Decorative Outdoor Lighting
By Gale Boyd
Decorative outdoor lighting is a worthwhile investment for your home, and installing it can be a rewarding intermediate-level do-it-yourself project. Outdoor lighting adds safety to your home environment by increasing visibility along paths and stairs, and helps eliminate dark spots and shadows. Well-designed exterior lighting also enables you to extend your outdoor activities well into the night.
Do-It-Yourself—Play It Safe
Solar lighting and low-voltage lighting are the way to go, if you’re installing a lighting system yourself. They’re easy, economical, and safe to install and to operate.
Low-voltage lighting systems are shockless, and safe for children and pets. A low-voltage lighting system has three basic components—a power pack, low voltage cable, and lamps or fixtures. These lighting systems can be altered at will; you can move the fixtures around any time you want.
Solar lighting systems have no cables or power packs at all. Everything you need is contained in the fixtures themselves.
CAUTION: Always use lights that have been designated for outdoor use only; you may run the risk of electric shock or electrical shorts if you use improper lighting fixtures or accessories, such as extension cords or cables.
Solar or Low Voltage
Browse through your local lighting or home improvement store. You’ll see a selection of solar lighting and low-voltage lighting for exterior use. Ignore any lighting choices labeled "interior only." Choose solar lighting for areas that:
- Get a lot of direct sun
- Are long—Who wants to run low-voltage cable across an acre of ground?
- Are remote
- Are near water, such as a pond, a swimming pool, or a hot tub
- Have rough terrain, such as in rock gardens
- Require very low light
Choose low-voltage lighting for areas near the house, on smooth terrain, and in shady areas. Low- voltage lighting is brighter than solar lighting. Use low-voltage lighting to illuminate:
- Landscaping features, including a deck or patio
- Architectural surfaces or features, like statues, walls, or fountains
- Pathways, walkways, steps, or address information
- "Destination areas" in the garden, or to create a border around an area
- Holiday décor
Lighting Effects and Techniques
Illuminate your exterior space with these creative techniques:
Downlighting. Light is directed downwards. Use to create safe pathways and stairs.
Backlighting. Light is directed onto a wall or fence behind an important object. Use to highlight trees or bushes, or to enhance the look of your house at night.
Uplighting. Light is directed upwards, and lights the underside of a surface. Use to illuminate your address, a statue, tree, or fountain.
Soft lighting. Light is atmospheric, and it doesn’t do much to help you see. Use to create mood, romance, and ambiance.
Begin With a Plan
A plan is absolutely necessary for a do-it-yourself lighting project. Take a tour around your property to develop an idea of what you want. Then, pretend you’re in a helicopter hovering above your property, and sketch your property looking down on it from the air.
Use graph paper to help you be conscious of scale. Sketch the shape of the house first, and then add pathways, the driveway, water features, garden features, trees, and shrubs. Draw an "X" at each location where there is an outdoor electricity source. Most, maybe all, of these will be on the exterior walls of your house. Then follow these steps:
- Walk around your property with your drawing and a good, long measuring tape. Add measurements to your drawing.
- Choose the areas where you can use solar lights. You won’t need to lay any wiring to those areas. Make little "S" marks where you will install solar lights. Make the distance between lights as equal as possible for a more professional look.
- Choose the types of low-voltage lights you want in each area—uplights, downlights, backlights, and softlights. Create a symbol for each and draw them into your plan.
- Look for dark spots and corners that might need lighting for safety reasons.
- Look for hazardous steps or curbs that could use light.
Remember that it’s OK to change your plan in the midst of your project, if new ideas come to you. Be sure to check your plan against local codes. You might need a permit before you begin work.
CAUTION: Check for underground gas lines, utilities cables, and sprinkler pipes. Contact your local city government for help in identifying these areas.
What to Buy
Low voltage halogen lights range from about 4-50 watts. Halogens provide a lot of light for the wattage. The higher the wattage, the higher the level of brightness. Choose your light fixtures, and then add up the wattage. You’ll need a power pack that supplies enough wattage for all the lamps.
If necessary, you can divide a large lighting system into smaller ones. Use a power pack, or transformer, for each. It takes 110 volts and reduces it to a safe, shockless level. You’ll then need to buy cable and cable connectors to support the wattage you need.
Sound like a lot to keep track of? No worries. The staff at the lighting store will help you with this; just be sure to bring your diagram with measurements.
Installing Your Lighting
You’re ready to install your lighting system. Safety is one of your biggest concerns. Here are your basic steps:
- Place the power pack within 1 ft. of the outdoor electricity source—110 volt standard US household current with a GFCI receptacle. Use a waterproof cover to protect the receptacle and plug-in.
- Attach the low voltage cable(s) and turn on the power pack. Always read power pack instructions.
- Lay the cable to your lighting fixtures according to your plan. Don’t bury any of the cable.
- Attach the individual light fixtures to the cable with the power on.
- Make sure the fixtures produce light when connected. Follow the instructions provided with the light fixtures.
- Set the timer on the power pack to the ON/OFF times you desire.
- Use cable connectors to join two or more cables, or to change run direction.
- Use heavier cable for long runs over 150 ft., or 10 or more lamps.
- Use extension cords.
- Install the power pack indoors.
After you’ve finished your installation, wait until dark. Did the lights come on? How do they look? Make adjustments by resetting the timer or moving lights around.
The next day, bury the cable with dirt, mulch, sod, or rocks or hide it behind foliage. Cable ends can be left exposed or buried. If buried, a couple of inches deep will do.
Bask in the Light
Enjoy! Your home is now beautifully lit. The garden has become a magical, inviting place. You’re planning your first outdoor evening party. Summer nights have never been so glorious. You’re planning to switch out some bulbs come holiday time, and in the spring you’re going blue for mood. And you’ve provided safety and security for your home.