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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

See Collectible Trains and Towns with Halloween Themes

Mini Solar "Lampposts"

This article is a follow-up to my 2007 article Ideas for Solar Lighting. In that article I described the lengths I went to to make some lantern-shaped, if oversized lights (below) look at least tolerable on my garden railroad. Of course, I've also published articles on using 12-volt lights in various ways, and there are advantages to using them. But there is a certain appeal to using something that you can install and move around without using wires.

Click for bigger photo.It really looks a little better than this, once your eyes have adjusted to relative darkness, but my digital camera only goes to iso 800. Click for bigger, if much grainier, photo.

Of course the people who make solar lamps for our back yards don't have any specific reason to keep the size down. And it's probably cheaper to manufacture the works the way they usually do, with the battery holder, solar panel, light sensor, and LED all attached directly to the tiny circuit board. But if you choose that design method, then the diameter of your lamp is going to be affected by the size of the AA cell(s) you're using. A 2" battery, inevitably located "off-center" of the lamp "head" means that the lamp "head" will be 2.5"-3" in diameter. Most are larger, of course. This isn't a bad thing for casual gardeners, but it's less than optimum for garden railroaders who would like easy lighting without installing something like glowing water towers all over their railroads.

I know, the solar panel's size is important, too, but they're constantly making advances there - a 1.5"x1.5" solar panel today may outperform a 3"x3" solar panel of a few years ago. That leaves the combination of low-cost manufacturing processes and 2" batteries as the main reason nobody has really downsized solar lamps before now.

Click for bigger photo.Welcome the "2/3" AA battery, shown at the right next to a standard AA rechargeable. This allows the manufacturer to make solar lamps as small as 1.75" in diameter, visibly smaller than anything else that's commonly available. The battery itself isn't impressive - it's a 200mAh NiCad, in contrast with the 450-600mAh rating of most NiCad AA cells packaged with solar lights. But the lamp was so tiny and cute and inexpensive ($2 at Big Lots, $1.50 at Meijers) that I just had to try one out.

Click for bigger photo.They're not huge, but that's a good thing. The Big Lots labels appear on the example to the right - the Meijers version is identical except for the brand name and price on the sticker. When they come, the stake is stuck inside the plastic tube/post. If you're not careful when you pull them out of the display box, you can leave the stake behind - several folks have.
Click for bigger photo.

The mini lamp disassembled.The three main parts twist easily apart. The lamps come with a little orange strip that keeps the battery from being charged or discharged. You pull it out, and the lamp is ready to go. Of course if you're curious like I am, you can get to the battery/circuit board arrangement by removing three screws, as shown to the right.

It's not THAT impressive, compared to the bigger circuits, etc., I've seen in solar lamps over the years, and I was really surprised to see that the battery is only rated for 200mAh. How good can it be, I thought, as I screwed the thing back together and set it out to charge for a day.

The answer is, pretty impressive. Several hours after darkness, it was the only solar lamp glowing on my railroad. And it was glowing brightly, besides. Yes, the battery was new, but that's still impressive for a 200mAh battery-run device of any age.

I had to run to town several times last week, so it was no great hardship to pick up a couple more of these and also one of the larger $3-4 Westinghouse stake lights for comparison. Yes, the Westinghouse lamp had a bigger, nicer diffuser and was more solid in general. But when I took it apart, the only difference between the "guts" of the Westinghouse lamp and the mini lamps was the size of the battery. The circuit board was identical, and the batteries were the same brand, suggesting that the same Chinese factory made them both.

And this was even more interesting: I put a fully-charged 2300mAh rechargeable in the Westinghouse and tried to see if it seemed any brighter than the mini lamp, which had been charging in bright sunlight for a few hours that morning. It didn't seem any brighter at all. Ouch. The Westinghouse lamp went back to Meijers, where I bought several more of the little ones.

I fully expect the sub-powered "2/3 AA" batteries to give out in a year, which could be a problem if you are afraid of popping a true AA NiMH battery in the thing's post and running wires. In the meantime, they're fun to play with. In the photo below, the first three lights you can see on the left are from the set I repainted in the 2007 article. The rest are the little mini lights. No, they don't look exactly like lamps, but they cost very little and install in a heartbeat.

Of course, I can't help thinking of ways to make these look a little more like street lights. But, also, I can't help thinking that a row of these alongside a trolley track or something would give a nice effect. Too bad my Meijers is almost out of them. I wonder why?

Click for bigger photo.


If your trains and towns are still left completely "in the dark" when the sun goes down, this is a way to fix that problem in a hurry without breaking the bank.

Please contact me with any corrections or additions, or to share your experiences. We are always glad to hear from other folks who like trying stuff out.

Best of luck,


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