Laura Gaskill, Houzz employee
Using solar lighting outdoors can be a lifesaver when outdoor electrical outlets are not available. But do solar powered lights really work? How do they compete with hardwired electric lights? And what if your garden is shady or you live in a place where the sun is rarely seen? Here you will find all the information about the selection and use of solar-powered lights in your garden.
How solar lighting works. Photovoltaic cells absorb sunlight during the day to charge the batteries, which then light the light bulb at night. Since solar lights are powered by the sun, they must be placed in a location where the sun is full – ideally eight or more hours a day.
What if you don’t have direct sun? If you set up solar lights in your desert farm in Tucscon or Palm Springs, they’ll work at maximum power – but what if you live in Seattle or just have a heavily shaded garden? It’s not that simple, but you can still have solar powered lights, even in a fully shaded area. A solar or landscape lighting professional can help position a remote photovoltaic module on your roof or in a sunnier area of your garden, which can then be connected to the lights in the shaded area.
When a lot of sunlight just can’t be collected, even on the roof (for example, if you live somewhere like Seattle or Portland) the solar lights will still work, but they won’t shine as brightly or as long every evening.
Types of solar lights
Solar path lights. These are small solar lights on stakes that can be pushed into the ground along a sidewalk to gently 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 light as electric ones.
Get help: Work with a local landscape designer
Where to use solar path lights. Solar path lights are ideal for lighting sidewalks far from outside electrical outlets and can add a charming glow to winding garden paths.
Ambient light and decorative solar lights. Decorative solar lights, including colored hand-blown glass, decorative lanterns, and fairy lights, are not as bright as solar path lights. However, when used in multiples or alongside path lights and spotlights, they can create a warm ambient light.
Use of ambient solar lights. Put a few hand-blown glass solar lights on stakes in your garden beds for soft landscape lighting. Or hang solar fairy lights like the charming mason jar lights shown here over an outdoor dining table to treat you warmly at your next get-together.
Solar powered spotlights. The brightest solar lights available are known as task lights or spotlights, and the best can provide light that is roughly the equivalent of a 40 watt incandescent lamp. That’s still not as bright as a typical outdoor spotlight. As such, you may want to double or triple that in areas where you want bright, direct light.
Where to use solar heaters. Motion sensor solar emitters can be used near doors and in the driveway. Spotlights can also be placed in the garden, with the light beam aimed at a tree or other landscape feature.
Pay attention to the shade. Since most solar powered lights use LED bulbs these days, the light they emit is bright white. If you want the look of incandescent bulbs, look for solar lights with tinted covers – these can be labeled “amber” or “soft white”.
You get what you pay for. The brightness of sunlight depends on the brightness of the sun and the amount of daylight it is exposed to – but also on the quality of the photovoltaic cells and the size of the LED lamp. High-quality photovoltaic cells and larger LED lamps tend to cost more, so the more expensive solar lights shine brighter to a certain extent.
Browse photos of landscapes lit by sunlight