All About Landscape Lighting

Underlit trees and accent lights aimed at the facade create an inviting post-sunset atmosphere around this home.

You've pulled out all the stops to make your house and yard look first-rate. So why let that hard work disappear at nightfall. With a flick of a switch and some strategically placed outdoor house lights, you can roll back the darkness and put it all on display? Done right, landscape lighting makes the best of what you've got by highlighting your home's architectural features and drawing attention to prized plantings and trees.

What is the Best Landscape Lighting?

Most landscape lighting today is low voltage, and with good reason. Unlike 120-volt systems, it's safer to work with and less costly to install. And though low-voltage lights receive one-tenth the power, thanks to a step-down transformer, there's no limit to the effects they can achieve, from ethereal moonlight beamed down from a tree canopy to a subtle glow that washes over a low garden wall. More than just picking the right hardware, a pleasing lighting scheme is also about artistry.

What's in a Low-Voltage Outdoor Lighting System?

Illustration by Arthur Mount

Landscape lighting typically relies on stepped-down power from your house.

Key Questions Answered

Photo by Mark Roskams

DIY or Hire a Pro?

Homeowners can put in a simple system in a weekend. For the most stunning effects, go with a landscape lighting specialist familiar with the various fixtures and ways to arrange them.

How Much Does it Cost to Install Outdoor Lighting?

Individual fixtures start around $20. Cables run 70 cents per foot, and a transformer can be had for about $200. A 10-light system installed by a pro typically starts at about $2,000 to $2,500.

How Much Maintenance is Required?

Keep fixtures free of leaves and debris to prevent them from overheating. Replace burned-out bulbs immediately so that others on the circuit aren't subject to life-shortening voltage overloads.

How Long Do Lighting Fixtures Last?

Warranties on fixtures and transformers range from one to 10 years, but fixtures made of brass, copper, or stainless steel should shine indefinitely.

How to Map out a Plan for Your Exterior Lights

Illustration by Arthur Mount

If you don't want to lift a finger, go with a pro. (Find one through the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals.) But homeowners willing to invest a little of their own time and energy can save a bundle by following the advice of Mark Piantedosi, owner of Commonwealth Landscape Lighting in Acton, Massachusetts. Here are his top design tips:

Trees

Well, bullet, or flood, and downlight.

When aiming ground lights straight up into foliage, be sure to also bathe the trunk in light. If you don't, the uplit crown will look like a hovering UFO. When illuminating foliage from above, place two 20-watt downlights as high in a tree as possible and point them so that their beams do not cross.

Planting Beds

Garden.

Place fixtures no closer than 20 feet apart. "You want pools of light to guide your eye from one plant to the next, not continuous illumination."

Home Facade

Bullet and wash.

Fit bullet lights with bulbs that have 12-degree beam spreads, and aim them at the corners of your house or architectural details; softer wash lights can fill in the space between them.

Garden Walls

Well, bullet, or flood.

Position fixtures close to the base so that the beams bring textures into sharp relief.

Focal Points

Flood, bullet, or wash.

Highlight an element that deserves attention—such as a fountain, a tree swing, or an arbor—by aiming two or more lights at it. The crossing beams reduce the harsh shadows that form when only one shines on an object.

For more outdoor-lighting design ideas, visit FX Luminaire's "Learning Center" or consult the classic guide The Landscape Lighting Book, by Janet Lennox Moyer.

Types of Outdoor House Lights

Garden

Illustration by Arthur Mount

Canopies on top of 18- to 24-inch posts reflect light down into planting beds. Can also be used as pathway markers. Unlike other lights, their style and finish are on display.

Shown: Large Horizon path light by Hadco with 20-watt halogen bulb, about $50; Hadco Lighting

Wash

Illustration by Arthur Mount; Photo inset: Andrew McCaul

Throws out a soft, diffuse light ideal for brightening flat facades, privacy fences, and garden walls.

Shown: Landscape LED by Kichler with 4-watt LED, about $140; Kichler

Bullet

Illustration by Arthur Mount; Photo inset: Andrew McCaul

These versatile, compact fixtures are often fitted with bulbs that project a narrow beam—good for precisely lighting house features, tree trunks, and garden structures.

Shown: LV100 spotlight by Dabmar with 20-watt halogen, about $20; Dabmar

Well

Illustration by Arthur Mount

The bulb hides inside a waterproof housing buried in the ground, so you get light without seeing a fixture. Use well lights to illuminate the underside of plant foliage or graze the base of a facade or wall. Available with either fixed or swiveling bulbs.

Shown: LV300SLV well light by Dabmar with 20-watt halogen, about $30; Dabmar

Downlight

Illustration by Arthur Mount; Photo inset: Andrew McCaul

These fixtures, often located high on trunks and branches, can be aimed at lawns, paths, or the tree's own foliage to create a moonlit effect. A long, cowl-shaped shroud around the bulb eliminates side glare. Choose durable copper and brass housings with LEDs—you don't want to be climbing to make repairs or replacements.

Shown: CM.115T by CopperMoon with 35-watt halogen, about $160; CopperMoon

Flood

Illustration by Arthur Mount; Photo inset: Andrew McCaul

Typically casts a wider beam than a bullet—40 degrees or more—and is brighter than a wash light. A collar minimizes side glare. Use sparingly to light up tall trees or wide house facades.

Shown: CM.895 by CopperMoon with 20-watt halogen, about $100; CopperMoon

Should You Pay More for LEDs?

Photo by Courtesy of Dabmar

With no filament to break or burn out, LEDs can last 40,000 hours, approximately 20 years of regular use, compared with just two years for halogen bulbs. LEDs are also extremely efficient, sipping 1 to 11 watts of power versus 20 to 60 watts for halogens.

That means lower installation costs due to smaller transformers and cables, lower operating costs, and reduced maintenance, for up to a 50-percent savings over halogen systems in the course of 15 years.

But LEDs have their drawbacks, chiefly their high initial cost—about $40 per bulb, compared with about $5 for a similar halogen. Also, many LEDs have a cold blue light with a color temperature around 6,000 K (kelvins).

Look instead for a warm-color temperature, about 3,000 K. And don't forget to look at light output, in lumens, to make sure you're getting enough brightness. LED performance is improving, but it still lags behind that of halogens. Dismal output is the biggest knock against solar-powered fixtures, which all use LEDs. They might have enough glow to define a garden edge but not to light up your house.

5 Tips for DIYers

Photo Joshua McHugh
  1. Where to buy? All the components you need are available online at sites such as Landscape Lightwerks or VOLT.
  2. What skills do you need? Digging trenches and connecting fixtures and cables is straightforward stuff. But if you don't have a 20-amp GFCI-protected outdoor receptacle to plug the transformer into, hire a licensed electrician to install one.
  3. What size transformer? To determine the watt-capacity of your transformer, add up the total wattage of all the lights you plan to install and multiply by 1.25.
  4. How to control the lights? Timers are the most reliable automatic switches; the best ones adjust for seasonal changes in day length. Wireless keypads and fobs are convenient ways to manually control your lights and, unlike hardwired switches, don't require an electrician to install them.
  5. How to ensure uniform brightness? Attaching fixtures to one cable in a daisy chain can overpower the lights closest to the transformer and leave the last few power-starved and dim. The solution: Run a 10-gauge cable out to a hub­­—a waterproof junction box­­—and branch out with equal lengths of 12-gauge cable. Keep the runs under 50 feet, and power should arrive at halogen fixtures in their sweet spot: 10.8 to 11.5 volts (for LEDs, 8 to 15 volts).

Low-voltage cables (left) must be buried at least 6 inches deep. A plastic spike (center) anchors the fixture (right) in the ground.

Similar to shown: Frosted Globe walk light by Malibu with 11-watt bulb, about $20; Total LED Malibu Lighting

Landscape Lighting Design Ideas

Fetching Facade

Upward-facing bullet lights placed about a foot from the foundation focus attention on a house's most appealing architectural elements. Here, they are aimed at chunky porch columns, deep eaves, and dormers.

Shown: Intrepid directional lights with 20-watt halogens, about $85 each; Unique Lighting Systems

Standout Trees

Photo by George Gruel

Trees less than 20 feet tall need only a couple of 20-watt uplights. A 50-foot tree may require three to five uplights of 35 to 50 watts apiece.

Similar to shown: Bullet accent lights with 20-watt halogens, about $62; Focus Industries

Inviting Backyard

The front of the house isn't the only place to use landscape lights. Here, tree-mounted downlights and upward-pointing well lights show off this tree's branch structure and invite people to come out and enjoy the swing.

Shown: PortaleEnfer well light with 11-watt LED array, about $135 each, and TrellisSolare downlight with 20-watt bulb, about $65 each; FX Luminaire

Glowing Garden

To properly illuminate a bed, garden fixtures must be taller than the plantings, such as these succulents, that you want to showcase.

Similar to shown: Terralight Tudor Series LVW6319 with 18-watt bulb; about $120 each; Hanover Lantern

Party-Ready Patio

Because you can't just dial up a full moon, sometimes you need some extra illumination. In addition to providing light to grill by, a handful of tree-mounted lights bathe this stone patio in a mood-setting glow.

Shown: Lunar downlight with 20-watt halogen, about $140 each; Unique Lighting Systems

Looking to take your yard to the next level? Start with our landscaping resources.

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