Making Sense of Systems, Fixtures, and Lamps


Outdoor-lighting systems are powered by either the 120V line voltage you use in the rest of the house or a 12V low-voltage system, or by a combination of the two. If you need to add a new line-voltage circuit for the lighting, hire an electrician to make the connections, or at least have one check your work. Low-voltage systems have a step-down transformer that is plugged into an outdoor receptacle and converts line voltage to low voltage. You can install a low-voltage system yourself. They are so safe manufacturers recommend hooking up the system just to test the placement of lighting fixtures. Systems run on specially insulated distribution cable you can tuck discreetly into ground cover and easily relocate as plants mature or your lighting preferences change. Typically, lamps for low-voltage lighting are three times as bright, watt for watt, and yield more lumens per watt, than line-voltage incandescent lamps, and last up to four times as long. Low-voltage bulbs come in various wattages from 3 to 50, with rated life expectancies starting at 2,000 hours and running up to 4,000 hours or more.

With low-voltage systems, there are limits to the distance and number of fixtures that can be fully powered by a transformer. This "voltage drop" can be offset by either shortening the cable run or using a heavier-gauge cable for the installation. For line-voltage systems, many manufacturers offers fixtures that accept metal-halide or mercury-vapor lamps. These two lamp types put out more lumens per watt than any low-voltage lamps. Most metal-halide lamps, costing about $40, have a 15,000-hour life, and most mercury-vapor lamps, costing about $25, have a 24,000-hour rating. You'll find lighting fixtures for both kinds of systems at home centers, lighting specialty stores and through online sources. Standard line-voltage fixtures are usually sold individually. You can buy low-voltage kits that include the transformer, fixtures and cable for about $50, or purchase items separately. Fixtures range from $15 to more than $100. Regardless of which system you go with, use only fixtures UL listed for wet locations.
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