03.What to look for
Garden light essentials
Screw in placement means more security, otherwise garden lights can be easily pulled out and stolen.
- Buying your lights in a kit makes for easier installation – solar kits contain multiple lights, while 12V kits include the lights, cables and a transformer.
- A separate solar panel makes it easier to place solar lights under a shade structure, as the separate panel can be placed in the sun.
- Motion sensor is useful for temporarily lighting up an area more substantially when something passes by.
- Halogen lights in 12V systems tend to give more light intensity, however they use more energy than LEDs.
- Dusk/dawn sensor detects the sunset/sunrise light and, if it’s too low, turns on the garden light.
Installing and using solar lights
Installing most solar garden lights usually involves pushing or screwing the lantern into the upright post and then inserting the whole assembly in the ground. The ground may have to be watered first to make sure the stake can be driven in easily without breaking.
The Brilliant LED Motion Sensing Solar Bollard 60368/16 comes with three screws and plastic plugs so it can be fixed to a hard surface. It also had the best light intensity score out of the solar models.
The HPM Solar Accent set comes with only one solar panel and five lights, each with a 3m cable that can be plugged into the panel. This means the lights can be installed in a shaded area so long as the solar panel is in a sunny position.
The Nelson Solar LED Light and Bug Zapper does what its name suggests – there were a few bugs on the coil after three nights of exposure.
If the solar lights fail beyond their usual 12 month warranty period, it’s worth replacing the rechargeable batteries that come with solar lights. The originals may be the cheaper, nickel-cadmium variety which have a limited recharge value and are quite toxic. Nickel-metal hydride batteries are more expensive but last longer. Check our test of rechargeable batteries.
Installing and using 12V garden lights
It’s not difficult to install 12V lights but it takes more time than installing solar lights as they need to be plugged into a mains power supply via a transformer. You need to position the lights where you want them in the garden, lay out the cable, connect the lights to the cable, connect the system to the transformer and check all the lights work. You then install the lights and bury the cable under the soil.
There are a number of excellent performers for light intensity in the 12V range, with the Horizon Duncan kit having the lowest energy usage of the excellent performers. The Arlec Night Glow Garden Light Kit comes with a light sensor that detects sunset light and, if it’s too low, switches the system on for two or six hours, or from dusk to dawn. A dusk-to-dawn sensor can be purchased separately from hardware stores for the other models.
When you don't purchase a kit
Buying individual 12V lights rather than a kit means you will need to buy the cable and a transformer as well. Cabling prices depend on length and quality of the cable. We found adequate cabling for $35/20m. If you need to get long runs of cable, say 18m–25m, you’ll need heavy duty cabling; otherwise the lights at the end of the run will get less voltage.
The size of the transformer depends on the number of lights connected to it and their wattage – five 50W lights require a transformer that can provide at least 250W of power. The higher the output of the transformer, the more expensive it will be. As a guide, we found a 105W transformer for $60 and a 500W one for $250. It may be worth shopping around, and keep in mind that some are waterproof while some need to be kept out of the weather.
You might want to get a quote from an electrician to see if a mains-connected system compares with an extensive 12V installation.