Cutting the Cord – Living without Cable TV

December 7, 2010

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Solar Landscape Lighting – Upgrade

April 2, 2010


Hopefully you read my article on Solar Landscape Lighting.  In the article I described my journey to create a sustainable landscape lighting system using standard off the shelf landscape lighting fixtures and components, but with a twist. No AC and no transformer; just pure power from the sun. In the article I mentioned that I would probably upgrade the solar panel in the near future. Well sure enough, the future is here! Prices of components have continued to drop and I couldn’t pass up a deal on a 50W panel. In doing so, this allows me the ability to triple the number of the light fixtures. I had already sized the  solar controller and battery to accommodate the expansion. Night pictures are tough to take (for amatures) with a low cost digital camera but I want to show the results.  The above picture is of 5 standard landscape light fixtures with 21 pin LED bulbs using less than 10 watts total.  This is a vast improvement over any “off the shelf” solar landscape lighting system.

New Components:

  1. HQRP 50 Watt Solar Panel: At they are priced at about $160. The panel works great, but I had to rework the cable connectors as they use a unique connector that I was unable to match.  I used a marine grade connector instead.  If you remember; I started with a 15W panel that cost $100. This works out to about $3.2 per watt compared to $6.6 per watt with the old panel.

6 – 144940 20W  Manor House Light (no longer available, but any brand from a big box store that uses the MR16 style bulb base will work) Fixtures: individually priced at around $15, this box set of 6 drops the per fixture cost to less than $9. They are readily available at Lowes. Since wattage rating is not an issue; these fixtures are at the low end of the price point and easy to use. The heads are easily adjustable and the bulbs can be changed out without any tools.

  1. 6 – MR16 21 Pin LED Light bulb from LED-Mate: I am not 100% satisfied with this supplier but I have had fewer problems with their bulbs than others and they provide you a two year warranty. Their prices have continued to fall and are around $8. If you buy more, they will give you a price break.

This project started about 2 years ago, and the components have continued to get better in quality and the prices continue to drop. Granted, I have spent well over $1000 in creating this system, but with a lot of trial and error. If I were able to create the system from scratch using the components I currently have deployed  the cost of the system would look like this:


As mentioned, the 21 pin LED light bulbs do not have near the output light found in traditional landscape lighting fixtures so to create enough useable light, additional light fixtures are required. Adding 6 more fixtures to the system made a dramatic impact and at this point adding more fixtures will cost me about 20 bucks each since I have already incurred the cost of the system backbone.

Shoot me a note if you are considering a  similar project at

Product Review Eton FR150 Radio/Flashlight

January 30, 2010


On average, electrical consumers experience 120 minutes of power outage per year.

 If you read my post on Power Outages you already know about dealing with short power outages. I mentioned the Eton FR150 Microlink combination Radio/Flashlight cell phone charger device. I decided to invest the $30 to have something dedicated to emergencies only. If you follow the policies of the American Red Cross, you need more than a radio as they recommend assembling a kit of supplies to be stored for such emergencies. The FR150 was my first step. I purchased mine from REI, but have seen them at Electronics stores as well as various on-line sources for about the same money. 

I liked what I read about the unit and figured it should meet most of my needs. The FR150 will  provide you a AM/FM/Weather-Band radio, LED flashlight, a generic plug-in for a cell phone adapter and solar charging cell on the top of the unit.  In concept, I like the fact that it uses a long life  NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride)  battery that can be charged in 3 different ways; 1) A USB plug, 2) solar cell, or 3) hand crank. The NiMH batteries are used to hold the charge.

Fit, Finish & Look: The product comes in several colors (Redcross red, black, yellow and green). The FR150 has a fresh look and a bit techy. In green and yellow it is translucent allowing you to see some of the electronics beneath the cover.

Size: The product was a bit smaller than I expected and later found this to be a disadvantage.  I took this picture by a soda can so you can get perspective. The good news is that it can be easily stored. I keep mine in a drawer next to my PC, where I leave it plugged in to the USB port for constant charging. Even though the PC is not on all the time, it should keep it100_0417 well charged. The dial and labels are easy to read with light but nearly impossible to see in the dark. I found the knobs (tuning and volume) slightly small and it may be difficult to tune in a weak station as the frequency dial to knob-turn-ratio is a bit quick causing you to pass through the frequencies even while turning the knob slow. 

Battery Characteristics:NiMH batteries are rechargeable and are typically known for their quick recharge time, ability to hold a charge and expected life cycle.  It should last for at least 3 years assuming you keep the unit in-doors in conditioned space (air-conditioned). If you keep it in a garage, attic or the glove box of your car, expect the battery to go bad twice as fast. If you live in colder climates, they could last longer. TIP: Most battery technologies baseline performance expectations using  77F.  In other-words, if a battery product claims a life expectancy of 1 year from date of purchase, its all based on the battery remaining  (on average) at 77F.

Performance: The manual recommend the unit to be initially charged for 8 hours. 

  • Radio & Flashlight: I ran the radio with the volume at level 5, after 8 hours the reception became scratchy, I turned the radio off and the flashlight on and found it continuously usable for 11 more hours for a total of 19 hours of continued use without any additional charging.  Since the flashlight uses LED bulbs, it consumes very little electricity. During  a recent outage I got to use it in a real life situation. Even thought it wasnt totally dark, I found it difficult to distinguish the volume from the turner. So without thinking I could change the station in lieu of adjusting the volume.
  • Flashlight Only: With the LED bulbs, the flashlight will produce usable light for over 20 hours before needing a charge. But remember, you can easily wind the charger and regain the light strength. I could easily see using the light for some limited room illumination by reflecting off the ceiling, however, with the charge connectors and a less than flat surface on the back, it doesn’t really want to sit flat with the light aimed at the ceiling.  It was still usable in that position, but a little movement or bumping it could cause it to fall over.
  • Cell Phone Charger: I did not test this feature

After an event, plug it in or set it in the sun to regain the full charge.

Accessories: Not really, but I didn’t know what else to call them.

  • The FR150 includes a wrist strap that allows you to carry the unit much like a hand held camera.
  • USB outlet. You will need to supply the cord. USB on one end with digital camera plug on the other. I had an extra one, so I just keep the cord/FR150 plugged in all the time.  
  • The unit includes a patch cord that provides a generic power plug for a cell phone charging adaptor. Eton provides you a mail-in card to order, at no charge, for you to order one connector. This is a pain in the butt. I got lucky as I uncovered a cheap little AA battery cell charger I picked up at a trade show that had every adapter known to man as part of the package. If you are like the rest of us, within your household you probably have multiple different charger needs. If I were you, I would hold out until you run across a similar opportunity or find something at a dollar store for adapters otherwise additional adaptors may cost you about $10 each.

Overall Impression:I found the product to deliver as promised as a good product for use in emergencies and non-powered applications, such as camping or hiking. I liked the styling and choice of colors. The radio performance is about like the little pocket radios we used as kids, so beyond an emergency, I will stick with an Ipod for music. However, the flashlight performance was great. This is primarily due to the LED bulbs and its ability to be recharged without a plug. Just for that fact alone, having one in your car as well might not be a bad idea either.  The biggest disappointment was recognized during a power failure. All the radio features were difficult to distinguish in the dark. Since the flashlight and the radio is in the same unit, you just have to feel your way through it. So on a simple 1-10 scale, I’ll give it a 5.  If I were buy another one today, I would look for a  unit with large control knobs and possibly  illuminated dials.

Take a look at my recent article on Power Outages Part II for additional hints and tips.

Whole House Solar Landscape Lighting

July 2, 2009

A8Z13B9CA3D5A27CAS4GVOZCAKPXCYCCA5LKGM1CAAHFRGBCANED30CCA6TWYHGCAJBM3P4CACLJ7NMCA7F7M39CARUVRZBCAD43ASACAZ2Y7RLCAFKBJQ6CAQIZF9QCA7PZJM4CA0JRJ0ZCAE87VPSI like the concept of solar lighting but don’t like the choices. Mass marketed solar landscape lighting is pretty wimpy and in its current form will have difficulty competing with traditional low voltage landscape lighting.  Being the Techno-nerd I am, this seemed like a great opportunity to create a centrally powered solar landscape lighting system. By appearance, it looks a lot like a low voltage light system you would buy from a home center, but with notable differences:

Removed: AC Transformer, Incandescent Light Bulbs

Added: 15 Watt solar panel as a power source, 35AH 12 volt solar battery for power storage, and 6- 21 pin LED light bulbs with a MR-16  base (MR-16 base is used in most landscape light fixtures)

The most important addition was the use of LED light bulbs in lieu of traditional incandescent bulbs. Granted, the LED bulbs are not cheap but may last over 25 years running them 4 hours a night. When I started this project I paid close to $20 a bulb. Today, that same bulb sells for about $8-$10.  The light bulbs alone change the power usage from 500 Watts per hour to less than 15 Watts.

Standard 12 Volt AC Landscape Lighting Systems: This drawing is a general depiction of a landscape lighting system including 8 light fixtures with a 500 Watt transformer. In this scenario, using the 80% rule you have 420 Watts of usable power. If you used 50 Watt bulbs you have a budget of a little over 8 fixtures. 


Solar Powered 12 Volt DC Landscape Lighting System: For me, it’s cost prohibitive to build a 500 Watt solar lighting system. By converting the bulbs to LED and reducing the fixture count to 6, I created a similar system using solar power. Granted, the brightness will be good but not near as bright as the 50 Watt incandescent bulbs, but 6 to 10 times greater than the current breed of solar light fixtures on the market today.  If you look at the second drawing, I have removed the transformer, reduced the fixture count to 6, removed the connection to the utility AC and added the solar equipment and battery.


The Design:  The drawing of  the 12 VDC system is very similar to the 12 VAC system. Since I built the system from scratch, I allowed for growth considerations by enlarging the wire and battery sizes. If you are considering converting an existing system, validating your voltage drop numbers may alleviate future problems. Changing the bulb size or the number of bulbs can also alter the calculation, so adjust the calculation and components as necessary.  Here is the design criteria:

  • System controller has a non-adjustable LVD (low voltage disconnect) at 11.7 VDC (per Morningstar)
  • System controller will re-connect at 12.8 VDC (per Morningstar)
  • The CSB 12340 battery can provide 5.88 Amps constant current to down to 11.7 VDC (per their documentation) for 4 hours
  • Each circuit will not exceed 1 Amp of drain (= I in calculation) 
  • Use a voltage drop of .30 looped voltage drop (=V in calculation). Using a .30 will allow the bulbs to operate to 11.4 VDC before the circuit disconnects at the LVD of 11.7
  • The circuits will use 14 ga. (4070 CM) copper wire for each circuit 
  • Using the voltage drop calculator to calculate cable length, each circuit needs to be less than 55 feet in total length. If you need longer cable runs, you can increase the cable size from 14 to 12 or 10 gauge.

You can also use this on-line calculator from Southwire. The calculation is similar but is geared toward an AC circuit. But you can play around with the numbers easier with the calculator.  Because they use % voltage drop in lieu of true voltage drop, use 2.5% to achieve a .30 drop. 

Voltage drop Calculation     (CM/11.1)/I*V=L 

  • CM= Circular Mil area of the cable
  • 11.1= Conductivity factor for copper cable
  • I= Peak Current
  • L= One way cable length
  • V=Allowable voltage drop

 Product Solutions based on Design:

  • Battery: Using the CSB 12340 , I have a total Ampacity budget of 5.88 Amps for 4 hours of run time. NOTE: In an attempt to find a battery locally, the closest match was the CSB 12340 battery.  Since it exceeded my requirements,  would support future growth … I took it.  With the 12340 I have enough battery capacity to support a larger demand based on my 4 hour requirement
  • Solar Panel: This panel can produce 15 Watts or 1 Amp of 12 VDC electricity. Based on the battery, I can enlarge my system by 5 more panels, but with only one  panel installed, this element remains as the limiting factor in the system
  • Wire: One 14 ga cable will allow up to 1 Amp of current for a total of 55 feet. TIP: To create greater flexibility, I ran multiple runs of 14 ga. cable to different parts of my landscape, in lieu of one  (or two) long cable(s). This way, I spread the lighting budget over more than one conductor with separate circuits. Again, this allows me flexibility for growth 
  • Bulbs:  Using the Voltage drop calculator; at .16A per (21pin) LED, I can support 6 lamps over a 55 foot circuit. The LED bulb was a direct replacement for the 20 Watt bulb supplied by Malibu

Parts List:

  1. 200 feet of #14 ga copper landscape wire. Even though the wire looks very similar to lamp cord, the rubberized sheath is designed for outdoor and underground usage. It’s important to use the wire specifically designed for this purpose. I bought this from the Orange Box Store but you can buy this in bulk over the Internet a bit cheaper. As mentioned I created multiple circuits to build the system
  2. 15 Watt Solar Panel. Purchased from Northern Tool Company. The one I chose will allows  up to seven additional panels. Based on my current design, I am at the limit of one 15 Watt panel, so I will be adding at least one more panel to increase my fixture count
  3. 6 Malibu Landscape light fixture. I used the basic $15 fixture from Malibu Lights. Most normal light fixtures are rated by wattage and since I am using LED bulbs the Wattage ratings are insignificant to the project.
  4. Battery Charge Controller & Light Timer.The Sunlight solar light controller from Morningstar is a perfect controller for the application, it includes a charge controller, adjustable timer, low100_0500 voltage disconnect, and it uses the solar panel to determine when to start the lighting cycle. See the MorningStar Sunlight Controller webpage
  5. LED Light Bulbs. LED’s light bulbs are on the cutting edge of new lighting designs. For that reason they are still expensive with limited standards defining their make up and performance. The first round of bulbs cost over $20 each and lasted about 6 weeks. The second set I bought for $10 each have been working for over 6 months. However, the light output has varied with each shipment from a yellow tint to blue even though they are all supposed to be cool white. To date, LED bulbs increase their light output by increasing the number of individual LEDs in the bulb, I chose a 21 pin bulb with a wattage demand of 2 Watts per bulb (new styles are starting to show up on the market using fewer LED’s requiring more power and greater output)

 Innovation Comes With a Price:

 Solar WorksheetHere is a basic breakdown on the cost of the system. Both the copper wire and LED light bulbs were reduced to their current cost. I included a cost analysis on the electricity used for a standard AC derived system based on a 1000 Watt system. So, with a 500 Watt system the savings would be about $86.40 per year with a payback at almost 7 years. I believe the system could be cost-reduced a bit more over time, but it will still not compete in price with an off the shelf system AC powered system. 

The Cost of Operating a 1000 Watt Landscape lighting System:

  1. 1000 Watt used per hour of run time
  2. 4 hours of run time per night, 7 days a week
  3. 12 cents  a Kilowatt,  per hour charged by local electric utility
  4. 1000 Watts = 1 kW
  5. 1000w  x4 hours = 4000 W. 4000W x 30 days =120,000 watts per month
  6. 120,000w /1kWH= 120kWH per month
  7. 120 kWH x .12 cents = $14.4 
  8. $14.40 per month to run landscape lighting or $172.80 per year

 The Completed Solution and Conclusion:  Solar Panel2I started this project about 2 years ago and just worked on it when time and money permitted. For the most part it was fun to put the project together. Overall, I am happy with the results. I used the lamps with a bluish tint (cool white) and it gives the house an interesting look over the warm light found with incandescent bulbs.   Based on the 100_1901calculations, I will be adding another panel soon. By adding the second panel I can add up to 6 more light fixtures.

In comparison, the centralized solar system is superior to the stand alone solar fixtures hands down. It allows the use of all the different fixtures available on the market today as you are not restricted to fixtures with a solar panel attached to the top. Additionally, the battery life expectancy is a bit better than the small AA batteries found with the stand alone units. And even though the centrally powered solar system does not equal the AC powered version 1 for 1, it’s a lot closer in comparison. SolarControl Pnl1

If you are thinking of building your own system and have questions,  drop me a note  at

Make sure and take a look at my update on this project. The prices of solar panels have continued to fall allowing me to increase the size of the system.