When homeowners think about lighting a home, they may forget about the importance of outdoor lighting. The ability to see outdoors often focuses on visibility for the driveway and walkways, with security as a secondary concern. It is easy to overlook the fact that outdoor lighting factors heavily into a home’s curb appeal, especially at night or in seasons with short days. The trick lies in knowing the best way to light a home’s exterior property. There are plenty of options that homeowners can try, but there are also many ways to do it badly. Making mistakes in design or installation could make the home look worse instead of better.
As such, homeowners should investigate their options and the best ways to put them into action before buying products or attempting to install. With this information, they will know the most common lighting types available, best practices for installation based on the type of lighting, as well as common problems they should avoid. This will help them design outdoor lighting that provides ideal illumination in the most important areas, protects the home, showcases beautiful features and ensures a better space for spending time outside.
Choosing outdoor lighting starts with an understanding of the various types. Many light fixtures may count as more than one type. In most cases, people should use a combination of lighting options. These lighting types offer a variety of ways to highlight:
As they browse, people may want to keep in mind that there is a good balance between insufficient light and too many light sources. It may take some experimentation to find the right places to install and point different kinds of lights.
Spotlights offer plenty of light targeted in a specific direction. The amount of light these fixtures provide depends on the size and the strength of the bulb. Spotlights offer flexibility in that they can be pointed in virtually any direction. This allows homeowners to choose how much lighting they would prefer. For example, a large spotlight with a bright white light bulb and a 60-degree beam angle may be ideal to light a dark portion of the yard. By comparison, a spotlight with a softer color, fewer lumens, and a smaller beam angle of light may be preferable to call attention to smaller parts of the architecture or landscaping.
Homeowners should confirm they have the right number of spotlights and they can point them in the best direction before installation. The primary concern with spotlights is they can shine in a person’s eyes and make it harder for them to see the rest of the property. Experts recommend putting about 15 feet between spotlights for a multi-story home and pointing them away from places residents might walk or sit. This offers the ideal amount of overlap in lighting without making the area too bright.
Flood lighting is an exceptionally descriptive term. Flood lights are intended to flood the area with light. This is why they have a large beam angle, 60-120 degrees. They are most appropriate for areas like patios or driveways, which need a lot of lighting at night. Homeowners should be wary of trying to create a sense of daytime at night. If they use too much lighting, the area can take on an appearance that feels stark or cold. Most people do not use flood lights when they want a gentle ambiance, but there is a broad range of options between low lighting and something harsh.
Choosing flood lights starts with an understanding of beam angle. A circle has 360 degrees. The beam angle is the portion of the circle that the light covers when it shines. A flood light with a 120-degree beam angle covers one-third of the circle, and it is the widest beam angle available in this style. Although beam angle is a significant part of the amount of light produced, lumens make a difference too. Homeowners may want to choose the softest light they can for a flood light; this way, they can meet their needs for safe and functional lighting without losing the nighttime effects.
Most lighting options require homeowners to position them either pointing upward or downward. Uplights and downlights can dramatically change the way structures and walkways look at night. Either option may help illuminate spaces between hedges and walls, making tighter spaces safer and easier to see. Most uplights and downlights could be called spotlights, given the shorter length of their beam angles.
As a general rule, people use downlights as a way to recreate natural moonlight in certain parts of the property. Positioning a downlight in a mature tree offers the sense that the moon is peeking through the branches. Placing these fixtures under eaves or windows calls attention to the architecture and acts as an added safety feature. Homeowners should be careful when they install downlights with a broad beam angle or a very bright bulb to avoid creating glare.
Uplights are more appropriate for situations in which homeowners want extra light but do not need it to illuminate walkways. Uplights often build interest in the landscaping without trying to make it seem too much like daytime. For example, uplights positioned in front of statuary or plants can create interesting shadows on walls at night.
Step lights illuminate a staircase or stepped walkway, helping people see where they are going and avoiding falls when they are walking up or down. Although there are many different ways that people can approach step lights, they generally tend to be softer and smaller than other lighting types. Homeowners who have steps without risers or with space underneath usually have more options in placement of spotlights or downlights.
Homeowners may have several places they can install step lights. For standard staircases, the best place to install a step light is usually on the vertical riser between the treads. Downlights under the nosing can help prevent residents and guests from tripping as they walk up. People may also want to get creative and place the lights in unusual places like the landscaping on the side of the stairs. For example, homeowners can install lights at different points on the step in a pattern visible from the driveway. It is important to remember the lighting is designed for accessibility as well as interest. Installing lights in varying locations only works if each stair is still visible.
Lighting the garden calls for a bit of experimentation and plenty of flexibility. Garden lighting highlights the features of the landscaping without making certain aspects look washed out or hurting the eyes of people as they wander through. Experts suggest using a combination of lighting options, such as:
To start out, homeowners should take a couple of flashlights of varying brightness. They can point the light in different places to get a sense for how each part of the garden will look with that kind of lighting. For example, a garden wall with interesting features may call for downlights to show them off. A tree with textured or colorful bark might look best with uplights positioned one or two feet away.
Homeowners may want to plan their garden lighting with flexibility in mind. The lighting needs for the landscaping change throughout the season, and from year to year. People might prefer to install permanent light sources for mature trees and slow-growing shrubs, with adjustable options for seasonal blooms. This way, they can change the types of flowers and bushes they plant each year or season without having to significantly alter the lighting every time.
Bollard lights can be placed almost anywhere in the yard to provide lighting in all directions. The bollard is a post, and the light sits at the top. Some bollard lights have caps that stop light from shining upward. Others can shine up, down, or all around. Homeowners like to install bollard lights next to pathways or in the garden near the driveway. This makes it easier for people to see where they are going without walking or driving on the landscaping.
The correct position depends on the features of the property. People may need a taller bollard light to rise above crowded bushes. Staggering the location of the lights make them look interesting and less utilitarian. In most cases, homeowners will install several bollard lights instead of just one or two.
Bollard lights are one of the few options that can provide a full 360 degrees of light. Homeowners should take this to their advantage, but avoid choosing options that are too bright. With this level of lighting, too much can feel harsh. Some offer reflectors that help position the lighting away from the home’s interior or the neighbor’s yard.
String lighting is one of the easiest outdoor lighting fixtures that homeowners can use. Anyone who has hung lighting around a window or a tree understands the basic concept. Old string lights used incandescent bulbs that could generate heat and burned out on a regular basis. Although these light strands can last for decades and generally only need to be installed once, they can use a lot of energy and eventually become a hazard.
LED light bulbs have made string lighting much more diverse and effective at a small percentage of the energy cost. Homeowners can choose between:
String lights can be installed almost anywhere they can reach from the power source. Many string lights have plugs that allow them to be plugged into an outlet without the need for an additional transformer. Homeowners should keep in mind a best practice of 100 feet or less of lighting per string from the outlet. People who need to cover a longer distance or want to use multiple chains of lights may need a larger transformer or multiple outlets available for use.
Hanging the lights depends on the place that homeowners want to put them. Assuming the string is rated for outdoor use, people can often find clips that allow them to attach the wire to the roof, deck or door casing. Putting string lights in trees or around the deck may call for special ties or staples to secure the strands and keep them from falling down.
Homeowners should keep accessibility in mind as they plan to hang or wrap string lighting. Someone who needs to use the handrail to get up or down a staircase or ramp may not be able to grasp it effectively if the string impedes their hands. String lights that dangle can also get caught if they are too close to a door. People who are not sure how the lighting may change the way they use the space may want to bring in a friend or relative who frequently visits to help point out possible problems.
With each different kind of lighting, homeowners should follow a unique set of steps to install them. Wired lighting calls for greater attention to safety, whether it is a low-voltage or a line-voltage light system. Before installation, people must turn off power to the circuit they will be using for the lighting. Some types are easier to DIY than others. Homeowners should keep in mind that if they do not feel comfortable working with electrical lines, it may be more appropriate to hire a professional to do the work instead of attempting it personally.
Of all the lighting types, low-voltage lighting tends to be the middle of the road for homeowners to install. However, they must still pay attention to safety and ensure they complete each step correctly before moving on to the next one. Homeowners should follow these steps in order:
Low-voltage lighting is called such because it runs on 12 volts. The standard for most home outlets is 120 volts. This means that homeowners will use a transformer to convert an outdoor outlet from 120 volts to 12 volts. This tool usually has a timer that homeowners can set so that the lights are only on at nighttime. The amount of lighting that this approach can support depends on the transformer. Some transformers can handle more lighting extended over a longer cable.
People should start with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. Not all outlets meet this standard, so it is important to confirm before starting work. A GFCI outlet shuts off power when it picks up more power going in than coming out, and vice versa. Homeowners must test the outlet to confirm it is still working appropriately.
To do this project, homeowners will need this equipment:
The system connects to the outlet through the transformer. While the circuit is off, homeowners can attach the cable to the transformer. Installing the transformer to the wall may require drilling a hole in advance, but usually does not for most siding types. The transformer should remain unplugged from the outlet until installation is nearly complete and ready to test.
Light installation involves attaching the lighting to the cable. Homeowners should follow manufacturer directions carefully to avoid damaging the system. Before burying the cables, people must test out the system to confirm it is fully operational. They can turn on the circuit to perform the test. If any light does not work, they should unplug it and check the connectors. Finally, homeowners can dig a trench and bury the cables. This provides a seamless lighting system that avoids tripping hazards or chewed wiring.
Installing solar lighting is widely considered to be the easiest, ideal for homeowners who have limited experience dealing with electrical wiring. Solar lighting is powered by batteries that are charged through exposure to the sun. However, for best results, people have to invest more time figuring out the best places to put the lighting. In many cases, it may be wise to choose more solar lights to cover the area with a target amount of lighting. To install solar lighting, homeowners can follow these steps:
Solar lighting is popular because it requires no wiring and can be installed in a variety of places where wiring is not desirable. Most solar lights come on a post as a lamplight or bollard light. Others may be small and intended to stick to a wall, staircase, or other permanent surface. Homeowners may need the following tools to complete the installation:
Before choosing locations, homeowners may want to buy a sample solar light and charge it to get a sense for how much light it will provide. This also helps people determine if this approach will work. Solar lights get weaker as the battery runs out, which may make the walkway unsafe. After testing the system, people can identify places a few feet apart from installation. This may require digging a small hole. The stakes should be placed deep enough not to fall over, but not so deep that they are not easy to see in daytime.
Selection and placement of solar lights depends on seasonal light exposure as well. As a general rule, a solar cell needs 6-8 hours of full sunlight per day to completely charge the battery. This may be more difficult for homeowners to achieve in winter, especially in regions where the days are comparatively short. People should avoid installing the lighting in areas that are likely to get clogged with snow that is difficult to reach and remove.
Unlike low-voltage or solar lighting, line-voltage lighting requires extra care that may call for hiring a professional electrician. This is because line-voltage lighting needs:
Line-voltage lighting uses the same voltage as the rest of the home, 120 volts. Traditionally, this approach has been popular for people who need to provide a lot of light over a large space. Someone who has acres of land, who needs extensive lighting, or who has limited ability to install light fixtures may prefer line-voltage lighting. Line-voltage lighting offers large light fixtures that cover a much larger area on a single circuit. However, the average homeowner may not need this kind of outdoor lighting. With the broad accessibility of LED lighting, most homeowners will be better off with a low-voltage system.
Homeowners who attempt this project will need to take these steps:
Homeowners should plan to hire an inspector to test the system to confirm that it works correctly and safely before burying the cable. It is generally easier to fix before digging the trench and replacing landscaping. The likelihood that inexperienced homeowners will get it right is relatively low, which may call for repairs or adjustments to the lighting. This is largely why people hire a professional electrician to take care of it, or choose a different lighting system altogether.
The cost to install outdoor lighting ranges from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. The total depends on:
Most light fixtures cost $30 to $100, although they can run as inexpensive as $10 or as costly as $1,500. A person buying 20 light fixtures for their home’s exterior can plan to pay $600 to $2,000 just for the lights themselves. This does not include installation or any other improvements, like placing new wiring or connecting to the circuit. Homeowners can save money by selecting simple products that require minimal or no wiring. The most basic light fixtures tend to be fairly plain, but they often provide just as much illumination at a fraction of the cost. Fixtures that are easy to install may take less time and carry a lower labor cost, even when done by a professional.
Labor costs relate to the type of installation required. Hiring a designer to find the best locations for lighting may make it more effective, but also costs several-hundred dollars. This approach is usually best for homeowners who want to overhaul a significant portion of their outdoor landscaping and hardscaping. By comparison, someone who simply needs to stick solar lights into the ground might need as little as a few-hundred dollars to cover labor for the project. This is why many homeowners choose to install solar lights themselves.
Line-voltage lighting usually requires a licensed electrician to run wiring from the circuit to each light fixture. Installing a simple light fixture to the home’s exterior costs around $350, not including extra costs to dig a trench or run a conduit. This assumes that there is an available circuit to support the extra use. Adding a new circuit or changing a non-GFCI outlet to a GFCI one can add additional hours to the project.
Since energy consumption is such a big factor in cost, homeowners who want to keep costs down should start with fixtures that need little energy to run. LED lighting uses a small fraction of the wattage consumed by incandescent bulbs and lasts for many years. This makes solar lighting or low-voltage lighting far more reasonable. Upgrading the transformer may also provide more options for low-cost lighting without having to compromise on illumination.
In many cases, outdoor lighting is a simple activity for homeowners without much electrical experience. With a few handy tools and a willingness to experiment, people can get effective lighting for the home without having to spend thousands of dollars or weeks learning how to get it right. These tips help homeowners determine the best ways to get an ideal outdoor lighting setup. As with most things related to homeownership, what works for one person might not be practical for another. These recommendations apply to most situations.
People should plan to put wiring underground after they have created a landscaping layout, avoiding frequently dug areas like garden beds. Installing low-voltage wiring tends to be more convenient because homeowners only need to dig a 6-inch trench for the wire. However, at this depth, people may accidentally cut the wire while digging with a shovel. This can turn a simple wiring job into a complicated repair task. Homeowners may want to draw a map of the property and note where electrical and utility lines are buried to help them remember when they decide to put in something new.
Halogen bulbs were the gold standard for outdoor lighting for many years, but this is changing. Halogen lights work much like incandescent bulbs, except they have a little halogen gas to make them burn brighter and last longer. Many of the extremely bright flood lights that people recall from decades past were halogen bulbs. This type is still widely available, but more efficient lighting from light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs is taking over the mainstream.
The difference between the two is largely efficiency and longevity. In exchange for a marginally higher cost to buy, LED bulbs require a fraction of the wattage of incandescent bulbs. Because they use less energy, they allow homeowners to use a higher amount of lighting at the same energy cost. This is particularly relevant for outdoor lighting that requires either a low-voltage or line-voltage wiring. People are often limited by the amount of light they can support on one transformer on a single GFCI outlet. If all the light fixtures use 15 watts instead of 60 watts, homeowners can get four times as many lights on the system. LED bulbs also run at a much lower heat, which makes them unlikely to burn at the touch. These benefits allow the bulbs to last much longer - sometimes 15 years or more.
Homeowners should make sure they buy the right kind of bulbs for the job. Wattage determines how much power the bulb needs to function, but lumens reflects how much light it produces. Homeowners who plan to replace existing halogen bulbs with LED models need to look for products with a similar output that is rated for indoor/outdoor use. Smart bulbs may need a special fixture in order to operate, although some can retrofit into an existing fixture with a connection to a specific smart hub.
Although overlapping lights can be a helpful way to ensure that an entire walkway or driveway is safe to transverse, it is easy to exceed outdoor lighting needs. Too much lighting can become harsh or overwhelming. For homeowners who use incandescent or halogen bulbs instead of LEDs, it can even become hotter. People should aim for a small amount of overlap in the beam angle of spotlights or flood lights. They need to pay attention to the amount of lumens in a single light bulb to avoid buying one that is too strong for the application.
Anyone who has walked into an old basement or workshop to see a single bulb hanging on a chain is probably familiar with the idea of direct lighting. Direct lighting allows people to see what they are looking at, which is important for work or hobbies that require a very precise line of sight. However, for leisure activities or curb appeal, direct lighting is not always best. Direct lighting is easy to overextend, creating a sense that people are trying to light a stadium or chase away burglars. This is hardly the ambiance that many homeowners are trying to achieve.
Instead, people might want to consider indirect lighting for as many fixtures as they can. There is no replacement for direct lighting in a security sense, but for a backyard bonfire or night watching the stars, indirect is best. Indirect lighting illuminates the space without shining directly into it. This means the lights are pointed upward or toward a solid surface. Spotlights can be direct or indirect, depending primarily on the direction they are positioned.
In most cases, homeowners should purchase and install a combination of direct and indirect lighting sources based on what they are trying to achieve. For example, an outdoor kitchen probably needs some direct lighting source so that people can focus on food preparation or cooking. The patio or deck may not require direct lighting to allow people safe movement or enjoyment while sitting. Indirect lighting may actually increase visibility. By taking the bulb out of people’s direct sight, their eyes will adjust between darkness and light more readily. This makes it easier for people to switch from dimly lit parts of the yard and the patio.
Lighting installation kits often include everything that homeowners need to install the particular lighting arrangement. This may involve:
People should keep in mind that many of these kits are not intended to be used with other systems or combined into one larger lighting design. This means if homeowners want to extend beyond what one particular kit offers, they may need to buy individual components to make it all work together. This approach is often more appropriate for people who need a lot of lighting or want custom fixtures.
Most outdoor lighting system kits come with preinstalled connectors. This is so homeowners can just attach the wire and assume it will work correctly. Although this is convenient and quick, it may not be the best arrangement for a particular outdoor lighting design. Landscaping professionals often buy their components separately and connect wires using traditional methods. Common connectors include:
The right connectors for the project depend on homeowner preference as much as the job itself. In any case, the goal is to provide waterproof protection for the wiring as it sits on, near, or underground. As with any wiring operation, people should never work with exposed wiring on a live system. They may want to practice with disconnected wiring to see which connectors are best for them to work with. Wires are often inexpensive and easy to buy in bulk, which allows homeowners to keep spare wiring around for repairs.
Figuring out the best outdoor lighting arrangement takes some experimentation. While taking flashlights out at night provides a popular and quick test, clamp lights can also help. These lights have a clamp often attached to a metal light fixture, and they are popular for industrial applications. This can be an inexpensive way to test out the lighting design to confirm it provides adequate light without being too bright. Since the clamps are easy to attach and remove, homeowners can easily move them to come up with a more effective layout.
In many cases, homeowners who have an older transformer do not need to replace it for new outdoor lighting. Low-voltage lighting works on a transformer that may support 50-1,200 watts. A transformer with 300 watts might only support 1-2 large halogen bulbs, but 10-20 LED bulbs. If people are looking for a way to cut down on their expenditures, or avoid having to replace existing lighting, they should find out how much their current transformer will support. It may be easier to add new lights to an existing line that can support it than to take everything down and start fresh.
When people start to plan out an outdoor lighting design, it is tempting to arrange everything in a perfectly rational order. After all, if it is easy to outline a series of lights on one side of the walkway, they can install an identical set on the other side. Homeowners may want to be wary of placing lights in a way that appears too precise, as this can make the home look impersonal or cookie-cutter, not unlike an airport. Installing matching lights running down a walkway can create a runway effect, which is both jarring and predictable for residents and guests.
Instead, homeowners may prefer to try using creative methods to install lighting along walkways. The lighting should not be tricky, aimed to plunge wanderers into bright light and full darkness from one moment to the next. However, adding some unpredictability or a touch of whimsy to the mix creates a design that is more unique. For example, people might install solar lighting stakes along one side of the walkway. On the other side, placing bollard lights among the shrubs and flowers generates points of interest without compromising on effective lighting.
As with many other lighting approaches, a combination of types will help homeowners avoid making their pathways look like a runway or hospital complex. They may choose to set most landscape lighting on a timer or sensor that goes on automatically at dark and turns off at dawn. Motion-sensor lights on the path can add brighter illumination as people walk by without taking away from the ambiance. This helps to show off the home’s most beautiful nighttime features in a way that feels homely, not clinical.
Running wire may not be as difficult as people might think, especially if they have a steel conduit at their disposal. To do this, homeowners will need:
Once they dig a shallow trench on each side of the walkway, people can push the conduit underneath. The unyielding nature of the conduit makes it easy to push through soil. Once it reaches the other side, homeowners can trim the ends to match the walkway and feed the wiring through.
In order to cut down on the likelihood of having to repair the lighting shortly after low-voltage installation, homeowners should try to avoid making common mistakes. These include:
People should remember that cutting corners is not just a matter of safety, but convenience as well. It can also damage equipment or simply stop the system from working. This means that homeowners who make these errors because they are trying to save time or money may end up wasting more time or money attempting to fix it. Doing the job correctly and wisely the first time is usually the best result, even if it requires a larger investment at the outset.
Like most parts of homeownership, there are many right ways to approach outdoor lighting and several ways to do it that may not work very well. Homeowners might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of lighting options they have that work outdoors in a variety of spaces. The best way to get started is to identify the property’s outdoor lighting needs, set a budget for the project, browse through lighting options, select an installation method, and put it into action. Some products, like solar lights or string lights, are easier to install than others. Most systems make it reasonable for people to do themselves with limited electrical knowledge. Others, such as a line-voltage system, usually call for professional training.
Outdoor lighting is such an important part of a home’s curb appeal that homeowners should make it a priority. The right types of lighting create a beautiful ambiance that looks ideal from the street and in the backyard. A balance of styles gives homeowners the flexibility to tailor their lighting needs based on the occasion. With an original design and some money and time, people can get the lighting they want without a ton of complication.