Illuminating Ideas

from Garden, Deck & Landscape
Outdoor accent lighting doesn’t have to come from black plastic fixtures. Try some of these sophisticated light ideas.

A glaring security light might deter a thief, but it hardly adds beauty to your landscape. Low-voltage lighting systems offer safety and security while creating considerable nighttime drama, and they can look good by day as well. Best of all, you can easily install these systems yourself.

To create your own plan, do some after-dark sleuthing.
Observe lighting designs to see what you like and study fixture options. Then walk your own yard by day and sketch a potential layout on a grid. Include lighting for steps and other potential hazards first. Then look for landscape features to accentuate. The most attractive lighting schemes combine both path lights and other downlights with uplights (spots, in-ground well lights, or spreadlights) that accent architectural features or trees and shrubs.

Each system has three basic parts: a transformer (to convert your household current to a gentle 12 volts), one or more runs of cable (to extend from the transformer to your fixtures), and the lighting fixtures themselves. The cable is nearly shock-free and safe compared to household current, and each fixture uses very little energy.

Once you have a basic lighting scheme, you can shop for a transformer. Add up the wattage of all the fixtures in your system. The total is the minimum capacity of the transformer you need. Buy one with 20–100 percent more capacity than you initially need, however, so you can add fixtures later.

If you follow the tips and steps described here, you can achieve professional-looking results. Homeowners frequently use standard black “tier” lights, but many are unaware of the other decorative lighting options available. Read on to find out more about landscape lighting you’ll enjoy seeing day or night.

Tips from Pros

“A flashlight can be your best friend,” says Phil Kinzer of Intermatic/Malibu Lighting. To plan your design, walk around your landscape, trying out lighting angles and positions. “You can even put a little collar around the flashlight to direct the beam.” Start with just a few fixtures, Kinzer adds, and experiment during your early setup. “It’s easy to move things around, and you can add on later.”

“Always buy or borrow a voltage meter to test your system,” advises Mike Hartman of Escort Lighting. “One of the biggest mistakes do-it-yourselfers make is ignoring voltage variations.” Voltage problems can equal frustratingly poor performance and greater maintenance costs.

Less is more, both experts agree. Good designs create soft, enchanting pools of light balanced across the landscape — not an airport runway or a prison yard. Especially along paths, “a 20-watt fixture is the most you’d ever need,” Hartman says. Path lighting can be effective even 20 feet apart, he adds. The lights in many inexpensive kits have very low wattage and are close together. “A professional designer typically uses only half as many fixtures.”

Remember that many lighting fixtures will be visible by day — especially on a front walk or patio. For round-the-clock appeal, choose fixtures that complement and enhance the style of your home.

Invest in quality. Metal outlasts most plastic, and it’s more beautiful. Compared to incandescent lighting, halogen bulbs burn whiter, brighter, and longer (they’re more like sunlight, but at a higher wattage, they may seem harsh).

Avoid putting fixtures directly in turf where they’ll take a beating from mowers and trimmers. Instead, position them in mulched beds or on vertical perches. For instance, try a downlight from a wall, tree, or arbor.

Eliminate the guess work and see what your house will look like before you redecorate.
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