By email@example.com | on March 02, 2022
Installing outdoor lighting is an easy way to improve the safety, security and appearance of almost any home. Contemporary systems with LED bulbs and wireless remotes give homeowners unprecedented energy efficiency and control. Installing an outdoor lighting system isn’t beyond the skill of a handy homeowner, but the difference between good outdoor lighting and outstanding outdoor lighting depends on design, which blends functionality with form, and may require help from a professional.
The primary function of outdoor lighting is safety, alerting guests to the edges of a walkway or where a flight of stairs begins. Outdoor lights make it easier for cars to negotiate a driveway.
Where security is a concern, lighted areas can discourage crime and vandalism and improve the nighttime effectiveness of home security cameras.
Solar-powered lighting systems are inexpensive options, but the most popular outdoor lighting systems are low voltage.
Low-voltage systems use a transformer to convert or “step down” 120 volt current in the home to 12 to 15 volts for use outdoors. Once the electrical current passes through the transformer, it’s a lot less dangerous, and that makes it safer for DIY homeowners. “Putting in landscape lights is kind of easy,” says Ricky Atkins.
Atkins is the operations manager for The Colliers Companies, a local firm that specializes in irrigation, hardscaping and outdoor lighting. And though Atkins says Virginia does not regulate installation of low-voltage systems, there are still pitfalls. “The main thing,” he says, “is to make sure you got all your connections done correctly.”
Homeowners may also have trouble negotiating existing hardscaped surface, Atkins explains: That can include “getting under your driveway, getting under your sidewalk, getting under a patio,” he says. Atkins recommends using a professional to burrow beneath those sorts of barriers.
Do-it-yourselfers may also be limited by consumer-grade products, which often use integrated fixtures. If an integrated fixture is damaged, the entire line of fixtures must be replaced. Valarie Reynolds is a lighting designer with Reynolds Lighting in North Chesterfield. “I like to do fixtures that are lightbulb replaceable,” she says, and adds: “If something goes, all you’re having to do is change a lightbulb.”
Reynolds often sees DIY projects gone wrong when customers take shortcuts: “A lot of times they don’t know their voltages. I’ve seen it in residential applications. The first light is bright. And then by the time you get to the end of the sidewalk, there’s hardly a glow to it.”
She adds: “I honestly don’t ever recommend a DIY job. I always recommend an electrician.”
Quenton Lee, who owns Midlothian Electric Company, says internet research can keep homeowners from silly mistakes, such as using the wrong transformer, the wrong gauge of wire, or even burying indoor wires outside. “Over time, indoor wire will actually rot in the ground and cause the light fixture to not work anymore,” he says. On his own property, Lee powers outdoor lights with both low voltage and line voltage, depending on the application.
Electricians and lighting designers can bring broad vision to an outdoor lighting project and small touches that polish the finished product.
Reynolds says a walkway, for example, might look best with lights staggered on either side rather than in pairs aligned evenly. “You have a little bit of shadow,” she says “but not too much so you can’t see where you’re going.”
Sometimes an in-ground fixture is best on a walkway. “The light washes across that path,” she says. In-ground fixtures are also less likely to disrupt lawn care. Reynolds reserves harsh, direct light for commercial applications. Too much light can wash out its subject.
“I don’t like the house to have a flood light just shining directly on it. I think it’s prettier when the light is kind of grazing. It kind of does a soft wash up on the house and you have some shadows versus a full blast of light. Atkins agrees. “You always gotta watch your angles,” he says. “You want to go up, and you want to shadow what you’re trying to get.”
Amateur installers should remember that any outdoor lighting creates shadows, and using those shadows to one’s advantage is an essential part of any lighting design.
Clever use of shadows is key in moonlighting, a technique in which lights are suspended among tree branches. “Many homeowners don’t mount them high enough,” Reynolds says.
Designers also have techniques for blending color into lighting schemes. Reynolds says a growing number of customers are requesting it. “I would say probably 45 to 50%.” Colored lights connected to wireless controllers are especially popular in pool areas and around outdoor features like gazebos and covered porches.
With proper planning, outdoor lighting can be beautiful on almost any budget. DIY projects can cost a few hundred dollars or even less. Reynolds estimates that simple, professional path lighting begins around $600, with modest systems starting at $1,500. Atkins estimates lighting the property around a home of 3,000 square feet starts at $1,800. Adding wireless controls, timers, and other bells and whistles brings the price closer to $4,500.
Once plans are in place, Atkins says his teams can complete most jobs in a day. Reynolds’ process takes several weeks, including a visit to sketch and design a scheme, then returning with an electrician for installation. Lee turns down offers to install consumer-grade systems because they lack the quality and reliability he demands.
If you’re on the fence about using a professional installer consider this: The pros have access to better (and more expensive) products than consumers can buy themselves. Premium brands like Vista and FX Luminaire are only available to contractors.
When choosing an electrician or lighting designer, get several quotes; don’t be afraid to ask for recent references and pictures from recent projects. Lee suggests hiring licensed contractors with whom you feel comfortable. Cost, he says, is only part of the equation. “Cheapest is not always the best; highest is not always the best either.”
Atkins says consumers should look for “experience, knowledge of the product and knowledge of the installation,” when selecting a contractor. “You just can’t throw a light fixture out in the yard. You really want it to pop!”
Whether professionally installed or not, remember an outdoor lighting system isn’t just for people looking at your home.
“If you don’t have landscape lighting, it’s black at night. Your room stops at a window. But if you have some really pretty trees and some landscape lighting, your view is extended,” explains Reynolds. “It makes the room feel bigger.”
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