For most people, outdoor lighting consists of fixtures outside doors, and maybe string lights on a deck or patio — but that’s just the beginning. From providing better visibility around stairs, steps and pathways to highlighting the beauty of plants and architectural features — and improving security, too — lighting can transform outdoor spaces at night.
We spoke with Ron Carter from Kichler to learn exactly what you need to create a beautiful outdoor lighting plan.
Consider what you’re lighting before you start shopping
When you’re adding lighting to a landscape, you want to start by thinking about what the lights are going to illuminate rather than the light fixtures themselves (that comes later). If you have a mature landscape, there are likely going to be a number of features you’ll want to highlight: trees, shrubs, unique planters, grasses and hardscaping (pathways, steps, a gazebo or pergola, or even a pool deck). Starting with this list will allow you to create a focused lighting plan.
Types of outdoor lights
While halogen bulbs were once the top choice for outdoor lighting, low-wattage LEDs offer comparable performance, so there’s no longer a need to spend more to run energy-hungry halogen fixtures that produce a lot of heat. If you’re not up to speed with lighting tech available today, you may think that an LED fixture won’t be a bright as halogen. This is not true — wattage of an LED doesn’t determine brightness.
The main types of landscape lighting include in-ground or mounted lighting, which you’d use for shadowing, silhouetting and so on; hardscape lighting, such as lighting on steps and fixtures installed outside doors; and path or spread lights to light up walkways.
Path lights are side-mounted and direct light toward a path or targeted area, while spread lights are centre-mounted and emit light evenly all the way around to illuminate pathways and adjacent lawns or flower beds. These fixtures are available in a variety of styles and homeowners often choose them based on looks.
It’s worth noting that if you live in a coastal region, you’ll need to choose brass fixtures to prevent corrosion from the damp, salty air.
Lighting techniques to highlight landscaping and your home
There are a variety of lighting techniques you can use to bring outdoor spaces to life at night.
Downlighting involves lighting the landscape or specific features from above. You can achieve broad, even lighting by mounting the fixture up high with a wide beam spread or accent an element with lower mounting and a narrower beam spread. Moonlighting is a type of downlighting, with fixtures mounted high in trees to filter light down through the leaves and branches, casting shadows on the ground and mimicking moonlight.
In contrast, uplighting adds drama with lighting directed upward. Most commonly used to illuminate a home (or other building), it can also be used to spotlight trees, sculptures and other features in your landscape.
Looking to draw attention to a specific object? Cross lighting illuminates the focal point from two sides, creating a dramatic, yet soft effect — so long as you don’t overdo it on the light intensity.
Lighting certain areas on your property can also have a striking effect. Hardscape lighting refers to any lights added to hardscaped features like steps, retaining walls, railings, benches and outdoor kitchens. And if you have a pond or pool, mirror lighting involves strategically lighting elements around the water to create dreamy reflections.
You can also use lighting to create visual effects in your landscape. Wall-wash lighting directs light to walls to add depth and dimension to stonework, brick, stucco and architectural features, while Grazing highlights textured surfaces like brick, by aiming light parallel to the surface.
Shadowing directs light at an object or objects — like a row of spiky grass plants — in order to cast soft, graphic shadows onto a wall behind. In contrast, Silhouette lighting is achieved by lighting a wall from between the wall and an object, making the object appear in silhouette.
Pay attention to light intensity (lumens)
Less is more when it comes to outdoor lighting intensity. The last thing you want is a light so bright it washes out the features of the very thing you want to showcase. If you put a light at the base of a tree and the tree suddenly looks white, it’s simply too powerful.
Light is measured in lumens, and in most cases, 100 to 200 lumens is all you need in a landscape light fixture. But a four-storey house with high peaks often requires a 300-lumen light to really showcase the architecture, and a very large, old tree might need as much as 900 lumens — or a second light mounted partway up the tree to illuminate the top. A fixture of 500 lumens and up is going to be too powerful for most “home lighting” applications.
When lights are repeated, you’ll want to think about the intensity of the area as a whole. A small three-inch fixture mounted on each step may not seem like it’s going to throw a lot of light, but when you multiply that by four or six or eight steps, there will be more than enough lighting to guide you.
Beam spread is crucial for landscape lighting
Beam spread refers to the width of the light beam emitted by a fixture, and it’s a critical factor in creating beautifully lit landscapes. The width of the plant or feature you want to light will define the beam spread: thin, tall trees, columns and steep roof peaks require a narrow beam spread (10 or 15 degrees); while short, wide trees and walls require a wide beam spread (60 to 120 degrees). It’s also worth noting that LED lights have very defined beam edges, so the lighting is going to be quite focused.
One thing you should never do: flood your entire house with light. If a light is aimed toward your house and positioned more than five feet away, all you’ll see is the light when you look out your window.
Colour temperature affects the overall look
The colour temperature of lighting refers to how warm or cool the lighting is, and it’s measured in Kelvins (K). Fixtures around 2,700 K offer a warmer tone, which feels cozy and moody at night, while lights that are 3,000 K are going to appear cooler. As a rule, it’s a good idea to choose 3,000 K lights for homes with a white exterior and 2,700 K lights for all other colours.
Hire a landscaper or electrician
Landscape lighting mistakes can be costly and time-consuming, and installation can be tricky, so this is one area where it’s a good idea to call in the pros. A landscaper, contractor or electrician will be able to choose fixtures and set up the lights so that the beam spread is optimal and the wiring is appropriate for the load. Plus, a professional will be able to show you examples of the work they’ve done for other clients that can be applied to your landscaping and home.
Wiring electric outdoor lighting fixtures
Wiring electric outdoor lights must be done properly for safety, and there are two key things you need to factor in: the load and the wire gauge.
Load refers to how much electrical capacity a circuit can carry. Electrical currents, which run through circuits, are measured in amps (short for amperes), and a wire’s maximum amperage — as determined by the gauge — should match the amperage of the circuit breaker. For example, a 12-gauge wire can carry a maximum of 25 amps, so it should be used with a 25-amp breaker.
Problems arise when people use 16-gauge wire — which is cheaper but can’t carry as much current — to connect to a 25-amp breaker. Say your kids are playing soccer and they hit one of the outdoor lights, pinching a wire and causing it to short. A short in a 16-gauge wire won’t produce enough of a surge to trip a 25-amp breaker, so it will continually sizzle until it catches fire or melts.
It’s critical that you know how much load is required for your lights, and then wire everything with the correct gauge — all without overloading any circuits. The good news: low-wattage LEDs make that easier than ever.
Choose quality fixtures with a good warranty
When buying lighting fixtures, your best bet is to go with brand name integrated fixtures with a good warranty. Integrated fixtures are sealed with the LED lamp inside to prevent moisture-related damage. Fixtures with drop-in lamps (replaceable bulbs) can have issues with humidity, which impacts their lifespan, and more maintenance is generally required. Many manufacturers offer a five-year warranty, but some, such as Kichler, guarantee their lights for 15 years.
Maintaining landscape lighting
While most lights are pretty low maintenance, there are a few things you’re going to have to do to ensure your landscape lighting lasts and is looking its best. Crooked flutters are common after the spring thaw, so it’s best to check on them and straighten them out by lifting the base (never the top). Path lights might also require straightening and should also be adjusted by lifting at the base.
All lights will eventually become dirty due to birds and other wildlife, so periodic cleaning is necessary. The easiest way to remove any marks or stains is to apply Kaboom® BowlBlaster™ Toilet Bowl Cleaner — unlike window cleaners, it dissolves bird droppings, making cleaning pretty simple. You can also apply Rain-X to the lens to prevent build-up from watering lawns and gardens.
If you have questions about landscape lighting, visit your local ROBINSON showroom to chat with one of our knowledgeable sales associates. Or, browse our online store.