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Solar lamps: These have LEDs that last longer than traditional bulbs. Courtesy Ikea

Solar lamps: These have LEDs that last longer than traditional bulbs. Courtesy Ikea

Bright gadgets, dull designs

Bright gadgets, dull designs

I like solar-powered gadgets. Partly it’s a desire to go green and save money on electricity bills, and partly it’s the geek in me. Over the years, I have acquired quite a few solar garden lights, solar lamps for my desk and a floating solar fountain. Some were bought, and many came as gifts.

Solar lamps: These have LEDs that last longer than traditional bulbs. Courtesy Ikea

The Solar-Powered Double Rainbow Maker hanging on our window fills the room with splashes of colourful light. It has a tiny solar panel, a simple see-through mechanism and two hanging crystals. Every morning, for two or three hours when the rays of the sun fall directly on the solar panel, the tiny machine starts whirring and the two rotating crystals throw rainbow colours on the walls of the room. It’s a fun toy to have around (search for Kikkerland Solar-Powered Double Rainbow Maker on Amazon).

My longest-running solar gadget, and the one I found most useful, was the floating water fountain that I had put in a large pot in the garden. Throughout the day birds would come to drink water, balance themselves gingerly on the floating gizmo, bathe quickly under the sprinkle, and fly off. It wasn’t a very attractive design; like most solar fountain designs that you see on the Internet, ours was 100% kitsch. But it gave us immense joy.

These toys do not have a battery; they work only in direct sunlight. And once the solar panel wears off—which is probably what happened to the sunflower and the fountain—they stop working altogether.

The solar garden lights are more talking-point than utility: they look nice at night but are not a replacement for the regular bulb. Unlike the sunflower, the rainbow-maker and the fountain that work only in direct sunlight, the solar lights use a different principle: They have batteries that get charged during sunlight hours and you switch them on at night (some have a sensor and switch on automatically at sunset). These rechargeable batteries last about two years and are quite expensive to replace as compared to the regular batteries that go into the TV remote or the digital clock on the wall.

A few years ago, I picked up a solar lamp for my desk from an Ikea store in the US. Not that I needed one, but it’s hard to resist Ikea products. I liked the bright yellow colour and the minimalist design, and the price (around $20, or 1,075) was just right. These lamps have LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that last longer than traditional bulbs. Some months ago, the batteries drained out. After checking the price in our local market (about 600 for a set of three), I decided not to replace them.

Instead, for 850 I picked up a nice-looking solar lamp (not as sleek as Ikea but definitely sturdier) called Sun King. Designed by an American company, Greenlight Planet (they have an office in Mumbai), Sun King gives much more light than my Ikea lamp and also lasts longer on a day’s charge. You hang the solar panel in the sun outside a window, and keep the lamp in the room. The manufacturers claim that it gives 16 hours of light from a full day’s exposure to sunlight, and also has a longer battery life.

My problem with most solar products sold in India (I mean lamps and lights and not the heavy-duty geysers) is their horrendous design. Just because they are made for rural use doesn’t mean that they should be ugly. I’ve come across a few exceptions on websites of Indian companies, but the choice is rather limited. As for solar toys like the floating fountain or the rainbow-maker, I have not seen a single Indian product. Pity, because they are such a lot of fun.

Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.

Write to Shekhar at

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