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Solar Powered Christmas Lights

I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas.  Well, maybe not all the rushing around and shopping-on-steroids (which I don’t do much of anymore, ha!), but I definitely love the season.  As much as I enjoy outdoor Christmas light displays, however, a tiny voice in the back of my head always pipes up to say, “Gee, what a waste of energy!”  My husband and I have never used outdoor holiday lights, mostly for that reason.  When I read about solar powered Christmas lights, I was sure that I had found the perfect solution.  But, do they work?  I decided to do a little nosing around the internet and see what others thought about these solar yuletide wonders.

Types of Solar Christmas Lights

Almost exclusively, the solar lights I found were for outdoor holiday decorating, not for lighting an indoor tree.  They work just like any other outdoor solar light, using a small solar panel or two to charge batteries during the day.  At dusk, the lights go on and radiate holiday cheer.  Battery-operated Christmas lights are nothing new, of course, but are usually used inside the home where electrical wiring would be inconvenient.  Battery-sourced candlesticks come to mind, since they can be place on windowsills without heavy cords causing them to tip over.  The difference is that those batteries are not constantly being recharged, as is the case with the solar lights, which means that they should last longer. Anyway, the idea is that these solar charged battery-powered Christmas lights glow from dusk ’til dawn, after sucking up all that solar energy during the daylight hours.

Many of these lights are rope or string lights, meant to be strung on outdoor trees, bushes, deck and stoop railings, etc.  Solar spotlights are also available for highlighting that gargantuan wreath that Aunt Millie made in crafts class.  Solar hanging icicles are also popular, although I don’t see that they are any more attractive than the conventionally powered ones!  Another common style is the light net, which looks a little strange but is probably easier to drape on bushes than the string lights.  All these lights appear to be LED, which use a lot less electricity than traditional bulbs and are cool to the touch.  LEDs have more of a muted glow, however.

Are Solar Powered Christmas Lights Reliable?

Now that we know what is available, the next question is:  do they really work?  Well, I read quite a few customer reviews, and they were mostly positive.  As is usual when perusing user ratings, some customers obviously got a lemon, but when those were weeded out, most were very satisfied.  Only five reviewers rated some solar string lights purchased at Home Depot, but all were unwaveringly positive.  A larger contingent of 39 rated the same type of product at Taylor Gifts, imparting a 4.5 out of 5 star rating.  On Amazon, several types of solar Christmas lights are reviewed.  For the most part, reviews are positive, particularly for a 35-light LED string of solar lights manufactured by GudCraft.   Walmart also stocks solar Christmas lights, but no reviews were available.  Though the item was out of stock, Target had eight reviews of the Phillips 50 light LED string, the majority of which were stellar.

The negative aspects centered around the fact that the LED lights had a bluish glow, unlike conventional lights, though most people said that they got used to them.  Others noted that even a string of 35 lights doesn’t go very far in the real world, and thought full-on decorating could get a bit expensive.  Almost all noted the convenience of not having to drag extension cords around to reach an outside outlet, or being forced to snake cords out a window from inside the house during cold weather.  A handful had product failures after only a couple of years, but they were in the minority.

The Verdict

Solar Christmas lights seem to be as reliable as any other type of outdoor light, albeit a bit more expensive.  Don’t forget–you’ll need to figure in your savings on your electric bill to get a good idea of the real cost of these lights. At least six hours of sunlight seems necessary to get a few hours of glow, and most customers seemed pleased with that.  After all, after the family goes to bed, who cares if the Christmas lights are still on?

Are Solar Stocks a Wise Investment Choice?

Many of us who strive to live a relatively green life sometimes feel left out when we see others making big bucks with their stock market investments. Not that we green folks are rolling in the dough, but what if we wanted to play the numbers a bit ourselves, just for chuckles? It seems that no matter what portfolio you may be interested in, you will see that the top investment options are oil, gas and nuclear energy companies. Yikes! What is a green investor to do?  Why, invest in solar stocks, of course.

There’s only one problem

The current stock news headlines. The spectacular nosedive taken by Solyndra Solar down the bankruptcy hole, along with $.6 billion of our hard-earned tax dollars, has most certainly send a chill down the spine of even the most intrepid alternative energy investor. Solar power stocks are taking a beating right now, for sure. Will this, too, pass as other stock downturns have? Probably. But, then we remember the other solar panel manufacturers who went belly up not long before Solyndra, namely Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt. Is it madness to even consider these solar energy stocks as part of a green portfolio?

The solar stock news is all over the place.

Some analysts forecasting doom and gloom for the American solar industry while others seem to consider this current state of affairs as nothing more than a blip on the solar energy stock screen. In the Solyndra case, the ick factor has been added to the mix with the knowledge that it was not simply a business venture gone bust, but a failure fast-tracked by corruption. Somehow, we accept shady business practices by oil and nuclear entities, but hold alternative companies to a higher standard. In the other two cases, however, bankruptcy seems to have been caused more by plummeting prices for panels and the actions of Chinese solar manufacturers. These factories are heavily subsidized by the Chinese government and are flooding the global market with panels manufactured at high environmental costs, as is the case with JinkoSolar. The pollution at this company’s plant became so pervasive that even Chinese government officials were forced to take notice, and close it down. Unfortunately for Massachusetts taxpayers, Evergreen was also the recipient of taxpayer money, which was also flushed down the toilet along with the company’s business plan.

Despite all this, some analysts are saying that solar stocks are a good buy. An article published yesterday (9/22/11) on the Energy & Capital website sings the praises of First Solar stock, despite a New York Times report that this company will be unable to meet its loan guarantee requirements for its California solar farm plans with the Department of Energy by the September 30 deadline. Although First Solar is supposedly pursuing other financial models for its ambitious Topaz solar installation, this latest development casts a pall over the entire U.S. solar industry.

In The Street’s estimation of the best solar stocks, Chinese-owned Trina Solar is the number one solar company to watch, and Yingli Green Energy Holding is the second. What of American solar manufacturers, you ask? Well, SunPower is rated number six, with its stock price expected to rise nearly 66% in the next year. A press release earlier this week (9/21/11) noted that six teams taking part in the DOE’s Solar Decathlon used this company’s high efficiency solar panels in their green house designs. Our neighbors to the north, Canadian Solar, also made the grade, with their price per share forecast to jump almost 80% within the next 12 months.

So, what’s a green investor to do?

Even with all the recent disappointments in the North American solar market, there seem to be at least a couple of gems to admire and watch. notes that, dire reports aside, the U.S. solar energy market is exhibiting an upward trend with solar installations up a whopping 69% in 2011 from the previous year. Not only that, but the increase is fed by commercial demand rather than residential, meaning that projects are usually on a much larger scale. Before embarking upon any investment scenario, do your due diligence in order to understand fully the avenue you are exploring. That being said, the hunger and need for alternatives to fossil-based energy products can only mean more, rather than less, demand for solar power in the long term.

A Solar Powered Fan Makes Hay While the Sun Shines

Here’s a sun powered appliance that works best exactly when you need it–the solar powered fan. Think about it: no matter what type of fan you can think of, the time you would want it to be powered up and ready to go is when it is hot and sunny, right? With that perspective in mind, sunshine and solar fans are a perfect fit. How cool is that?

Most fans don’t take a lot of energy to run anyway, so using a small solar panel to juice them up makes a lot of sense. The cooling effect of a solar fan can be quite great, especially when it is trained directly upon your sweaty brow during a heat wave. Other types of solar powered fans include attic fans, car vent fans, window fans and good old table top fans. Attic fans are perhaps the most popular, so let’s take a look at them first.

The Solar Powered Attic Fan is Worth its Weight in Gold

This little item, whether solar-powered or conventionally run, has oodles of history behind it to attest to its productivity and utility. Attics are infamous for being storage facilities for hot air, much like old Uncle Charlie. While Charlie gets his chance to vent at the family reunion, many attics never do, due to building style, inadequate vents or insulation issues. This means that temperatures within the house can become uncomfortably warm during hot weather, decreasing temper thresholds or increasing air conditioning costs. Another problem with poorly vented attic spaces is that humidity can become trapped up there as well, causing mold, mildew or even fungus problems. This can be an expensive issue to abate and can wreak havoc with wooden beams, joists and roof supports. Winter time can be particularly tough, when ice dams occur because of poor ventilation. Nobody wants to have sections of roof replaced along with the shingles during the next roofing job!

When you shop for a solar attic fan, you will first need to know the square footage of your attic, since price usually depends upon how much air the unit will be required to move. From what I’ve seen, you should be able to get a very serviceable solar powered attic fan for a few hundred dollars, which you can install yourself (if you’re brave). There are both rooftop and gable models available. Warranties tend to hover around 20 years for the better ones.

A solar attic fan is more convenient than a traditional electric fan, since once it is installed, you can forget about it. Another great benefit, of course, is that it makes and uses its own electricity. These nifty items are also available in models specifically for use in greenhouses, boats and RVs.

Solar Powered Window, Desktop and Ceiling Fans

Although not as plentiful in the marketplace as solar attic fans, window, tabletop and ceiling fans that work on solar energy can be had, usually for a fraction of the cost of attic fans. For under $30, you can get your very own solar powered room fan, an interesting little item that looks like a small box fan with a small solar panel attached to the top. At five inches, it’s not huge, but at least you won’t have to worry about messing up your hair.

I found table and ceiling fans in an old (2000-2001) solar catalog I had in a file drawer, so these solar appliances have been around awhile. It seems that they can be run directly, using a 12v solar panel, or by recharging the battery using the panel. Either way, they are not that easy to find anymore, for some reason. I did see a couple of Youtube videos purporting to show you how to re-purpose a regular old fan into a solar powered one, though. Could be a fun project, I guess.

Solar Powered Car Fan

This unit reminded me of those accessory heaters that people who were crazy enough to drive a VW Beetle around in the winter (like my hubby) would plug into their cigarette lighters (remember those?) to try to stay warm. The solar powered car fan is marketed as a way to keep your parked car from becoming a solar oven by exhausting the hot air out through a window and bringing in cooler air via the air ducts. Right off the bat, I can see problems here: if you’re going to leave one window open, why not all of them, thereby keeping the car from getting hot in the first place? Sure enough, these products don’t get stellar reviews on Amazon. One critic said it all when he advised, “Get a window shade instead.”

The Rising Popularity of the Solar Electric Fence

Electric fences have been around a while and were essentially an improvement upon the good old standby of farmers and cattlemen, the barbed wire fence; the solar electric fence represents further refinement. Little has changed as far as the whys and wherefores of electric fencing: it is still primarily used to keep livestock in and predators out. However, our modern lifestyles have added a few more uses to the electric fence’s repertoire, such as keeping wildlife out of our backyard gardens and making sure our pet dogs don’t get to exercise their wanderlust. In addition, more homeowners are using this type of fencing to protect their homes from foraging bears, who are impinging more and more on human residential developments–or, as some might say, former bear territory.

Some time ago, I remember reading an article in Harper’s about the history of barbed wire fencing. More than corralling cows, farmers used this type of fence to lay out their property boundaries. When you think about it, the current use of electric fencing has the same purpose, since it is showing (joltingly!) where animals may and may not roam. So, instead of telling other people where the land lines are, fences are now used to tell animals the same thing. Hmmm.

Enough of that. My research indicated that solar electric fencing started to come into its own when livestock was being kept far from the reach of the electric grid. As time went on, residential applications began cropping up, as dog owners noticed that nothing but a bit of a taming current would teach Fido that staying in his own yard really was the best thing for him. Pesky garden-robbers thought twice after their tender noses came into contact with the jolting reality of an electric deer fence, sometimes abetted by a dab of peanut butter on the wire. It worked, and the animals were none the worse for wear.

Traditional v. Solar Fencing

The main difference between conventional electric fencing and solar is the method by which each is charged. Traditional electrified fences use an electric fence charger that is connected to the electrical grid, while the solar type of fencing uses a solar electric fence charger in conjunction with solar panels and energy storage batteries.

Advantages of a Solar Electric Fence

Besides being useful for remote areas and providing electricity for free, a solar powered electric fence has other advantages, as well. It is easy to move, have no moving parts to break and are immune to electrical surges from the power grid. The components are very easy to find, too–both online and at farmers’ supply and hardware stores. Batteries also tend to last longer, since they are being constantly trickle-charged rather than depleted and recharged on a regular basis.

Finding a Solar Fence Charger/Controller

The heart of any solar fence is its charger or, as it is otherwise known, controller. Depending upon your needs, these devices will energize fences from three miles to 200 miles long. Prices vary, as well, not only in regards to how many miles of fence the controller can handle, but also among brands. From what I could find, there appear to be three big players in this field: Zareba, Parmak and Fi-Shock.

I was able to find several online vendors of these devices, such as Amazon, Northern Tool and Tractor Supply. Like many retail sites, they allow customers to rate and review products. I had no idea that these items were so popular, and there are many reviews for you to sink your teeth into as you decide which fits your needs.

If you really want to be immersed in everything you would ever need in the solar electric fence arena, check out horse supply vendors. It’s no surprise that general farm supply sites would have these products, of course; I found that you really have to look for those, though. The horse sites come up early and often in search results and have an unbelievable range of products related to electric fencing in general and solar fence products in particular. In addition to chargers you will find batteries, post insulators, wire rope–well, the list goes on and on. Again, reviews and ratings are plentiful, so dig in. Cross-referencing between retail sites can be very useful and really expand the number of ratings and reviews for any given product.

The Brunton Restore Solar Charger

Just a short time ago, a friend of J., my husband, told him about a great LED camping lantern he bought through LL Bean.  We had just come off of yet another extended power outage due to a freak fall storm, so our interest was piqued.  When we received the Bean outdoor catalog a couple of days later, J. pointed the lamp out to me.  On the facing page, however, I saw another product of interest:  the Brunton Restore Portable Power Device.  What caught my eye is that this item is something that I have written about before–essentially, a solar cell phone charger/solar battery charger.  Although I did what I considered rather extensive research on that subject, I had never heard of this particular brand.  Since I feel that LL Bean carries products a tick above average in quality, I thought I might look into this solar charger to see what others thought of it.

Gadget Sites Loved the Brunton Restore

I had no problem finding online reviews of the Brunton Restore portable solar charger, the majority of which were extremely positive.  A review praised the myriad ways (sun, electrical outlet, car battery, computer) than one can charge the Brunton’s battery.  Once fully charged, the reviewer was able to speedily charge all the gizmos he had on hand.  Solar charging was the slowest, a common complaint with solar cell phone/gadget chargers. The tester suggested adding another solar panel to the Brunton solar charger setup to speed up the solar charging aspect.

A blogger at tested the product as well, and was also impressed. He noted that the unit must be in direct sun to charge up at a respectable pace, something that requires outdoorsy types to hang around the charging site to make adjustments as the day wanes.  This, naturally, was seen as a major inconvenience.  He also had problems charging his GoPro camera.  Overall, though, he was pleased with the performance of the Brunton device.

Another tester at also liked the Brunton Restore, even noting that he completed a solar charge of the device in seven, rather than the 10 hours stated by the manufacturer.  He found it to be a solid recharger, pumping up his hungry gadgets with power to spare.  While he found it to be a bit heavier than other portable battery chargers, he found its book-style design easier to handle than the windmill style of the Solio.

Retail Sites Not so Flattering

Next, I checked the LL Bean site to see what their customers thought of the Brunton.  Of seven reviews, those who liked it really liked it, whereas the two negative reviews said it barely worked at all.  Still, five positive reviews out of seven is pretty good, and there is always the possibility that those two customers recieved duds.

I found similar results at Amazon and  The Brunton Restore received customer ratings of 3/5 and 2.7/5 stars at these sites, with users either loving or hating the unit. The common complaints were slow charging, lack of power, and the fact that it takes 10 hours in the sun to recharge the device’s battery. One user did note that the manufacturer states this fact very plainly in the literature, so this is not really a fair criticism.  Another poster said that he recieved a full refund for his Brunton, but was still disappointed with the product’s performance.

Overall Satisfaction Wins the Day

For the most part, the Brunton Restore seemed to deliver on its promise of a rugged portable charger, and all of the manufacturer’s time specifications were quite accurate.  For those consumers and testers who did not appear to have received a defective unit, the Brunton really performed admirably.  The product costs right around $100, which some may find pricey.  But, as they say in the portable power industry, “you get what you pay for.”