Give Your Home the Green Light

Men laying new hardwood flooring

Homeowners put a lot of time and effort into showcasing their homes to their best advantage. Painting, maintenance and landscaping are just a few of the ways to keep a house looking good. But if lighting is overlooked, all that work will go unseen as soon as the sun goes down. Recent innovations in lighting have made it easier and more energy-efficient than ever to brighten up a homes exterior.

Photo courtesy of Intermatic

In the past, residential exterior lighting primarily consisted of spotlights, wall sconces, lampposts and line-voltage sidewalk lights. While many of the traditional fixtures remain, new energy-efficient, environmentally friendly devices can spruce up the home without compromising its appearance with bulky components and unsightly wiring. Solar lights and low-voltage lighting top the list for the most popular choices.

As the name suggests, solar lights operate using solar panels to harvest sunlight, which is then converted to energy for powering the light. While they certainly save on energy costs, lighting professionals say they dont perform as homeowners want. Weve found that they just dont put out the amount of light people expect or need, says T.J. Pantano, owner of NiteLites of Atlanta.

On the other hand, low-voltage, or 12-volt, lights seem to provide the best of both worlds. Installed correctly, these lighting systems offer incredible illumination for just pennies on the dollar. Twelve volts is the way to go, says David Lukach, vice president of Twilight Illuminations in Marietta. If installed properly with the right materials, its very energy efficient. They also are available in a variety of applications, including sidewalk and path lighting, well lights (which up-light a structure, tree or other foliage), spotlights, deck lights, step lights, grill lights, and underwater lights for water features.

Low-voltage lighting systems consist of a plug-in transformer, low-voltage cable and low-voltage light fixtures. The transformer receives power from an outdoor, 110-volt power outlet with a ground fault interruption circuit, or GFCI, receptacle. The cable comes in a variety of lengths, allowing consumers to purchase the best system for their needs. Lighting fixtures also come in a range of styles, allowing homeowners to personalize their space. Copper and brass seem to be the way to go because they can withstand the elements, Lukach says.

Photo courtesy of NiteLites of Atlanta

Photocells, which power lights from dusk to dawn, and timers are the two favorite innovations for maintaining a low-voltage system. Timers are becoming more sophisticated, Pantano says. With timers, lights can be programmed to come on during certain times or on certain nights, adjust for Daylight Savings Time and be integrated with other systems, such as a pool. You can set the lights to come on when the hot tub is turned on, Pantano says.

Also, low-voltage lighting systems can be set on multiple zones, so lights in one area come on at varying times from another area. For example, you may set the driveway and walkway lights to come on at 6 p.m., shortly before you arrive home. Then, after 7 p.m., these lights turn off and the landscape lights come on to highlight the house and foliage.

Although popular in the past, motion sensors generally are not used with todays low-voltage lights. Motion detectors are going away, Lukach says. They go bad really fast, and anything sets them off, such as pets.

Photo courtesy of Piedmont Landscape

Like all products, there are pros and cons to using low-voltage lighting. Among the advantages, low-voltage lighting is much more efficient than traditional line-voltage lighting systems (think of a 120-volt system like streetlights or commercial property lights). Sixteen to 18 lights hooked to the right transformer is the same as a 150-watt light bulb, Pantano says.

Also, because the voltage is so low, a low-voltage lighting system is very safe for homeowners with children and/or pets. In addition, the fire hazard is low. Low-voltage lighting is easier to repair and move around, too, Lukach says.

However, since the transformer must be plugged in for power, a low-voltage system is limited in the distance it can run from the transformer. Also, the voltage can drop if the system is overloaded or is too far from the source of power, Pantano says.

Many home-improvement and hardware stores carry ready-to-install low-voltage systems with an array of fixtures and amenities covering a range of price points. Of course, homeowners also can opt to hire a professional to install a low-voltage system. Costs generally start around $2,500 for a complete system of 14 to 20 fixtures, the transformer and a timer.

Photo courtesy of Twilight Illuminations

Another option for energy-efficient, environmentally friendly lighting is photoluminescent, or glow-in-the-dark, wireless lighting. Using strontium aluminate, these products are nontoxic, nonelectric, nonradioactive and environmentally friendly. You can put it around a doorway or anywhere you want accent lighting, says Don Boone, owner of ExiGlo in Kennesaw. Other applications include street numbers, sidewalk lights, step lights and more.

Operating these lights is simple. The sun will charge it for that nights viewing, Boone says. It charges off ultraviolet rays. You can get power from direct or indirect sun. The lights then burn from dusk to dawn.
Most photoluminescent products come in green or blue and can be installed by the homeowner. When shopping for products, make sure to find out how much strontium aluminate they contain. Strontium aluminate is the key ingredient, Boone says. You want a fixture with a high concentrate of this ingredient. You will need to ask how much the product contains. Its not listed on the label.

While photoluminescent products are gaining in popularity, there is one drawback. Its not going to be as bright as electrically lit light fixtures, Boone says. But, given the variety of applications available without the need for electricity, they may be the perfect fit for your needs.

Choosing the right lighting for your homes exterior may take some time and research, but the payoff will be visible, possibly in more ways than one. In addition to brightening up the structure and its environment, the right exterior lighting also may pay dividends when selling the home. Realtors tell me it definitely helps sell a home, Pantano says. Its becoming more and more popular, although its still new.

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