So you went to the big home improvement store and brought home a box of little solar powered LED landscape lights. After an afternoon out in the yard sticking them in the ground the result is… well, probably a little disappointing.
A better option might be low voltage landscape lighting.
There are professional outdoor lighting designers and lighting installation contractors who specialize in knowing all about landscape lighting. These are the best people to contact about low voltage landscape lighting for your home. If you’re ready to try it yourself, keep in mind that nothing is better than years of experience, but here’s an outline to help guide your process.
Here are the steps to creating your low voltage landscape lighting:
1) LIGHTING DESIGN
2) WIRING PLAN & INSTALLATION
3) ELECTRICAL CONNECTIONS
4) LAMP & FOCUS
Although it’s an electrical application, low voltage lighting takes very little energy to run and is relatively safe. You will need a GFCI outlet outside or in the garage, and a transformer that converts 120-volt to 12-volt power. It’s important that the outlet is a ground fault circuit interrupter – to protect from electrical hazards. Your transformer needs to be the right wattage to accommodate the lighting you plan to install.
If you’re planning to have a professional quality landscape lighting system installed, the best time to consult the designer is when you are still in the landscape planning stages, or as you are winding up your planting plans.
A professional designer will choose the optimum lighting effects, select the light source and locate the fixtures and wire runs, and calculate the appropriate electrical load and circuits for you. With professionally installed landscape lighting system you’ll get the maximum effect for your money, and the satisfaction will last for years.
If you’re going to try it yourself, the first thing you need to think about is how you are going to use the space. Choose light sources that will be bright enough to satisfy the needs of the area, but that can be installed without producing glare or shining into someone else’s yard. For safety reasons, do not put the lights closer than 10 feet from a pool, spa or pond.
LIGHTING DESIGN Plan your lighting design by selecting features to enhance, and areas that need light. Attractive plants and trees, walkways, statuary, fountains, and the façade of your home – all are great features to light. Select a good, reliable, energy efficient light source – professional LED fixtures or MR16 halogen and xenon lamps are very popular options. Buy good quality fixtures and equipment. Professional and contractor grade materials will serve for many years.
Use flags or marking stakes to indicate where you will place your fixtures. Mark the locations for your fixtures, placing lights where they do the most good illuminating the space, shining on the walks, highlighting the plant material, skimming across rock surfaces. Tour the site and look from different angles. Try to hide the fixtures when possible. Aim the light so it doesn’t make glare and you can’t see the light source.
Professional lamp charts are available to help you select the right light source for the application and to see what wattage will provide the desired brightness and throw. Beam spread refers to the size of the pool of light and is measured on a chart at varying distances.
WIRING PLAN & INSTALLATION Next, begin to consider where you can best place the wire runs. Along the edges of hardscapes is often a good choice. Make right angles for wire turns and arrange your plan not only for maximum efficiency, but also in a way that makes sense to you as you work in your property. A good way to try this is to run string or twine from the location of your transformer (by your GFCI outlet) to the fixtures.
There are several methods of laying out the wiring. The better and best ways are by using a “T” style installation or a “hub” installation. Most professional quality LED installations can use a series or “daisy chain” method. The method you choose will depend on the type of fixtures, the distance from the transformer, and the type and size of wire.
Don’t make your wire runs too long, and don’t start your fixtures too close to the transformer. You want even distribution of power.
Sketch your wiring plan and the lighting placement. Write it all down to make the project go much more smoothly, and to keep a good record of your project for the future.
You can purchase low voltage landscape lighting kits from the home improvement store, and these kits will probably include the transformer necessary to match the fixtures. It’s usually a small unit and has only one voltage available, so you will have some effect from “voltage drop” – a kind of line loss that occurs from fixture to fixture or over any amount of wire distance.
You’ll also need to use the specific wire intended for outdoor direct burial and for use with landscape lighting. It is generally sold separately in reels or spools. For most purposes, 12 or 10 gauge is fine; there are other sizes available.
After you’ve determined your wiring plan, an easy way to determine your wire footage is to measure how much twine you’ve used in your practice wiring plan. Add a few feet for each fixture so you have some slack and the ability to relocate the fixtures slightly. Add another foot or so per fixture so you can bury the wire easily.
Before you do any digging, call a professional locator service, and carefully look around your property for where sprinkler lines, water mains, cable TV and phone wires are buried. Tree roots can be a problem to get through. It’s best to dig around large roots – hacking through them can damage your trees and make entry points for insects. You can dig furrows about 6 inches deep to put the wires in, or slice the grass or sod with a shovel to the depth required by NEC code or your state or municipality (if different).
ELECTRICAL CONNECTIONS The electrical connections are very important and can be the weak link in your system. Click or pierce-squeeze connectors can easily allow moisture into the wire. Moisture and corrosion are the enemies of electrical systems. A waterproof splice is necessary for all connections that will be placed underground. A soldered connection with a waterproof electrical connector is a primo connection.
Make the connections at the transformer. Most consumer quality transformers have only one voltage tap. Professional and contractor grade transformers have multiple taps, to that the optimum operational voltage can be achieved.
LAMP & FOCUS Finally, put your light bulbs in the fixtures and aim them. Do this around dusk so you can see where you are pointing them. As you put the light bulbs in, moisten the ends of each bulb with lamp grease. This prevents dielectric corrosion and makes the light bulb easier to remove when time to change it.
Aim your fixtures carefully, making sure not to overshoot the features or aim any fixtures into the neighbor’s yard. If you find that there is no better placement to prevent glare, install accessories like hex baffles, shields or louvers. Some in-ground fixtures come with covers, leaf-guards or gravel screens. Be sure to install them if they are needed.
Finally, you may enjoy the addition of softening filters, spread lenses or color media. Colored glass filters are available in a variety of hues, and dichroic-coated lenses are available in practically any wavelength.
MAINTENANCE Most importantly, keep your beautiful landscape lighting system maintained. As with any other home system, your outdoor lighting system requires maintenance for proper working order and safe operation. Most professional installation contractors offer an annual or semi-annual maintenance plan.
Clean the fixture housing and lenses regularly, re-lamp and re-aim the fixtures as needed. Check the area around the electrical wiring for wear, corrosion or insect infestations.
Look into the fixture at least every year to check for water seepage or corrosion around the socket. Lubricate o-rings and replace o-rings that are dry, worn or torn.
Trim away foliage that is overgrown or blocking the fixtures. Add extension stems to raise the height of the fixtures in groundcover areas or adjust locations as the landscape material matures.
Low voltage landscape lighting is a beautiful way to enhance your home and outdoor environment. You get what you put into it – so hire a landscape lighting professional if you can, learn as much as you can to prepare yourself for the Do-It-Yourself Project if you can’t.