Better Backyard Light
By Spike Carlsen, Stillwater, Minnesota
After installing low-voltage lights along a garden path last spring, the project leaped onto my "Top 10 Favorite Home-Improvement Projects" list. The materials are relatively inexpensive, the installation techniques are simple and safe, and the results are truly dramatic.
If you're considering installing low-voltage lighting on your deck, along your patio or in your yard, read on. Here are a few tips to help you do the job right.
- Buy the right type of low-voltage lights for your situation. Different types of low-voltage lights are available, so shop around until you find the type that fits your needs. Always make sure fixtures and components are rated for exterior use.
If you have a sculpture, tree or architectural detail you want to highlight, install a floodlight or more highly focused spotlight. Some people mount these lights in trees to simulate moonlight. Just make certain to position them so they don't shine directly into people's eyes—either yours or the neighbors'!
If you want to illuminate stairs for safety, choose from a variety of recessed and surface-mounted step lights. If you're looking for accent or mood lighting, check out flexible rope lighting. Post lights provide good general lighting, and they jazz up your railing and support posts to boot. Path lights illuminate the ground for safety; the more elaborate ones even add a touch of fantasy to a garden or path. Specially designed pond lights are watertight so they can be submerged in ponds and fountains. (See examples on next page).
If you find a kit that suits your needs, buy it—you'll save money. Otherwise go a la carte.
- Install the right size transformer and wire. Your transformer is the box that converts 120-volt household current into the safe 12-volt power that runs your lights. To determine the size transformer you need, add up the wattage of all the fixtures you'll be installing and then increase that number by 25 percent (see next page). Buy a transformer that's close to that wattage. If you plan to add lights in the future, purchase a larger transformer. Bear in mind, though, an underused transformer will output higher voltage, which can make the lights burn brighter and burn out sooner. You should always use at least half of the transformer's rated capacity. And for convenience, purchase a transformer that has a timer or photo eye. Transformers should be plugged into GFCI-protected receptacles with special in-use weatherproof covers.
Also use the right gauge wire based on the information on the chart on the next page. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the wire and the more wattage it can carry (or the greater distance it can run) without dimming your lights. If you have lots of lights, it's better to avoid long runs of wire by breaking your lighting onto two separate circuits.
- Lay out lights temporarily before you install them permanently. It's a smart idea to wire your lights and temporarily set them in place (below) before you bury the wire. The cable is inexpensive, so leave plenty of extra between fixtures so you can change the spacing and location of lights as needed. View them for a night or two to see how the entire scheme works. You may want to add or subtract lights, change their spacing or switch to a different type of light for best effect.
When you bury your wires, get them at least 6 inches below the surface to avoid damage when you aerate your lawn or do other yard work.
- Toss the wimpy stab-in connectors. Many low-voltage lights come with plastic press-on connectors and metal "fangs" that bite into the wire. These can result in poor connections or connections that can loosen over time. Most pros cut the plastic connectors off, strip off about 1⁄2 inch of insulation and then make their connections using weatherproof wire connectors (as shown below). These weatherproof connectors have a shield on the bottom and a blob of sealant inside that make them waterproof.
- Leave 120-volt lighting to the professionals. Installing 120-volt or line-voltage wiring is an entirely different ball game from installing low-voltage wiring. The wires need to be encased and/or buried deeper, connections need to be made in an exact manner, and there are many more safety considerations. We recommend you hire a licensed electrician for this job. If you need a remote outlet in a far corner of the yard for a pond, fountain pump or other use, consider installing 120-volt lighting. The light fixtures are usually heavier-duty and cast more light than their low-voltage cousins.
- Consider solar if you're looking for accent lighting. Wireless solar-powered lights contain a solar cell that charges a battery during the day, which powers the light at night. Solar lights are becoming brighter, more attractive and more efficient; however, few have the gusto it takes to really illuminate an area. They're most effective when used to line a walkway so you can follow them as a guide or when placed in a garden for accents.
Lights with detachable solar panels are now available so the light and panel can be separated by as much as 10 feet, connected by wire.