Fixing solar pathway lights

I am fixing outdoor solar pathway lights around my house this season. I have spent a lot of money on solar lights throughout my 25-year homeownership. For a while I swore off buying solar lights completely because they didn’t last. Whether I paid a little or a lot for these lights, they all stopped working after just one season.

It was frustrating to read on a solar light blog that the batteries in solar lights have a lifespan of 1 to 2 years. My lights were failing in a single season and I was tossing them into the trash. The rechargeable battery is the number one reason solar lights stop working.

Rechargeable batteries fuel in the sunlight and then expend their energy every night. Most of us realize the solar panel needs to be in the sunny area of a yard to reset. Just like lead, non-rechargeable batteries that lose their power as they age, rechargeable batteries lose the ability to capture and retain power over time, and eventually, they need to be replaced.

Troubleshooting Outdoor Solar Lights

There are four basic components to a solar light: the power source (batteries), charger (solar panels), lights, and a controller.

Four Components to Solar Lights

Batteries

NiCd (Nickel-Cadmium) batteries come in most solar lights. You will typically have 1 to 4 AA or AAA batteries for operation and they are identified 1.2 V / 500 to 900mA. You might purchase lights with NiMH nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. NiMH batteries have greater capacity and are capable of lasting longer and more reliable. NiMH replacements will cost a little more, but they withstand greater temperature fluctuations, charge even on cloudy days, and use a dry liquid in manufacturing that makes them easier to dispose and more environmentally friendly.

Poor battery performance is the number one problem in solar lights. The first step in troubleshooting any solar lighting issue should be to change the batteries. Rechargeable batteries are easy to find these days. The NiMH batteries are still more expensive. However, they will last longer and that makes them more affordable in the end.

Solar Array

Most of us are not skilled enough to change out the solar array in our lights and charging stations. But cleaning and restoring the solar panel in your lights is worth the effort.

Cleaning the solar panel.
  1. Wipe dust and dirt from the panel with a soft cloth.
  2. Clean the surface with rag or sponge in soapy water by wringing out most of the moisture. (Never submerge lights in water.)
  3. Allow the plastic to dry. If the solar array still looks cloudy after it drives, it requires additional work.
  4. Clean the glass globes and other surfaces exposed to the elements.
Restoring the Solar Array.

There are dozens of videos on youtube that demonstrate how to restore the array covering on solar lights. Many people consider refacing the solar panel a regular maintenance step in preserving their solar lights.

You’ll need a spray bottle, a roll of painter’s tape, two pieces of sanding paper (1-400 superfine grit and 1-2000 finishing grit), a can of UV resistant clear coat paint. To finish the project you’ll need a small square of cardboard about 6 x 6 with the shape of the plastic panel cut out.

  1. Use painter’s tape to isolate the plastic panel.
  2. Fill a spray bottle with water and tear a small sample of each of the sand papers.
  3. Spray the top of the panel with water and gently sand the top of the plastic with the 400 grit sand paper. This will begin to remove the oxidation build up and any remaining dirt. Continue to keep both the surface and the paper wet. Wipe this clean.
  4. Spray the panel with water again and now complete the same step with the 2000 grit finishing paper.
  5. Dry the panel and allow it to air dry for about 30 minutes.
  6. Use the cardboard stencil to cover the light and expose the newly refreshed panel. Spray lightly with a new clear coat layer on the array and let it dry. Repeat that step two more times allowing the clear coat to dry completely between layers.
  7. Remove the cardboard from the light and allow the restored array to fully charge for 6-8 hours.

Controller and LEDs

It might be time to replace your solar lights if the above steps don’t fully restore them to working order. At least for me, soldering connections and installing new solar cells is above my abilities. But at least the basic maintenance above has saved a few of my lights from the landfill.

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