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Republished from the pages of The Green Guide
It's almost time for Christmas and Hanukkah. And while the sun may not be shining too brightly or too long each day, there are plenty of solar-powered gifts and home appliances that'll get you and your family and friends through the winter and work great when summer comes around. Stand-alone solar isn't going to run your fridge, but it might charge your car or cell phone, run a toy car or small radio, or light up your garden even on nights after gray winter days.
The most useful stand-alone solar appliance is probably the solar outdoor light, which charges during the day and shines at night. If you have a garden or a yard, and you don't want to dig trenches for wires or pay bills to keep a light on half the day, solar outdoor lights are worth investigating. As with most solar, these lamps are not cheap, but pay for themselves in the long-term, although wiring and trench-digging can themselves be expensive.
The most premium lights are those specifically engineered for your needs, taking into account how cloudy your area is and other important variables. Solar Outdoor Lighting, Inc. (SOL) seems to be the preeminent firm in the field: they supply much of the government, including large military bases, NASA, the Statue of Liberty, and other institutions. However, some homeowners associations excluded, they generally don't deal with residential customers.
When contacted, SOL recommended Green Guide try products from the Brinkmann Corporation. Its home security lights start at just over $20 and are cheaper when bought in quantity; replacement bulbs are under $10 for packs of 2. The lights turn on automatically and come with mounting brackets. The cheapest solar lights we found online were IDC Sunrise, available through Cabelas.
Another interesting option, this time for indoor use, is tubular skylights, which use "light pipes" to efficiently channel sun into dark rooms, windowless or otherwise—solar-powered in the most literal sense. Creative Energy Technologies sells sets of skylights and pipes for $220 and up, though installation is not included.
Small solar radios can be useful in an emergency or on the go. Brandsonsale.com offers solar radio models that have five or seven hour batteries and can also be hand-cranked. Modern Outpost sells a Soltronix radio headset; its battery lasts 20 hours. RealGoods.com offers an especially fancy Freeplay solar radio that gets world bands and has digital tuning with a 20-hour battery.
The most interesting solar toys are still a little geeky—they teach you and your kids about solar power. The eLab Renewable Energy Set II lets you build solar-powered Lego models; the K'Nex Solar Energy System is similar, but with K'Nex rods instead of Legos. The Solar Car Book includes all the materials your kid needs to build a working solar toy car, though one Amazon.com review gripes about the car's quality. Edmund Scientific sells a variety of models, kits, and toys, including a solar oven and a variety of that old standby, the radiometer, whose glass bulb holds little solar vanes that spin in the sun.
Dankoff Solar customizes solar water pumps for a variety of uses, from drinking water to irrigation. As with SOL, they need to know your needs before designing a system, so no price quotes were available on their site. Altenergystore.com offers Dankoff well pumps in various sizes. If you just want to keep a decorative fountain going, you can use a lower-cost Dankoff Sun DeLight pump.
There are plenty of solar gadgets out there. The BatterySaver Plus sits on the dashboard and charges car batteries. The Brunton SolarPort works for cell phones, PDAs, and other small devices. This can be bought with the Brunton BattPak which charges up to ten AA and AAA batteries. The Lacrosse Sun/Moon Weather Station has a clock, a humidity meter, a weather forecast function (based on air pressure), an indoor/outdoor thermometer, and more. And if you're so committed to solar that you're willing to look like an idiot, you can get a Safari Solar Hat, a linen straw hat with a panel on the crown and a small fan in the brim.