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HOW TO BUY
QUALITY SOLAR LIGHTS

I was in the hardware store recently and bought a solar accent light on "sale for $2.99, discounted from $4.50. At checkout, the clerk said "people aren't that happy with those."

I figured as much. Unfortunately, many who don't like solar lights base their opinion on lights bought at huge discounts. Super low prices often mean discontinued models, and probably discontinued for good reasons.

Because solar lighting technology advances at a rapid fire pace, we recommend buying solar lights manufactured by solar lighting specialists and purchasing them from specialty solar lighting stores.

Traditional Light Manufacturers Recently Entered the Solar Market

It used to be hard to find solar lights made by well-known light manufacturers, whose focus was largely on low-voltage outdoor lighting. Meanwhile, solar lighting specialists were advancing their products and usually patenting the technology.

So while many big names do sell solar lights, they rarely incorporate the latest technology. They may cost less, but quality of light is inferior to what is available from solar specialists.

Availability of Replacement Parts

Solar lamps usually are the most expensive type of solar lights purchased by homeowners. And the parts most likely to break are solar panels and panes. Known offenders: thrown balls or storm-strewn debris.

Most specialty manufacturers can replace parts for low costs, far less than a new solar lamp. They know what can break and how to keep solar customers happy. One well-known company that recently began selling solar lights says on its website that "we do not have a system in place for customers to buy replacement parts."

Can a Store Discuss Solar Lights and Recommend What's Best for You?

Let's discuss three typical solar lamps you'll often see.

* Lamp A, made by a solar lighting specialist, costs $129.99

* Lamp B, made by the same solar lighting specialists, costs $ 299.99

* Lamp C looks similar to Lamp B, costs $89.95 and is not made by a solar lighting specialist.

We visited the 2 largest national home centers and got vague answers about the vast cost differences. The sales associate had very little knowledge of solar lighting. When we called their online customer service, the response was "please read the product description."

A specialty solar dealer can explain how prices are based on the solar power absorbed and stored, strength and duration of light, quality of the lamp's housing, and options.

The $299.99 light, for example, lets you choose and easily change between a longer but dimmer light or intense illumination for a shorter period of time. The $129.99 light stays bright for about 8-10 hours but sheds light over a smaller area.

Frankly, a good solar lighting retailer is unlikely to carry Lamp C. It lacks an on/off switch, uses cheap components and dated technology that likely would result in an unhappy customer. You need an honest sales person to discuss what's "under the hood."

Is the Most Expensive Light Always Best? Buy lights based on how you will use them. Just know that with solar lights, you usually get what you pay for.

High quality lights provide strong, quality for years. Lower priced lights often work well for one season or less.

Many good solar stores, for example, sell multiple low-quality lights for the same price as one quality solar light. Why? Inexpensive solar lights are great for one-time or recurring special events. As long you know what you are buying, no problem. Tip: look at a store's FAQs or contact the dealer.

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