A Guide to Landscape Lighting
The #1 over looked aspect of any pool project or landscaping project is lighting. Landscape Lighting can take your project from blah to BLAM! For this article Pool Pros has put together a guide to help you learn the basics of Landscape Lighting so you can decide if, and what type of landscape lighting makes sense for your project.
BENEFITS OF LANDSCAPE LIGHTING
Proper lighting in a landscape setting is extremely underrated. In my 18 years of landscape and pool design experience, I have never once heard a client say post-project, “I wish that we would have done LESS lights.” It is almost exclusively the opposite! The advantages can be both aesthetically driven and practical in nature. Some of the benefits to landscape lighting include the following:
-Extends the relative time of use
-Illuminate areas of high traffic (such as stairs and walkways)
-Highlight areas of interest (structures, outdoor spaces, plantings or sculptures)
-Curb appeal/increased home value
-Added safety and security
-Holiday and party lighting options (with programmable, color-changing LED products)
-Ease in use and relatively low cost of operations (especially for LED fixtures)
THE 4 TYPES OF LANDSCAPE LIGHTING
1). LINE VOLTAGE LIGHTING:
"Line Voltage" refers to the power source (typically 120v or 277v) that feeds a given light fixture. This is common in most light fixtures within a residential home. However, this type of lighting is generally outdated for outdoor applications (and typically only employeed for security lighting, overhead light fixtures for parking lots or large spotlights in commercial applications). The main reason that this approach is seldom used relates most directly to cost of operation (as more effecient residential landscape systems have become widely available).
2). LOW VOLTAGE, LED SYSTEMS:
Most contemporary outdoor lighting systems would be considered "Low Voltage." Such systems utilize a transformer that converts 120v of power to 12v - 24v. LED (or Light Emitting Diode) fixtures can produce light up to 90% more effeciently than incandescent bulbs and consequently consume much less energy. LED lights typically come with a higher up-front price tag but are extremely durable and long-lasting (when compared to incandescent and fluorescent bulbs). LEDs actually thrive in colder temperatures - making them a great choice for harsh climates.
3). SOLAR LANDSCAPE LIGHTING: Outdoor fixtures that utilize solar cells and rechargeable batteries within the device to illuminate landscapes without the use of wiring or direct power source. Solar systems are oftentimes the most affordable lighting option but come with some limitations with respect to lumen output/brightness and long-term durability (as we will further discuss in this article).
4). POOL LIGHTING:
Most contemporary pool light fixtures are LED for their respectively low operating cost and rugged durability. Wire is run through a hard pvc conduit (between pool light location and equipment pad/service panel). Many fixtures offer color changing features and options that can be controlled through automation.
What are the Main Components of a Landscape Lighting System?
-GFCI Outlet.....(Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter Outlet) - used in wet locations to help prevent injury from electric shock.
-Conduit.....most residential landscape lighting systems do not require conduit when low voltage wiring is used. Typically, the low voltage wire is simply buried within landscape beds at an approximate depth of 6." However, conduit is useful under hardscape installations to prevent damage to the wiring while compacting gravel. Conduit is also used to streamline feeds for future lighting expansion projects and within any pool light installations.
-Transformer Box.....converts power to a lower voltage. For outdoor landscape lighting applications, the box is typically plugged into an existing GFCI outlet and mounted to the outside of the house. The outer shell of the transformer box is most commonly made with some type of high grade durable polymer/plastic or stainless steel to prevent weathering.
-Programmable Timer and Photocell.....many transformer boxes of low voltage systems come with these components already built in (or offer 'plug-in' slots to receive these expanded features). These timers and photocells can be used to automatically set when lights turn on or off with respect to time of day or available light for a given setting.
-Low Voltage Wiring.....12, 14 and 16 gauge wires are the most common options for low voltage systems. 12 gauge wire is the most prevalent in outdoor systems. Such a system (with 12 gauge wiring) can typically carry a 100 watt load to about 100 feet from the transformer before seeing a noticeable drop in voltage.
-Lighting Fixtures.....usually constructed of composite material (polymer or plastic), aluminum, copper or brass. Available in a wide range of styles, sizes and relative lumen output. Some fixtures include adjustable features to better control the beam angle and direction.
-Lighting Bulbs.....available in incandescent, fluorescent or LED options. Most contemporary outdoor systems employ LED technology for cost savings. Avoid low cost LED bulbs if not properly rated for outdoor use. Without a durable housing around the bulb, temperature and moisture can lead to bulb failure and necessary replacement.
-Automation Controls.....help provide an ease in control relative to the lighting system. In some cases these controls are housed within the transformer box. Nowadays, many products can be controlled with smartphones and apps that link to the system via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
-Junction Hubs.....depending on the complexity of the lighting system junction hubs can be a helpful addition to low voltage systems. Hubs help reduce the number of connections necessary (when compared to standard wiring methods). They also help minimize lamp outages and simplify troubleshooting for any future maintenance.
-Solar Cells and Rechargeable Batteries (for Solar Lighting Systems).....a fixture with a larger solar cell will ultimately produce more lumen output. However, a larger solar cell on top of the light unit may contribute to a more 'clunky' appearance. In addition, all solar outdoor lights require batteries. Even if rechargable batteries are used, they will eventually need to be replaced (especially if the light fixtures are left outside all year) - which will add to relative cost and maintenance.
Pre-Planning for a Comprehensive Lighting Plan/Future Expansion:
Yes – lighting can be installed after a landscaping project is complete but it comes with an added cost to the client. The more that you can plan ahead, the easier future lighting expansion will be. Pre-planning for electrical feeds can save you a lot of money and potential headaches. Conduit is relatively cheap and simple to install.
So once you have a general (or possible future) lighting plan finalized, it makes sense to trench/install any necessary conduit feeds during the demo or base construction phase of the project. This is especially true for projects with expansive hardscaping footprints (because once the concrete is poured or the pavers are laid- access to the electrical panel may be drastically limited and costly if the hardscape surface has to be removed and re-set to account for a new trench). However, with conduit in place, future light installation or expansion is a much more streamlined and simple process.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!
Each site is unique and consequently may require a tailored approach for developing a comprehensive lighting plan. In some cases, the location of necessary landscape lights may be pretty straightforward (high traffic areas, safety concerns such as steps, etc.). Nevertheless, an experienced landscape designer will be an invaluable asset in creating a lighting layout. The main goal is to activate spaces throughout the project site but also provide a cohesive aesthetic that is carried throughout the landscape.
Relative placement of the lighting fixture is also a critical consideration. When using spotlights or uplighting, it is important to position the fixture so that it is not too close or far away from the element that you intend to illuminate. For example, if a fixture is placed too closely to a tree, the full light potential will not be realized since only a portion of the tree will be receiving light. Contrastly, if the fixture is placed too far away from the tree, the lighting will appear 'washed out' and less effective. A good rule of thumb is to place uplighting spot fixtures about 18" to 30" away from the element that you want illuminated (depending on the light fixture and size of the focal point).
This is also the case for post lights, well lights and hardscape fixtures. Placing the light fixture at the appropriate location according to the relative landscape feature or space is key. For something such as a well light, you would want the fixture located as close to the hardscsape edge as possible. Experienced landscape installers and/or designers will be able to guide you in choosing the appropriate amount, spacing and placement of lights to maximize their effect.
TYPES OF LANDSCAPE LIGHTING FIXTURES
There is a wide range of landscape lighting options and products available in today's market. Each product has a different application depending on the client's needs or preferences. Be sure to research which type is best suited for your relative use. Different products provide different options with respect to the direction in which light is cast and how they are "set" within the landscape, hardscape or pool. In addition, some products have programmable or adjustable features. Below is a list of different lighting types/styles to consider...
-Directional accent lights/spot lights/up-lighting
-Lighted water features
Are Solar Lights a Viable Option?....Maybe....BUT Buyer Beware!
Solar garden lights have quickly gained in popularity over the last 20 years. They provide a cost effective option for providing light in difficult to reach spaces within the landscape. The main advantage here is that solar lights are (generally) less expensive and do not require an electrical feed or wire to power them. Therefore, installation is extremely easy and there is no additional cost for operation as they are powered by sunlight.
Nowadays, solar powered landscape lights come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are many different options to choose from (offered online and at many 'big-box' retail stores). The most common options are made of plastic/polymer but can also be found in brass finishes for a higher product cost.
The main disadvantage for solar light kits are that they don't produce enough lumens (light output/brightness). Most solar lights have a very small bulb in the middle and are surrounded by a reflective material to help produce more light. If you are leaning towards solar, consider a product that has a larger bulb and a larger solar cell. The main drawback with this approach is the aesthetic of the fixture may be less attractive. However, a 'clunky and larger' model will do a much better job at actually producing light.
The second big disadvantage of most solar fixtures is that they generally have poorer standards with respect to durability. Many less expensive solar light systems are only intended for warmer climates. In some cases, the plastic components become brittle in cold temps and can break. Many cheaper varieties cannot withstand icy and snowy conditions and over time will begin to fade in brightness. Depending on the quality of the product it may be advantageous to keep the light units out of rain, ice and snowy conditions. This preventative action will help prolong their lifespan but is also an extra time-consuming step that few clients bother to take. Oftentimes, the lights are left out in the elements until they need to be replaced. If this is the case, it might make sense to purchase and store more lights than you need (so that you already have replacement units of the same style on hand for future use).
Generally speaking, solar landscape lights are typically just not constructed with long-term durability in mind. Total lifespan of these products is most commonly around 2-5 years before they need to be replaced.
Rechargeable batteries are often included within the initial purchase. However, these batteries may have to be replaced over time (depending on the quality of the housing around the light unit). If not engineered properly, temperature fluctuations and humidity can eventually diminish light production or lead to battery/bulb failure.
Finally, a major drawback of solar lighting systems is the availability of sunlight to charge these fixtures. In many cases, a client wants some type of landscape lighting placed under the canopy of a tree or near a structure. However, for solar lights to receive a complete charge and effectively produce light - the lighting fixture should be placed in full sun. If the lights are situated in partial shade conditions, the solar cell will not be able to adequately convert sunlight into lumen output.
Aspects of Lighting Fixtures and Adjustable Features:
Color temperature and light beam angle are two features that can be adjusted (depending on the the type of product that you have chosen). Below is a reference guide from Amp Lighting for lighting design options with respect to spectrum and angle....
LANDSCAPE LIGHTING VENDORS
There are many different possible sources for purchasing components to install an outdoor lighting system. It is important to research what brand is best suited for you. Be sure to consider quality in construction, materials used, any included warranties of products, and local climatic conditions as they may relate to your project. It is a good idea to look into product reviews/ratings and discuss options with a local landscape designer before your purchase.
Below is a quick list of some possible sources to consider when planning your next outdoor lighting project:
-Amp Lighting .....(premium landscape lighting products)
-Kichler Lighting .....(premium landscape lighting products)
-Volt Lighting.....(premium landscape lighting products)<