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Tips for Quick and Easy Landscape Lighting

By day your garden struts its stuff. Sun drenched blooms and shady nooks invite you to stay awhile. But what about when the suns dips low? Your garden at night can still be a delight to explore and enjoy thanks to easy-to-install landscape lighting.

Landscape lighting is fast becoming the realm of the average homeowner thanks to do-it-yourself lighting kits. There's a huge range of light fixture designs and how-to information available, and starter kits can be found at almost every garden store and building center. For a quick and easy landscape lighting system, low voltage and solar lighting are your best bets.

Low Voltage Lighting

Low voltage lighting kits have been a boon to determined do-it-yourselfers, and gardens have never looked better. Low voltage simply means that the line voltage normally delivered from a home power outlet is reduced by a transformer to 12 volts. 12-volt systems are safe and can be installed without a permit or certified electrician. However, if you need additional outdoor outlets, a qualified electrical contractor can install these for you. The low voltage transformer plugs into a power source, usually a 110/120v outlet located outside. Inside outlets can work as well as long as the transformer is rated for indoor use and is installed with adequate space around it to dissipate heat. From the transformer, multiple cable runs connect clusters of 3 to 6 light fixtures.

Because each light fixture uses a portion of the same 12 volts, you should avoid having all your light fixtures connected to one cable run. If you have too many fixtures, you'll notice the lights are noticeably dimmer than they should be, especially the last light in the line. The size of transformer depends on the number of light fixtures you have, so a rule of thumb is to make sure you purchase a bigger transformer than you need. That way, you'll be in good shape to add lights in the future. Refer to the product specifications for this information. As for low voltage light fixtures, the options are endless. You can find traditional pagoda style or louvered fixtures, carriage style lanterns, and lamps with distinctive modern appeal. You can even find low voltage deck lighting for wooden stairs and railings.

Solar Lighting

Solar lighting is another popular outdoor lighting option considered by some to be even easier than low voltage lighting because it requires no wiring whatsoever. Simply position the fixture in a location that receives direct or indirect sunlight and you're done. Outdoor solar lights for decks, like post lights and recessed deck lights, require a bit more know-how, but nothing that can't be accomplished without a power drill and screwdriver.

Solar lights consist of an LED bulb (most common), rechargeable battery, and solar panel. Energy from the sun is converted by the solar panel and stored as electrical energy in the battery. At dusk when the light level is low, a photocell timer turns the lights on. Solar landscape lights typically take about eight to ten hours to fully discharge, which is usually more than enough time for an evening get-together outdoors. When purchasing solar lights, pay attention to the number of LEDs per fixture. Unlike incandescent and fluorescent lamps, LEDs emit light and not heat. One LED emits roughly the same brightness as a 2 Watt bulb. If you want lots of light, look for light fixtures with three or more LEDs.

These will work great along paths and stairs where safety and security are concerns. Ambient or atmosphere lighting around a deck or patio could do with one LED per fixture. Like their low voltage cousins, solar lights come in a great range of styles, including solar post lights and recessed lights for decks, hot tubs, and patios.

Landscape Lighting Basics

Now for a few landscape lighting basics. You can apply these techniques with either low voltage or solar lights to achieve some dramatic results. Guaranteed!
  • Uplighting: By positioning the light source below the object and pointing the beam upwards you can highlight walls, structures, and large plantings, which creates visual interest and dramatic focal points.
  • Downlighting: By positioning the light source high above the object and pointing the beam downwards, you can cast light over a wide area like a patio. By locating a downlight close to the ground, you can create softly spreading puddles of light ideal for walkways.
  • Grazing: By positioning the light close to an interesting surface, you can bring out its texture. Use grazing to highlight tree bark, stone walls, or an attractive door.
  • Silhouetting: By hiding lights behind and below a distinct landscape feature like a tree, you can create a silhouette that is visible against the sky at night.
There are a few things to avoid as well. Too many lights and your property will look like a birthday cake with too many candles. Instead, strive to draw the eye towards specific areas, landscape features or structures. Another common pitfall is to evenly line both sites of a path or walkway with lights, creating something akin to an airport runway. Instead, alternate lights on either side of the path and refer to the manufacturer instructions for the spacing between lights. Finally, experiment! The great thing about low voltage and solar lighting is that you can easily try different things. You may have to adjust the angle, intensity, and position of the light source to achieve the effect you want. If you see that you've got a birthday cake or runway effect happening, you can make the changes immediately. Low voltage and solar lighting give you the flexibility to move fixtures around.

With low voltage lighting systems, just remember to leave the wiring runs unburied until you decide on final placement. The bottom line is that a small investment in landscape lighting will provide you ten-fold the returns in terms of your garden enjoyment. With the right lighting solution, your home will look fabulous and dramatic from the street, and intimate and inviting for entertaining on the patio.

Leanne Tremblay is a freelance writer and publisher of Learn About Outdoor Lighting, where you can find tips on low voltage lighting, solar powered landscape lighting, patio lights and more.

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Tips on ligting your landscape


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