Lighting the outside of your home is not difficult, but if you stroll around your neighborhood after dark, you’ll see how easy it is to make mistakes. On any given night you’re sure to find front doors hidden in the shadows, walks that are unsafe in the darkness and decks and patios that are of no use once the sun goes down. Or you may spot the home of an overlighter: The driveway looks like a landing strip and the yard is so bright the place resembles a maximum-security prison.
We’ll help you avoid those mistakes by giving tips on where to put the lights and what types to use. You probably already have lighting in many areas, but it is useful to take a walk around your house at night with a flashlight to identify spots that need light and to experiment with beam angles. You will quickly discover that a surprisingly few watts, carefully directed, can make an area safer and more usable after dark and create a certain amount of drama as well.
“You don’t have to light objects directly in order to get enough light in an area,” explains Alicia Kapheim, lighting application manager at Philips Lighting Company, based in Somerset, New Jersey. “By using reflected light as part of your scheme you can achieve a nice balance of esthetics and security.”
Lighting at the front door serves several purposes: to act as a beacon that shows people where to enter; to prevent tripping on the steps; and to help locate the doorbell or keyhole. It also lets those inside see who is at the door.
“To minimize glare without sacrificing safety and convenience, two line-voltage (120V) lanterns on either side of the door, with low-wattage bulbs, are preferable to one fixture with a high-wattage bulb,” says Ed Scofield, president of Period Lighting Fixtures in Clarksburg, Massachusetts. A 40W incandescent lamp or a 15W compact fluorescent will do the job. Compact fluorescent bulbs last about 10 times as long as incandescent bulbs and use about one-third of the energy to produce the same amount of light.
Lanterns with frosted or colored lenses are easier on the eyes than those with clear glass. If you want a sparkling look, flank the front door with a pair of cut-glass fixtures
fitted with incandescent lamps.
Because wall or post lanterns are seen from relatively far away, choosing the right-size fixture can be challenging. Try tacking up a shoebox as a starting point from which to judge how large the fixture should be. Mount wall lanterns along the upper third of the front door.
Driveway and Garage
A 7- to 8-foot-tall post lantern at a driveway entrance is a useful landmark to help visitors and emergency vehicles find your home after dark. It isn’t necessary, though, to light up the entire length of the approach — the headlights of your car will take care of that. For most driveways, a few low, shaded low-voltage spreadlights will suffice to define the limits of the pavement. A tactic that’s good for wooded driveways is to mount downlights in the trees, making sure the light is focused on the edge of the roadbed, not into the driver’s eyes.
When illuminating a long, straight drive, “minimize the airport-runway look by staggering shielded path lights that provide a hidden, rather than noticeable, light source,” says Stefano Caposecco, a certified lighting consultant and technical director of Sea Gull Lighting in Riverside, New Jersey. Position the lights about a foot from the edge of the drive, along one or both sides.
“If you’re playing basketball, working on the car or doing something else in the driveway, then you need more light,” says Russ Leslie, professor of architecture and associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. You can accomplish this with wall-mounted incandescent floodlights with 20 to 100W bulbs or compact fluorescents, which provide less punch but are more economical to keep lit.
To save even more on energy costs, use a motion sensor — many fixtures come with one built in — that will turn the lights on only when someone enters the designated space. In order to keep unnecessary activation caused by roaming household pets and wildlife to a minimum, look for a model that features pulse-count technology.
Walkways and Steps
To guard against falls, even, overlapping pools of light from low-voltage fixtures are best for illuminating the full run of pathways and steps. Here, as on the
driveway, staggered rather than parallel fixtures will help avoid a runway look. Popular fixture choices for these locations include ground-hugging bollard lights, mushroom lights and shaded tier lights. All of these low-voltage fixture types are available in a range of styles, from no-frills utility models to hand-crafted works of art. Ground stakes and support “stems” are often sold separately from the fixture, letting you coordinate the height of the lights with the terrain.
The light source is concealed within the fixtures and shines light downward in a soft ring, eliminating glare. Lamps ranging from 4 to 20W are appropriate for this application. Fixtures equipped with photocells or dusk sensors are a real convenience, automatically turning the lights on at sunset and off again with the dawn. Another type of path light is fitted with tough plastic lenses that sit flush with the surface of a walkway. This feature can be particularly handy when you’re mowing the grass, as you won’t have to trim around protruding light fixtures.
Decks and Patios
Lighting outdoor living areas lets you indulge your creative side. “Be flexible in your lighting plan,” suggests Phil Kinzer, marketing manager of Intermatic Malibu in Spring Grove, Illinois. “Have fun with the project and let your imagination be your guide.” Permanent fixtures should be installed where task lighting is needed and where safety is a concern. A low- or line-voltage floodlight mounted on a wall near the grill can help keep both dinner and the cook from being burned. Outlining elements like benches and stair risers with small strip or rope lights can prevent a tumble and add a decorative touch.
Then there’s the insect concern. They’re attracted to bright lights, so pay attention to where you position lights. You can even try to lure insects into the trees by placing fixtures overhead rather than at knee level. Where such a compromise isn’t possible, use a light that’s specially designed to discourage these pests. GE makes a compact
fluorescent bug bulb that has Energy Star certification.
Keep in mind that alfresco events are often accompanied by a variety of temporary, decorative lighting — candles, hurricane lamps, the occasional tiki torch. But to preserve the festive atmosphere, take care not to overlight the area. Dimmers let you adjust the light level over the course of the evening.
Got a great garden? Flaunt it at night. By combining low-voltage lighting with accent lighting you can create afterdark excitement and deter trespassers. “Lighting selected sections and contrasting light with dark is more pleasing to the eye than indiscriminately bathing the entire backyard in light,” says Ian Ibbitson, vice president/general manager at Architectural Landscape Lighting in Santa Ana, California.
Select a primary focal point — something substantial like a tree or garden structure — and a couple of secondary areas of emphasis. To illuminate them, use floodlights attached to in-ground poles or hung from an eave, wall, fence or other elevated location (just don’t put lights where they could interfere with tree pruning or where they are extremely difficult to reach to change the bulbs). But you can also use recessed well lights with swivel heads aimed at the object of affection.
To light flower beds and other ground cover, as well as statuary or stone walls, use well lights recessed into the ground; or use swivel spots and short-stalked tier-, mushroom- and tulip-shaped shaded fixtures, which shine light downward.
Here’s a trick, courtesy of Lloyd Reeder, vice president of sales with Carrollton, Texas-based Greenlee Lighting, that can make it seem like there’s a moon out every night: “Mount shielded bullet fixtures up in taller trees to shine down, like moonlight, on a shorter tree or nearby shrubs,” Reeder says. “The downlight passes through branches and leaves, casting an interesting pattern of shadows.”
And finally, for a backlit effect, put the light source between the object you want to highlight (a particularly nice tree in the front of your home, for example) and the wall of the house.
Here’s some advice, from the experts at Lumière, located in Westlake Village, California, on keeping your outdoor-lighting fixtures in shape:
Periodic cleaning can help reduce calcium deposits from water falling on fixtures and lenses. If the deposits are heavy, use a household cleaner formulated to remove lime.
Lubricate threads with an anti-oxidizing, antiseize lubricant like Permatex, found at auto-supply stores.
Lubricate the socket and lamp base with a high-heat silicone compound to prevent metals from corroding together, which makes it tough to unscrew a lamp.
Check fixture mounts to make sure they are secure, safe and not causing damage to trees or other landscape features.
Verify that landscaping and vegetation are not shielding the fixture and blocking the light. You may have to move fixtures or trim plants.
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.
Where to Find It:
American Lighting Association
Dallas, TX 75342-0288
Architectural Landscape Lighting,
2930 South Fairview Street
Santa Ana, CA 92704
General Electric Company
1975 Noble Rd.
Cleveland OH 44112
1300 Hutton Dr., Suite 110
Carrollton, TX 75006
Littlestown, PA 17340
Spring Grove, IL 60081-9698
Lighting Research Center
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
21 Union St.
Troy, NY 12180
2382 Townsgate Rd
Westlake Village, CA 91361
1705 East Colton Avenue
Redlands, CA 982374
100 Endicott Street
Danvers MA 01923
Period Lighting Fixtures
167 River Road
Clarksburg, MA 02147
Philips Lighting Company
200 Franklin Square Road
Somerset, NJ 08873
101 Corporate Drive, Suite L
Spartenburg, SC 29303
Sea Gull Lighting Company
301 W. Washington Street
Riverside, NJ 08075
Sparks, NV 89432
767 East Street
Walpole, MA 02081