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So make a decision

“You’re cautious when it comes to spending money on practical things. Before you buy an appliance, you do lots of research to see which model will best serve your needs. This seems strange to your loved ones, who think you’re a spendthrift. While it’s true you have no trouble buying expensive artwork, clothes and furniture, you don’t like paying more than necessary for utilitarian items. That’s why you take pains to find well made merchandise that will stand the test of time.”

This uncanny prognostication from Yahoo! horoscopes this morning describes me to a tee.

How does Mr Russell Grant see so clearly into the grimy window of my soul?

I do indeed spend hours on the interweb thing, looking at everyday practical stuff, toggling between suppliers, carefully evaluating this and that, inured to the sneers of my loved ones. Then I make an executive decision to click and buy the biggest load of junk imaginable, or so it seems.

The ‘Canterbury’ solar light, for instance.

Last year, it seemed blindingly obvious that the solution to my dark garden at night problem was to go green and install solar lighting. As a working gardener, I had frequently dug up the remains of my clients’ cheap solar garden lights, especially the plastic pointy ends that snap off when you run over them with the lawnmower, probably acquired from pound shops; and dismissed them as complete rubbish, lasting barely a season and giving out wan illumination, at best equivalent to that emitted by a mildly intoxicated firefly.

The obvious answer appeared to be to source proper, more expensive architectural units, that would generate a decent current and withstand the rigours of the elements. So, Googling various solar lighting stores to compare units and prices, after several days online I stumbled across the ‘Canterbury’ and – bored with searching and having found several favourable reviews – took an executive decision to order three, at close to twenty pounds each.

What arrived was an unexpectedly large unit about fifteen inches high, featuring a circular mounting bracket, to which one bolted a hollow brushed aluminium base cylinder, fitted with a hollow frosted plastic tube for the light to shine out of; and, the operational part, a shallow ‘top’ (or as I would call it, a head) containing two rechargeable batteries, some circuitry and a switch. The actual light source was a tiny chip, almost invisible to the naked eye. Could this work?

The instructions were to screw the brackets to the wall and put the tops out in the open for three days, to fully charge the batteries before switching the lights on. After that, provided they received enough daylight, you could safely leave them on and they would continue all night to illuminate your path, deter intruders, and switch themselves off by day.

I have to concede, they looked very impressive, and I could scarcely contain my impatience to have them lit up and be able to move around safely by night (there are lots of steps) and entertain my friends on the patio, if I had any.

Sure enough, on the third night the lights shone brightly within their plastic cylinders. But not much further. The area beyond a foot or so outside the plastic cylinders remained pretty much in fustian obscurity. After a couple of months, one by one the lights stopped shining altogether, and inspection revealed that the switches and contacts had rusted; while a thick bloom of opaque discolouration had formed like a cataract over the tops, reducing the transmission of light to the cell.

I wrote to the Solar Centre to complain of this, and within minutes some extra ‘tops’ arrived by post. Bravo, I thought. Service.

The following spring, two of the three new ‘tops’ were no longer working, but I went ahead anyway and ordered three more ‘spares’ at nearly ten pounds apiece, and a fourth base unit together with its top, because they just looked so damned smart mounted on my studio and garden walls, even if they were pretty ineffectual. The fourth light was to illuminate the steps I feared falling down, as the nearest Canterbury light left the stairwell in Stygian darkness.

I noticed that there had been design changes in the meantime. The clear resin in which the solar cells were embedded now covered the entire surface area and was slightly domed, so rainwater could not pool or leak in. The metal switches had been replaced with non-rusting plastic, and a plastic inner shield had been designed to help maintain the waterproofing. The switch, too, now had three positions – High, Low and Off.

After leaving them out in the sunshine for the required three days, that night after dark I switched on all four head units for the first time. One would not come on at all, however much I jiggled the switch. Another worked only on the High setting. Fortunately one of the previous year’s batch was still working intermittently, so I still had three lights in the garden, except when it wasn’t working.

I’m sure Solar Centre would give me more top units, or my money back, if I complain. I am cautious not to spend any more, throwing good money after bad. But it seems a pretty hopeless undertaking. Then, what to do with four large, architectural-looking base units, uselessly bolted to the walls?

It’s an extraordinary problem, mitigated only by my having spent three thousand pounds last month on a gorgeous little Gibson guitar….

Sigh. You’re right, Russell. I had absolutely no trouble making that decision.


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