Introduction to Outdoor Lighting
What does it take to redesign your outdoor lighting? This guide has all the info you need to transform your home’s exterior into a safer, more inviting place.
For many homeowners or DIY enthusiasts, outdoor and landscape lighting is often sadly overlooked. Considering all of the thought, planning, and maintenance that went into designing and landscaping your home’s exterior, it seems counterproductive to hide all of your hard work in the dark, doesn’t it?
Yet, the planning and execution of a successful outdoor lighting plan seems like an intimidating prospect to many, so it is often put off or ignored altogether. Outdated, energy-inefficient, and in some cases even unsafe or ill-advised lighting solutions remain outside many homes simply by force of inertia. But when it comes to illumination, the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” simply doesn’t apply.
The purpose of this guide is to take the mystery out of the outdoor and landscape lighting equation. We want to walk you through everything you need to know about exterior lights, so you can make the best choices for your own home.
Why Upgrade Your Outdoor Lighting?
If your outdoor lighting game isn’t exactly all that it could be, you have probably been kicking around the idea of making an upgrade, but like any home repair or renovation, this project will be an investment. In order to justify the expense, most homeowners want several good reasons to take the plunge.
Here are a few very important aspects of outdoor lighting to consider when making your decision.
Energy Efficiency – If your lighting system is outdated, chances are it was installed before current technology was even available on a realistic consumer level. Yes, we are talking about LEDs. Recent years have seen the availability of LED lights soar, as the prices for individual bulbs plummet. This has created the perfect storm to finally allow this remarkably energy-efficient technology to actually compete with incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen bulbs. LEDs cost significantly less to run, have lifespans that can be measured in decades, and have the capacity to be much brighter than their outdated cousins.
Safety and Security – Think back to a time when you had to navigate a particularly dark walkway or driveway. It’s not a pleasant experience, is it? And while you may have years of practice navigating your own dimly lit walkway and driveway in the dark, your guests do not. Sufficient illumination helps to keep people safe on your walkways, reduces the threat of burglary, and even deters nocturnal critters from sniffing around too closely.
Curb Appeal/Home Value – A perfectly lit exterior can do a lot of good for the perceived value of your home. You can strategically draw the eye to attractive focal points, highlight areas of structural interest, and even throw textures into sharp relief. Exterior lighting is just as important as interior lighting when it comes to home value.
Outdoor Entertaining – Backyard barbecues do not need to be confined to the summer months anymore. You can keep the party going all year with adequate illumination for your entertaining space. Think cozy gatherings in the fall, or lingering get-togethers in early spring. When it’s not completely dark outside, there’s no reason to move the party inside.
Make Guests Feel Welcome – A dark, poorly lit entrance doesn’t exactly put your guests at ease (or make it easy to see the address number on your house). Create a bright and inviting atmosphere with strategic use of outdoor lighting.
Make a Statement – Remember that lighting is an important aspect of both interior and exterior design, and the right lighting can absolutely transform the look and feel of your home.
Types of Outdoor Lights
Here is your checklist of different types of outdoor lights, and their intended purpose. This can help you make a list of what you need for your specific situation.
Flood Lights/Security Lights – These exterior lights cast a wide beam (usually around 40° or so) to help illuminate a large area such as a driveway, garage entrance, building façade, etc. Floodlights should be placed in housings specifically designed for them, so that the beam can be properly directed where you need it, and avoid throwing dark shadows, which is exactly the thing you are trying to avoid in the first place. Floodlights are often paired with motion sensors so that they illuminate when movement is detected outside your home. This increases safety and security by letting you know when people or even animals are approaching.
Ceiling Mount/Pendant Lights – Ceiling mount or pendant lights make wonderful additions to porches, gazebos or covered entryways. These fixtures provide a layer of ambient light which allows covered outdoor areas to be completely illuminated. For pendant or swag lights, remember to keep a reasonable head and door clearance in mind.
Ceiling Fans – This is a different take on ceiling mount lights, and one that is especially popular for porches, gazebos, or other entertaining areas.
Wall Lights – Wall lights can be mounted on nearly any vertical space such as home façades or garden walls. These lights are meant to brighten up recessed or especially shadowy areas. Typically, a soft light will be directed up or down the wall (or in both directions) to increase visibility and safety.
Post Lights – These lights often reside at the top of their own poles (think street lantern style,) but they can also be placed atop railings. Post lights make a great solution for lighting up far-flung areas of your exterior, such as the end of your driveway, without having to resort to floodlights everywhere. Plus, post lights are often very artistic in their presentation, and can add to the character of your landscaping.
Garden Lights – Another artistic addition to your landscaping, garden lights are usually between 18 inches and 24 inches tall, with a canopy positioned at the top to direct the light downward into planting areas. These create gentle, glowing pools of light here and there, and can also act as walkway lighting.
Wash Lights – A flood light’s softer cousin, wash lights also offer illumination of a wide area such as a fence, or a flat façade, but unlike floodlights, wash lights are designed to be softer and more diffuse.
Bullet Lights – These lights are usually staked into the ground and can be adjusted so that they shine their focused beam on specific structural points. For instance, you could shine bullet lights up along a tree trunk, at corner pillars on a porch, or at focal points in your garden such as a statue or fountain.
Well Lights – Well lights shine out from waterproof housings that are flush with the ground, creating a soft upward glow. These lights have a very striking effect when they illuminate the underside of foliage, or the base of the garden wall.
Downlights – This lighting solution involves placing fixtures high up in a tree, and securing them with bolts. LED lights are especially popular for this choice, as replacing bulbs on downlights can be very labor-intensive. Downlights can be positioned to illuminate areas of a driveway, lawn, or even simply to shine through tree foliage like moonlight.
Solar Lights – Solar lights offer a completely hands-off approach to exterior lighting, not to mention the fact that they are by far the most energy-efficient option. Nearly every type of light described above has a solar counterpart which can usually be installed as an individual fixture (obviously, it does not need to hook into any circuitry or connect with other lights), and which automatically runs on a dusk to dawn cycle. A bit of research may be required to make sure that the solar lights you choose can throw off enough illumination to get your desired result. A good solution for many homeowners is a mixture of hardwired lights and solar lights.
Technical Info You Need to Know
Particularly when it comes to lighting, your best bet will be to draft up a complete exterior plan prior to beginning any work, or making any purchases. Certain parts of the installation will require that you know total wattage, cable lengths, etc. and it is best not to try to figure those things out on the fly.
Most modern landscape and exterior lighting runs on a low voltage system as a safety measure. Exterior lights are exposed to much more wind and weather than interior lights, so the lower voltage system is a must. To that end, a step down transformer will need to be installed to convert your 120 V system down to a more appropriate system. And of course, exterior lighting must have a 20 amp GFCI protected outdoor receptacle.
If you feel very comfortable with electrical wiring, and have plenty of experience in working with electrical equipment, you can do this yourself, but if you have any reservations whatsoever, hire a licensed electrician to handle at least this part of the job.
The remainder of the job mainly consists of positioning your light fixtures, digging trenches, placing a hub, and running cables – all well within the skill range of the average person. As always, when working with electricity make sure you are taking every possible safety precaution.
When it comes to how to control your lights, you have many options. Hardwiring switches will probably call for a licensed electrician again, as it requires a level of technical expertise above and beyond that of the average DIY-er.
However, there are several other light control options:
- Timers – The basic timer can be set manually, and you can indicate when lights should turn on and off. This will need to be adjusted as days lengthen or shorten with the season.
- Light Sensors – These switches automatically detect low light levels and switch on. As the morning begins to brighten, the sensor will power the lights off. Like detecting sensors are often integrated into solar light fixtures.
- Remote Control – There are several options here. Some light systems can simply be equipped with an on/off remote control, while others can be powered by wireless keypads or fobs.
- Smart Switches – These are hardwired switches which let you control all of your exterior lights through your home’s Wi-Fi system. Smart switches can also be controlled through voice control programs such as Alexa.
- Smart Bulbs – Each individual bulb is a Wi-Fi enabled device, which can be controlled and programmed through apps. Some systems even allow users to control exterior lighting when away from home.
Choose the best switch, or combination of switches which works best for you.
Design Tips for DIY
Here are a few important design tips to remember for those ready to embark on their outdoor lighting DIY projects.
Safe Walking is Key – However you do it, make sure you are providing adequate illumination along paths, walkways, porches, patios, and driveways. Something as small as a rock in a shadowy spot could cause someone to trip and fall. Avoid that situation altogether by providing good light.
Space Out Lights in Planting Beds – Garden lights placed in planting beds should be approximately 2 feet apart, and are mainly used to highlight areas of particular interest in your garden.
Illuminate Tree Trunks and Foliage – The leaves of your red maple tree may be truly stunning, but if only the leaves are illuminated, they will appear as though they are hanging in midair. Proper positioning for tree lighting will include a portion of the trunk.
Aim Your Lights Carefully – There are two things you want to avoid when positioning floodlights, bullet lights, and wash lights: shadows and glare. Because these lights tend to be quite bright, they also have the capacity to cast very dark shadows along their edges. Try to position your light so that they are not throwing anything into too stark a contrast, or creating any dark spots. Also, avoid aiming any of your lights at Windows, either yours or your neighbors, as this can create an unpleasant glare.
Focal Points Need More Than One Light Source – A single bullet light shining on a fountain or ornamental tree will only serve to throw that feature into highly stark contrast, and throw very dramatic shadows. Focal points require more than one light source to avoid that unpleasant effect.
Go with LEDs – LED lights are much more energy-efficient, and last much longer than any other type of light. Changing the bulbs on exterior fixtures, particularly when it comes to fixtures that are buried in the ground or are high up in trees, can be very tedious work. Stack the deck in your favor, and get long-lasting LED bulbs.
Dark Sky and Good Neighbor Lights
When shopping for lights, you may begin to see some references to lights being categorized as “dark sky” or “good neighbor.” There is a group known as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) who is advocating for more responsible light usage, and a reduction of light pollution.
The amount of artificial light flooding the skies at night has made it impossible for city dwellers to see all but the brightest stars, has caused disruption in egg laying for marine animals, migrating bird confusion, and has even altered growth cycles of some crops. Light fixtures that have been designated “dark sky” have been approved by the IDA after being evaluated on aspects like glare, deep shadows, sky glow, and light trespass – meaning light which escapes the area it is supposed to illuminate.
Lights which meet the dark sky requirement often also meet the “good neighbor” requirement, meaning light from your property is not likely to spill over onto a neighbor’s property, causing glare or shadows where they are not wanted.
“Updating your outdoor lighting has many benefits ranging from safety, to curb appeal, to energy efficiency, and more. Apart from a few highly technical components which will require the expertise of a professional, the majority of exterior light design can absolutely be done on a DIY scale.
The affordability and availability of LED lights and smart lighting technology have brought a whole new suite of choices to homeowners who can now further personalize their lightscapes without too much extra fuss. In short, there has never been a better time to update outdoor lighting than right now.