Solar Lighting for Off-Grid Living

    Complete Solar Lighting System – at Starr & Bullock Hardware

    You have to be very careful sometimes to not throw out the baby with the bath water. When it comes to “green energy,” I am pretty sure I can say most of you reading this are what would be termed “right wingers.” And most of us know at this point that green energy is a scam. Michael Moore, usually a puppet of the left, even made a really good documentary about it called Planet of the Humans. Solar and wind are completely ineffective and unaffordable for anything resembling baseload electricity demand. But the story doesn’t end there.

    Solar power is extremely effective for running LED lights and small motors (like water pumps). Shortly I hope to get to the pumps, but for today I decided to talk about LED lights.

    Many of you reading this stretch back into the Prepping 101 days at GunsAmerica Digest, and if you were there, you saw me search high and low for affordable off grid lighting options. Without lights, in the winter off-grid living turns into a very short day.

    Fortunately, most of the off-grid lights lend themselves to winter. I found the Rayo lamp, which dates back to the the late 1800s, and is still generally available on Ebay for cheap (Lehmans sells the wicks). And I contrasted it with the Amish favorite, the Aladdin Lamp. Both will run diesel no problem, as will traditional cotton wick hurricane lamps. At the start of this Grid Down switchover I also covered a really awesome pressure lantern that also runs on diesel, and that baby is like 500 candlepower.

    Problem is, I live in South Florida, and even throughout most of the winter, all of those lamps are just throwing too much heat to be practical.

    So I went looking for a solution, and at first I have to admit that I wrote off solar completely. I have a lot of solar panels, and even some wind turbines, but when I ran the real numbers on them, I saw that you just aren’t going to be able to run a refrigerator or freezer reliably with them for any length of time. So I shifted my focus toward canning and other methods of food preservation, rather than rely on any kind of compressor, which all use several hundred watts of energy per hour.

    Then I noticed some solar lights my wife got for our backyard. They were easily bright enough to live by, and they recharged themselves even on the dreariest of days with a tiny solar panel. They are bright enough to even read by after your eyes adjust. They also seem to have a long life with no real degradation.

    So I went looking for a solar answer to run just lights.

    You may have noticed that LEDs in just about all lighting just exploded within the last 5 years or so. Even flashlights use them now, and the battery life is crazy. We went from the lightbulb isle at Walmart being full of compact florescent to not being able to find even one, seemingly overnight. That was because the last of the main LED patents expired in 2017. Everyone is now free to make whatever they want with cheap and efficient LEDs. You just can’t beat them.

    For off-grid, LEDs combine both low voltage and low wattage. So the circuits are simple and can use cheap components for the low voltage. And battery storage for them won’t break the bank because they don’t draw a lot of watts.

    Maybe this is TMI for a simple product article, but imagine my frustration when I found a really inexpensive battery powered LED lighting system that comes with it’s own small solar panel, and after arranging for them to be available at Starr & Bullock hardware for my readers, they didn’t work.

    Fortunately, it was my error, but it took a lot to figure out what I was doing wrong. They almost all went in the garbage. My friend in China had already sent us replacements when I finally figured it out. But it was a complete head slap at the time. Of course that’s how they work.

    Most people would have no reason to open the case, and it does seem to be waterproof when kept facing up in the rain. But because I thought there was a loose connection I opened them and found four of the 3.7v 18650 batteries that almost every Chinese rechargeable employs.

    This system is made up of two LED lights on cables, connected to a 10 watt solar panel and a built in battery bank. The bank is made from four of the fairly ubiquitous 3.7v Chinese 18650 batteries, and they are soldered in there, but could be replaced at some point if you so wished. Those Lithium Ion batteries are specifically made for long term recharging, and for being soldered and unsoldered. It isn’t something most people would even bother to check, but I opened up the battery pack at some point because I wanted to check for a loose connection.

    Because the darn lights would start flashing about 20 seconds after I turned them on.

    I figured out that the circuit board was designed to either be charging the batteries, or discharging them. Not both at the same time. So if you bring the solar panel into where you are using the lights, then turn them on, they start charging the batteries. So the board shuts off the lights. And this keeps switching back and forth, driving you right up the wall.

    To me, this is how most of us will use these lights. You charge them up in the day and take them in at night to use. The living room to read, for example, or the path to the bathroom. But they weren’t made for off-grid. They were used to light an detached garage, shed, greenhouse, whatever, and to mount the panel permanently outside, leading the wires inside.

    The secret is to simply put the solar panel upside down on a table. This blocks it from charging with the lights come on, and then the system works perfectly.

    All of the remote functions works as they should. It takes a common 2032 button cell, and does come with one with a plastic tab protecting it from premature discharge.

    A small remote controls the lights, and that remote uses a standard 2032 lithium button cell. These are sold in bulk at Walmart, Ikea, and even many dollar stores. it has settings for on/off, as well as timer settings for 3 hours, 5 hours, and 8 hours. You can also run the lights at 25%, 50%, or 100% brightness to conserve batteries during the grey weeks of winter.

    Even at 25% power you can read once your eyes adjust. Watch the video I go through it, and I show you the flashing phenomenon.

    One thing I did not cover in the video is that the power has an on/off switch on the back. When you press it, the light flashes briefly, and I’m sure that puts the board in discharge mode. So put it on the table, hit the button, and use the light normally.

    This also means that the lights cannot be used during the day, unless you flip the panel over on a table. So if you mount the panel on the top of your shed and lead the wires inside, even if the shed is completely dark, with no windows, as long as the panel is in the light, you will not be able to use the lights during the day inside.

    The remote has to be fairly close to the light to work reliably, so don’t mount them well above your head in a high ceiling or something. Each light is individually controlled by the remote, so unless they are within a tight beam of each other and fairly close, each light turns on and shuts off independently, and that goes for the functions as well. So if you wanted to leave on on in the bathroom at 25% power all night, and then just use the other one at full power when you go in there, you just point at them individually.

    Those seem to be the only quirks of this system. It seems fairly robust and durable. And those batteries like to be discharged and charged back up regularly, so use the lights if you can. There are more elaborate solar systems out there, and I will be returning to solar soon at least a couple more times. But for a simple plug and play system that is also inexpensive, I don’t think you’ll beat this guy.

    Complete Solar Lighting System – at Starr & Bullock Hardware

    Paul Helinski

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