Outdoor Lighting Tips

Consider your outdoor activities when planning exterior lighting

Pathway light

Have you walked or driven past a home with strategically placed outdoor lighting that looked as beautiful at night as during the day? Or maybe you've had guests who, when leaving, missed that step between the porch and walk. A little stumble can be embarrassing; a tumble can be expensive if you have to file a claim against your homeowner's insurance to cover the cost of your guest's x-rays. Maybe you would just feel a little more secure yourself knowing that motion detectors will put a spotlight on trespassers. All are good reasons for adding exterior lighting to your home.

All outdoor wiring must be grounded, water resistant, and UL approved. Regardless of your plan, before initiating any electrical project such as installing exterior lighting, find out what your local building codes are and what permits might be required. Some work, like low-voltage wiring for lights along the walkway, are relatively uncomplicated depending on the type of lights used. However, depending on your city's building codes, some applications may require a professional electrician, permits, or an inspection at the completion of the project. Failure to meet codes can result in sub par results that can be dangerous or require rework if you decide to sell your home.

Planning your exterior lighting needs

Planning your outdoor circuits requires a plot map of your property to show the position of your home, outbuildings, gardens, walkways, and so on. From this sketch, you can plan the layout of conduit for the wires to receptacles and fixtures. Perimeter fixtures can be set to illuminate when they sense motion. Steps and walkways can be lit by low-voltage or solar garden lights. Power receptacles can be placed in strategic locations around the yard for using the electric mower or hedge trimmers, or setting up garden lighting for a party. Consider the following when planning your lighting project:

Looking for outdoor lighting ideas can be challenging. Excellent sources of current information include home and garden shows where manufacturers often create entire layouts of outdoor landscape lighting to show off their latest products.

As you consider your needs and create your plan, you'll also create the rough outline for a materials list which will come in handy whether you plan to do the work yourself or hire an electrical contractor.

Solar lighting

You may want to incorporate new solar powered outdoor lighting products for some locations and eliminate the need for wiring almost entirely. There are solar products for lining walkways and stairs. For simple applications like bordering a walkway in Phoenix, self-contained solar units may be perfect. With ample sunlight most of the year, you can probably rely on them. If you live in Seattle, the number of bright winter days could limit your walkway lighting to, ummm, maybe six days during the winter. Batteries that are not reliably charged can fail prematurely.

Low voltage lighting

Standard lighting is powered by a 120 volt current. A transformer can convert that 120-volt current to a relatively safe and energy efficient, 12-volt (low-voltage) current for many outdoor lighting applications. Low voltage outdoor lighting is typically simple to install, safe, and doesn't require a lot of expertise. Packaged sets are available through online distributors, home improvement centers, and specialty lighting stores. As with any product, the range in quality is huge. If possible, purchase professional quality products to ensure quality, flexibility, and durability.

Designed for do-it-yourself installations, low voltage lights are easy to assemble. Everything you need is contained in the package; special tools are not needed. Once assembled, all you need to do is place your lights and connect them to the power cable and the transformer. The transformer needs to be placed near an exterior GFCI outlet. Before mounting the transformer or burying cable, plug in the systems to test your layout and check connections. Disconnect power, make your alterations, then mount the transformer and cover the cable by burying it in a shallow trench. Reconnect the power to complete. Some systems are available with timers and photosensors for extra convenience.

Outdoor decorative lighting

Once you've addressed the type of security and safety lighting, you'll probably want to consider the varieties of decorative lighting.

Combining various techniques creates visual interest. Uplighting specimen trees can create a focal point. Backlighting borders and shrubs at the property lines can define space. Soft downlighting along pathways and stairs can add appeal and safety. Decorative lighting such as using tiny white Christmas lights to define a gazebo can create an enchanting fairyland effect.

Resources

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