After more than one hundred thirty years since the invention of the light bulb landscape designers and homeowners alike have figured out that using a bunch of little accent lights strategically placed around the house is more aesthetically pleasing than one huge light on the porch. That is, unless you like your home lit up like a used car lot.
When smaller, smarter lights are placed along paths, up steps, and in landscaping beds it adds a beautiful ambiance that gets “wow your house looks great” comments from neighbors and passers-by. Adding low voltage and solar lighting is easy and cost effective, and with so many light fixture styles available you can compliment the architecture of any house without compromising your budget.
Whether or not it’s a job you can tackle is the question. Basic solar lighting is so easy a five-year old can do it. Low voltage electric lighting is a little more difficult, but manageable by just about anyone.
Solar lights come individually for as little as $3.50 or in multi-packs. Installation is easy because these lights come with stakes attached and you simply stick them in the ground wherever you desire. They have no wires that need to be connected to anything. If you have fencing or railings around your property you can find post caps with solar lights. All you need to do is remove the old cap and place the new one on securing it with a screw or two.
Low voltage landscape lights have more wattage and provide more illumination than the solar lights. This is great for ‘up lighting’ the house and using spot lights for dramatic effect. They also increase the safety and security of your property. These lights can be purchased for as little as thirty bucks. The kits are the easiest way to go if you’re a novice diy’er because all the parts and pieces are included with an instruction booklet. If you choose to purchase the pieces individually you’ll need to do a bit more planning.
The components of a low voltage lighting kit are the lights, the wire to connect the lights, and a power pack (also known as a transformer) to plug them in. You provide the shovel and sweat equity.
The only thing you need to have before installation is an exterior outlet that is GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) protected. These plugs ‘trip’ or shut off automatically if any abnormalities are detected to prevent shocks and fires. Township building codes around the country require GFCI protection for most outside receptacles. They are similar to regular outlets, except with “test” and “reset” buttons. You also find these in bathrooms and kitchens. If you have one, you’re good to go. If not, have an electrician put one in for you.
Start the lighting installation by walking around the property, in the evening, getting a feel for the areas you want to accent. Make a sketch of your property and note where you’d like each lighting element placed. If you’re using a kit, you’re limited to how many lights come in that kit. Either way, keep the lights out of the path of the lawn mower or weed-whacker because there is nothing worse than working around these lights every time you work on the yard.
If you’re buying pieces individually, you need to decide the size of the power pack you’ll need, the length of wire, and how many lights you’ll want.
The size of the power pack depends on how many lights and how much electricity they will use. The mathematical formula is simple: add up the number of watts each light uses and this total will tell you how big the power pack should be. For example, 10 lights using 11 watts each equal 110 watts. The power packs usually come in a variety of sizes such as 120, 200, 300 watts. In this example you would choose the 120 watt power pack. Having a larger capacity power pack gives you the ability to expand and add lights later, but don’t let the total watts needed be less than one third the capacity of the power pack.
The length of wire you’ll need is based on your layout. Measure the distance from the outlet to the first light, and then to each individual light just like a string of holiday lights. The type of wire you’ll need is low voltage 12 or 16 gauge and is made for this purpose. Most good stores have the landscape lighting parts in one large section and you can find everything you need in that one place.
Once you have all of your pieces, you begin by mounting the power pack to the house next to the outlet. It comes with a simple mounting bracket and screws. Then place your lights in their desired location.
String the wire from the power pack to each of the lights, leaving a little extra length for future adjustment. It will be buried later so don’t worry about it being seen. Be careful not to cross over paths or driveways.
Connecting the lights to the wire is done with a clip that comes with each light. One half of the clip will go on each side of the wire and it snaps together making the electrical connection. Some clips have a screw to tighten them down. It’s that easy. No electrical engineering is necessary.
The method for attaching the wire to the power pack depends on the brand you buy. In some cases you’ll need to strip away an inch of the wire insulation or sheathing to expose the metal wire inside. The wire is then looped around a screw on the transformer and tightened down.
Once everything is connected, plug the power pack into the GFCI protected outlet and check that all the lights are on. Wait until dark so you can see your work in all its glory and to be sure you’re happy with the layout.
The final step is to hide the wires. Dig a small trench of about five inches deep and two wide, and bury the wire in the trench. Return the ground to its natural state so it’s not noticeable.
If you want to add dramatic effect to the exterior of your home solar and low voltage lighting are good options that are affordable and easy to do. This project can be done in one weekend and the results get you compliments for many years to come.
Jason Gurskis is a licensed home improvement contractor based in Mystic Island, New Jersey dedicated to making homes more comfortable, durable, and energy efficient.