The advent of solar panels has liberated the adventuresome gardener and landscaper. No longer tethered to electrical outlets by extension cords, even the most distant corner of the yard has now become part of the living canvas. Whether it be decorative lighting, fountains, ponds or lit walkways, technology has opened up a world of possibilities.
The creation and technological improvements of the photo-voltaic or solar cells created this miracle. Made of silicon, the units are usually very small and individually produce only 1 or 2 watts of power. However, when placed in modules their power increases exponentially in relation to the size and number of the modules working together in the array. Systems can be large enough to power homes or even entire communities, but for gardening and landscaping purposes they are usually only about a foot long and are easily installed by connecting the solar panel to the unit and placing the panel in direct sunlight.
Solar power works on two basic concepts: direct usage and battery storage. In direct usage, the sun charges the panel, which in turn creates the current for immediate use. If for whatever reason, sunlight is not available, the solar panel no longer produces power and whatever system it was powering shuts down. With a battery storage system, the electricity created by the solar panel is stored for use at a later time.
This method is commonly used in decorative lighting in conjunction to on/off switches, which are connected to automatic sensors. When the sensors perceive a change in the light level, they automatically turn the light on or off. However, there are some water fountains that utilize both.
During the day, the direct sunlight not only runs the pump, but also charges the batteries for nighttime usage. Most batteries will remain effective for eight to ten hours before their charge is depleted. Originally, NiCad (Nickel-Cadmium) rechargeable batteries were used in the systems. Even though they had an increased degree of efficiency, being able handle the high rate of charges or discharges (typically over 1.5-2 amps), their toxic effect on the environment out weighed their benefits. NiMh batteries (Nickel-Metal Hydride) are more environmentally friendly and are more effective for applications that call for long duration but not a high amp load. It was for these reasons that the current landscaping systems were switched to the NiMh batteries.
As more people actively use solar power, the cost decreases and the diversity increases. However, at first glance the cost factor makes the more traditional landscape decorations more attractive, until you balance out the other factors. The freedom from extension cords is the first benefit. The solar panels allow the landscaper to decide where to place ponds, fountains or the multitude of decorations available without considering the power source placement.
Any area where sunshine is accessible is part of the natural landscaping canvas. In addition, solar panels are safer than running extension cords to your ornaments. Extension cords can bring safety issues that limit their usage. Another factor to consider is lawn care. Mowing the lawn would require extra care to prevent damaging them.
Even if they are buried, they are easily damaged by moisture, burrowing animals or an ill-fated shovel. To mark the path of the cord would diminish the view of the landscaper’s hard work. Once the cord has been cut, it will have to be dug up and replaced, costing extra time, money and damaging beauty of the area. The second factor and the greatest balancing element is the cost of electricity. With the increasing cost of utilities, solar power becomes that much more cost efficient. Sunshine is free. Once the system is put into place, it cost nothing to power it.
Fountains and decorative ponds have become increasingly fashionable and easier to install. With the sturdier liners and the solid plastic forms, ponds no longer require skill with cement or masonry; anyone, who is willing to follow the instructions, is capable of creating a decorative pond in their yard. There are kits complete with pumps however, most of the current ones available require an outlet. The individual components, including the liners or forms are sold separately with several size and capability options. The solar pumps also vary in size and options. Improvements (www.improvementscatalog.com) has two sizes. The small pump circulates 33 gallons an hour with a 17-inch spray height – it is designed for smaller ponds or birdbaths. The larger pump moves 105 gallons per hour and the water reaches a height of approximately 40 inches. It is recommended for larger ponds. Both are powered by solar cells, but don’t have the battery back up. There are pumps available complete with batteries that would be charged during the day and held in reserve for cloudy days or nighttime use.
Freestanding solar fountains are the third option. Completely self-contained, these fountains are both indoor as well as outdoor. Coming in a variety of sizes, shapes, and capabilities, these fountains can be as simply as creating soothing bubbling sounds to actively moving parts, which give visual elements as well as auditory. Ranging in height from a couple of feet to over six foot tall and made from field stone, granite, ceramic, or various metals, these fountains can create focal points with the yard or add subtle embellishment to an existing display.
Solar lighting systems are not only effective for ponds and fountains, but they also highlight other features of the landscape and provide an efficient way to light your yard for additional security. Floodlights are available in 60-watt units and have been used commercially for years. Effective, but plain spot lights are useful where light is needed, but where appearance is unimportant. However, there are varieties of hanging and decorative lights, which are not only attractive, but are an efficient way to give additional security to your home.
When starting with a full charge, these LED’s can illuminate any dark corner for up to fifteen hours and then recharge during the day for the next night. Coming in a variety of sizes and themes, these lights also add texture and fantasy to your living canvas. Whether in the shape of your favorite breed of dog, frogs, or fairies, these statues are capable of multi-tasking–by day they are simple lawn ornaments; by night, they are beacons to ward off things that go bump in the night. Hanging lights also come in a variety of shapes.
From the traditional style of the old gas lamps to a more modern globe, hanging lights can be chosen to fit any landscape design. In addition, solar stepping-stones, string lights, bricks, and accent lights can be beacons to guide the way around your yard or to your front door. Complete with two LED and their own solar panel, the stepping-stones and bricks are designed to be built into walkways.
The LED’s and batteries are easily replaceable. For special occasions or as holiday decorations string lights are small globes, humming birds or dragonflies, which are staked down along your walkway or garden beds. Coming in various lengths, they are powered by solar panels that are disguised a rocks. Accent lights also come in various styles and sizes; some of which also act as bug zappers. Set on top of stakes, which range in height from 12 inches to several feet, these lights act independently of each other and can be place anywhere additional lighting is needed or desired.