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21 Best Solar Christmas Lights: Your Buyer’s Guide

Go green and save money this holiday season with solar Christmas lights. Not only are they better for the environment and won’t run up your electric bill, but solar-powered Christmas lights are also a breeze to install with no worrying about extension cords.

Your outdoor Christmas lights are one of those things like Christmas tree storage bags where you never buy them early enough so don’t wait. See the end of the article for a rundown of how to understand all the technical specs, troubleshooting, and how solar lights work.

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Do Solar Powered Christmas Lights Really Work?

Of course they do and all signs point to solar being a major energy source year-round in the future. According to the Department of Energy, there is 23 times more solar power in use today in the United States than there was eight years ago. More and more devices in our lives are going solar and if you can use solar energy to power your home, why not a holiday display?

These lights use a solar panel to charge during the daylight hours and then automatically turn on when it gets dark, similar to garden pathway stake lights, but on a larger scale.

If you've had trouble with solar before, see the troubleshooting section below.

Is Going Solar Worth It This Christmas?

Without a doubt. I started using solar lights for the holidays six years ago and I'll never go back. They're convenient, money-saving, fast to install, and I don't feel like I'm harming the environment by decking my house out in lights.

Pretty much the only time solar isn't a great fit is if you are planning to cover your home in lights National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation-style. (Scene on YouTube for reference.)

This is because the solar panels are designed to power the lights they come with so you generally can't connect more lights for a continuous line. You can still go all out with solar lights, but you'll need to pick up a couple of sets of lights with corresponding solar panels.

What Are the Advantages of Solar String Lights?

  • You don't have to figure out where to plug them in.
  • No worries about mixing extension cords with rain and snow.
  • They won't affect your electric bill. Once you buy them they work at zero cost.
  • Conserving electricity is better for the environment.
  • Can be reused next year.
  • Many choices of colors, styles, and flashing patterns.
  • Most have timers or automatic on/off settings with a light sensor.

What Are the Disadvantages of Solar String Lights?

  • They cost slightly more upfront than non-solar lights though this is offset by not needing to pay for the electricity they use.
  • They do require at least some sun to shine their brightest.
  • Solar lights tend to use LED bulbs which are more energy efficient but not as bright as the incandescent bulbs we grew up with. (However, most modern holiday lighting is LED so this isn't as big of a deal as it used to be.)
  • Most cannot be daisy-chained for a single extra-long light strand. 
  • They don't tend to come in the traditional extra-large bulbs.

How Do Solar Lights Work?

To get sciencey on you, solar power is really called Photovoltaic Electricity as explained on Colorado University's site. Each photovoltaic cell is made up of one thin and one thick slice of silicon which are connected by wires. One slice is chemically treated to make it hold onto a large number of electrons and the other is treated to have very few electrons. 

When light hits these cells it causes the electrons to jump back and forth between the cells creating an electric current. This current is used to charge rechargeable batteries stored in the solar panel so that the lights can be run at night when there is no sun.

How Long Do Solar Lights Last?

In terms of reusability, solar lights are generally good for two years of use before their rechargeable batteries get worn out and can no longer hold a charge. That said, the ones on my porch are three years old and stick kickin'. Luckily, those rechargeable batteries are easy and cheap to replace in quality models. 

How long the solar panel can run your lights on a single charge is going to vary from model to model. 

You'll want to keep an eye out for the mAh rating of the panel's battery. This refers to the "milliamp-hours" the battery can hold. A battery with 1,200 mAh can produce a charge of 1,200 milliamps for one hour.

That doesn't mean the battery is only good for one hour, only that that's the total. If your lights were more realistically drawing 150 milliamps per hour, the battery could light them for eight hours.

A solar panel with a higher mAh rating can store more energy which is a good feature for northern climates with fewer hours of sunshine.

Are Solar String Lights Waterproof?

Seeing as the solar panel is meant to stick into the ground, many if not all solar holiday lights are considered weather-proof.

Devices are given an Ingress Protection (IP) rating by the International Electrotechnical Commission. The most common rating to find on solar lights is IP65 which translates to being protected from water jets from any direction. So while you can probably spray an IP65 solar panel with a hose, it won't survive sitting at the bottom of your pool. 

Why Are My Solar Lights Not Working?

If you're having difficulty, try running down this set of extremely common problems people tend to have when setting up their solar lights.

  1. Is it on?
    Solar panels often have a  difficult to see on/off switch on the underside of the panel and some may not even be able to charge while the device is set to off. Before you get too frustrated, just give this tiny black switch a double-check and don't feel bad if you missed it. Lots of people do. 
  2. Have you removed the plastic film on the battery? 
    To protect the life of the rechargeable battery, there is often a plastic barrier that prevents the battery from charging before it gets to the buyer so you'll need to make sure you've pulled that out to make the panel useable.
  3. Is it only light-activated?
    If your panel has been out in the sun since morning but the lights haven't come on by the afternoon, it could that the lights are activated by a light sensor and will turn on once it gets dark enough. You can test this by covering the panel with your hand to simulate nighttime.
  4. Does it have a full charge yet?
    Depending on the make, some units need to have a full charge before the lights kick on. Give the panel three days of good sun before worrying that something is wrong. 
  5. What direction is the panel facing? 
    If you're in the southwestern United States, you can probably stick your panel anywhere and not worry about getting enough sun, but if you're in the northwestern or northeastern United States, capturing those hours of sunlight in December can be trickier. 
    Ideally, you want your panel facing south and to be as unobstructed as possible. I live in gloomy New England and my solar panels with southern and western exposure (even under the shade of my porch) seem to do just fine.
  6. Is the panel covered or dirty?
    Over time, the protective cover of the solar panel can become grimy which keeps the battery from charging efficiently. In the winter months, you may have to brush off the tops of your panels after heavy snowfall.
  7. How long have you had them?
    If your lights aren't working and they're over two years old, you probably need to replace the rechargeable batteries in the solar panel.