Illuminate Your Backyard Using Only Solar Power

Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Sisoje

Our internet is wireless. Our phones are wireless. Even our homes may soon be wireless. So why not our backyards? Surely it must be technologically easier to illuminate our backyards with clean, free electricity than to power, connect and pay for coal-based fuel sources. Thanks to solar power, it’s not only easier but also a lot cheaper in the long run.

As demand for solar products has increased, so has the quality and diversity of those products. Nowadays, there are any number of ways to light your back deck, patio, yard and landscape. Products range from those that stake in the ground to those that hang from the eaves to those that integrate into outdoor surfaces. Any outdoor lighting fixture is now a candidate for solar power. I’ve listed some examples below. Note that there is a huge variety of products out there at a range of prices. Those given here are only examples; nearly all of these and other products may be found elsewhere at reduced prices.

One quick note of caution: When it comes to solar lighting, do not expect the same type of light you get with incandescent bulbs. LEDs and even the few models that still use fluorescent bulbs offer a different quality of light. This is the biggest note of disappointment coming from buyers who install the lights only to find the lighting is too dim for their tastes. Bright, solar-powered LED lights are available, but you must pay for the added brightness (i.e. floodlights). Be sure to pay attention to "watt equivalents" or "lumens" and know that you pay for what you get. Obviously, a $10 solar garden light that purports to offer light for eight hours on a single charge probably does not offer the brightest illumination — the physics just aren't there. However, such a light can offer just the safety needed for midnight walks through the garden.

The Solar Garden Light
Solar garden lights are the cheapest, easiest, just-stick-it-in-the-ground way to illuminate your backyard. These lights are usually about a foot tall and look like lanterns on stakes with a solar cell on top. One or more LED lights inside provide lighting when a sensor detects that sunlight is fading for the day. Garden lights can run for less than $10 each, although these models provide relatively dim light, are made of cheaper plastic and contain the least durable batteries. So paying a little more for a better garden light may be worth your while.

Check these out:

  • Cypress Garden Light - Made of rust-proof metal with frosted-glass lens. Includes ground stake and deck/wall mounting bracket. Two-year limited warranty. Multiple LEDs. From Brinkmann Corp. Retail price: $39.95.

  • Color Changing Light - An inexpensive, stainless-steel, two-in-one, color-changing solar light. Includes color-changing (red, green and blue) LED and white LED for festive or everyday backyard lighting. Waterproof. Illuminates for up to eight hours on a single charge. From Tektrum. Retail price: $9.95.

Solar Lanterns
A solar lantern resembles that hanging lamp so common in the days before electricity (and still common in the developing world). Many solar lanterns are available online and in store, ranging from $20 to $100. Designs range from simple Japanese-style shoji (sometimes spelled “soji”) nylon orbs to more traditional European lanterns.

Check these out:

  • Hanging Solar Lantern- Japanese-style soji orb lantern made of weather-resistant nylon (reminiscent of traditional paper lanterns). 10 inches in diameter, it hangs from tree branches, awnings, pergolas, posts, etc. Also designed with a flat bottom for tabletop use. Integrated solar panel on top powers LED light within nylon casing that comes in a variety of colors. Comes with on/off switch and glows for 6 hours on a full charge. From Garden.com. Retail price: $19.99.
  • Solar Lantern - A more traditional, Western-style lantern. Rust-finished, corrosion-free, die-cast metal frame and clear-glass lens. Shepherd's hook may stake into ground or be mounted elsewhere. Monocrystalline solar cell charges during day with energy stored in AA nickel-cadmium rechargeable battery. Uses one super bright LED bulb with two modes: six-hour mode offers 7.5 lumen output and 10-hour mode provides dimmer, 6.3 lumen output. Retail price (at Ace Hardware locations and online): $43 to $49.

Solar Security Lights
These are motion-sensing, motion-activated lights that you can hang above shed, garage or workshop doors. Because they don’t stay on all night, they don't need to store as much power to function, which in turn means it’s easier to electrify a more powerful light without a bigger, more cumbersome battery. That being said, it takes a relatively large amount of power to run a bright security light, so expect costs to reflect that. Common features, however, include adjustability, versatility (variety of mounting options) and moveable solar panel.

Check these out:

  • Solar Security Light - Has all features described above. Includes two solar-powered lamps, each with five white LEDs. Lamps swivel up and down and from side to side for easy directing of light. Can also be mounted on the corner of a fence or wall. From Comfort House. Retail price: $91.95.

  • Motion-Activated LED Wedge Light - This unique light is designed for entryways, breezeways, sheds, patios, decks, etc. The wedge shape allows for collection of solar energy during the day and illumination of area beneath at night. Uses three AA rechargeable batteries (approx. two-year lifespan). Detects motion up to 25 feet away. From Maxsa Solar. Retail price (via Amazon): $79.95.

Floodlights and Spotlights
While floodlights can also be used for security purposes, in backyards they tend to be used as accent lighting with a hint of function (i.e. accentuating a tree through contrast lighting while illuminating a pathway). Providing even lighting across a wide area, solar floodlights and spotlights demand more power than the average garden light. The higher the wattage, the more suited to northern (cloudier) climates.

Check these out:

  • 7-20 Watt Solar Floodlights - Necessary power varies based on location. A 7-watt version provides the equivalent of a 60 to 75 watt incandescent bulb and is meant for sunny southern climates. There are 10- and 20-watt models also available, the most powerful providing 150 (equivalent) watts of power for superior bright lighting. The more powerful the light the higher the cost. From Solar Illuminations. Retail price: $25 to $400.
  • Weathered Zinc Solar Spotlight – Spotlight prices can run as low as $15-$20, but this model is a bit higher end. Made of powder-coated cast aluminum. Powered by a remote 5" x 7" monocrystalline solar panel. Solar energy is stored in three nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Ground stake is included and light may be mounted on wall or fence but applicable hardware is not included. Retail price (at Restoration Hardware): $89.

Solar Pavers
The integrated way to wirelessly illuminate your backyard, solar pavers are best known for lining driveways, but can just as easily be incorporated into a backyard deck, patio or paved pathway. Most fully charge in eight (or even fewer) hours of sunlight and provide up to 12 hours of continuous LED light at night. Solar pavers vary widely in price, from hundreds of dollars down to an easy $20.

Check these out:

  • Solar Powered LED Bricks - A variety of solar-powered, LED-illuminated "bricks". Lights simply "sink" into the surface. Outer shell is stainless steel and aluminum. Inside is waterproof, containing LED lights available in five colors: yellow, blue, red, green and white. Use of ultra-capacitors means battery life is seven to 10 years. From Maki Solar. Retail price: about $25 each.
  • Solar Stepping Stone - Makes for a safer pathway at night by illuminating the path itself. Contains single, bright LED light, Siemens silicon solar cell and nickel-cadmium (NiCd) battery. Light automatically turns on at night after charging in sunlight during the day. Made of polyresin and fiberglass. Just over 12 inches square and 2 inches thick. Retail price (at Improvements) $39.99.

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Dan Harding is a veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting. He has published well over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials. CalFinder is proud to tout Dan as our resident solar expert. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University and enjoys reading, writing and home construction.