption that the light is part of a security system when it isn’t.
These lights also last longer, since they aren’t permanently on. This also means they use less energy and won’t suffer as much when there’s a cloudy day. Obviously, this advantage is diminished if they are in a high-traffic area.
The lights usually are mounted on an outer wall, but are not that useful as permanent outside illumination. In some cases a light might offer a switch that permanently turns on the unit until you don’t need illumination anymore.
Like pathway lights, fairy lights are a dim type of illumination that pushes away the darkness, but doesn’t provide enough light to see with high levels of detail. These lights are like Christmas lights, mounted along a string. Since they are solar-powered you can hang them anywhere and move them with ease. Great for party areas or parts of the garden that can do with a bit of mood lighting, these lights are really only for decoration.
These solar lights fit onto standard garden posts and can replace what you have or allow you to install posts without also installing wiring for them. If you have existing garden light posts, you might be wondering why you should go solar rather than just stick with your already-wired system. The simple answer is that these lights will save you money on your power bill, although how much of a difference it will make largely depends on how much juice your wired lights were using.
You can get some very cheap and simple post lights, but personally I think that this is a chance to get something that looks a little fancier than usual. These lights serve well as permanent illumination, but it’s up to you how bright you want then to be.
Spotlights are the ultimate in outdoor illumination. They are bright, powerful lights that work well to illuminate outdoor events or to leave nowhere for criminals to hide. Traditionally, spotlights use high-power lights that need a lot of energy. So you would think that a solar spotlight might be impractical. You would, however, be quite wrong. Both lights and solar panels have advanced a lot in recent years. Now you can get a powerful spotlight to brightly illuminate whatever you want, without wiring.
These are still power hogs though. So they will have larger batteries in them and solar panels that are too big to hide. You also have to position the panel so that it gets a good deal of light, to top off the larger battery.
A Word on Indoor Solar Lights
Yes, this article is all about outdoor solar light, but you can also get indoor lights. At first glance this might not make much sense. After all, if you convert your home to solar power then technically all the lights in your house are solar.
However, there is such a thing as an indoor solar light. It’s a light connected to a solar panel that is not meant to be used outside. Yes, I know – revolutionary. These lights are usually used in low cost housing or sheds where there is no grid electricity.
Before You Buy, Consider This
OK, so apart from deciding which type of light you want, you also need to think about the attributes of those lights within type. There are a few things that should be on your checklist before you pull the trigger. Let’s get acquainted with the most crucial ones.
LED vs CFL
Another quite big choice is whether you want a CFL light or an LED light. Generally my vote goes for LED lights. They are better in almost every way, but there are still some CFL solar lights kicking around and they can be considerably cheaper than the LED equivalent.
For something like a garden path light it doesn’t matter all that much, but for strong lighting that you will use to light up important areas, LED lights have a lot to offer. They may cost more but they will last much longer, make virtually no heat, and need less electricity to do the same job as a CFL.
There’s little point in having an outdoor light that can’t survive being outdoors. So make sure you know exactly how much punishment the light in question can take before putting it in the line of fire. The “IP”, or “ingress protection”, is an important indicator of this. IP ratings have two numbers – one for how dustproof it is and one for how waterproof it is. So IP46 has decent dust protection and fairly high waterproofing. In general, better waterproofing is something to look for.
Modern LED lights are very power-efficient. This is a good thing because some days there won’t be enough sunshine to top the battery up all the way, which means you’ll need enough power stored in the remainder to make it through the night. This doesn’t apply equally to all types of solar light. Motion-sensing lights that don’t stay on permanently aren’t as vulnerable to this issue. So when you look at how many hours a light is rated for in terms of battery capacity, try to look for lights that have a larger capacity than the number of hours they would typically need to get through one night of work.
Warranty and Lifespan
Solar lights, like all electronics, are not going to last forever. It’s normal to have to replace them at some point. However, you don’t want to replace a light every other week, either. Cheaper lights are not going to last as long as they could in general. So opting for more expensive lights might be the smarter financial decision in the long run.
The first clue to how long you might expect a light to last is the warranty period. The longer the manufacturer is willing to back the product, the more confident you can be of a long period where you don’t have to buy any new lights.
You may also want to find out if there are replacement parts for the light in question. The first thing to go is usually the battery; LED lights can last for years and years but the battery will be busted relatively early. If the battery can be replaced, you’ll get much more life from your lights.
This is sort of an obvious point, but then some people don’t seem to think about the look and style of the lights at all. Try to pick something that goes with your home in terms of color and style. At the very least, try to make your various outdoor lights go well with each other. Unless you are simply searching for the cheapest lighting options, don’t push look to the bottom of the priority list. These lights are going to beautify your home whether on or off, so take the opportunity to class up the place!
There’s not much point in a light that shines too weakly. So before you stuff your shopping cart full of barely-lit junk, make sure you look at how much light is produced. Light output is measured in lumens and the very brightest solar lights come in around 400 lumens.
That’s considerably less than some lights which are connected to grid power, but more than enough for most home use cases. Pathway lights have lumen counts in the low double digits, which is fine for what they do. If you want a decent general purpose outdoor light for your patio than aim for about 200 lumens.
Light Spread or Concentration
A light can generate all the lumens you want it to, but you still need that light to go where it is supposed to. So make sure you know how the light made by the lighting element is spread around. Does it have a wide arc? Does it shine upwards as well? It would be a little disappointing if you bought a light that shone everywhere but where you want it to.
Let There Be Light
A lit garden and outdoor spaces is one of those overlooked modern luxuries. We avoid it because of all the work involved, not to mention the bigger utility bill at the end of the month. Thanks to the wide variety of solar lights, however, there is now no excuse to leave the outside of your home in the dark ages. Now you can get with modernity and have a garden that’s awake and lit!