Landscape Lighting 101
Add beauty and security to your home exterior with planned landscape lighting.
Landscape lighting can turn a visitor from feeling wary to welcome. It can change the rest of the yard from Nightmare on Elm Street to Some Enchanted Evening, all with the flip of a switch.
The first step in this transformation is to educate yourself about the possibilities. Because photos rarely do justice illustrating the amazing possibilities of landscape lighting, keep an eye out for good examples when you’re out for an evening stroll or drive.
The strong lights typically used for entrances and to illuminate large areas, such as driveways and decks, are powered by a 120-volt current. A qualified electrician must wire them directly to your circuit box and the cables, held within a protective conduit, must be buried at least 18 inches below ground. If you have these fixtures, make sure they are UL-listed and approved for outdoor use. The 120-v outdoor lights are also preferred for security applications, especially when combined with motion detection.
When less light is sufficient, low-voltage fixtures (12- to 15-v) are the norm. These include accent lights, path lights, and small floodlights. The fixtures are smaller and less obtrusive, use less energy, and are far less worrisome when in wet locations. They can also be plugged into an outdoor receptacle, making them ideal for do-it-yourself installations. The wiring does not require tools, and the cables do not need to be buried.
Solar-powered outdoor lights, a third option, are of course dependent upon exposure to the sun, and are variable with regard to output and when they turn on. They are best used to light paths where they are exposed to full sun throughout the day. Don’t put them in the shade!
Planning for Outdoor Lighting
Plot out your ideas on graph paper. Draw the footprint of your house to 1/8″ scale and sketch in all major landscape elements, including fences, decks, tree, paths, driveways, and garden beds. Include the location of any existing or proposed outdoor receptacles as well.
Make notes about what you’d like to illuminate and then decide which fixtures will do the job best. Try to use a variety of lighting techniques. Avoid overly bright and dark areas, and avoid glare for both visitors and your neighbors. Do not place path lights too closely together to avoid the “runway” look. You’ll also have to decide about fixture style, too, of which there are many!
Entry lanterns or sconces: 120-v fixtures that mount beside doors. They should be either frosted glass or shielded to prevent glare. Their size should be proportional to the height and width of the entry area (often defined by a portico).
Recessed lights: 120-v fixtures typically installed in eaves over decks and garage doors. They provide large pools of light but are mostly hidden. Small, low-voltage recessed lights can be used to light stairs, railings, posts, and built-in deck furniture.
Floodlights: 120-v or low-voltage fixtures used to light wide expanses and large interesting objects, such as driveways, stonework, and trees.
Path lights: Usually low-voltage fixtures that illuminate paths by casting small pools of light on the ground. Sometimes, perforations in the light shield allow the lights themselves to be used as guides.
Spot light: Similar to floodlights but with a narrower beam for highlighting a specific object, such as a shrub or statuary.
In-ground light: 120v or low-voltage fixtures that are buried in the ground and covered with a gasketed lens. The beam can be angled slightly to illuminate a wall, tree, or fence.
Hanging or pendant lighting: 120-v fixtures that are frequently used for entry or porch lighting. Low-voltage hanging lights strung in trees, arbors, and pergolas have become popular as decorative accents.
Tip: You can simulate the effect of many of these lights with a strong flashlight. For an uplighting effect, hold the flashlight below the object or surface you wish to light. For a downlight effect, hold it above. Hold a reflector, such as a piece of white cardboard over the flashlight and place it beside a path to simulate a path light. If the effects you want to achieve are sophisticated, consider discussing them with a landscape lighting designer.
Installing Low-Voltage Lighting
With plan in hand, add up the fixture wattages. Purchase a transformer that’s rated slightly bigger than the total, so you can add a fixture or two later if desired. Most homeowner-grade transformers are designed for outdoor use only. If you want to mount your transformer indoors, upgrade to a commercial-duty transformer. Though often double the cost, pro-quality transformers will also allow you to adjust wattages in multi-line systems to account for voltage drop in your lines. Voltage drop causes unevenly lit fixtures and premature bulb burnout.
Draw possible cable runs on your plan, and choose the one that uses the least amount of cable. You’ll have better results if you group fixtures by distance from the transformer and run separate cables to each group. If you are using more than one run, try for equal cable lengths and about the same wattage requirements on each.
You will find more cable plans, like the one above, at Malibu Lights.
Finally, follow the maker’s directions for the gauge cable you’ll need. Generally, if your cable runs do not exceed 100 feet, you can use 16-gauge cable. If your runs are longer, you’ll need 12- or 14-gauge cable. (The lower the gauge number the heavier the cable.)
Mount the transformer within one foot of a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) and at least one foot above grade, more if you’re subject to heavy snowfalls. Plug in the transformer and install a rain-tight cover over the connection, if one does not already exist.
Connect the cable or cables and lay out the cable according to your plan. Avoid installing the first fixture within 10 feet of the transformer to prevent it from getting too much voltage and burning out prematurely. Install the remaining fixtures at the planned locations. Quick connects make this a tool-less job. Just press the connectors together to push the prongs into either side of the cable.
Before burying the cable, observe the effect of the lights at night. Move the fixtures as necessary. Once satisfied, bury the cable in a few inches of soil or anchor with tent pegs and cover with mulch. Then program the transformer to turn the lights on and off automatically as desired.
Tip: Consider using two smaller transformers for larger, more complex installations, rather than one large transformer.