About 15 years ago or so, there were very few options for commercial solar outdoor lighting systems. There was a single small, low-output light with a huge solar panel and battery bank. The lights that were produced looked awkward and bulky like they didn't really belong. The light fixtures had no pizazz, and the amount of light they produced was minimal at best.
As technologies advance, more and more options are available for a custom system for your application. Solar panels have become more efficient. LED light fixtures provide more light. Controllers have become more adaptable. And battery technology has evolved. This write-up will take a look at these technological advances and provide some valuable information to help you make an educated choice when looking for a commercial solar lighting solution.
Back in the beginning, old-style Cobraheads, clunky floods, and shoebox-style fixtures were about all that was used when it came to your selection of light fixtures. They used compact fluorescent lamps and produced minimal light at best. The need for reflectors and refractors was required to get the light to shine down on the ground or far away at a sign. There was little to do with optics and directional lighting, so it was difficult to determine where the lights would need to be placed to produce even illumination. Light pollution started becoming a large problem, with the light fixtures casting light in all directions and very little ability to direct the light only where it was needed.
With new efficient LED light fixtures, a solar lighting system was able to produce a lot more light using the same solar power assemblies. The number of systems that were required on a project started to reduce, and as the LEDs became more efficient, the solar systems were able to reduce in size. Directional LEDs allowed for specific optics to be used for various applications, and it allowed for better reporting long before the fixtures were installed.
Uplight has been almost eliminated with better fixture BUG ratings, and the fixture style line has increased to almost infinite possibilities. Using the same light board in one fixture as another allows for a range of fixtures to produce the same lighting pattern and levels as their industrial counterparts. This is great news for anyone looking for an option to match the architectural needs of an area.
Controllers have advanced in so many ways. Instead of just dusk to dawn or dusk for a number of hours, we are now able to do split timing, adaptive controls, and so much more. This allows the solar lighting system to adapt better to the project needs and not waste energy having the lights operating at full when they shouldn't or aren't needed.
Split timing allows for the lights to operate after dusk and before dawn for areas where all-night lighting is not required. This is perfect for areas where the business or space closes but may open again before dawn or even would just like to have their look active when people start moving about again.
Dimming the LEDs using the controller has also become an option to lower the requirements of the solar, and the added ability to increase to full where motion is detected has allowed for this to be used in more applications. This is a wonderful addition to the control options. The lights can operate from dusk to dawn at a reduced output and then only come to full output when they are needed, during times of motion. Then they reduce again until the next activation.
Please note that many manufacturers will automatically install adaptive lighting in all systems without being transparent or including a note in the fine print, and you should always be aware of exactly the programming provided for your system before purchase. This should be especially paid attention to when maintained light levels are required for your project, though with Title 24 and other provisions happening all over the country, this is becoming less common. Request an exact operation schedule that includes a light plan of the light at full and at dimming. This way, you can be sure you will never be left in the dark unexpectedly.
In the last 30 years, solar has increased in efficiency exponentially. With this increase in efficiency, the size of solar panels has greatly reduced, and you can get much more power from the same size solar as you could 20 years ago. This increase in efficiency, coupled with the increased efficiency in lighting, means that you can get much more light for the same size system as before. For example, in northern climates, instead of a large panel only able to handle 30 Watts, the same size system can handle 60 Watts or more.
The cost of solar has also decreased dramatically. The cost savings have allowed solar to become more affordable, and the incentives have helped lessen the costs even more, making the option for going solar, especially for lighting projects, more attractive. That, coupled with the lack of energy costs over the life of the system, makes using solar a win-win in many cases.
Battery technology has also improved; however, the costs of Lithium and other newer technologies have not caught up with the decreased costs of LEDs and solar. This can make them a huge part of the cost of a solar lighting system; however, as the adoption of these technologies increase, the costs will continue to fall, making them a more viable option
As you can see, the combination of increased power per size and decreased costs allow for the pricier LED fixtures to become mainstream and allow for a complete system that was once only a dream. Powder coating of the metalwork ties in the system to be more architecturally pleasing.
In the end, commercial solar lighting systems are moving right along by advancing along with the technology available. This is allowing for more and more options for the end user to customize a system to their exact need. The advances that have taken place over the last 10 years have been astonishing, and I am excited to see what the next 10 years hold.