Garden solar lights are a lovely way to brighten up an otherwise drab outside space, in preparation for some outdoor entertainment.
But when we asked the Which? Gardening Facebook group members to tell us about their experience of using garden solar lights, we were hit with a barrage of complaints and negative comments about them.
"I love solar lights but they just don’t last, it’s not worth spending a lot as even the most expensive ones seldom last more than a season."
But surely they’re not all that bad? We purchased 9 sets of fairy lights ranging in price from £7 to £70, and put them through a range of durability tests to simulate the delights of a good old British winter in February 2020. Read on to find out how they fared, and which are the best garden fairy lights.
The garden solar lights did prove to be harder to break than we originally thought. But by the time we'd finished only three out of nine lights were still working and showed no visible signs of wear and tear.
Pricing and availability last checked 27 April 2022.
The following garden solar lights breezed through our tough durability tests, designed to mimic the toughest of British winters.
Key features: 200 lights, 20 metres long (2 metres to the first light and then 20 metres), claimed battery life of 8-12 hours in the summer and 3-10 hours in the winter, 8 light settings, white light.
Verdict: Passed all of the durability tests, kept shining all through winter
This set also comes with a large solar panel, which is a little bigger than an A4 sheet of paper (twice as big as most others we tested). Powerbee says that this larger solar panel means that the lights should stay on for longer, and that they'll even work over the winter, which not many solar lights claim.
You get 2 metres of cable before the first light, and then 200 LED lights over the next 20 metres of cable.
This is the best set of LED solar fairy lights that we tested, and based on how they fared in our tough tests, we think they're durable enough to make it through even extreme winter conditions.
Update 22nd March 2022: These lights are still going strong after two British winters wrapped tightly around a tree in our test garden. We also discovered that the large solar panel that comes with the 200 string set we tested is efficient enough to keep the lights on throughout the winter, even in low light conditions.
Key features: 20 lights, 14.4 metres long (1.9 metres to the first light and then 14.4 metres with bulbs spaced at 80cm), USB chargeable as well as charging from the sun, claimed battery life of 12 nights from a full USB charge, 8 light settings, warm white light.
Verdict: Classy looking; the best bulb-shaped lights we tested
While these garden solar lights are expensive, they're durable, they look classy, and they're the best garden solar lights with bulbs that we tested.
The traditional style plastic bulbs encasing the fairy lights within look very delicate and sophisticated, but that hides an inner steel. These lights survived five consecutive days of sub zero temperatures, a night in the deep freeze at -16, sustained bashing against a fence, firm tugs to the wiring, a five minute heavy deluge in a shower, and being fully submerged in a bucket of water for an hour.
After all of this, all of the lights still work and there are no visible signs of damage.
One nice design feature on these lights is a tiny hole drilled into the bottom of each of the bulbs, which allows any water ingress into the bulbs to drip out. Other lights we tested with bulbs tended to fill up with water over time.
The ability to charge these lights through a USB port is a welcome feature, and gives them a new lease of life over the darker winter months. One thing to watch out for is the relatively long distance between each of the lights (80cm), this might make them less suitable for some outside lighting projects. But they're a nice looking and hard as nails set of lights that are well worth considering.
Update 22nd March 2022: These lights have now survived two British winters tied to a fence post in our test garden. The solar panel isn't as effective as our Best Buy Powerbee Endurance lights (above), but you'll still get a few hours light from these bulbs even in the depths of winter.
Key features: 30 lights, 7 metres long (1 metre to the first light and then 7 metres), claimed battery life of 8-14 hours, 8 light settings, warm white light.
Verdict: These little lights are hard as nails, they sailed through all of the durability tests we threw at them, and show no sign of any wear and tear.
Do watch out when buying these lights though, as we were expecting more - as in, more lights. Some of the images advertising the product showed a whole house adorned, and we neglected to spot the number of bulbs listed in the product description (there are only 30, and they're quite small), so when they turned up we were a little disappointed.
That said, the light that they emit is nice, and it's enough to tastefully illuminate the children's playhouse in the picture above, but not much more than that. So you might need to buy a few sets to light up your whole patio, but we don't think you'll be disappointed, as they're super tough.
Update 22 March 2022: These lights have survived two British winters, including extreme high winds, exactly where you can see them pictured above, on a child's playhouse. The solar panel you get with these lights is very small, so they'll eventually lose charge over winter and won't turn on. But when the sun comes back out in spring, these lights will start twinkling again.
Below we've listed the other seven garden solar lights we tested alphabetically. Nearly all of them either broke completely during testing, or displayed some other signs of wear and tear that makes us think they wouldn't last for many winters.
Key features: 200 lights, 19.9 metres long (3 metres to the first light and then 19.9 metres), claimed battery life of up to eight hours during the summer, It's recommended you store the lights away over the winter, 8 light settings, warm white light.
Verdict: During the six weeks these lights spent outside, including a week of sub zero temperatures, they started to show visible signs of corrosion on the wire underneath the plastic coating, but they did still work.
They flew through our shower test, deep freeze test, wire tugging test and being roughly bashed against a fence. But they failed the tougher water resistance test where they were submerged in a bucket of water for an hour. Water is able to seep into the charging unit, pooling around the battery and internal wiring.
While these lights might shine brightly in your garden for a while, we suspect that many sets won't last too long, and you'll see visible signs of corrosion on the bulbs in only a few weeks of cold wet weather.
Key features: 200 lights, 10 metres long, battery life is unstated, 2 light settings, warm white light
Verdict: We weren't too impressed with these lights as soon as we got them out of the box. You could see that there was a small amount of exposed wire as it entered the solar charger. Despite this flaw, these lights did survive all of the durability tests, until we gave the wire a sharp tug, at which point the wires disconnected from the charger, breaking the lights.
Key features: 100 lights, 10 metres long (2 metres to the first light and then 10 metres), claimed battery life not stated, 2 light settings, white light.
Verdict: These lights are cheap, and they look it. There's no plastic coating in sight, just a long reel of copper wire that can be bent and twisted around any objects you're hoping to illuminate.
The lights survived six weeks outside, including almost a week of sub zero temperatures, they also endured a night in the freezer at -16 degrees without breaking. But a few sharp tugs along the length of the wire dispatched these lights to the bin.
Key features: 200 lights, 20 metres long (2 metres to the first light and then 20 metres of lights), USB chargeable as well as charging from the sun, claimed battery life of up to ten hours, 2 light settings, warm white light.
Verdict: These are a good set of lights that survived all of our tests. But they don't quite get our Editor's Choice recommendation because despite surviving, there were some visible signs of corrosion at the end of our durability tests.
The plastic coating that surrounds the wire is green on these lights, not clear, so the corrosion is harder to spot, but it is there. Because of this, despite these lights still working and emitting a nice warm glow, we wouldn't expect them to last as long as our two top picks, both of which showed no visible signs of wear and tear after testing.
Key features: 20 lights, 6 metres long (2 metres to the first light and then 6 metres), claimed battery life not stated, 2 light settings, warm white light.
Verdict: These look pretty nice in the images used to market them online, and when it's dark and they're switched on, we think they're nice too. But in the light of day, they look a bit cheap. Particularly when viewed next our top picks.
While these lights passed all of our durability assessments, one significant design flaw is that the bulbs don’t have a little hole in them that let's any water ingress seep out. This means that they’ll gradually fill up with water over time. The length of cable is also a little stingy when compared to our top picks.
Key features: 10 lights, 3.3 metres long, claimed battery life unstated, 2 light settings, Orangey light.
Verdict: Despite our best efforts, the tough durability tests we put these lights through weren't enough to dispatch of them. However, there were a few signs of significant wear and tear, including the little cages that surround the lights constantly pinging off, and a few signs of corrosion.
It's also a very short string of lights, and they don't give off much light, as you can see from the image above. Even though they're cheap, because they're so small they don't have many practical uses in an outside garden space
We know that these products have an issue with longevity. They just don't last long enough, and too many end up in landfill, too quickly.
But we couldn't test these products over three or four years like we might like to. Ultimately by the time we finished the test, some of them wouldn't be on sale anymore.
So we designed a really tough set of tests to simulate the type of conditions these types of lights might endure over a few really tough British winter. Then we did leave them outside for one winter.
Water ingress is one of the most common causes of failure. So not only did we subject each of these lights to a ten minute deluge in a shower, we also submerged them entirely in a bucket of water for an hour.
After each of the water ingress tests these lights were put dripping wet into a freezer overnight, at -16 degrees.
Before the tests even commenced in earnest, these lights were left outside in a garden for six weeks over the winter. During this period the country shivered in a cold snap and temperatures in the garden remained below zero for five consecutive days.
We often aren't as gentle with our things as we should be. Untangling the lights, moving the lights, or even very windy weather can subject garden lights to quite a bit of a beating.
So we tied one end of each set of lights to a fence post and bashed it against a fence twenty times. We also gave the lights a tough tug along the length of the cable and where the cable enters the charging station.