While considering adding a solar lighting system to your home, you have likely done research that has led you towards either solar lights or low voltage lighting.
If you have read any of the other posts on this site, you likely know how fond I am of solar lighting. Be that as it may, it is important that you understand the benefits (and drawbacks) of both. The last thing I want you to do is go out and buy a bunch of solar lights that are not going to work for you, just based on my assertion that they are the best thing since sliced bread.
This site is filled with posts showing the benefits of solar outdoor garden lights, so I am not going to go into them in too much depth, but I did want to touch on them a bit. The first benefit is obviously that they are powered by sunlight as opposed to electricity. While this is their biggest advantage, concurrently it can also be their biggest pitfall.
A solar lighting system does not use electricity
It means that it cost literally nothing to run as long as the solar powered lights get enough sun to keep their built in batteries charged. They will turn off during the day and turn back on at night. They will stay on all night, until they detect morning sunshine. This makes them easy to forget about until you go out in the dark and see them lit (or trip over one while gardening).
The “pitfall” in all this is that if you do not get enough sunlight, they will not work. Most solar garden lights have pretty efficient solar panels, so they can collect a pretty decent charge during overcast days. But some areas around the world are just dark and gloomy all the time. These are just not the best places to use a solar lighting system.
Solar lights need to be able to charge to full capacity from time to time or the batteries’ life is reduced. If you plan to place them in the shade (like under a bush or something), make sure you get a fixture that has a remote panel that you can mount in a location where it will get enough sunlight.
Another point to consider is the bulbs themselves. Most solar powered garden lights use LEDs as their source of illumination. While this makes them virtually maintenance free, they are not quite as bright as other types of garden lighting. LEDs are manufactured to last for a very long time. Usually, the fixture itself will wear out before the bulbs do. They are also much more efficient. Incandescent bulbs convert energy into two things: light and heat. LEDs do a much better job of converting the energy into light, and create very little heat.
That said, they are still not quite as bright (except solar flood lights) as other types of landscape lighting. This is due to the fact that they must focus on staying lit for 10-12 hours on a single charge. That longevity comes at a cost – they cannot be as bright.
Low Voltage Lighting
Low voltage landscape lighting also has its good and bad points. The good thing about them is that they will work anywhere that you have something to plug them into. Contrary to a solar lighting system You don’t really need to worry about whether or not you get enough sun to charge the batteries, because they do not have them.
That being said, they are also much more difficult to install. Some people will just dig a small trench where they are going to run the wires and lay the wires in the trench. I do not recommend this. If you are going to go through the trouble of installing low voltage landscape lighting, I recommend that you spend a couple of dollars to buy some PVC pipes, glue, and fittings. Use the pipe as a wiring conduit. This will protect the wires from being gnawed on by pests and being accidentally cut with a gardening tool.
Another benefit of using low voltage lighting in your garden is that they work well for areas that need a lot of light. They do not really need to be too concerned with being super efficient, because they do not have batteries that drain. That also come at a cost, and with these lights, the cost is directly related to your pocket book. They will have an impact on your energy bill.
Hybrid systems for landscape lighting do exist. A hybrid system uses primarily solar power and supplements it with low voltage electricity when the solar batteries run low. The biggest problems here are price and installation. You still need to run electrical wires with this kind of system. You also need to have a voltage sensor and relay system that detects when the batteries are running low, so it can start using electricity. While this obviously solves some of the problems associated with both solar and low voltage systems, they are not yet popular enough to be priced at a range that is comfortable for most people who are just looking to add some lights to their garden.
What do I recommend? I think that if you live in an area that gets plenty of sunlight throughout the year, and you do not need a TON of light, solar lights are the way to go. If you think about it, there are not many applications where you need a lot of light. Read through some of the articles on this site and you will find many applications where a solar lighting system works wonderfully. I think the two areas where they do not work as well as low voltage lights are floodlights and spotlights. Floodlights are still very bright, however, if used as a motion detector light. In this case, the lights are not using a lot of power because they only turn on a few times a night (at most), for a minute or so each time.
If you need lights that are just too bright for solar lighting to facilitate, or if you live in an area that does not get much sunlight, low voltage lights might be what you need. Be careful with the usage though. I would recommend having them on a timer to allow them to run only at certain times of the evening. Leaving them on all night long could cost you more than a few dollars.
Have I forgotten anything? Well, here you have it then. Solar lighting system vs. low voltage lighting. Which way will you go?