What's Wrong With Solar Landscape Lights?
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
In a word, nothing. Solar lights are inexpensive, easy to install, and use no electric power. But they do have some limitations which are important to consider.
Solar lights require 8 hours of good sunlight to charge. On a heavily overcast or stormy day, particularly during the shorter days of winter, they may not charge sufficiently to provide much light.
If you put your solar lights under trees or in shady areas, they are not going to get the same amount of solid charge they would get if they were exposed to direct sunlight all day.
Solar lights aren’t very bright. To create a decently lit pathway, a large number of lights must be placed closely together. This is less than attractive at best and can be a nightmare when mowing or working in flower beds. We call this a “solar farm” and we’ve seen these lights six inches apart along twenty-foot walkways and longer. It just doesn’t look good, and if you have to buy so many and replace them occasionally, you’re not saving all that much money.
Solar lights are typically installed by just sticking the post of the light into the ground. It’s easy, but it’s no so easy to get them in deep enough to hold their position, and when it rains or when you irrigate around them the ground gets soft and they can move. This creates a series of lights that are leaning, often heavily, in different directions. Unless you reset them properly on a regular basis, your solar lights will give the appearance of a very haphazard and sloppy installation. We doubt that's the look you're going for.
Because solar lights rely on charging a solar cell/battery, the charge lasts a certain amount of time. Even when new and thoroughly charged, the charge only lasts about 8 hours. That means that during early morning hours between one o’clock and five o’clock they are already dimming or completely uncharged depending upon the age of the solar cell/ battery. They typically don’t provide solid light for more than a year before they begin to wear out. Warranties, if there are any on the lights you bought at the home improvement store, are only for a year at the very most.
All that being said, solar lights do have a place in the landscape. We use them when our clients want to provide decorative lights along a fence line. Running wire is impractical, and the lights typically aren’t needed all night long, so solar lights work well when the backyard is in use like in the early evening or maybe a bit later if there’s an event on the property. We can even provide color-changing lights for this fence line installation, and they make a very nice addition to the back yard for entertaining.
We would not suggest solar lights for pathways and heavy traffic areas. They don’t work very well as spot lights unless the solar panel is large and sometimes these are as big as the light fixture itself. The larger the solar capture cell, the more charge, the brighter the light, and the longer the charge lasts. But they’re not at all attractive, and still must be placed fairly close together which detracts for the very elements you’re trying to illuminate. Professionals try to focus on the light, not the fixtures, and we hide them as much as possible.
Professionally installed low voltage wired lights cost more up front, but they are installed properly and if maintained regularly will last as long as you own the house. Overall, it’s a much better investment.