Decorating the backyard with a solar power

In the past, homeowners who wanted no-wire electricity in their yards had few options beyond solar-powered walkway lights.

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.

Homeowners, buyers like solar

New one-time tax break makes sun power attractive

Congress has renewed and increased the tax credit for wind power, solar power, geothermal and other energy saving power plans.

Buyers of green homes will benefit, but homeowners who install solar power in their present homes will get a 30 percent one-time investment credit in 2009. If you install a typical $25,000 solar panel system on your roof, you will get $7,500 in income tax credits. That’s up from a $2,000 credit under the old arrangement.

Home builders are finding that including solar power attracts more buyers. Big builders such as Centex and Pulte are including them more often. Even in a soft housing market, when Standard Pacific Homes put solar systems in a group of new models in a development, they sold out. The builder decided to put solar panels on all 304 homes in the development.

Sun power is most attractive in markets where energy costs are the highest, such as California, Connecticut and New Jersey. At OnGrid Solar, an industry research firm, they predict that the pretax rate of return on a typical solar system in these areas will be better than 15 percent each year.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which studies the effects of eco-features on real estate values, says more homeowners now view solar panels as a long-term asset.