Lighting systems are available as kits that include everything you’ll need. For simple systems, these can be a great way to go. However, kits are limiting and often are designed around a specific type and number of lights. For a more custom job, you’ll probably need to buy components, such as a transformer and cables, separately to match the type and number of lights. But don’t worry. As the steps outlined below indicate, it’s a fairly easy process, and if you need a little more guidance, manufacturers typically supply installation guidelines with their products. You can install an entire low-voltage system in five easy steps.
1. Plug the transformer into an exterior GFCI outlet. The transformer may come with a timer or a photocell, or just with a manual on/off switch. The transformer should be no more than 1 foot away from the outlet and at least 1 foot off the ground. The outlet needs an in-use, weatherproof cover (available at home stores). It’s a good idea to mount the transformer on a small post. This is especially important if it has a photocell that turns lights on at dusk, because you don’t want the photocell shielded from sunlight.
2. Attach cable to the transformer with a weatherproof connector, and turn on the system. The longer the cable run, and the more fixtures you have, the heavier the gauge you’ll need. Check the manufacturer’s instructions to determine your needs. Pros often use 10- or 12-gauge cabling or a combination, such as 10-gauge near the transformer and 12-gauge between lights (a higher gauge number indicates a smaller size that can carry less current). In a simple system with a short, straight run and fewer than 10 fixtures, you can probably get by with 14- or even 16-gauge cable, though it will limit your expansion options later.
3. Connect light fixtures to the cable. Many systems have quick and easy press-on connectors that simply bite or clamp into the cable (the cable seals back up if you change your mind and move the fixture). For stronger, longer-lasting connections, you can replace these with weatherproof connectors later, but it’s easier to use the press-on connectors as you’re laying out your design. Be sure to leave a little extra cable between lights in case you want to adjust light positions as plants grow or tastes change. The first fixture in line should be at least 10 feet from the transformer. (Don’t coil up extra cable and bury it; this leads to heat and resistance problems. Create an actual run of 10 feet of cable.)
4. Check the setup at night and make adjustments. Now’s the time to try lower-wattage bulbs, adjust beams, shift fixtures, and add or subtract a few lights.
5. Hide cables once you’re pleased with the arrangement. In protected beds, anchor them with aluminum tent stakes and cover them with mulch or rocks. In turf, bury cable 6 inches deep to avoid damage from lawn aerators. CAUTION: Call utility companies before you dig so they can mark the position of hazardous underground wires and pipes. Mistakes can be costly or deadly!