Whats new in green gear
By Kristi Kates
Germany and Japan may be the biggest current users of solar energy, but with the advent of a new presidential administration - and the quickly-growing popularity in America of high-tech, green gear - solar as a power source is becoming more popular stateside as well, whether its solar panels on a house or an office building.
One of the coolest ways to get started exploring what solar power has to offer is on a smaller level, with consumer-level items - so weve spent some time checking out this years best solar gadget offerings in person. And these are our picks for those who want to go solar for summer 2009.
TAKE A SOLAR TREK
Love the great outdoors? Then well start with this trio of solar gadgets just for you.
The first has an extra level of coolness beyond even its solar functionality, as it benefits not only you, but also others. The BoGo flashlight was developed with the assistance of the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program, and its prototypes were tested in the harshest of conditions in Africa - which means its even more reliable for your car or home emergency kit. The bright orange model we received was reassuringly hefty and incredibly bright (with several different levels of brightness available via an easy one-button control) after about 10 minutes of charging in the sun.
And now that extra-cool part - when you buy a BoGo light ($59.00, www.bogolight.com), the company will give another BoGo light to a charity that you choose from their extensive list of environmental, literacy, humanitarian, emergency relief efforts, and even more.
The LightCap300 ($29.95, wwwsollight.com) offers solar light in lantern form, via four super-bright white LEDs plus a red LED for nightvision. But this isnt an ordinary lantern; its actually a lantern plus a water bottle, so you can drink from it during the day, let it soak up the sun, and then use it for light at night. We set our red-capped version on a table and hung it up, and it worked very well in either case; the red light was a great nightlight or would be good for checking a map; and you could read by the white light if needed. The bottle seems a little large for everyday use, but would work well for a day hike or camping.
Backcountry Outfitters in Traverse City (227 E. Front Street, 231-946-1339) will be offering something similar this summer, as explained by Eric, one of the stores managers.
We actually just ordered some water bottle lanterns, Eric says, the really nice thing about them is that they save batteries, and they also give a nice lighting ambiance to your campsite.
And even President Obama has been seen carrying around a tiny three-paneled Solio Classic Solar Charger ($99.95, www.solio.com.) The Solio - which can hold its charge for up to a year - gives you almost an hour of MP3 music time or 20 minutes on your cell phone for just 1 hours worth of sunshine. It can also power up a game player, GPS unit, bluetooth headset, or digital camera. And there are additional Solio units besides the Classic that offer even more power.
LANDSCAPE SOLAR STYLE
Adding a few summery lighting items is a great way to improve the look of your yard, patio, or balcony; and now you can go solar with these extras, too. You might want to start with Garden Goods in Traverse City (3510 N. US 31 South, 231-933-4769), where they carry some of the solar lantern line as offered by Allsop Garden (www.allsopgarden.com.)
Allsops hand-made solar Soji Silk Effects Lanterns are beautifully crafted in teardrop and square shapes, and are available in a number of shimmering colors; Allsops Soji Modern Lanterns, which are reminiscent of round origami, also make an artistic accent for any outdoor area. Our sample Soji Square Lantern popped up easily, looked lovely, and lit right away, although you might want to hang it in a less-windy area, as youll want to protect the internal bamboo supports.
Weve actually sold 400 of the Soji Lanterns so far, Garden Goods general manager Robin Smillie says. They have a solar cell on top and a rechargeable battery - they do a great job of glowing at night. Theyre crafted of nylon, so they look like silk but are more durable outdoors. We carry the square and teardrop Soji Silk Effects lanterns, which are $29.99, and we also carry the Soji Modern lanterns, which retail for $39.99. We are super happy with the product - theyve been wildly popular. People are buying them three or four at a time!
Allsop also makes the equally pretty Aurora Glow solar string lights ($56.99 at www.allsopgarden.com), which are definitely not your typical string of outdoor globe lights. These are hand-blown of a weighty glass; at first, we thought theyd be fragile, but although we wouldnt advise dropping them, they simply made a subdued windchime - like tone the few times they tapped together. Aurora Glows are available in a choice of four colors (white, amber, turquoise, and purple) and run solely from a single solar panel that sits quietly in the ground while the Aurora Glow lights glimmer above. The set we tested were gleaming white in the daytime, and in the evening glowed perfectly golden, living up to their name - these would look especially great wound through some thick foliage, and the solar component means theyll be glowing every evening on their own, as they conveniently switch on at dusk and off at dawn.
MAKE A SOLAR STATEMENT
Now that youve got your hanging lights covered, dont neglect the ground level, whether its a pathway, driveway, or garden border. Sentinella Lawn Lights from Smart Solar ($149.95, www.smartsolar.com) work in a similar fashion to the Aurora Glow lights - they also have their own miniature solar panel that rests away from the lights themselves, but feeds them enough solar energy to run from evening to morning. The sleek Sentinellas have a rich copper finish and a milk-white bubble top, and are perhaps the most solidly constructed - and definitely the brightest - lawn lights weve seen yet, with several LEDs per light.
A set includes six Sentinellas on one long string, complete with motion-sensor ability. There are motion sensors in both the first and last lights in the solar string, to easily light up a walkway upon your arrival, and then save energy by shutting off once youve passed the last light, a feature thats also great for winter, when theres less sunlight and therefore less charging opportunity. The Sentinellas are pretty terrific, and reminiscent of well-appointed professional landscaping.
If youd like to make an even bigger solar statement in your yard or garden, Smart Solar is back with their entire line of solar fountain birdbaths. Unlike a regular birdbath that can sometimes result in stagnant water, or the usual fountain birdbath that needs wiring and plumbing in order to work, these stand-alone solar models are super-easy - all we did was a bit of setup with the attached solar-run pump - and the running water is both beautiful to watch and calming to listen to.
The one we tested, the dark-toned Chatsworth ($249.95, also www.smartsolar.com), ran just fine, sending water in arcs from the top tier to the second level, which serves as the birdbath part; a large solar panel embedded in the top tier is what collects the energy, although this one definitely needs sunny days to work well. Our first test on a bright day, it ran fine; when we moved it for our (overcast) photo shoot day, it didnt get enough sun to be active, although of course the birdbath part still applied - but keep in mind that it actually did pretty well considering this is early spring, so these should do very well in the summer. And its striking enough to look at whether or not theres enough sun to run the fountain; its constructed of resin, so its not heavy at all to move around, but with its oiled-bronze finish, youd swear youd purchased a far more costly item.
BRING SOLAR INDOORS
And if you want to bring all of this solar power inside, you can do that, too. Obviously the aforementioned Bogo Flashlight and LightCap 300 are perfect additions to a kit that you might want to keep for power outages or other emergency situations - but there are still a couple of additional solar gadgets for the great indoors.
The Tanita HS301 Solar Scale ($59.99, www.thecompetitiveedge.com) is exactly what it sounds like - but not what youd expect. Its an indoor scale for your bath that measures your weight in pounds or kilograms; but more importantly, its attractive, minimalist white design hides a solar panel. This digital scale will never need batteries - just set it near a light source (even household light works), and it will run indefinitely so you can check your weight whenever youd like.
And last - but most certainly not least - is the futuristically-cool Boiler watch by Freestyle ($115, www.freestyleusa.com.) The first solar-powered watch from Freestyle features a solar-cell charged battery that can run 12 months on a single charge. Not only does it look hip - the flat, square black test model we received also featured a structured rubber wristband, detailed and easy-to-read display, and a nightvision backlight - it can also survive a water dunking just fine with its 100-meter water resistance, and it kept time perfectly, too; yet one more reason why it is, indeed, time to go solar.