Solar vs. low voltage landscape lighting

Written by christopher donahue
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Solar vs. low voltage landscape lighting
Lighting adds to any landscaping project. (blue lighting image by Paul Hampton from Fotolia.com)

Exterior or landscape lighting gives the property a more pleasant appearance in the evening; it improves security by illuminating intruder points of entry and increases safety by allowing owners and guests to avoid trip hazards.

Since landscape lighting does not have to be bright enough for reading purposes, low wattage bulbs or Light Emitting Diodes (LED) may be used to provide light. With the lesser power requirements, low voltage power lines or even stand-alone lamps running from a battery charged by a solar panel are adequate to power these lamps.

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What are Solar Lights?

A solar light has a small solar panel (usually on the top of the housing), which sends a Direct Current (DC) charge into a small rechargeable battery when exposed to sunlight. When deprived of sunlight (nightfall, a shadow, etc), the battery discharges through a small, but ultra-bright LED. The light given off by the LED is usually enhanced by use of lenses and reflective plates.

Solar lamps may be purchased individually (often under £3.20 each) or in sets. Solar landscape lighting fixtures most often look like low voltage landscape lighting fixtures. Many manufacturers offer the exact same styles of light fixtures in both solar and low-voltage configurations.

Solar vs. low voltage landscape lighting
The energy-efficient LED is the heart of a solar light. (led image by sasha from Fotolia.com)

What is Low Voltage Landscape Lighting?

Before ultra-bright LED lamps, inexpensive rechargeable batteries and small solar panels, low voltage lighting sets were the best method for safe, inexpensive landscape lighting. By stepping down household (120 Volt at 10 or more Amps) power to a non-shocking 6 to 18 Volt DC, cutting or touching exposed landscape power lines became a low risk scenario. Non-electricians could install and work on landscape lighting without injury or significant fire hazard.

Low voltage landscape lighting is inexpensive, meets the safe illumination and increased security needs of outdoor lighting and gives a pleasantly soft, warm light. Low voltage landscape bulbs are generally 6 to 12 watts, incandescent (like traditional indoor light bulbs, lit by a glowing wire) and are no more than slightly warm to the touch.

Low voltage lighting comes in sets, since the step-down power transformer must be designed to handle a specific power load. One transformer will power a designated number of lamps, multiple sets may be needed in a lighting plan and all lamps in a set should be used for most efficient operation.

Solar vs. low voltage landscape lighting
Low voltage lighting gives a softer glow than seen with LED lights. (Light image by Mariusz Wozniak from Fotolia.com)

Advantages and Disadvantages of Solar Landscape Lighting.

Solar landscape lighting is very flexible. Since each lamp is its own system, you may put out as few or as many as you wish. While most solar lights are single-piece lamps, some are available with the solar panel separate from the lamp itself. This configuration is so similar in wiring requirements to that of low voltage sets, it should be viewed as low voltage lighting with the same advantages and restrictions.

The key to solar lighting is the use of high-efficiency LED light sources. LEDs (with expected lifetimes of 10+ years) give a bright, cool light which some people find unpleasant. The power requirements of incandescent bulbs used in the low voltage systems will deplete the charge of a solar battery too quickly to give all-night illumination. With current technology, if you wish to use solar lighting, you have to use LED light.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Low Voltage Landscape Lighting.

Low voltage landscape lighting must be purchased and installed in sets. These sets each require a transformer (and dedicated outdoor power outlet) and use of power lines to each lamp. This involves more elaborate installation than with solar lighting. This hard-wiring gives an advantage over solar lamps in that low voltage lamps are harder to steal and if taken away from their transformer, are useless to the thief.

While some people dislike the light given by LED lamps, the soft light from low voltage lamps is considered attractive and soothing. Low voltage bulbs have expected lifetimes of 2 to 4 years, depending on outdoor conditions.

For individual lamp needs or small sets, low voltage lighting is more expensive than solar. When used in sets of 6 or more, low voltage and solar sets are comparable in purchase price. Since low voltage lighting is powered by household electricity, there is a small daily power cost which is not seen with solar lighting.

Which is Better?

Solar lighting gives the user more options in terms of number of lamps used, locations where they may be installed and lower operating costs. There are a few limitations on where the lamps may be installed. In a heavily shaded or largely covered locations, solar lighting may not be feasible.

Low voltage lighting involves more installation effort and has tighter restrictions on placement and numbers of lamps used. For some customers, only the softer glow of low voltage bulbs will be acceptable, not an option with current solar lighting. While low voltage lighting has higher maintenance (mostly bulb replacement) costs and power use costs, these are very slight.

Many low voltage light sets come with either low wattage incandescent bulbs or more energy-efficient LED lights. If used in a landscape design with solar lamps of the same style (and many manufacturers offer fixtures in both solar and low voltage), the two systems might be used together.

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