December 2010 Web Exclusive Article

Outdoor Lighting

Does the cloak of nighttime hide the architectural and landscaping attributes of your home and, worse, create a hazard for guests navigating their way to your front door? It might be time to consider landscape lighting. You may have unpleasant memories of a friend’s driveway lit up like an airport runway or a misdirected light on your neighbor’s property shining on your bedroom ceiling each night. But a well-planned and creative outdoor lighting system will enhance the value, beauty, and safety of your property. We asked six outdoor lighting experts for the main advantages of installing a system and advice on the most common mistakes to avoid.

Article Photo
enlarge | Courtesy of Vernon Daniel Associates Landscape Illumination - Lighting can highlight your home’s best features and safely direct visitors to the front door, as shown in this project by Vernon Daniel Associates Landscape Illumination.
Kurt Snyder, Vice President
Livingston, NJ

What are the five most important things outdoor lighting should do for a residential property?

1. The illumination should create a warm, inviting, feel-good presence for the owners, their guests, and the neighborhood.

2. The illumination should lead one through the property or gardens visually, drawing the eye to the important features and deemphasizing the less-important ones.

3. Assuming a complete design approach, the illumination should address both man-made and natural features (architectural images, landscape features, hardscape, ornamentation), the goal being a sensitive combination of subtlety and drama.

4. The illumination should effectively address the functional uses of the property in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.

5. The illumination should be environmentally friendly and energy efficient with long-life lamps and low maintenance.

What are the five ( three) most common mistakes homeowners or inexperienced lighting contractors make with outdoor lighting?

1. Exposed light sources produce glare and distract the eye away from the beauty of the scene. Always use shielded fixtures.

2. The runway effect: lining the driveway or walkway with path lights. There are much better solutions.

3. You dont need to light every feature on the property. The best designs are those with a combination of lights and darks, providing contrast, depth, and mystery.

4. You may be tempted to illuminate an entertainment area with path lights around the edge of the patio. They may do a wonderful job of lighting the patio edge, but they fail to provide light on tabletops; you cant see what youre eating or reading, nor can you see your guests faces.

5. Dont mount above-grade fixtures in lawn areas and fixtures too close to driveway edges where lawn mowers, snowplows, and cars will damage them.

6. Shallow underground wiring will ultimately surface from freeze/thaw cycles or be cut or damaged from normal gardening.

7. Homeowners and inexperienced contractors often create improper designs for low-voltage lighting systems. Properly sizing transformers and wire gauge and calculating voltage drop is essential.

8. Avoid jack-of-all-trades contractors who also install lighting as a sideline business. A company specializing only in landscape illumination will increase the chance of a successful installation.

Article Photo
enlarge | Photo by Tanek H. Hood/Courtesy of Reynolds Landscape Illumination - Carefully placed lights illuminate the seating area on a raised patio and create an interesting mix of light and dark areas in the landscape. The project is by Reynolds Landscaping Inc.
Tanek H. Hood
Manahawkin, NJ

What are the five most important things outdoor lighting should do for a residential property?

1. The design should create a balance of light throughout the property that reflects the landscape design, plant specimens, and architectural detail.

2. The outdoor lighting system should be flexible and easy to upgrade and modify as the landscape, space, and home grow.

3. An outdoor lighting system should transform the home and landscape into something more beautiful at night than it is during the day.

4. Outdoor lighting should be as useful as it is beautiful. Many zones of lighting can create a diverse system that never looks old. For example, in one project we zoned out the homeowners’ evergreen trees with washlights so they can dim and time the lighting of those trees independently during the holidays and winter.

5. A well-designed outdoor lighting system should create a fluid ability to enjoy your property after dark, including utility lights for safety, a dimming station to set the mood/level of light in specific zones, and lighting for evening entertaining. An outdoor lighting system should be flexible to fit the different ways the homeowner uses the property. As a designer, I place a higher level of control in the homeowner’s hands. It’s all related to reading the client and asking what level of control he or she prefers. Most contractors prefer not to install switch/dimmer legs in their low-voltage lighting. In coordination with a timing system, I prefer to have a central switching station that can orchestrate the property to fit the space. Line carrier technology and universal powerline bus technology is the way to go where the homeowner has the ability to set and control all lighting with a master control board. Many contractors are already installing these controls on every system.

What are the five most common mistakes homeowners or inexperienced lighting contractors make with outdoor lighting?

1. When an inexperienced contractor fails to explain the need for service, set up a service contract, or develop a client relationship, this leads to unserviced systems that go years without regular cleaning, maintenance, and adjustments.

2. The average person has a tendency to use inferior products and design techniques, including poorly constructed fixtures, non-waterproof splices, inferior wire, and unsafe transformers.

3. Many inexperienced contractors design without considering the Dark Sky Campaign, an international effort aimed at reducing light pollution. Though not all of my projects fall under dark sky parameters, it’s important to think along these lines whenever possible to create a subtle lighting system that respects the neighborhood. A homeowner may use very bright, harsh lights to overlight the space rather than using a spread lens or frosted glass lens with a soft light and a narrow beam spread.

4. Many inexperienced contractors and homeowners overload lighting runs, disregard electrical calculations, and overlamp the lighting design.

5. Many inexperienced lighting contractors and homeowners skip the National Electric Code and miss the safety aspect of outdoor lighting. Many contractors don’t use an electrician to install electrical outlets. That isn’t always needed, but it’s important to at least consult an electrician on each project. There is a big debate in New Jersey about whether lighting contractors should be able to install low-voltage lighting. Many municipalities require a licensed electrician to pull a permit for it, though it varies from one municipality to the next. I am in the category of contractor that should be against this state-level regulation because I don’t have an electrician’s license and fall under 12-volt (low-voltage) installer. Electricians look at many low-voltage contractors as “trunk slammers” trying to throw lighting in the ground without caring about safety, codes, or client. There are just as many lighting designers who follow Underwriters Laboratories Standard 1838 (a complex standard that sets requirements for a system of transformers, wire, and fixtures) and safe-design principles as there are contractors who try to step around the problem and change legislation.

Article Photo
enlarge | Courtesy of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives - Effective lighting adds drama to a property while respecting the appearance of the neighborhood. This project is by Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Northern NJ.
Norman Cohen
Boonton, NJ

What are the five most important things outdoor lighting should do for a residential property?

1. Add safety and security. Lighting that enhances safety does not have to be the glaringly bright floodlights we see so often. Not only does well-planned outdoor lighting beautify a property, it also can make dark areas less inviting to intruders, thus adding security. And when tripping hazards such as steps, decks, walkways, and the like are softly lighted, safety is increased.

2. Beautify and add curb appeal. An investment in outdoor lighting offers the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to beautifying a home (especially compared with the cost of landscape improvements). On a dark, cold, winter night its a pleasure to come home to a property that glows with warm outdoor lighting. In addition, lighting adds hours of benefit to any landscape or architectural improvement.

3. Expand your living space. A few well-placed lights can double or even triple the living space of your home. Imagine the pleasure of relaxing on your porch or deck, by the pool, or in the garden well into the evening.

4. Conserve energy. Properly designed low-voltage lighting for the outdoors is energy efficient, saving approximately 40% oer traditional line-voltage lighting. Our latest product offering  high-quality LED lighting  can save an additional 75%. or example, our 8.5-watt LED fixture replaces a 35-watt halogen (low-voltage) fixture while providing comparable illumination. For any system, the use of timers, photocells, or a light-control-automation system means your lights operate only when needed, saving energy.

5. Be reliable and long lasting. A quality low-voltage system installed by a competent contractor should provide at least 10 years of reliable service, including all fixtures, wire, and transformers. Bulbs should last at least one year even when used every night.

What are the five most common mistakes homeowners or inexperienced lighting contractors make with outdoor lighting?

1. Homeowners buy solar lights from home-improvement stores believing they will provide adequate illumination for dark walkways or for effective uplighting. They dont. Period. The worst use of solar lighting: long rows of fixtures every three or four feet apart, turning every walkway into a runway. Also dont buy inexpensive fixtures of any kind and expect satisfactory results. The illumination will not be bright enough to light a house fa�ade or a larger tree. The powder coating or paint will likely peel or flake over time. The thin stems on path lights will break at the base.

2. Homeowners hire a contactor to install lighting based only on a sketch or written estimate and without seeing a complete nighttime demonstration. In this case, the homeowners dont know how the lighting will look until after its installed. Ask for a demonstration. Outdoor lighting is probably the only home improvement in which a homeowner can literally see the complete result before making a decision to invest!

3. We receive calls every week from homeowners who have a lighting system that requires maintenance, but the landscaper or irrigation company that installed it doesnt provide ongoing service. Dont hire someone who does lighting as a sideline! Do hire someone who has been in business for a while and who guarantees ongoing service and maintenance.

4. For the best lighting results, use fixtures in which the bulb is shielded from view so you see the effect of the light, not the source of the light. This is especially true for path lights. When the bulbs are visible, they produce so much glare that the overall lighting is compromised. If you have sconces, lanterns, or post lights in which the bulbs are visible, use dimmers, frosted bulbs, or lower-wattage bulbs to create a soft lighting effect and reduce glare.

5. Dont let a contractor learn how to do low-voltage lighting on your project. We have repaired many systems in which the wiring was not properly installed or designed. This can lead to bulbs burning out every few months and even wires melting inside the transformer.

Vjera Zec
Howell, NJ

What are the five most important things outdoor lighting should do for a residential property?

1. Security. A properly illuminated home is a great burglar deterrent. Research shows that breaking and entering takes about 60 seconds; the FBI reported there were 10 million property crimes in 2007, with 60% o the occurrences happening at night. For these reasons insurance agencies and law officials recommend that all areas surrounding the home be well lighted to discourage robbery attempts.

2. Safety. Outdoor lighting should provide a clear view of any potential obstacles. Low levels of even illumination of steps, terraces, pool areas, and so forth ensures safe nighttime navigation around the property, preventing injury to you and your visitors.

3. Usability. The outdoor entertaining trend is here to stay. More and more people are spending time at home rather than vacationing; enhancing a property with lighting increases its use and allows for the evening enjoyment of decks, sitting areas, and recreational spaces.

4. Ambience. Lighting can create emotional responses such as drama, excitement, mystery, or romance. It determines how a person should feel in a space and how the space is viewed. Outdoor spaces should be evaluated to determine the correct lighting technique for the desired effect. For example, soft, broad strokes of downlighting will create a sense of calm peacefulness, while a high brightness contrast will be more dramatic.

5. Value. According to The Gallup Organization, studies show landscaping can add seven to 15 percent to a homes value. Outdoor lighting helps improve the appearance of a property at night by accentuating the shapes and textures of the surrounding landscape and structures, thus adding to the propertys value and improving the communitys curb appeal.

What are the five most common mistakes homeowners or inexperienced lighting contractors make with outdoor lighting?

1. Failing to assess a propertys needs and usage requirements. Homeowners and inexperienced contractors have limited understanding of the design process involved in landscape lighting and how light can create atmosphere. Careful planning takes into account the anticipated use, maintenance, and expectations of lighting and garden areas.

2. Electrical knowledge and wiring. Anybody planning a lighting system should know enough about electricity and wiring to ensure the proposed design will work. Most DYI lighting kits sold at big-box stores are not meant to address a critical issue in outdoor landscape lighting: voltage drop. Inconsistent voltage causes the lights farthest from the transformer to dim and shifts the color of the lights toward yellow. To avoid this, a professional lighting contractor will choose the proper wire size based on the length and load of the runs, use a higher rated transformer, and reduce individual fixture wattage to achieve consistent voltage. Voltage drop can actually work if the goal is to achieve different levels of brightness, but only a trained lighting designer will know how maximize the benefits of the technique.

3. Understanding the cost. You have to take into consideration the site conditions. Fixtures that arent manufactured to withstand site challenges will have sockets that fail, spikes that disintegrate, and locking mechanisms that no longer tighten. Installing inexpensive fixtures to limit the cost will most surely cause some long-term dissatisfaction with the lighting industry. Rather than take this approach, develop a master plan and install the lighting in phases if the project is too expensive to complete at one time.

4. Understanding plants. Plant material is a key element in landscape lighting composition. Knowing the characteristics of the plants being illuminated is critical to the success of a lighting scheme. Also take into account the future growth of a landscape so a system installed today will support the needs of tomorrow. As a landscape matures, fixture wattages may need to be increased and additional fixtures will be needed. An experienced designer knows to plan for the future.

5. Electrical connections: the weak link in electrical circuits. Loose connections not only disrupt the flow of electricity because of corrosion and water exposure, but they also reduce voltage on the wire past the connection. Water traveling along the wiring can reach the fixtures housing, causing lamp failure, corrosion, and electrical shorts. Properly assessing the conditions of all outdoor connections will help prevent system failure.

Scott Mallon
Bridgewater, NJ

What are the five most important things outdoor lighting should do for a residential property?

1. It is very important that any architectural and landscape lighting design be functional and expandable to meet the needs as a landscape matures and changes through the years. If homeowners would like to add fixtures or increase the brightness of certain fixtures, they should be able to achieve this without adding transformers or creating voltage-drop issues because of improper wiring or having too many fixtures on a circuit. Planning ahead will save the customer money and the contractor redundant work.

2. Originality and versatility are very important in architectural and landscape design. Every house on the block should not look the same. Many techniques can be incorporated into a design to make each property stand out from the next. By using different fixtures or adding a lens, a unique effect can be achieved. One of the most important elements of effect is fixture positioning. Improper fixture placement can make a landscape lighting installation look dismal, cold, and uninviting; but when done correctly it can make a property stand out.

3. Safety and security should always be incorporated into an architectural and landscape lighting design. Adding light to a house facade will deter would-be intruders at night. The grazing technique — which provides adequate lighting without overpowering the façade — involves placing a light fixture low in the ground and about six inches from the wall. The light will shine straight up, just grazing the wall. Other options include downlighting a driveway or sidewalk from a tree or other high object, showing any obstacle in your path. Placing path light fixtures along walkways or steps is crucial to highlight dark areas and reveal tripping hazards.

4. Landscape lighting should be aesthetically pleasing. Every area that is illuminated should present a warm and welcoming environment. Overlighting an area can be detrimental to the balance of a lighting project. Consistency is important, and most of the time less is more — too much light can be offensive and look unrealistic.

5. When done correctly, architectural and landscape lighting will increase property value. It should be visually satisfying and useful. By simply highlighting architectural elements, specimen plants, and hardscape features, your residence becomes a showcase. It also extends the time you can enjoy your property into the evening and makes it more attractive to buyers and neighbors.

What are the five most common mistakes homeowners or inexperienced lighting contractors make with outdoor lighting?

1. Using inferior products or materials. Many large home centers sell landscape lighting transformers and lighting fixtures that have limited versatility. These transformers are limited to 12 volts — insufficient to supply enough power for long wire runs — and are limited in the power each circuit can supply. The lamps in these fixtures usually have lower maximum wattage than professional-grade fixtures and the overall quality and construction is no comparison to professional-grade products. Professional-grade products cost more, but the construction, light output, and versatility outweighs home center products. In addition warranties are better for professional-grade products (usually 10 years on transformers and three years on fixtures). If you purchase brass or copper fixtures, most manufacturers will give a lifetime limited warranty.

2. Don’t do it yourself unless you have the experience and ability to design, install, and maintain the system yourself. Overloading a circuit and improper wiring can be hazardous to you and your property. Hire a reputable professional contractor to design, install, and maintain your architectural and landscape lighting system.

3. A good lighting contractor should have plant and tree knowledge so he or she knows the proper fixture lamp, lens, and positioning to obtain the appropriate lighting effect. Always make sure the contractor has insurance and is registered with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs ( It is also a good idea to check the contractor’s references, make a phone call, or drive by some of the work he or she has done.

4. Do some research to establish a game plan, budget, and time line. Architectural and landscape lighting can be a large investment and not everyone can do the total project at one time. Many customers complete a specific area one year and then another area the following year. Do as much homework as possible and think ahead to any changes you think may occur to your property in the future. Set priorities and try to complete each area with what is most important to you.

5. Maintenance. When investing in an architectural and landscape lighting system, one of the most important things you can do is maintain it on an annual basis. Most lighting contractors offer annual maintenance service. This usually includes changing every lamp in the system, checking wire connections, moving fixtures, trimming plant vegetation from around fixtures for optimal lighting, cleaning dirty fixtures, lubricating gaskets and shrouds on fixtures to prevent dry rot and water seepage, and checking transformer wire connections, functionality, and power control devices, including timers and photocells. By performing this maintenance you will prolong the life of your lighting system.

Glen Nyhuis
Ringwood, NJ

What are the five most important things outdoor lighting should do for a residential property?

1. Increase the value of your property.

2. Extend your living space at night.

3. Security, safety, and visually direct visitors to your front door.

4. Accent your landscape or surrounding property.

5. Accents the architecture of the home and visually defines your property borders.

What are the five most common mistakes homeowners or inexperienced lighting contractors make with outdoor lighting?

1. Homeowners and inexperienced contractors likely have no formal lighting training or understanding of a complete and properly engineered system.

2. There is no sense or purpose to where they place fixtures, and they choose incorrect fixtures for a particular application.

3. They come up with lighting plans that have no visual direction or theme and don’t to incorporate the house in the design. They often forget to include the side and back yards.

4. They choose undervolted lamps and don’t understand how to use lenses to eliminate glare.

5. They buy the least expensive fixtures, which don’t hold up to the elements.