Homeowners spend considerable time making sure the exterior of their home is something beautiful to behold, addressing such key elements as the architectural details on the home’s façade and attractive landscaping. But homeowners often overlook something that can make their home continue to stand out after the sun goes down. Quality outdoor landscape lighting can turn that dream house into a jewel that shines after dark.
There are many reasons to consider installing outdoor landscape lighting.
Reasons for Landscape Lighting
Outdoor Lighting can serve many different purposes.
Beauty. Lighting the front façade of the home will accentuate its beautiful architectural details after sunset. Outdoor lighting can highlight attractive landscaping like crepe myrtles, mountain laurels, and our beautiful hill country live oak trees.
Safety. Landscape lighting can be an effective tool in enhancing the safety and security of the home.
Function. Outdoor living spaces have become very popular. Landscape lighting can allow homeowners to enjoy their outdoor living spaces well after dark.
While homeowners have different reasons for wanting to install landscape lighting, all of the benefits above can be realized by adding outdoor lighting to the home. Let’s look at the different kinds of landscape lighting available.
Types of Landscape Lighting
Outdoor and Landscape lighting can be broken down into four main types: Line voltage, Solar, LED, and Low voltage. Let’s discuss these types and note their advantages and disadvantages.
Line Voltage: One advantage of line voltage (high voltage, or what is commonly referred to as household current) is the ability to use higher wattage bulbs, ranging from 60-75 watts up to 175 or even 250 watts. Another advantage is the ability to use different types of bulbs including incandescent, fluorescent, sodium (the orange street lights), mercury vapor (the bluish “moon lighting” look), or metal halide/ceramic metal halide (a stronger white incandescent-like light). The disadvantages of line voltage are the higher fixture and bulb costs, higher energy bills, and higher costs for installation. Most installations require an electrician. Line voltage must be run in conduit buried 18 inches deep to meet electrical code. Trenching to each fixtures location is required, which can be expensive. Also, certain bulbs require a ballast component to light the fixture. In summary, line voltage fixtures are best used for security lighting, spot lighting, or moon lighting very large landscape areas where cost and energy use are not a concern.
Solar: The advantages with solar lights are that they are energy free and relatively inexpensive. The disadvantages are that their light output is not bright enough to give a truly useful amount of light at night. Also, the fixtures can have a relatively short life span, often failing after only a few months of use. Also, they are unsuitable for areas that don’t receive a lot of sunshine during the day. For these reasons, most professional landscape lighting installers do not consider them a viable option for true night-time illumination.
LED: The advantages of LED’s (light emitting diodes) are extreme energy efficiency and very long bulb life. Since they don’t use a “filament” in the classic sense, the piece of metal inside a bulb that burns out causing a normal bulb to fail, an LED bulb can last for tens of thousands of hours. The disadvantages of LED’s are that they produce a very narrow spot type of illumination. An LED works well in a flashlight, for example, or to illuminate a small spot such as on a house number sign, but LED fixtures have not yet been developed that can illuminate a wide area, as in a tree or the façade of a house in a cost effective manner. Another disadvantage is the bluish color of light. The lighting industry does expect that LED’s will evolve in the next few years to become more useful in landscape illumination situations, but the technology is not yet there to do it cost effectively. LED bulbs can be rated for use in solar, low, or line voltage applications.
Low Voltage: The advantages of low voltage (12-18 volts) are increased energy efficiency, lower bulb and fixture cost, ease of installation since trenching is not required, ease of adding to and/or moving fixtures, and no danger of electrical shock. Because the bulbs are lower wattage, you can use more fixtures (7-10) to light a greater amount of area using the same wattage and energy as two or three 100 watt line voltage bulbs. A common misconception with low voltage is that it means less brightness, which is simply not the case. Low voltage fixtures using quartz halogen bulbs produce a true white light, with just as many lumens per watt (brightness) as a line voltage incandescent bulb. Low voltage lighting systems are connected to a transformer, or power pack, that plugs into a household outlet and reduces the household 120 volt current to 12-18 volts. The disadvantages of low voltage are limited wattage per bulb. Most home improvement stores sell low voltage fixtures that use 7-20 watt bulbs, while most professional landscape lighting fixtures use bulbs of 20-50 watts. Another disadvantage is that sodium bulbs and mercury vapor moon lighting bulbs are not available in low voltage. In summary, low voltage fixtures work well to provide lots of light while being very energy efficient.
Landscape Lighting Fixtures
There are many types of landscape and outdoor lighting fixtures, and a true professional will understand which fixture is correct for a given application. Most fixtures are designed around the bulb they contain, and this helps identify the fixture’s proper use. Here are some of the most common types:
Bullet Fixtures. These fixtures are in the shape of a bullet. The smaller ones usually contain an MR-16 bulb, which is a slide projector bulb, and are best used to spotlight small shrubs or number signs. They are often part of a low voltage lighting system, though some are used in solar applications, usually with LED bulbs. Larger bullet fixtures are commonly used in line voltage systems and contain regular household type spot and flood bulbs, as well as mercury vapor and metal halide bulbs. They are used to illuminate walls, the façade of the house, and large trees and shrubs.
Well Light or Canister Fixtures. These fixtures are contained in a 4-6 inch canister of heavy PVC, are designed to be partially buried and are used to illuminate walls, the façade of the house, and large trees and shrubs. They typically contain a PAR36 bulb, which looks a lot like the older style automobile headlight bulb. PAR36 bulbs come rated for use in either low voltage or line voltage systems.
Path Light Fixtures. These fixtures come in a wide variety of shapes, and are generally made out of plastic, powder coated aluminum or copper. They are used to illuminate sidewalks and pathways, driveways, and low shrubs or flowering plants. They typically use a “brake-light” style bulb or a bi-pin quartz halogen bulb in low voltage or line voltage systems. They also come in solar fixtures.
Box Light Fixtures. These fixtures are rectangular, and are generally used with line voltage systems to illuminate larger areas. They frequently use metal halide or mercury vapor bulbs.
Determining which type of lighting system to install is dependent upon factors such as quality, value, and cost.
Speaking of cost, the old adage still applies; “you get what you pay for”. The less expensive fixtures found in catalogs and the big box stores may be plastic or painted aluminum, and will last only 2-3 years, but they cost just a few hundred dollars. Powder coated aluminum finishes are considered “middle of the road” and will last a little longer, but will eventually chip and peel. Cast Brass and spun copper fixtures are more expensive, but they will be the highest quality, will last the longest, and will take on a rich patina over time.
Bulb quality is also very important. Cheaper quartz halogen bulbs often sold in discount stores may be manufactured overseas and may not be rated for at least 4,000 hours, which is the minimum life needed to get a one year warranty out of the bulb, assuming the typical dusk to midnight system use. Line voltage mercury vapor or metal halide bulbs should be rated for 12,000-20,000 hours and last 3-5 years, but they are much more expensive bulbs.
A critical element of your system is the proper placement of the correct lighting fixture to achieve the desired results. Frequently, line voltage bullet or box fixtures are placed many feet away from the house to shine directly on it. The result is harsh light hitting flat upon the house, preventing any depth or character from showing on the façade while flooding the inside of the house with unwanted light.
The correct way to illuminate the front façade is to place well light or canister light fixtures about 8-12 inches away from the sides of the house to shine up the walls, revealing the texture in the brick or stone and creating a softer, more attractive light. The PAR36 bulb in the canister light will give a wider and more even wash of light, whereas a bullet fixture using an MR16 bulb produces just a narrow streak of light on the wall. Large trees and shrubs should also be lit with the canister light placed not more than 1 or 2 feet from the trunk, to light upward. Bullet fixtures should be reserved for the smaller spot shrubs and house number plaques.
Another important element of lighting the façade is to use fixtures to illuminate the upper dormers or peaks, so that all of the home’s architecture will be illuminated, leaving no dark holes. Your lighting professional should address the best way to accomplish this. Path lights can be used to illuminate walkways, but make sure they are spaced out enough to avoid the “runway effect”, which is what results when too many path lights are placed across from one another all the way down the walkway. Generally, the front façade of the house is lit to showcase it to the street, while the back yard is illuminated for ambience and to light up outdoor living areas. Generally this means more path lights, deck lights, and well lights on landscaping.
There are two other elements to consider when assessing a quality lighting installation. First, is to light for effect. This means the homeowner should be drawn to what is being illuminated, and the fixture should become invisible. The fixture should be placed so that you don’t really notice it, only what is being illuminated. Second, is preventing light encroachment. Light should not be bothering the neighbors, and light should never be hitting you in the eyes. Downlighting can be used to illuminate specific areas such as play equipment, waterfalls, or outdoor seating areas, but downlighting should be minimized, as uplighting will achieve the same effect and not have light hitting you in the face when you are under the bulb. If lighting is placed in trees, it needs to be at least 20 feet up, and the higher the better. Of course, this presents increased cost for installation and bulb replacement.
The real question now is can I do it myself?
Benefits of using a Landscape Lighting Professional
While small low voltage or solar systems can be a do-it-yourself project, larger systems should be installed by a landscape lighting professional. When choosing a company to install your landscape lighting, there are several things you should expect:
Expertise. Make sure the lighting professional you choose specializes in landscape lighting, and isn’t someone who just does it on the side, while specializing in something else like landscaping or pool installation. Believe it or not, electricians are usually not experts in outdoor landscape lighting. As a minimum, your professional should be highly knowledgeable of all the aspects in this article thus far. He or she should listen to what your desires are, and then design a plan that meets and exceeds your expectations. Ask for a full night time demonstration!
Quality. Make sure the fixtures are top-of-the-line, and come with at least a ten year warranty. Make sure the low voltage transformers are multi-tap, allowing the voltages to be adjusted so that every fixture is between 10.5-11.5 volts for an even look, and they should have a lifetime warranty. All bulbs should come with at least a one year warranty. Ask how many lights per wire run for a low voltage system he or she uses (should never use more than four fixtures per wire run). Does the system come with just the basic dial timer, or does the system come with lighting control automation?
Value. Does the professional show up on time? Does he return your calls promptly? Do the installers and service people dress professionally? Make sure that the company offers an annual maintenance plan to keep your system in peak condition.
Residential landscape lighting can vary from the solar do-it-yourself projects on a garden home up to a line voltage system using mercury vapor moon lighting over many acres of land. It depends on the desires of the homeowner.
Line voltage systems can be more expensive due to labor and materials, and should be installed by a qualified electrician. Most line voltage systems are used when lighting very large landscape areas where expense and energy use are not a concern.
LED Systems are not readily available in wide applications other than spot lights, making them of limited use today, although that is changing.
Solar lights can be some of the least expensive systems available, but they sacrifice light output and don’t have a long life span.
In most instances, a low voltage lighting system is probably the best landscape lighting system for residential installation because it offers the best combination of bright illumination, energy efficiency, ease of installation, and relative cost.
While every home’s landscape lighting design will vary, a rough estimate of the cost of a professionally installed landscape lighting installation in the San Antonio area is around $1/square foot of living space to do the front façade of a home. This means a landscape lighting plan for a 3500sf home would average $3500 for the front façade. The actual cost for your home could be higher or lower depending on your specific desires in lighting. The best part of all is that a professionally installed outdoor lighting system will increase the value of your home by adding beauty, safety and functionality that only gets better after dark.
Kenneth Wells is the owner of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of San Antonio & the Hill Country, LLC. http://www.outdoorlights.com