Home inspection findings by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck, Professional Real Estate Inspector TREC# 9073

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Could Solar Powered Exterior Lights Replace Floodlights?

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An inspector experiments replacing his floodlights with solar powered accent lights to see if his wife approves.

Do you argue with your wife or husband about floodlights? I do, to a degree. Being a stargazer, I prefer not to have so much light pollution; however, my wife is geared by a desire for safety. My neighbors do like a lot of light around their houses too. I do see the point, but a low ambient light is more suitable in my opinion. My wife knows my feelings, so she schedules electricians to come when I am not home to install floods around the house. Then she is upset if I am not thrilled with these new lights.

My other problem is energy usage. One flood that she had installed uses only a high wattage bulb, and it is on all night long. The other floods are set to turn on with movement, which she keeps adjusting to their most sensitive activation. The neighborhood cats set them off much of the night. I go to re-calibrate them, but I find them reset quickly. This is not a knockout brawl of a disagreement, but it is a minor constant struggle in our life together. Part of my goal with looking at converting an existing home into a green one was to reduce my energy usage (saving money) and to reduce my water usage too. I also wanted to see if I could accomplish this task with easily attainable items from my local stores.

Setting my goals to convert my exterior lights, I had to look at type of lights, where the energy would come from, how bright will the bulbs be, and would the final product satisfy both my wife’s and my needs. There are options of replacing the existing bulbs with CFLs. In fact, I did replace several of the floods with compact fluorescents. The brightness of the light was not an issue. I went down from 100 watts to 20 Watts per bulb, but I am still using electricity from the power company. Moreover, I found that these bulbs were lasting about three months on average. I am not sure why that would be though. Am I just picking the bad apples at the store, or is the on and off status (since they are activated by a motion sensor) causing them to fail sooner? Both explanations are possible. After seeing some garden spotlights that were using a solar panel, I decided to check into this technology.

There are problems with most garden solar lights, which would prevent them from suiting my needs. The solar panel portion has to be in a position where it would have a good sunlight for quite a few hours to enable the batteries to recharge. Shady spots where I usually need light are out of the question then for these lights. Most of these garden lights are accent lights, so they provide a low light (not the flood of my wife’s desire). I could not find a solar powered flood at any of the local stores. There may be a specialty item that I can find fitting my quest, but I imagine that it would be more expensive than what I want. No one is going to work towards a green home if the cost is prohibitive or if a greater than usual effort is needed to obtain the equipment. I think most of us would be willing to do the work around the house, but researching, sourcing, and purchasing need to be simple.

I mentioned solar garden spotlights as a possible solution to the floods. I went over to my friends’ house to see the changes that they had made since moving into their new home. The front of the house faces north with quite a few trees. As I was leaving, I noticed that there was good light coming from these accent lights onto the front of the house. The husband pointed out that they were powered by a solar panel that was around the corner on the east side of the home. When I go to my local Ace Hardware, I bum around looking in different sections to see what kind of new products are out and about, when I came across lights that seemed to be the ones from that home. The box of Malibu solar lights (model LZ413) cost a little over $40. It came with three lights and a separate solar panel device. I wanted to see if I could create a mount to have them above my front walkway shining down. I also wanted to check out how much light they would produce.

This solar light set was better than expected. First, I did not have to manufacture a mounting system. The set included a bracket that I could attach to my fascia or other wood trim. The cables were around fifteen to twenty feet long (sorry, I did not measure them, and I have recycled the boxes already). I was able to have the panel in really sunny spots, while the lights could be where I needed them. On the night after I had installed them, the lights put out enough light that I could see the path clearly. These are accent lights, so I was not sure if my wife would be happy without floods. For example, outside I could make out objects clearly, but looking through the window, it was hard to clearly see everything. That night my wife went out to a store. I noticed that she did not turn on the porch light, nor did she comment about the lack of floods. After a week, she still was not turning on exterior lights or mentioning the lack of the other lights. We had found a happy medium. I have set up three of the sets at this point, and I am planning three more set installations to move away for the remaining floods.

I did make some changes (or more correctly additions) to the installation process. When attaching the mounting, I did use longer screws than the ones provided to go into the fascia and trim. I wanted to ensure stability. Also, I caulked the screw heads to prevent rusting and damage to the trim a fascia. As an inspector, I have seen damage from uncaulked fastener heads on the roof; however, I have on occasion seen minor damage from penetrations in trim exposed to the weather. This is why I decided to take this extra step.

Before attaching any hardware, I planned out where I wanted the lights. I then looked for a spot that would receive a good number of sunlit hours. I am always out in the garden, so I have a good idea of where the light falls on a daily basis, and for how long. Shade can not only come from your trees, but also your neighbors. Look around the horizon imagining the sun’s path to see that a place will have good sunlight. The instruction sheet did not mention how many hours are needed to recharge the unit. I think that at least four to get good light into the early night. My lights stayed on all night with six hours of light that first day. I then checked if the cables would reach the different locations with some slack. One problem that you will face when using the lights in this fashion is that you will have extra wire.solar-light-panel In the picture, I wrapped this around the mounting to make the point of how messy this looks. It really is not bad, but I want the installation to look good. I purchased a plastic junction box (j-box) to store the extra wire. I attached this to the soffit. As for the wire, I used clamps to hold it to the trim or fascia or soffit. Loose wires could be damaged. With wiring from the breaker box, an inspector checks for a clamp every four feet, but this is a low voltage system. Out of habit, I used the clamps every two feet. The lights and panel have adjustable positions to allow them to be set in the best way.

Another issue that I faced was the set located by my front walkway and porch. This area is on the north side of the home. To set the solar panel in a sunny place, I had to attach the mounting on the roof. In this case, I used roofing caulk on the screw heads and around the base of the mount. I located the mounting on the roof over the fascia, so it was away form the exterior wall. These steps should prevent any moisture from damaging the wall if it happens to get into the structure. Maybe another inspector could find fault with this as being unnecessary, but it was the best option.

How long will these lights last? I do not know anyone that has had them long, so I am not sure. The equipment has a two year warranty. There is a way to change out the rechargeable batteries, and I do have the units out of reach of most things that can do it harm. I found with my other solar accent lights that my dog wanted to chew on the plastic ones, and my children or others were causing damage to other units in unexpected ways. Hopefully, these devices will come to no harm. Everyone has been happy with these lights. Now I have to see what I can do about the interior lights.

« « How to Make Your Roof Last Longer| Reducing Your Utility Bills by Plan » »

4 Responses to “Could Solar Powered Exterior Lights Replace Floodlights?”

  1. Braden Says:

    Not to take sides in a marital dispute, but you might want to point out to your wife that stargazing and home security don’t need to be conflicting goals, because only lights pointed at the ground help witnesses instead of criminals. There’s a good demonstration of floodlight angle security on the Campaign for Dark Skies site.

    (Sorry I haven’t given your e-mail a good response yet. Classes started last week, and I’m just getting a handle on things.)

  2. Braden, firstly do not fret over the e-mail- other things in your life should take priority. Secondly, thanks for the link. That was a great description of how to properly set up the floods. I particularly like the fact that they describe how the floods are typically overpowered. I need to show her that one. I forgot to mention this in the post, but one thing criminals are doing in my area is to come several nights in advance of the break in (or attempt) to unscrew the bulbs. They do them one at a time, hoping that the homeowner will not notice. These accent lights started becoming brighter by the third night. Moreover, it is not easy to disconnect them if you do not spot the panel, and you need a short ladder to reach mine. I can have my glass of wine out on the porch to let my imagination roam over the stars. (My son took the telescopes up into a tree for better views- he claims, and I am not climbing up there :)

  3. Chelle Says:

    I like the idea of solar spot lights. I am not a light person at all really – and I know when our one floodlight on our house goes out I’m sure the bulb won’t be replaced until we move out :)

  4. Chelle- so far we have been happy with them, so I feel comfortable recommending them.

    You have a nice site. Are you on Active Rain or Realtor.com? That may be a good place to offer your services for agents.

© Frank Schulte-Ladbeck Professional Home Inspector Houston, Texas
Frank Theodor Schulte-Ladbeck
home inspector, TREC# 9073
Houston , Texas , 77063 United States

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