When Thomas Edison produced light from electricity in 1879, surely no one could have imagined all the applications it would create for the home. Certainly, lighting plants and other outdoor features wasnt even on the list. Well, residential outdoor lighting has been in use for decades, but the new technology, in the form of low-voltage products, has created a myriad of possibilities which many homeowners are just becoming aware of.
Outdoor lighting used to be more expensive, says Allen Heaton, co-owner of Glow Architectural and Landscape Lighting, a 22-year-old outdoor lighting and irrigation company. Heaton says with low-voltage applications, you now can run a lighting system that is just as attractive as the high-voltage systems at a third of the cost of a 110- to 120-volt system.
Low-voltage lighting has several advantages: Its readily available in kit form at home improvement stores, inexpensive, easy to install and safer. Theres no electrical hazard if someone should cut a low-voltage line while digging in the yard, and it can be easily reconnected. Also, wires run across the surface of the ground and can be covered with mulch, unlike 110-volt lines, which must be buried at a depth of 2 feet in some areas.
High-voltage lighting is recommended in large residential landscapes, subdivision entrances or commercial applications. Whereas high-voltage lighting would require the use of a certified electrician for installation, more and more homeowners are choosing to go it alone with low-voltage do-it-yourself lighting products. They utilize a transformer, which is plugged into a high-voltage outlet, but the power to the lighting fixtures is decreased, making for a safer, more manageable power source.
The downside with the least expensive outdoor lighting kits is that the light bulbs dont last as long as in a high-voltage system. Theyre also more susceptible to the elements, such as lightning strikes. Those plastic units that youll find in home improvement stores arent very durable and are susceptible to moisture and breakage making a cheap, do-it-yourself lighting job a high-maintenance proposition. Usually, you get what you pay for in the lighting industry, especially when it comes to lighting fixtures, Heaton says. The more they spend, the less theyll spend later in that the products will last longer and probably produce a better illumination.
On the upside, you can find some nice affordable metal fixtures alongside the less expensive units. Speaking from personal experience, its possible to put together an attractive lighting package off the shelf that works well in the yard of a moderate-sized home. How much youll spend installing the lighting yourself depends on the scope of the project, but a starter system, including a transformer, wiring and metal fixtures, costs about $250.
Professionals also like the low-voltage systems. Of course, youll spend considerably more using their expertisean average of $3,000 for an upscale homebut for the price youre getting a wider selection of fixtures, as they deal directly with distributors of high-end lighting products. Outdoor Lighting Perspectives offers a demonstration using a portable lighting kit. We set up the lights and aim them at certain trees or in a way to highlight architectural features, company president Tom Fenig says. We show them exactly what their property is going to look like with our system in place. Demonstrations like this are not standard practice, but its wise to request one, along with a drawn-out plan, if its not offered.
Whether its a new home with an out-of-the-box landscape design or a five-figure investment in plants and hardscape at an existing home, it makes sense to get the most bang for your buck with a top-notch lighting package. But Todd Guilmette of Unique Environmental Concepts agrees that lighting is a tough sell at first. Its a large number up front, Guilmette says, but once you see a landscape come to life and in the fall and winter months [when] were dark a lot longer, its nice to enjoy the landscape and see it illuminated at night.
Of course, safety is another reason for lighting the outside of your home. You can avoid that floodlight look with good nightscaping. Instead of that row of lights along the driveway or walkway, consider the constant illumination of trees using an effect called shadowing, or wall-wash lighting, which accents the textures of wall surfaces. One popular effect is moon-lighting, or the placement of a soft fixture high in a tree shining downward to echo the natural effect created by the moon.
Landscape designers speak of focal points such as trees or water features. A lighting fixture also can be a focal point. One of the keys to a good design is not seeing the source of the light, but seeing the effect of the light, Guilmette says.
One of the things that make good lighting effects possible is the specialized fixtures now on the market. Many of the more exciting designs can be located through lighting professionals. One such fixture is a small, penlight type device called the Microlight. It gives you the ability to put up a lot of light with the source mounted in a tight area without the intrusive look of a big fixture.
If you choose to leave the work to the pros, look for a company thats certified by the National Institute of Landscape Lighting Associates (NILLA). On a small residential lot, its worth exploring your creativity; on a big project, Bruce Holliday of Pike Design Group says it best: Go with someone who does lighting, because theyre probably going to give you a better price and a much better product.
Experts Shed Light on the Subject
If youre researching features for a new home, now is the time to plan your nightscaping. You can save time and money by preparing your home for landscape and architectural lighting in the pre-construction stage, Outdoor Lighting Perspectives president Tom Fenig says. Some of the tips he offers are:
Place an electrical outlet in all locations where lighting transformers will be needed.
Place conduit under all concrete where you might want to add lighting (this will make it easy to run wiring to add lighting fixtures in the future).
Mark the conduit raceways so theyre easy to find in the future. One way is to place a small mark on the edge of the concrete.
Have your electrician install all outlets that will be used for landscape lighting on the same breaker (15 or 20 amps) making it easier to disconnect power to those outlets if needed.
National Institute of Landscape Lighting Associates
The National Institute of Landscape Lighting Associates (NILLA) is the first certification program for landscape lighting professionals. Established in 1999, NILLA issues certificates to contractors who participate in the course and pass the certification program exam. Architects and designers are notified continually of new NILLA-certified contractors. Through the program, lighting professionals are tested on wiring design, voltage drop, proper sizing of wire, when to use different types of gauge wire, troubleshooting, how to detect shorts, proper usage of amp probes/volt meters, connection techniques, photometrics, proper design strategies and installation procedures as well as other aspects of wiring for outdoor lighting.