Going Green with Solar Power

Published on March 17, 2008


As I was leaving a client’s house the other day, I let the client know about our upcoming pond and garden tour which will help the local high school club acquire the money needed to upgrade an antiquated irrigation system and to buy solar power equipment for the local high school. The client told me her husband’s company is a “Green Company.” No, the company is not a flower nursery. In fact, the company he works for is a commercial real estate company. Typically, we used to think of “green” companies as those having something to do with the “green industry,” which is generally understood to be the landscape and nursery field. How is it, then, that a commercial real estate company is not just “Going Green,” but has taken the necessary steps and developed the language to consider itself “Green”?


Simply stated, “Going Green” or, being a green company, has to do with the stated goals and objectives of contributing in a positive way toward our environment. Whether it’s using products which help save water or perhaps implementing devices which draw less electricity in order to function, companies all over the world are joining the “green” revolution by trying to make a difference.


Starting with this issue, we will begin a new ongoing column, which will talk about cutting edge technology, and what you as a business owner can do to “GO GREEN” and make a difference in your community and our planet. We will discuss issues that are of interest to both pond and landscape contractors/installers. We will feature alternative energy issues such as fueling equipment like biodiesel, solar/electric and more. We will discuss how to install environmentally friendly and energy efficient water features that are in sync with current “green” lifestyles.


One red-hot topic, “fire and water” combinations in the landscape, will be a topical feature, as well as pool and pond combinations (recreational ponds) and growing edible and medicinal plants at the water’s edge. We will interview professionals from around the country in order to learn their “tricks of the trade.”


This month, we are going to explore the fascinating world of solar power and its application in the Pond and Garden World. As a child, you probably remember being fascinated by a simple magnifying glass. How thrilled children are to discover that holding the glass just the right way, in line with the sun, will result in enough heat to create a fire!


Our English word “solar” comes from the Latin word for “sun.” Solar power is generally used in one of two ways: as a heating source and as an energy source. Life on our planet has used the sun as heat for millions of years. Ancient civilizations built homes around technologies that would harness the sun’s ability to heat them in the cold months of fall and winter. Early explorers of the 1800’s experimented with solar collectors to cook food. As we move forward to our time, we see modern homes making use of solar power for heating water and air in our homes.


How does solar energy work? Solar energy harnesses the sun’s energy for use in a controlled application. This can be done either through the photovoltaic effect or by heating a transfer fluid to produce steam to run a generator. The most commonly used materials for making Photovoltaic cells (PV) is a special material that is derived from silicon. Light strikes the cell; a certain portion is absorbed within the semiconductor. The energy knocks the electrons loose, allowing them to flow freely. PV cells also have one or more electric fields that act to force electrons freed by light absorption to flow in a certain direction. This flow of electrons is a current, and by placing metal contacts on the top and the bottom of the PV cell, we can draw that current off to use externally. The current, together with the cell’s voltage, defines the power (or wattage) that the solar cell can produce. Of course, the solar cell process is way more complicated; however, this article is intended to only scratch the surface. Solar photovoltaics provide 0.04% of the world’s energy usage. When solar radiation meets our atmosphere, six percent is reflected and 16 percent is absorbed. Much radiation is lost due to clouds, dust and pollutants.


What is the most popular form of solar power in today’s residential market? The photovoltaic process is by far the most popular solar technology in today’s world. If you have a solar-powered watch or calculator, you’re using photovoltaic technology. In 1954, Scientists at Bell Telephone discovered that silicon created an electric charge when it was exposed to sunlight. Later, silicon chips were used for assisting space satellites. Solar power is catching on in a big way in the United States, where over 10,000 American households depend on solar power as their source of primary power.


Why doesn’t every home employ solar technology? Perhaps the biggest reason is cost. Although sunlight is free, the electricity generated by PV systems is not. Solar systems make a different kind of electricity than big power plants, so different wiring is needed and this is where major costs may be incurred. The panels cost a lot, as well as the open space that is needed in order to accommodate the wide panels. An interesting side note comes from Great Britain: Thieves are believed to have stolen three solar powered speed signs in a bid to cut their energy bills! The panels are worth about $14,000 each. Police feel that the crime was motivated simply, by someone who merely wished to generate electricity.


In the world of ponds and gardens, solar power has developed in two main areas: lights and pumps. While shopping, you may have seen and purchased solar powered lights for the garden. Although relatively expensive, they offer the advantage of not having to run wiring throughout the yard. As long as the location gets sunlight, you only need to take off the packaging and insert them into the soil. Solar powered lights are almost like mini-satellites. They generate and store their own power during the day and then release it at night. The satellites that NASA launches into space work on a similar principle. Space satellites store solar energy while it is on the sunny side of the planet and then use that energy when it’s on the dark side.


The usual component of a solar light is made up of the following: 1) A plastic case or housing. 2) A solar cell on top. 3) A single AA NiCad battery. 4) A small controller board. 5) An LED light source. 6) A photo resistor to detect darkness.


If you pop off the plastic housing, you will find that all of the working components are mounted as a single unit. Although solar powered garden lights are a fantastic concept, their application seems to currently consist of specialty lights such as garden statuary type of items. The solar powered lights that can compete in a real sense (both in price and durability) with low voltage lighting in the current pond and garden world are years away. Oase living-water makes an underwater ‘Luna Aqua” light which employs state of the art solar technology and comes with very close to modern low voltage underwater lighting.


Solar powered underwater pumps do exist! But remember, you get what you pay for. One important fact to remember is this: solar pumps are for domestic fountains, ponds and waterfalls. They are not to be used with biological filters, unless you have a very large power storage unit. Biological filters need to run 24/7. They are not to be used with lakes and large ponds that require more aeration than solar powered pumps can provide. The best bet for solar powered pumps is using such when you have no other option. This could be a remote location where running electricity is not possible.


Another challenge to solar panels is snow. Solar panels do need bright sunlight to operate properly. If your solar panel gets snowed on, this will decrease the amount of light, therefore, decreasing your pumps’ capacity to perform. This applies to solar lights as well.


In conclusion, let’s remember that solar power is the wave of the future. Unfortunately, the technology to run solar power for landscape lighting and pond pumps is still in its infancy. Look for breakthrough advances in this technology in future.

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