Solar-powered Christmas lights - a review

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 01/04/2009 - 14:36

Jessie and I saw some solar-powered, LED Christmas lights for sale at Target and just knew we had to try them this year.  They're made by a company called New-Ray, and here's a commercial I just found, to give you an idea what I'm talking about:

Here's what the commercial doesn't tell you (good and bad):

  • The battery is not fully charged when you unpack it, so you're supposed to use the solar panel to charge it up for 8 hours before switching the lights on, which may not fit your decorating schedule.  However, it's a standard AA Ni-Cd battery, so you can just swap in a fully charged battery and use a plug-in charger to pre-charge the one that came with the lights.  The use of a standard battery also means that you don't have to worry about throwing the lights away when the battery dies.
  • The single, AA battery keeps the lights on all night long, and the light sensor automatically shuts them off during the day -- so you can say goodbye not only to extension cords, but also to timers.  Very convenient! 
  • During the rest of the year, they could serve as a night light, either in a room with a window or skylight or by swapping in charged batteries as needed.  Or string them on your bicycle and/or trailer for safety lighting that you'll never forget to turn on or off.  Or put them outside, switched off, and use the solar panel to charge single AAs for other purposes.  However, they cannot be used for indoor decorating because they won't turn on when there's ambient light.
  • The commercial only shows the white lights, which like most white LEDs are a kind of weird bluish color.  We got the multi-colored lights instead, and the colors are very nice.
  • The lights are not very bright, especailly when the battery is low.  Notice how in the commercial they're not competing against traditional Christmas lights or any direct lighting.  Ours was the dimmest light show on the block before Christmas, and when our porch light was on you couldn't even tell we had lights.  But when we came home after New Years and everyone else's lights were off, our house looked nice and cheery.  So put these lights where they won't have a lot of competition, or wait for the next generation models, which will undoubtedly be brighter.
  • Unlike plug-in lights, these strings cannot be chained together -- each string has its own solar panel which must be placed in sunlight, and the only mounting hardware is a stake to stick in the ground.  I'm not sure how one would put these along a roofline, for example; you'd have to put the solar panel in the gutter!
  • The energy savings touted in the commercial are not likely to pay for the cost of the lights when compared to plug-in LED lights, only when compared to incandescents.  If you want to put a string of lights outdoors, far from an outlet and away from other lights, these are perfect.  If you want to put a string of lights indoors or near other lights, go for plug-in LEDs instead -- they hardly use any power and are significantly brighter.

All in all we're very happy with the lights, because we expected that there would be limitations.  The commercial above is misleading about the limitations.  But limitations are the food of creativity, so be creative, or be patient and wait for the product to improve!

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