Light Up Your Life With Outdoor Lighting
By T. Jeff Williams
With warmer and longer evenings at hand, it’s time to light up your backyard and double your enjoyment there. When the sun goes down, the outdoor lights should come up to cast your landscape in a totally new and intriguing manner.
The object of outdoor lighting is to be able to enjoy your property at night. Many of us use the yard during the day, but come dark we go inside and forget the yard. Landscape lighting is done with low voltage systems that you can safely install yourself. You can find all the necessary components at a nearby OSH and this is your guide on how to set it up.
First you plan the lighting system, then you install it.
Think of your yard as an extension of your living room, an outdoor room. Walk around your yard at twilight to consider where you most enjoy sitting, the best view. Consider more than just one location. Because shade or sunlight is no longer a consideration, your new seating areas may be different than during the day.
Look at the yard from the standpoint of what you are going to light up, what bushes, what flowers, what trees.
Once you have a general concept in mind, make a scale drawing of your yard. Use 1/4-inch graph paper and make each square equal one foot, or even six inches for finer detail.
Measure the width and depth of your yard and mark the locations of trees and bushes and anything else you might want to highlight, such as brick walls, statues or a pond. Sketch in all patios or decks and walkways.
Landscape lighting should be subtle. Instead of trying to light everything, let shadows create a sense of intimacy and peacefulness. Good landscape lighting seeks to enhance outstanding features in your yard with a mix of light and shadow, not hit them with searchlights.
Subtleness is particularly important with lights in the front yard. There needs to be adequate lighting on walks, steps and the driveway area, but you don’t want to annoy the neighbors. Use lower wattage bulbs and keep them well shielded. It’s better to have several dim lights than one or two bright ones. For instance, arrange alternate lights on each side of a walkway to create overlapping pools of light.
The back yard, where you will likely spend most of your outdoor evenings, will be the centerpiece of your lighting plan. There you need different types of lights with different wattages, and you need to experiment. Fortunately, with outdoor lighting it’s a snap to move the lights around.
Different lighting styles result in different effects, depending on what object you want to light. Any or all of these can be combined in different ways.
- Spotlighting: Here a bright light is focused on one single element in your yard, bringing it into sharp focus and making it a center point.
- Backlighting: The light is placed behind the object, casting a glow around it. This can be useful when bushes are located near walls; the backlighting makes an attractive plant stand out in dark profile.
- Cross lighting: The object is lit from two or three different angles, with one light being brighter than the other two. This gives the object more three-dimensional vibrancy. This is great on statues or on fir trees.
- Grazing lighting: Here the light just grazes the object, casting any irregularities into sharp relief. This is commonly used to light a stone or brick wall.
- Moonlighting: Most effective in large deciduous trees, the fixture is mounted high in the tree to cast a gentle, spreading light down, as does a full moon.
All landscape lighting essentially uses the same type of components, but there is a wide variety of styles and quality. Your budget is always important, but it’s advisable to select high quality materials from the beginning, even if you initially buy fewer elements. They will last much longer and you can always add more lights later.
Low voltage lighting kits are available that include a transformer and a dozen or so light fixtures. You just plug in the transformer, connect the wires to the fixtures, and it’s good to go. They are alright for something quick and easy, but for a more customized plan, build your own by buying individual elements.
Here is what you will need:
Transformer: All low voltage landscape lighting begins with a transformer that converts ordinary 120-volt household current into safe 12-volt electricity. The transformer is mounted outside near an outlet and then the low voltage wires run from there to the light fixtures.
Transformers are listed by their wattage capacities, usually from 50 to 1,000 watts. They also usually come with two or more circuits. To determine what size you need, add up all the wattage in the light bulbs you plan to use (see below), and then buy a transformer that will carry at least 50 percent more. I can almost guarantee you will eventually expand the system.
Bulbs: Available low voltage lighting includes the standard incandescent bulbs, LED (light emitting diodes) and halogen bulbs. Incandescent bulbs will last 500 to 1,000 hours while the much brighter halogens will last from 1,000 to 4,000 hours. LED (light emitting diodes) in the 30 watt capacity will provide about as much light as a standard 60-watt bulb and requires half the energy. Most of your needs will be met with bulbs in the 10 to 50 watt range. Using your lighting plan, see what you want to light and then select a sufficient number of bulbs and fixtures for the project.
Light fixtures: Fixtures come in a dizzying array of materials and styles, from plastic to bronze, from hanging to sunken, from antique looks to sleek modern. Again, select the best quality, such as metal rather than plastic, even if you buy fewer at the start. You can add more as your budget allows.
Here are some primary light fixtures for specific uses:
- Well lights are placed in a depression or hole to shine up with no glare to the viewer’s eyes.
- Flood lights cast a wide beam to over a large area. Use sparingly.
- Underwater lights greatly enhance ponds or fountains.
- Mushroom lights with conical “hats” are excellent near low-growing flowers, plants and walkways.
- Spotlights focus on one object; use two or three of them for cross lighting effects.
- Moonlights are a type of flood, commonly placed high in trees.
Wire: Simple landscape lighting, particularly in kits, comes with 14-gauge wire. This is sufficient for up to 200 watts capacity. If building your own system, choose the thicker 12-gauge wire, which allows you to install more lights at greater distance. The wire can be laid directly on the ground or buried. An easy way to bury the wire, in soil or on a lawn, is to push a square-tipped shovel into the ground, rock it back and forth a little to open the ground, push the wire down with a stick, then close the opening by stepping on it.
It may seem confusing at first, but just give it a try; it will quickly become self-evident. And that first evening in your new outdoor, well-lighted room, is a real treat.
T. Jeff Williams is a builder and the author of more than a dozen books on construction, landscaping and gardening. He has written for Sunset, This Old House, Better Homes and Gardens, and Ortho Books, among others.