Need help with your landscape lighting?
I’ve been in the lighting industry for over 25 years. I’ve also installed numerous landscape lighting systems. I hope this information will help guide you through designing and installing of your own landscape lighting system.
The most common type of landscape lighting is the use of Pathway Lights. Path Lights usually extend from a post or stem, about 18″ above the ground, and light an area used as a path, duh…path lights. These are the most decorative form of landscape lighting as you can purchase these in numerous different design themes, colors and sizes.
Path lights are not restricted to just a path though. We commonly we use them in flower beds to illuminate the gorgeous landscape and flower beds, while at the same time lighting pathways that you may need to use in the dark.
Spacing for path lights depends on the area you are trying to cover. When laying out a yard we will try to keep them no closer than 3-4′ apart, but you can go up to as far as 10′ apart. A standard path light on an 18″ stem will give you approximately a 5-6′ radius of light on the ground.
If you’re trying to light a heavily used path, for example a front entry or stairway, you would want the lights spaced more closely together. The entrance to my house has a few concrete slabs as steps, about 4′ square each. I have one path light on each level that lights the stairway perfectly.
Let’s say you have a walkway down the side of a home, leading to a backyard, you could easily spread out the path lights to a 6 or 8 foot spacing. You will get a little bit of a light then dark pattern on the ground but it would still be more than adequate to find your way. I personally love that look of light then dark, it’s a cool effect.
FLOOD LIGHTING – UP LIGHTING
Flood lighting and up lighting are most commonly used to highlight trees and taller shrubs in your landscape. This is done by using a flood type fixture, usually mounted close to the ground and shining it up.
This type of fixture generally has a basic shape and function, so there’s not a lot of variation. The only major thing to consider is the type of light bulb used to highlight your landscape.
The type of tree or shrub will also dictate whether you can light it with success or not. Standard trees that have a lot of air space within the tree are the best type and will present the best. Tightly branched or thick trees will not, and need to be lit from a different angle or not at all.
For instance, pine trees are very difficult to light from below. The light will only travel to the bottom branches and stop, it will not filter through the entire tree. Moving the light away from the pine tree and hitting it from a front angle for example, is an option, but that type of tree is usually not recommended to try and highlight.
Wide Trees will require a certain type of up light fixture or light bulb. The most common type of light bulb is the MR16 to up light trees. Wide trees would use a MR16 in a wide flood, something in the 40 degree or more range. Skinny trees would obviously need something more like a narrow flood or even a spot type, 15 to 20 degrees would be good for those.
Back lighting is also a popular way to light your landscape. This consists of placing up lights behind any trees or shrubs and creating a light from behind look when viewing from the front. I really like this look close to a house, where shrubs or trees are placed near the home and you can highlight the architecture of the house and landscape at the same time.
WHAT IS A LIGHT BULB BEAM?
Here’s a great guide from Kichler Lighting, detailing beam spreads and how to use them…
Up until recently, landscape lighting was dominated by halogen and incandescent light bulbs, which are usually warm in color.
Today, LED is king. LED burns much cooler, lasts much much longer, and saves you a lot on energy use! LED bulbs are available in different color temperatures and what you choose could make or break the look of your landscape lighting. Here’s a quick visual guide from Kichler Lighting that will give you a great look at the different options that are available….
We will always recommend using something in the Warm or Pure White range, 2700K – 3000K. Anything above that just looks too blue, cold, and tends to washout colors.
Wall-Wash Lighting –
Low profile light fixtures pointing directly at and up a wall or structure.
Using more than one up light around a tree, column, statue or other tall feature to get 360 degree coverage.
Shining light upward to illuminate a tree or structure from one side or from underneath.
Shining light across a structure like a home, rock or brick wall. This adds depth and dimension to the structure being lit.
Lighting an object from one side and projecting that onto another surface like a home. For example, a tree placed in front of the home and then lit from the front will project a shadow onto the home and create a dramatic effect.
Silouhette or Back Lighting-
Lighting a landscape feature close to the house, for example a tree placed close to the house, between it and the home. This creates a silhouette of the object in front and lights the structure behind.
Running lights into a tree and lighting from above creates a unique lighting scenario called moon lighting. Lighting from the top of a tree downward grabs the detail of branches and leaves and projects them to the ground, just like moon light.
STEP 1: PLAN
Do a walk through of your yard and make a note of what you want to light. Pick favorite trees or objects, flower beds and walk ways. Do you need to light any areas for entertaining, recreation or work? Are there any areas that are a safety concern? Make sure you take into account all these aspects before continuing on.
Once the layout is complete, a count will have to be made and wattage added up to determine equipment and wire sizes. This is easily done by taking the wattage of each fixture and adding them together for a total. For example…10 path lights that are 3 watts each (led) = 30 watts, 5 up lights that are 4 watts each (led) = 20 watts, total wattage is 30 + 20 = 50 Watts. You would need to select a transformer that can handle a load of more than 50 watts.
*We also always recommend upgrading your transformer to a larger size for expansion later on.
STEP 2: EQUIPMENT
*This article deals only with low voltage landscape lighting products. Line voltage, or 120 Volt products, are available but would require the installation of a licensed electrician.
Your system will be a 12 volt transformer driven setup. This requires the transformer to be mounted in an area close to the start of your wire runs. You will also need a plug within a few feet of the transformer to supply it with power. If you don’t have an outlet available in the area where the transformer will be mounted, a licensed electrician would need to install one before proceeding.
Transformers can be mounted to pretty much any surface and require 2 securely mounted screws for it to hang from. They can be mounted outdoors, as they are also weather proof rated.
The fixtures mounted in your landscape get power from a flexible, outdoor rated cable. The most common size is 12-2 AWG (guage) cable. It has 2 conductors and is rated for direct burial in the ground outdoors. For longer runs we recommend a larger cable like a 10-2 AWG cable. This will allow the necessary voltage to reach the end of your line.
You will need to measure the distance from the transformer location to the last fixture on your run to determine the size of cable and if there will be any voltage drop. Runs over approximately 120′ may require different wire sizes. If possible try to stay under that length as it will reduce the issues with voltage drop and trying to regulate it.
STEP 3: WIRING AND VOLTAGE DROP
Laying out your wiring is a critical step. Make sure to run wires in direct a line as possible, as excess wire will cause issues with voltage drop. All the time we run into home owners that have run wires in open or new sprinkler ditches and end up with cables lengths that are too long. Sprinkler trenches are typically straight runs and right angles. This wastes a lot of wire if you bury the landscape wire in them.
Low voltage cable does not need to be buried deep in the ground, so lines should be as direct as possible to all lighting fixtures.
Below is a chart that will help with calculating the maximum length of a wire run based on wire size and load…
*What is Voltage Drop?
Voltage drop occurs when too much wattage is placed on a cable that is either too long or too small for the load. It causes the lamps furthest from the transformer to be dimmer than those closer to the transformer.
Hinkley Lighting has a detailed description of how to calculate voltage drop (photo taken from the Hinkley 2018 Landscape catalog)…
Low Voltage lines can be run in a few different configurations. Again, here’s a great illustration from Hinkley Lighting that explains the differences…
If you have a situation that requires a long run of cable, we would recommend the “loop” installation. This allows you to go much further with the cable distance, reducing voltage drop issues. The only thing to make sure of in this situation is the polarity of the wires.
Polarity means that each side of the cable must be attached to the same terminal in the transformer. On landscape cable there is a way to identify this. One side, or conductor, is usually ribbed, or has writing on it, the other will be plain. When wiring to the transformer, one of the wires will be installed under the common tap, the other under a voltage tap (12, 13, 14 or 15 volt). When the wire returns from the loop, do the same thing, so there will be two wires under each terminal. Keep those straight, and you’re good to go!
STEP 4: FIXTURE INSTALLATION
Fixture installation is pretty straight forward.
Each fixture will have 2 leads coming from it. That wire connects to the main line coming from the transformer. The main line is cut, then the 2 wires separated for wiring, strip each of the wires about 1/4″, then connect one of the leads from the fixture with one side of the main line (2 wires since you cut it), the other lead from the fixture goes to the other 2 from the main line.
A wire nut with silicone inside should be used on all outdoor/inground connections.
Manufacturers supply each light fixture with some sort of connector that can be used. Usually a plastic quick disk connector, or silicone filled wire nuts. I have used, and really love, the Pro Series Connectors from Kichler Lighting. You will pay extra for these but they make wiring a breeze and will save a considerable amount of time.
Having installed hundreds of lights, the quick disks work okay, but not all the time. If you stick with using the supplied connectors I would recommend having the power to the transformer on, that way, when you get the connection made, the light will come right on. This gives you instant feedback and will save you the time of going back and forth, turning the transformer on and off to make sure everything was connected correctly.
Quick disk connectors use internal terminals that pierce the wire when tightened. Sometimes it doesn’t quite pierce and can cause a lot of frustration and confusion about why your fixture won’t turn on. If you use a piece of wood, like a small piece of 2×4, it can be a big help. You place the disk on the wood, pressing down while you tighten with a screw driver. Pressing down on the wood really helps with torque and that very last tiny turn can make a huge difference.