Improved technology is now making everything available from a lighted patio umbrella ($190 from hammacher.com) to water fountains to stepping stones to light the way across the yard ($100 for three from jacksonandperkins.com).
At Target stores, you could get a $130 outdoor shower with solar-powered hot water. At Gaiam Real Goods, Broomfield, Colo., they stock 15 solar products including a copper patio fountain, mulching mowers, and birdbaths with burbling fountains.
The demand for solar power, especially among nations without large oil reserves, has increased more than 20 percent annually over the past two decades. Japan makes more than 45 percent of the world’s solar “cells,” They are efficient and cheap to operate.
Going solar is still only practical for things that don’t take much power, like the small panels embedded in solar stepping stones. Gadgets requiring more power use a solar panel that is about a foot square and requires five hours of daylight a day to operate correctly. They work if the sky is overcast, but not if there is no sunshine at all. Many have battery backups.