Getting mains electricity to any garden building can be a real pain. Using solar power means that you can cut down on all the hassle of running cables through the garden and tapping into the domestic power supply. But are the available solar powered products good enough?
Running Electrical Cables to a Garden Building
Let’s look at the problems of getting power out to a garden building. Some people simply run an extension lead out of a window when they need power in a shed or workshop, but it’s not safe and hardly practical if you want a permanent or semi-permanent solution.
Legally the cable from the house should be armoured or placed in conduit then buried to a depth of two feet. It can also be attached to a wall, either part of a dwelling or a garden wall, but note that a fence is not considered adequate. The supply should be on a separate feed from the consumer unit (that thing on the wall that used to be called the fuse box) and protected with a suitable contact breaking device.
This means getting an electrician in, now that the government has tightened up building control regulations concerning electrical work. It all adds up to a significant cost which makes solar power more attractive, as long as it can do what you want. At the moment there’s no regulation around the installation of electricity generating solar powered systems so you can set it all up yourself.
Solar Powered Lighting
Let’s look at lighting. If you need lighting in a garden building then it’s obviously going to be when there is insufficient natural light. Unfortunately that is the same time when your capacity to generate solar power will be at it’s lowest, so that means the systems will need batteries.
One of the most recent developments that helps solar power deliver is that of low-energy light bulbs. If you have some of these in your home alongside some old-style incandescents, try touching them when they’re on (carefully though!). You’ll notice that the low energy bulbs are a lot cooler and, as they aren’t wasting so much energy on heat, they need less power to deliver light. This makes them better suited for the lower output of solar panels.
Note also that the majority of solar panels for domestic use produce electricity at 12V or lower rather than the 240V of mains. It’s also usually DC rather than AC. This means that you can’t use household bulbs and equipment, you need to be a bit more creative.
A few years ago the rest of this article would be devoted to do-it-yourself techniques, buying solar panels, batteries and lights and hooking the whole circuit together yourself. But increasingly solar powered lighting kits are available, designed for use in garden sheds and workshops. The panel, batteries, light fitting and wiring all comes with the kit and it’s simply a case of putting it all together. Electrical and gadget shops stock these and they are beginning to appear in garden centres and DIY stores now.
Powering Mains Devices
Powering 13amp mains devices is another kettle of fish though. At current technology and price levels it is unrealistic to use solar power for the things that you would find in a workshop, like drills, lathes and power saws. What’s needed is a little lateral thinking, going for rechargeable tools.
If you can get tools with ordinary batteries then they can be charged with a solar powered charger, obtainable from electrical stores. With spare batteries you can charge some while the others are in use. But with power tools the batteries are usually custom made for each manufacture so you are back into do-it-yourself territory. In theory a charger could be made for power tools but it’s beyond the scope of this article.
Garden Office Equipment
For garden offices the challenge is a little easier as long as you are prepared to use laptops and other portable equipment. Again you have the problem of charging proprietary batteries but there are already universal solar powered chargers on the market that will work for small devices like phones and cameras. These provide a variety of cable tips to fit different manufacturers and if there isn’t one that fits your laptop it should be reasonably quick and easy to modify something.
You could go down the do-it-yourself route with a solar panel and build your own supply. This is quite possible as most laptops run at somewhere between 5 and 12 volts DC, so the power from the panel should be nearly right. But make sure you build a proper regulator into the circuit or you could overcharge and damage your laptop, or at least its battery.
Light, Not Solar
Finally let’s have a word or two about solar power, a slightly misleading name. It’s actually light that generates the power, not the sun, although of course it’s the sun delivering the light. But because it’s called ‘solar’ power people often think that it won’t work when the sun goes in.
This is not the case. Although a clear bright day will give the best results, even overcast days will give a significant amount of power. So take the blinkers off and give solar powered electricity a try, you might be surprised.