Light Your Landscape
Get tips for choosing a landscape lighting system for your yard and outdoor areas.
Exterior lighting is the most popular outdoor living feature among homeowners, according to a recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects, which found that 96.2 percent of homeowners want to light up their outdoors.
And many are going far beyond the traditional porch light and lamppost.
Strategically placed landscape lighting is used to illuminate walkways, accentuate key features like plants, trees and architecture, and provide a sense of depth to a yard at night. Besides extending the length of time you can spend outdoors in the summer, landscape lighting is a godsend in the winter, especially when the sun sets at 5 o'clock in the afternoon or you have to get up before work to shovel the sidewalk.
The popularity of landscaping lighting is due in part to improved technology. Newer low-voltage systems are significantly easier and less expensive to install than line voltage systems, which used to be such a major and costly undertaking that you rarely saw them outside of large estates or commercial properties. Low-voltage lighting systems can be installed in a day, use one-third the energy of a 12-volt security lighting system, and provide flexibility for custom lighting designs that can be easily changed or updated over time. An average system of 15 to 20 lights with a 600 watt transformer costs about $320 per light, installed.
Low Voltage Lights
Although it's smart to integrate lighting into your landscape plan from the start, "the beauty of low voltage is that you don't have to plan ahead. You can add them later to a landscape or move them as a tree grows or you change the shape of a bed," says Joe Densieski, president of NU Green, a landscape design firm in Riverhead, N.Y.
That's because, unlike old line voltage light systems that required 18-inch deep trenches, low voltage lines need only 6-inch-deep channels, deep enough to avoid lawn mowers but little more hassle to move than a clump of hostas.
Many of the newest systems operate with LED lights that use much less electricity and save you the hassle of changing bulbs for years. According to manufacturer CAST Lighting, "While 120-volt fixtures are typically designed to flood light in all directions, low voltage fixtures are designed for precise control of the light beam. Instead of wasting light energy, the designer directs the light where it is needed."
Walkways and paths are key areas to illuminate so you can navigate through your yard safely at night. Light the way with a series of low fixtures with squat canopies, which control glare and serve as design element or more subtle directional fixtures. Wall lights and tread lights on stairs further enhance safety. You can even light the way with lights embedded in artificial rocks.
Accent Lighting and Moonlighting
"Go for a focal point," advises Densieski. He suggests shining a light down from a tree into a swimming pool to produce a shimmery glow that bounces off the side of the house. "The flickering light looks phenomenal," he says. "Beautiful and relaxing."
Strategically placed low-voltage fixtures that pivot on a base can be directed to accentuate trees, plants, water features and architecture. Use can-shaped well lights recessed in hardscaping or turf to uplight a tree and create the illusion of moonlighting.
"You don't need a ton of lights to make a big impact," says Pete Marsh, a landscape designer with Buck & Sons in Columbus, Ohio.
Motion-sensor floodlights are intended to scare off intruders, but they can also be counter-productive as the too-bright light creates instant, blinding glare and deep shadows, where trespassers can hide. Lower intensity lighting selectively illuminates larger areas of your property and won't cause night blindness when you're peering out your window trying to figure out what just went bump in the night.
"Potential criminals are much less likely to attempt to hide in a well-lit landscape than a dark one," says Marsh. "You can add analog or digital timers to your system so that the lights will automatically turn on and off at a time set by you. A photocell can make things even easier by turning your lights on at dusk and off again at dawn."
Even though low-voltage systems have simplified landscape lighting, it's best to hire a professional to ensure you get the correct size transformer and proper ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets, which prevent electrical shock in wet locations. "You don't want overload the transformer, which will cause the lights to burn out or dim," cautions Marsh. "I always recommend a larger transformer so you can add more later if you want. The system should be designed only up to 85 percent capacity so you get good lighting for each fixture."