Going Solar

By Chick Jacobs
Staff writer

The light has always been there. The trick was keeping it around after sunset.

Now, advances in technology, batteries and the general willingness of homeowners to “do it themselves” have sparked a new crop of solar-powered home-lighting solutions.

Before that, the words “solar lighting” were reserved for dim glimmers of light that marked walkways — for a few hours after sunset, anyway. And heaven help the person who needed their guidance after a cloudy afternoon.

Low-powered accent lights have been available for years, offering a variety of styles, powers and costs. Spotlights and floodlights — known as “task lighting” by experts — have taken longer to arrive.
Due to the iffy reputation of high-powered solar lighting, homeowners were understandably reluctant to count on it for security. The cost saved in installation was countered with expensive lights and batteries and the ongoing uncertainty of sunlight.

All a crook had to do was wait for a cloudy day, then proceed without fear that night.
Now a day without sunshine doesn’t mean a night without light. Solar batteries store more energy, and some can operate up to three days without the sun.

And thank goodness manufacturers have finally realized that solar collectors don’t need to be stuck to the light. The squarish collectors are connected to lights by wires of up to 16 feet, meaning the light can shine in shady areas while gathering sunlight elsewhere.

Solar lighting isn’t perfect, despite shining brighter and longer. Here are five questions to keep in mind before taking the solar plunge:

What are you lighting? There are two primary types of solar floodlight: floodlights and spotlights. Both are excellent for security, but they serve different functions.

Spotlights shine a smaller, constant beam into a focused area regardless of motion. Think of them as flashlights, pointing into the night.

Floodlights, as the name implies, cast a flood of light into an area whenever movement triggers the light. The light isn’t as bright, and it generally turns off after 60 or 90 seconds.

How much light will you need? While solar panels and batteries are less expensive than in the past, they’re still pricey — especially if you’re talking about a lot of light.

If that’s the case, remember that even the strongest solar light can’t match the power of a hard-wired beam. If you need several floodlights, or extra-bright light, you might be better off getting an electrician to install traditional floodlights.

LED or halogen? These are the two types of bulb used by solar lights. Halogen bulbs produce extra light for the same amount of energy, while LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs last much longer. Most solar lights use LED, but floodlights generally use halogen bulbs. Make sure you’re getting what you want before you buy.

Where’s the sun? It seems strange making sure where the sun shines before dealing with the dark, but the more sunlight you can feed your light, the longer you’ll have light. Make sure the light you’re buying includes enough wire to place the solar collector in a sunny spot.

For the best result, experts suggest placing the collector on the south-facing roof, perpendicular to the sun — and where there’s no shade, of course.

Do I really want to “do it myself?” Sure, sunlight is free. But if you don’t enjoy getting up on the roof or wiggling around on a ladder, is free energy worth the hassle?

Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at jacobsc@fayettevillenc.com or 486-3515.