by Malcolm Kay, Affiliate ASLA
In just a few short years, bench seating has evolved from simply offering a place to sit and relax to high tech community hubs. Benches can now be recharging stations for phones, laptops, e-bikes, and e-scooters; centers for monitoring and recording data on local environment conditions; music centers with Bluetooth speakers; Wi-Fi hotspots; and workstations with 120V power and overhead lighting—all within a compact, self-contained structure, free from any external power.
It was only seven years ago that the first solar powered smart bench with fully integrated solar panels was developed in Europe. The earliest models took the view that this new type of bench should look revolutionary in all respects, so side panels were square steel plate, painted a brilliant white with the seat basically being a flat panel housing PV cells, protected with a thick sheet of glass or polycarbonate.
Since that time, the design of solar powered benches has evolved considerably, with some benches now incorporating PV cells concealed so successfully that they resemble wood slats. Even the backrest of the seats can be used to house PV cells, increasing the power generating capacity without increasing the width or length of the seat.
Although a thick layer of shatterproof glass or polycarbonate is typically used to protect the PV cells, damage from vandalism may nevertheless be a concern with such a flat exposed surface, especially if the bench is installed in a remote location with no regular passing foot traffic. An alternative option in such locations are benches or workstations with PV cells sited 8’ or more above the ground, either mounted on a pole or incorporated in the framework of the structure. Apart from significantly mitigating the risk of vandalism, a side benefit of the elevated mounting is that the panels are generally able to be aligned at the optimum angle for maximum power generation.
In playgrounds, parks, and recreation areas, solar benches with pole mounted PV panels may often be more effectively incorporated into the overall design than flat bench models. Steel components can typically be powder coated in any RAL color to match existing play equipment or park amenities. Slatted wood seats surrounding the pole soften the overall appearance and provide adults with a handy spot to sit, watch their children play, and use their mobile devices, without the worry of a dead battery. Additional seating units in matching design and colors, but in other shapes and sizes, add to the joyful look.
At universities and colleges, solar workstations with an array of PV cells in the form of a large canopy, centrally mounted over a table and bench seats, are providing additional opportunities for students to meet and work outdoors, even after dark. The large panels not only provide some protection from the sun and rain, but supply sufficient power for overhead night lighting, USB and Qi phone charging, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and 120V power outlets for devices with transformers, such as laptops.
On sidewalks of urban streets or broad paved plazas with regular foot traffic, the more contemporary style of solar bench with flat, powder coated steel or stainless steel frames can slot into the streetscape without appearing out of place, in most instances. The ability to quickly charge a dead cellphone, provide a handy Wi-Fi access point, shine soft lighting at night, and of course offer a place to sit and rest, can readily justify their installation in such busy urban locations.
The flat side panels on these benches can house high visibility signage or can even accommodate LCD screens, giving municipalities the opportunity to post community notices, give notifications on upcoming events or gain extra revenue from outside advertising. However, the higher power demand of LCD screens will generally require the bench to be connected to an external electricity supply. In that case, these benches are exclusively powered by PV cells only when the LCD screen is not active, which would generally be outside busy periods during the day as well as late in the evening.
At locations such as bus stops, train stations, stadiums, and broad sidewalks, solar powered benches with a large vertical panel attached to one side of the bench, housing a poster case, are becoming a more common sight. With these high visibility display modules, solar panels will typically be mounted above the poster case, minimizing the risk of damage from vandalism. LED lights installed on the underside of the solar panel provide lighting to users of the bench as well as enhancing security. Depending on the power output of the PV cells and the battery capacity, LED lighting may be incorporated into the poster cases to illuminate the signage at night for a specific number of hours. USB and Qi charging ports for phones are normally provided at bench level.
Many municipalities, communities, and colleges actively encourage bike riding. The installation of appropriate infrastructure for cyclists is also important, and there are now solar powered benches specifically geared to the needs of micromobility vehicle users. An addition to integrated bicycle racks and charging outlets to suit the most common type of e-scooters, some models of solar benches also include an air compressor to inflate tires, a basic toolkit for on-the-spot tune-ups or adjustments, phone charging outlets and 120V outlets for laptop charging.
Ensuring that solar powered benches are maintained in an operational state and that any faults can be detected as soon as possible is of course an important issue, especially if they are installed across a broad area. Fortunately, many benches can be monitored remotely, not just to check the power being generated, the condition of the battery, and the overall health of the electronic components, but also through GPS locators installed in the benches that can alert the bench owner if its location changes unexpectedly.
Many solar benches include basic sensors to record the local temperature, air pressure, and humidity but may also offer the option of gathering more specific environmental information such as noise level, PM2.5, PM5, NO, and Ozone. Sensors to record the number of people using the bench may also be included. Typically, readings can be monitored in real time or batch downloaded at selected intervals.
In the last decade or so, we have seen small scale solar cells incorporated into all manner of outdoor equipment and facilities, solar powered seating being just one such example. As solar and battery storage technology continues to advance, and innovation in design of solar amenities continues apace, we can surely expect to see an ever-increasing use of solar power in outdoor urban amenities, bringing greater convenience, added safety and security, and greater opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
Malcolm Kay is the CEO of Archatrak Inc. with trading divisions including ArchatrakUrban and Archasol, a supplier of innovative solar-powered outdoor amenities and utilities for public spaces. At Archasol, Kay works with the world’s leading manufacturers to supply cutting-edge products powered by renewable energy including charging stations for mobile devices, bike path lights, illuminated bollards, smart benches with integrated sensors, and lighting for signs and posters.