After a long hot summer, neighbors are getting reacquainted, their heat-induced cocoons broken open.
On Meyer Avenue in downtown Tucson, neighbors recently met in the street for cocktails in the twinkling light of solar lamps. It was a going-away party, block party and celebration of the onset of fall all at once. It was the most recent of a long string of evening block parties.
Some seven years before, one of the neighbors attending, Heather Holman Wuelpern, had been struck with the idea of installing some permanent seating and lighting for these meet-ups. She was tired of hauling furniture out into the street.
Wuelpern began scouring Tucson Iron & Metal for funky metal parts and bought tractor seats on eBay. To help pay for the project, she received a $1,500 grant from PRO Neighborhoods. Part of the grant was for solar lights, stained-glass-styled lamps she bought at Home Depot.
"We wanted something that would be lit up throughout the night," Wuelpern said. "I was happy with how easy it was. We didn't have to rewire anything."
The lights provide the dim glow that Wuelpern, an interior designer, was looking for. "It's just enough to show that the chairs are there," she said. And she's had no trouble with the light batteries. "I was surprised they lasted as long as they have."
The seating area draws in neighbors and sometimes strangers looking for a quick respite in the shade. At dusk, it's not uncommon to see dog walkers stopping there to chat on the way home from the park.
The neighbors of Meyer Avenue are not alone in gathering in the low light of solar lamps. D. J. Ernle, a manager at Harbor Freight Tools, says do-it-yourself solar light kits are flying off the shelves. "We sell something solar to four to five people in an hour," he says. "We sell a ton of it."
While the do-it-yourself kits are easy to install - just stick them in the ground - and inexpensive - as cheap as $3 per solar walk light - some customers have expressed reservations about maintenance.
Cody Barnes, a sales associate at Ace Hardware, noted that the replacement batteries cost about $7 for a four-pack. "If you drain the batteries all the way down, you lose the batteries quicker," he said. "That's where the cost is."
Hampton Bay, the solar light company whose lights are sold at Home Depot, recommends replacing the batteries in their lights once a year. The lithium batteries cost $13 for two, and their nickel cadmium batteries go for less than $8 a four-pack.
Hardware store managers, landscape designers and solar advocates agree that when people consider outdoor lighting, they are increasingly looking for eco-friendly options. For those looking to spend just a little, do-it-yourself kits are a perfect match, even with a bit of maintenance required. At a hardware store, it's easy to find path-lining lamps, sconces and even tube lighting to fit most aesthetics. For those amenable to spending a bit more and interested in lighting larger areas, solar advocates recommend installing a solar panel and using low-voltage lights.
Phil Barry, a sales representative at The Solar Store, said outdoor solar lighting on a large scale makes the most sense in remote areas where running electricity is unfeasible or too expensive. But people are calling to inquire regularly. "There is more of a market than there was," he said. "We get a fair amount of calls. We used to have to assemble everything ourselves, but there are preassembled kits now."
There are not, however, a lot of top-market solar landscape lights for sale yet. Landscape designers tend to recommend low-voltage lights, which use very little electricity because of LED technology.
"I haven't seen anything (solar) out there yet that I would recommend to my clients," said Ted Essig, owner of Sky Valley Landscape. "They don't really illuminate at enough scale."
For clients interested in eco-friendly options, Essig recommends LED lights. The maintenance is painless, he said. "They pretty much never have to mess with them again."
And the cost of power for nighttime lighting, once averaging 5-15 cents a night for his clients, has dropped to a fraction of a cent.
"If you drain the batteries all the way down, you lose the batteries quicker. That's where the cost is."
Ace Hardware sales associate
Where to find them
You can buy inexpensive outdoor solar lighting kits at several local hardware stores including:
• Ace Hardware, 745 E. Ninth St.
• Home Depot, 3689 E. Broadway
• Harbor Freight Tools, 5570 E. 22nd St.
• Check that you are buying a solar light with replaceable batteries.
• Change out the light's batteries about once a year. Batteries cost $7-$13 per package at hardware stores and can be recycled at the Battery Factory, 2552 N. Oracle Road.
• Choose a sunny location for the lights to ensure a full charge and the long life of your batteries. It takes 6-10 hours for the solar cell to charge completely, depending on the exposure.
• For more information about solar outdoor lighting and other energy-efficient lighting options, check out the U.S. Department of Energy's Outdoor Solar Lighting page: www.energysavers.gov/your_home/lighting_daylighting/index.cfm/mytopic=12170
Solar-powered lights may not be a feature of most high-ticket landscaping jobs yet, but the technology is steadily advancing in that direction.
Some companies, such as Solar Illuminations, which sells its lights online, have found a niche in somewhat more expensive products. Accent lights cost between $15 and $40, and wall-mounted lights begin at $100.
In exchange for the higher price tag, the customer gets as much as 12 hours of light even in shady spots and brighter light, often in the form of more LED bulbs, according to the company's website, solarilluminations.com
Among other advertised benefits are a lampshade made from glass or another nonplastic material and, in some cases, an off switch. The company also offers a greater range of products than can be found in local hardware stores, including floodlights and even lights that can be submersed in a pool.
Carli Brosseau is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com