11 Tips, Techniques & Ideas for Landscape Lighting
1. Use Drop-in Style LED Bulbs and Lighting Fixtures
It is important to use quality fixtures in your outdoor lighting installation for many reasons. When it comes to LED fixtures you typically have two categories of fixtures. The first being a fixture with integrated LEDs meaning the LEDs and driver are built I. To the fixture. When ordering this type of fixture you must specify the fixture color, wattage, beam spread, and color temperature. The other choice is conventional fixture which was originally designed for use with halogen bulbs but can also be furnished with the many options available for retrofit LED bulbs.
We recommend the latter in most cases as installing these types of fixtures has many benefits over integrated style LED lighting fixtures. First of all, they are typically the same type of fixture that has been being used for many years so there is a wide selection available. By using a fixture with a removable bulb it is easy to revise your design, a brighter bulb or wider beam spread is often as easy as changing a light bulb. If the LEDs fail over time in a fixture capable of using retrofit LED bulbs, it can typically be repaired by installing a new bulb, with integrated fixtures you much change the entire fixture.
In addition, the cost of a drop in fixture plus a LED bulb is often less than purchasing an integrated fixture. Where integrated fixtures win is in total lumen output or brightness. Drop-In fixtures max out at about 450 lumens or a 40 watt equivalent. Integrated fixtures can match a 50 – 75 watt equivalent light output. Overall Drop in fixtures are typically smaller, more versatile, cheaper and easier to repair and should be used wherever possible.
2. DIY Demo Kit
For about $15 you can make a homemade demo kit. A simple AA or D battery pack with an arrangement of 8 batteries will give you a 12v output. This can be used to power most LED bulbs and fixtures. Attach a socket to the battery pack and purchase 5-6 light bulbs and you can now demo 90% of the lighting effects needed to design a professional looking lighting system.
You’ll need 4 warm white (2700-3000k) MR16 bulbs. One 7 watt warm white MR16 in 40° will show you the how bright you can go. The other three 5 watt bulbs in 25°, 40°, and 60° will show you most possibilities of what can be achieved with spotlighting effects throughout your property. A single bi-pin LED at about 3.5 watts with a white bowl from your kitchen can demonstrate both path light and flood/area light effects. Lastly, if you are considering using a “moonlight” effect in your design or have pine trees or evergreens to light, a 5 watt MR16 in cool white (5000-6000k) at 60° can demonstrate this well. Now for the fun and quite possibly most important part.
Equipped with the tools above and some landscape flags, spend an hour with some friends or family at your home one night and walk through your property playing with different lighting effects and determine which lighting effects look best on your home and landscaping. With a marker make notes on your landscape flags and flag each proposed fixture location and the type of bulb and effect that looked best. You’ve now completed your landscape lighting design and layout.
3. Peak Lighting
Peaks can add a dramatic look to your home at night. The added height to your lighting system can make your home look much larger and more appealing when illuminated. Peaks are often dark spots on your home that are difficult light from the ground. Most of the time fixtures should be mounted on the fascia and pointed straight down. Spend the extra money on good quality fixtures here.
Professional grade fixtures are less likely to take on water, lights pointing downward are more susceptible to water damage as water often pools around the bulb instead of draining out of the base of the fixture. Use silicone to cover holes drilled into the house and around mounting hardware. Choosing a fixture color that best matches the color of you fascia will help the fixture to blend in with the house during the day.
4. Moon Lighting
Most every light within your lighting design will end up being a warm white color. However if you have an area lit from above, shining down onto stairs, a patio, a walkway, play set, fire pit etc., a cool white (5000-6000k) can create a unique effect. The “yellowness” of the warm white is replaced with a tinge of blue creating a glorified moonlight type of effect. Often times areas that may require multiple path lights can be lit with a single downlight. This saves on material costs and adds a unique element to your design that will make your project look more professional.
5. Step Lights
There are many different step lights available. The most commonly thought of fixture is the louvered style fixture recessed in the front of the stair. This fixture, however, has a limited effect compared to some other types of step lighting. These must be planned and prepped for while concrete is being pounded and are very unforgiving of mistakes for the DIYer. Furthermore, because they are often only inches off the ground they tend not to throw a lot of light and many fixtures are often needed to illuminate a whole flight of stairs. The puck light or “eyelid” style light is a great choice when you have a little more space to work with. Mounted this type of fixture on a stone wall or column even a couple feet above grade can provide up to a 7′ radius of light.
The “eyelid” style fixture can also be mounted on stair railings, aluminum fences, brick walls and more.
Ledge lights are typically available in 3″ 6″ or 9″ lengths and are less than an inch wide making them small enough to tuck up under the ledge of a seating wall or stair tread and because they are surface mount fixtures they can be installed anytime.
Be creative with how you wire your step lights, LED versions don’t use much more than 3 watts each so they can be powered by a relatively small wire. A fish tape, extra long drill bits and an angle grinder will go a long way of helping you hide a wire almost anywhere.
6. Crossing Sidewalks and Driveways
With the right method you can navigate across almost any driveway and under any sidewalk. Often times a piece a 1/2″ or 3/4 inch emt conduit with a point pounded into one end with a sledge hammer can be pounded underneath your average sidewalk. Dig a trench deeper and longer than the depth and length of the walkway and then dig a hole on the other side so you know when made it to the other side. Your conduit should be just about 12″ wider than the walkway itself. If the pipe is too long it’s more prone to bending as you pound it under the sidewalk. Cut off the point with a saw or hacksaw when you puncture through to the other side.
Expansion joints can also be used to run wires. A wide masonry chisel can be pound between the concrete and the expansion joint to make room for tucking in a wire. Tuck the wire 6-8″ at a time and use something like an oversized flathead screwdriver to help push the down into the joint. Another option is to use a 7″ angle grinder or a concrete saw to score a groove in the center of a stress joint. Make a couple passes to open up the groove wide enough for your wire but be careful not to knick the surface of the concrete. Keep this area wet so you can keep an eye on your blade to avoid mistakes and hose out your cut when your done to remove all dust and dirt before you insert your wire. An oversized flathead screwdriver comes in handy here as well to help push the wire into the groove.
An oversized flathead screwdriver comes in handy here as well to help push the wire into the groove. Finally when your done use a little self leveling concrete joint filler to cover the wire. This joint filler comes in a tube like silicone. The self leveling type of filler is a must for a nice clean look.
7. Path Lights
Look through any landscape lighting catalog and path lights are usually by far the largest category or fixtures. Because these fixtures are often the most noticeable during the day of all fixtures many of the different types of path lights available look different but provide similar lighting effects at night. However, for the most coverage possible choose a path light with a round cancer shaped top as opposed to a tiered pagoda style top or a flower shaped top where the bulb is recessed into the back of the shade. Path lights are also some of the most overused fixtures in outdoor lighting design. path lights serve an important role when used properly but remember that when path lights are simply shining down on to a flat surface they rarely offer much curb appeal or aesthetics from a distance. Try using path lights to illuminate boulders, flower beds and stairs in addition providing light for a path or walkway to get the most out of these fixtures.
8. Well Lights
Most well lights use a MR16 bulb so they provide the same effect as a spotlight. Well lights can take the place of spotlights in areas where installing a spotlight is not appropriate. Such areas could include areas where you may trip over a spotlight. In grass where a spotlight would not look appropriate or may be damaged by lawn mowing. Well lights can also be core drilled into concrete to mount the fixture within a sidewalk or driveway. If you are core drilling into concrete a wet diamond bit is recommended for best results which requires a special drill. You can rent such a drill if you up for it but core drilling into concrete is very unforgiving of mistakes. There are companies that specialize in core drilling concrete that you can hire to complete this task for you. Make sure you use a bit that is a nice fit for the fixture you want to use and pack the base with sand so the fixture doesn’t sink after you install it. It’s worth noting that well lights no matter the manufacturer are notorious for taking on water and failing over time, especially when mounted in grass where low spot may be constantly saturated with water or where irrigation systems are. Other times much, leaves or gravel can be problematic when it rains or with heavy winds as this debris can cover the fixture and obstruct the light.
9. Underwater Lights
The most common underwater fixtures are underwater spot lights and underwater spread lights. Underwater spot lights are best suited for shining up out of the water to illuminate a cascading waterfall or to light the backside of a fountain. Underwater spread lights are used to illuminate the water itself such as the basin at the bottom of a fountain. Often times a fixture can cast the reflection of moving water onto the walls and plants surrounding a water feature. Careful placement can help exaggerate these unique features.
10. String Lights
Patio string lights create a very elegant look if you have a point A and point B to hang them from. Connect them to a receptacle that’s wired through a dimmer switch when possible to adjust them for any mood. If you’re covering a span of more than 20′ it’s a good idea to run a steel cable with the string lights to reinforce them against high winds or winter ice that may damage the cable over time. Use a commercial grade string light product with medium base sockets to ensure your string lights last a long time. Lastly, using antique style bulbs with tungsten filaments will enhance the warmth and beauty of your string lights.
11. Be Creative
Perhaps the most important step to creating a unique and artistic landscape lighting system is your own creativity. Each focal point around your property during the day can be a focal point at night with the proper lighting technique. Look through landscape lighting manufacturers’ catalogs and websites to familiarize yourself with different fixture options available. Searching social networks like Houzz and Pinterest can also help spark ideas for creative lighting applications. Also, a demo kit can help you test out your ideas before committing to installing your lights and can increase your confidence that you’ll like the look.