I've been looking for some accent lights for my back yard for a long time, but was never quite satisfied with what was available on the market. What I found was either cheaply constructed, or priced more than I was willing to spend. Even some of the more aesthetic designs were constructed of cheap plastic that will not age well when exposed to the elements. In most cases the light that was generated was pure white, or some other unnatural color. I decided that the only way I was going to be happy, was if I custom made the lights myself, and I discovered along the way, that it was not as hard as I thought it would be.
You can up-cycle old tea light lanterns using inexpensive, off the shelf materials, to create solar garden lights that give a high quality ambiance to your outdoor living area. Purchasing a similar new item would cost about $15, but it ended up costing me about half that to construct.
Step 1: Tools & Supplies
- Soldering Iron
- Glue Gun
- Electric Drill
- Small Phillips Head Screw Driver
- Wire Stripper
- Box Cutter
- Solar Powered Path Lights
- Tea Light Lanterns
- LED Tea Lights
- 26 AWG Wire (or similar)
- AA NiMH Batteries (1.2 V, 2500 mAh)
For the circuitry I started with the Westinghouse 472218-08 8 Piece Concord Solar Light Set, Black (Amazon in 2015 for about $2.50 a piece). I purchased 7 tea light lanterns at a garage sale for $0.25 each. I bought the LED tea lights at a craft store for less than $0.50 a piece. Since the batteries that came with the path lights were only about 600 – 700 mAh, and as such would only last a couple of hours on a full charge, I purchased better ones at a battery store for about $3 each.
Step 2: Harvest Electronic Parts From the Path Lights
- Open the compartment that houses the circuitry.
- Cut the wires to the solar panel, and remove the solar panel from the top of the compartment. In this case the solar cell was attached to the top of the compartment with black silicone caulk, and as such was easily separated using a box cutter to break the seal. (Care should be taken to avoid working this step with much force. A broken solar panel, or being cut by a razor blade is a quick and needless way to end up in the emergency room.)
- Cut and strip two wires (one black & one red). Make sure they are sufficiently long enough to run from the solar cells that will be installed at the top of the lanterns to underneath the lantern where the circuitry will be housed. In my case, the wires were 12 inches long. Solder the wires and insulate where they were soldered (I used hot glue to insulate the wires).
- Remove the photocell from the upper housing by carefully cutting a trapezoidal shape from where the solar cell was installed to the photocell, and pull the component from the shell.
- Cut away the protrusion around the LED, taking care not to cut the leads.
- Identify which lead is the positive terminal and mark it. The positive terminal (anode) is the smaller of the two inside the epoxy lens/case.
- Cut the leads at the base of the epoxy lens/case.
- Bend the leads over being careful not to damage the lead connections at the circuit board.
Step 3: Prepare the Lantern for the Modified Electronics.
You will need to modify your lanterns to accept the electronics you will be installing. In this step, I have illustrated what I did so as to demonstrate some of the simple alterations you may need to make.
For the tea light lanterns I purchased, I needed to create a platform to install the solar panel onto. I used two nylon anchor nuts that are used for installing license plates onto automobiles. I cut the anchor nuts in half, and hot glued them to the inside corners of the top of the tea light lantern. I also bent the handle of the lantern out to make room for the solar cell.
Lastly, I drilled two holes in the base for wires to fit through. One hole was drilled in the corner for the wires between the solar cell and the circuitry. The other hole was drilled in the center for the wires between the circuitry and the LED candle.
Step 4: Solar Panel Installation
Glue the solar panel to the top of the lantern, and glue the wires along a corner of the lantern. Hot glue can be used for the wires, because you only need a little adhesion to hold them in place, but I suggest an epoxy type glue for mounting the solar panel to the lantern.
Step 5: Modify and Install the LED Votive Candle
- Put the switch in the “on” position.
- Remove the battery.
- Note the positive and negative terminals.
- Solder the positive (in my case green) wire to the positive terminal, and the negative (in my case blue) wire to the negative terminal.
- Insert the wires through the hole in the lantern where the votive candle will be placed.
- Glue the votive candle into the holder.
Step 6: Complete the Electrical Assembly
- Solder the red and black wires from the solar cell to the red and black wires on the circuit assembly that had previously been severed.
- Insulate the bare wires (I used hot glue).
- Thread the green and blue wires coming from the LED votive candle through one of the holes in the plastic base of the circuit assembly.
- Solder the green wire to the positive lead under the plastic base of the circuit card assemble, and solder the blue wire to the negative lead.
- Insulate the bare wires (I used hot glue).
- Glue the plastic base of the circuit card assembly to the bottom of the lantern using an epoxy type glue.
- Glue the photocell to the bottom of the plastic base (I used hot glue).
- Replace the existing rechargeable battery with the enhanced NiMH Battery.
Step 7: Step 7: Installation
Install your newly up-cycled solar powered garden lights in your yard, and enjoy your hard work. With the better batteries, mine last at least several hours, and some even last until the sun rises the next morning.