By: Teo Spengler
There are a number of options for outdoor lighting. One such option is down lighting. Think of how moonlight illuminates the trees and other features of your garden with its cool, soft light. Outdoor down lighting does the same and it’s a quick, relatively inexpensive way to turn a run of the mill backyard into something magical and mysterious. Read on to learn how to use down lighting in landscapes.
Down lighting is simply lighting up your garden with lamps that are angled down, not up. When you place lamps above an object instead of below it, the result imitates natural light.
This is especially true when the light fixture is concealed in a tree or underneath some element of hardscaping. All a garden visitor sees is the warm glow without being able to determine where it comes from. This is especially beautiful when down lighting trees.
Most gardeners thinking about outdoor lighting weigh down lighting vs. uplighting. Each type of lighting gets its name from the direction the light is angled.
Many homes employ both outdoor lighting methods in the landscape, and both have their place.
Outdoor down lighting works well to bring night-time attention to shorter bushes, flower beds, and attractive ground cover. Used beneath seating walls and benches, outdoor down lighting lights up the hardscaping element but also illuminates nearby walkways.
This kind of outdoor down lighting makes nighttime garden use safer and more secure. Downlighting on steps prevents falls by making them easier to see at night.
If your house has a large outdoor living area in the backyard, your best way of illuminating it is from above. Remember that the higher up you place a lamp, the larger the circle of light it sheds. You can create circles of any size by varying the height of the lamp.
If you place a light in a tree and angle the lamp down, it illuminates the ground below rather like moonlight. The branches and leaves of the tree create moving shadows on the patio or lawn. In fact, down lighting trees by placing lights high in their branches is also known as moonlighting.
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Make your garden an evening event. Landscape lighting not only extends the hours you can use outdoor living space, it also improves safety (you can see where you are going), security (so say the experts), and your viewing pleasure. A good plan will include a variety of lighting types for different purposes. Here we focus on uplights, perfect for illuminating trees, garden walls, and other landscape elements that deserve attention.
Above: Soft uplights draw the eye to tree trunks on the deck of a rooftop garden in Soho, New York by Robin Key Landscape Architecture, a member of our architects and designers directory. Photograph by Francine Fleischer.
Uplighting simply refers to the directional focus of the light. Landscape uplights are typically mounted below or at ground level, shining the light upward.
Above: Uplights highlight drifts of perennial grasses and balance the lighting on the front porch in a project in Hollywood, by LA-based Walker Workshop, a member of our architects and designers directory.
As part of an overall landscape lighting plan, uplighting is particularly good at spotlighting focal points of your garden and home. Specifically, uplights will:
Above: Uplit at night, young olive trees look statuesque against the modern fence in a backyard garden in San Francisco designed by Remodelista Architects-Designers Directory member Creo Landscape Architecture. Photograph by Kayo Shibano.
Many varieties of lights can illuminate in an upward direction. The most common types used in gardens include:
Above: A daytime view of bullet lights installed at the base of a manicured installment of trees in a project by Coen + Partners. Photograph by Paul Crosby.
Named for its resemblance to a bullet, this directional light usually has a narrow spot beam, perfect for shining light on prized plants or trees. They can be surface mounted or pole mounted and are most often adjustable.
Above: Uplights with a low diffuse wash add visual interest to the artful walls and provide practical pathway illumination in a Los Altos Hills, California project by Arterra Landscape Architects, a member of our architects and designers directory. Wash light is a good choice for subtle illumination of lower plants, shrubs, and wall surfaces. Photograph by Michele Lee Willson Photography.
Above: Well lights are installed slightly below grade to offer uplight without becoming a visible fixture in the landscape. Used for lighting the underside of plants, benches, or the lower part of walls. Photograph via Blasen Landscape Architecture, a member of our architects and designers directory. (Don’t miss Blasen’s Amazing Seaside Garden.)
Flood: Another variety of spotlight that has a wider beam than bullet lights. Used primarily for illuminating house facades or extremely large trees.
Above: Kichler’s weather-resistant High Intensity Discharge Flood Light is available in two finishes including Architectural Bronze as shown $80.24 from All Modern.
Unless they are solar-powered, outdoor lights need to be connected to an electric power source. That can be achieved by plugging into an outdoor power socket, hard wiring to a full 120V electric source, or installing a low-voltage transformer. From a safety, cost, and ease-of-installation standpoint, low-voltage is the way to go. Low-voltage transformers change the electric current from 120V to 12V which is ideal for outdoor garden use because of the wet conditions. Electricity and water are typically a bad combination.
Using regular electrical power requires the wiring to be buried at least 18 inches deep or to be encased in a conduit, while low-voltage systems can plug into an outdoor socket and then the wires can be easily buried under soil or gravel. We recommend consulting with an electrician or outdoor lighting professional for guidance or installation.
Above: Uplights aren’t just for large landscapes. New York City-based landscape architect RADD member Robin Key designed this Chelsea co-op rooftop garden, complementing panoramic city views with decorative uplighting. Photograph by Francine Fleischer.
Above: Strategically placed uplights set in the path and at the base of the trees illuminate a row of white-bark tree to create a lovely urban garden view in a Chicago project by Coen + Partners. Photograph courtesy of Coen + Partners.
For more views of gardens after the sun has gone down, see Let Twilight Linger. Meanwhile, Remodelista offers up 10 Easy Pieces: Barnhouse-Style Outdoor Lighting.
Some landscape lighting systems operate on "line voltage," the 120-volt current from your house. For DIY installation, though, we highly recommend low-voltage systems that operate on just 12 volts. They're less expensive, easier to install, safer, and use less energy.
There are dozens of low-voltage lighting fixtures and accessories available in a variety of styles, sizes, colors, and finishes. Nearly every system, regardless of its complexity, is composed of four basic parts.
Transformer: The power behind every low-voltage system is the transformer. It plugs into a GFCI-protected outdoor electrical outlet and steps down the house current from 120 volts to 12 volts. Most transformers are equipped with a 24-hour timer that allows users to decide when the lights go on and off automatically.
Transformers are rated according to the maximum wattage output. Models range from about 44 watts to 900 watts. To determine which size transformer you need, simply add up the wattage of all the lights in the system. For example, if you plan to string together 10 18-watt light fixtures, then you'll need a transformer with a wattage output of at least 180.
Low-Voltage Electrical Cable: The cable used for landscape lighting is specifically made for burial underground. It runs from the transformer to each light fixture in the system. Low-voltage cable is commonly available in 12-, 14-, and 16-gauge. The lower the number, the thicker the wire and the greater its capacity.
Which cable to use depends largely on the size of the transformer and the length of cable you need. For example, a 300-watt transformer can power 100 feet of 16-gauge cable, or 150 feet of 14-gauge cable, or 200 feet of 12-gauge cable. Check with the lighting manufacturer to determine the proper-size cable to use for your specific system.
Pathway Lights: Designed for installation along walkways and driveways, this type of fixture represents the most stylish and elegant of landscape lights. Shiny copper or plated-metal fixtures stand out, while green-, black- or brown-painted fixtures can blend in with the surroundings.
Accent Fixtures: The unsung heroes of any landscape lighting design are the accent lights. These specialty fixtures, which are often hidden from view, include floodlights, spotlights, up lights, and wall-wash fixtures. They're used to shine a light on trees, shrubs, walls, flower beds, fences, ponds, and other landscape features.
Putting in a typical low-voltage lighting system requires three major steps: laying the cable, installing the transformer, and connecting the lights.
Laying the Cable: Start by laying the light fixtures on the ground where you intend to install them. Space the fixtures 8 to 10 feet apart. Next, unroll the spool of low-voltage electrical cable and lay the cable beside the fixtures. If you come to an obstacle, such as a boulder, tree, or fence, string the cable under or around it.
Now use a square-blade shovel to cut a 2- to 3-inch-deep trench along the line where you want the light fixtures. The trench doesn't have to be perfectly straight, so if you hit a rock or root, just go around it. You don't even need to remove any dirt from the trench. Simply stomp the shovel into the ground and pull the handle back and forth to open a deep V-shaped trench.
Set the cable into the trench and push it all the way down to the bottom using a short, narrow piece of 1/2-inch-thick plywood. Don't use the shovel or other tool you might accidentally slice into the cable.
Installing the Transformer: Low-voltage cable consists of two insulated stranded-copper wires stuck together. Peel them apart so you have about 4 inches free for each wire. Then use wire strippers to remove about 5/8 inch of insulation from each side. Slide the wires through the retaining strap on the back of the transformer and then insert one wire under the A screw terminal, and the other wire under the B screw terminal. Tighten the screws to secure the wires.
Next, drive a pressure-treated 2 x 6 stake into the ground next to an outdoor electrical outlet. Attach the transformer to the stake with galvanized or stainless-steel screws. Secure the cable to the stake with insulated cable staples.
Connect the Lights Attach a plastic "while-in-use" cover to the outdoor electrical outlet. This type of cover protects the outlet from rain and snow but allows easy access.
Plug the transformer's power cord into the outlet. Next, connect each light fixture to the cable. Most landscape lighting fixtures come prewired with easy-to-use snap-on connectors. Simply pinch the connector onto the cable. Sharp prongs inside the connectors pierce the cable and make contact with the wires. Since the transformer is already plugged in, the fixture should light up. If it doesn't, pull apart the connector and try again, or check the lightbulb.
Once you've connected the cable, stand up the light fixture and press its pointed stake deep into the ground. Be careful not to hit the buried cable. Check to make sure the fixture is straight, then move on to the next. Once all the fixtures are installed, fill in the narrow cable trench with topsoil and top with grass seed.
We all want our homes to be welcoming—at least to our loved ones, friends, and neighbors. In winter that means shoveling snow from the sidewalks. In summer it includes eliminating the treachery of darkened paths and stairs. You don't need to light up your house like a crime scene, of course. But for safety reasons, it pays to install walkway lighting that will gently guide everyone to your front porch or your backyard picnic table.
These days, that's much easier to do than you might think. Contrary to conventional wisdom, you don't have to have a degree in electrical engineering or an offshore bank account to get started. There's a wide selection of inexpensive fixtures, and the installation process is nearly foolproof. Designed to operate in low-voltage systems, the lights are almost as safe to handle as a 9-volt battery.
On the following slides, you'll find everything you need to know to plan the ideal layout. Before long, you'll have guests gathering at your doorstep. The invited kind, that is. Burglars? They hate it when you see them coming.
Shown: "Light defines space," says Mike Gotowala, president of Preferred Properties Landscaping, in Connecticut, who designed the award-winning layout for this home. To achieve a nice warm glow, he recommends that path fixtures be installed about 14 inches high. Cast Lighting's CSA1CB Savannah path light, about $290 cast-lighting.com
For homeowners pressed for time and patience, manufacturers offer this simple solution: Everything you need comes in one box.
Shown: Portfolio bronze path lights, about $130 for six lowes.com
How much does it cost?
Fixtures range from $3 to $400 apiece, cables cost roughly 50 cents per foot, and a transformer can set you back up to $1,000. A 10-light system installed by a pro typically starts at $2,000.
DIY or hire a pro?
The average homeowner can install a simple path-light system. Stair lights require more handiwork, often with masonry and electric skills. For a truly inspired layout, go with a landscape-lighting specialist.
How much upkeep?
Remove leaves and debris from fixtures to keep them from overheating. Replace burned-out bulbs right away to avoid overtaxing others in the circuit.
How long will they last?
Warranties on fixtures and transformers range from one to 10 years, but high-quality copper or brass lamps will light the way for decades.
Photo by Arthur Mount Inset: Andrew McCaul
Small in stature, the lamps serve a vital function: preventing missteps.
Shown: CM.830 surface-mount light by Copper Moon, about $90 landscapelightwerks.com
Photo by Arthur Mount Inset: Andrew McCaul
Fixtures can be installed in risers, on a wall beside the stairway, or beneath the lips of treads.
Shown: FC-SL-08-LEDP-BRASS light by Focus Industries, about $190 arcadianhome.com
Photo by Arthur Mount Inset: Andrew McCaul
When placed high on a tree, the long, narrow fixtures create a moonlight effect, bathing a stairway or a stretch of path in a soft glow.
Shown: CRUS-12-35 by Unique Lighting Systems, about $60 sprinklersupplystore.com
Photo by Arthur Mount Inset: Andrew McCaul
Set on stakes driven into the ground, these lamps have canopies in a range of decorative styles, but their real purpose is to project pools of light down toward your feet.
Shown: P5271-20 by Progress Lighting, about $95 lightingdirect.com
Some fixtures sell for $30. Others cost $300 or more. What's with the disparity? Well, aesthetics plays a role, of course. But craftsmanship and materials add to the price tag too. Take a look:
The glass lens and metal body make for a sturdier, more weather-resistant construction than the plastic parts of bargain-basement rivals.
Allen + Roth LED Path Light, about $25 lowes.com
The powder-coat finish, applied to the cast-aluminum body after a five-step cleaning process, has been proved to withstand harsh weather. Ditto the stainless-steel fasteners.
Hadco RL4 Large Horizon Path Light, about $50 blocklighting.com
The copper body can endure decades of sun, wind, rain and snow, developing a maintenance-free patina along the way. The brass hub raises or lowers the hat to adjust the beam.
Focus Industries RXA-01 Path Light, about $90 arcadianhome.com
The great appeal of solar lighting is hassle-free installation. When the sun supplies the power, who needs cables? But solar technology has its drawbacks. New fixtures can take weeks to reach their optimum output. And once they do, you're still at the mercy of Mother Nature. In some northern climates, the sun's rays produce 8 to 10 hours' worth of energy in summer but only 3 to 6 in winter. To make the most of that power, manufacturers often sacrifice lamp brightness. Bottom line: Solar lights have grown more efficient, but they can't defy the weekend weather forecast.
For more than a century, we learned everything we needed to know about lightbulbs in grade school. By this time next year, though, Thomas Edison's energy-squandering incandescent will be officially retired due to the stricter efficiency standards adopted by Congress in 2007. So what's the ideal alternative? Therein lies your first big decision. The future of pathway lighting belongs to the LED (light-emitting diode) and its electron-driven semiconductor. LED bulbs burn cool and reduce power consumption by as much as 75 percent, but that savings will cost you more up front. The bulbs live significantly longer (about 25,000 hours), they can be powered by a smaller transformer, and the light they give off—once derided for being too blue—is much warmer these days. Be sure to check for yourself, though, because light quality often varies from one manufacturer to the next. By contrast, halogen bulbs are less expensive, produce a glow comparable to their old-school peers, and consume 30 percent less energy. Xenon bulbs, which use electrons in a cloud of xenon gas to generate light, are less efficient and less bright but a little warmer, and they can last up to 20,000 hours—not quite in LED territory, but close.
The chart below provides some idea of the ideal light colors available for each option. Keep in mind that the warmth, measured in kelvins (K), will vary from one product to the next. When shopping, also note the life span of each bulb and the number of lumens, which indicates the amount of light generated. For comparison, a typical 60-watt bulb equals about 800 lumens.
Before installing any pathway fixtures, you need to step down the voltage from your household system so that you don't have to worry about harming pets or small children who might fiddle with the cables. If you don't have an outdoor receptacle at the ready to receive the transformer plug, hire an electrician to install one.
Transformers vary in size from 100 to 1,200 watts. To determine which one is best for you, add up the number of watts required to power all your fixtures, then multiply that figure by 1.25, just in case you decide to buy more lights later on.
Take a moment to consider add-on options, too. Some transformers offer timers, photo-electric sensors, wireless remote control, and even multiple circuits, if you want one setup for safety lighting, one for accent lighting, and one for the works.
Mark Piantedosi of Commonwealth Landscape Lighting has been installing fixtures in Massachusetts for 13 years. He offers this advice to help you avoid rookie mistakes.
It's natural to want to string lights in one straight line from the transformer. But that can leave the lamps at the very end starved for power. It's better to create hubs or a T, with the transformer at its base.
As a general rule, it's best to illuminate from above. A lamp in a tree covers more ground than one installed at knee level.
Resist the urge to brighten every inch of walkway. You're not lighting a parking lot. Ideally the lamps should be placed 10 to 15 feet apart, creating pools of light that gently point the way.
Poorly aimed lamps can be harsh on the eyes, especially around stairways and hillsides. Don't forget that eye level shifts when people sit down. If you want folks to enjoy that garden bench, don't throw light in their faces.
Despite the extra effort to run a line beneath the walkway, it's more attractive to place lights on both sides of a path. Stagger them rather than placing them directly opposite one another runway-style.
A clever twist
From their perch above the stairs, these lamps reveal the path and the beauty of the landscape
Walkway lights serve several purposes, such as keeping your guests and your landscaping features safer, as well as enhancing the visual appeal of your yard. The key is choosing the right path lights for your project to ensure proper illumination and a look that will complement your landscaping and your home’s architectural features.
Here are five reasons to install walkway lights, as well as tips and ideas to help inspire you.
1. Guide Your Guests: Walkways are meant to guide traffic and lead the way to your front door, to outdoor living areas or through your garden. If your pathways are ever used in the evening, early in the morning or after dark, walkway lighting is essential in allowing your walkways to serve their primary function. Path lights guide your guests from parking areas to your home and help them easily go between outdoor entertaining areas after the sun goes down, which makes them an integral part of landscaping design for frequent hosts.
2. Increase Safety: Illuminating walkways keeps you and your guests safer by casting light on potential tripping hazards and defining walkway borders to keep you on the designated path. As an added bonus, any type of landscape lighting helps increase the security of your property by illuminating your yard and making your house less appealing to potential intruders.
3. Protect Your Plants: Providing your guests with well-lit, easily identified, designated walking areas will help keep them from walking across your lawn or mistakenly stepping on plants and flowers. This means that walkway lights not only increase the safety of your guests they also keep your plants and other landscaping features safe.
4. Enhance Visual Appeal: Outdoor lighting serves functional purposes, such as making your walkways safer and controlling traffic, but it can also be an attractive finishing touch that can completely transform your landscaping. Pick a style that complements your landscaping and architectural features and see just how much adding a well-designed lighting system can instantly improve the look of your yard.
5. Upgrade Your Walkway: Adding walkway lighting is a great way to upgrade any type of walkway. For example, you can add even more visual interest to an existing paving stone walkway by adding lights along the border. You can benefit from this upgrade option even more if you have a simple gravel, bark or wood chip path that could use a bit of elevation in the style department.
1. First and foremost, your path lights should be part of your overall landscape lighting design. Some homeowners add walkway lights almost as an afterthought, which can take away from the cohesion and overall visual appeal of your lighting system.
2. Motion sensor lights can add visual interest as they illuminate one or two at a time as you or your guests traverse the path. This can give your landscaping a modern feel and add drama to your yard however, you will need to consider that the area will not be illuminated when the walkway is not in use. This will be fine for some projects but will not work for others.
3. Like most outdoor lighting systems, path lights will be most convenient and serve you best when put on a timer, which will automatically turn them on and off each night. This can help save electricity and save you the hassle of manually turning on and off your lights. This also helps avoid situations where you forget to turn on your landscape lighting before guests arrive or family members return home from a late night at work.
4. In some cases, the best lights for walkways are solar-powered options. This is particularly true for those who do not want to have to worry about transformer locations or their dogs digging up electrical lines. For example, if the walkway you want to illuminate is a good distance from the nearest power source, solar pathway lights might be your best bet. Solar-powered landscape lighting that has no wires and does not need a transformer is also generally easier to install in areas that are particularly rocky, steep or difficult to get to.
5. Even in sunny Southern California, solar lights are not always the best option. While they are an excellent solution for many landscaping projects, there are particular circumstances where you may not achieve a satisfactory result. For example, walkways that are close to structures or under trees and do not receive adequate sunlight may not be good candidates for solar-powered landscape lights. Your outdoor lighting professional can help you determine the best lighting options for your project.
6. When most of us think of walkway lighting, we think of the typical light fixtures commonly seen lining paths in residential settings. These usually consist of a globe atop a short post that casts light from just above the path. This type of outdoor lighting is easy to find, can be quite attractive and serves its purpose well. However, do not feel bound by this one style of lighting simply because it is what we most often see. There are many other ways to light walkways and one of those might better suit your needs.
For example, you can illuminate your walkways with lampposts, downlights mounted on a fence or other structure, under-eave lights for paths adjacent to buildings, wall lights or sconces, step lights, or downlights placed high in trees to create a more natural-looking moonlit effect.
To learn more about walkway lighting or begin designing your outdoor lighting system, contact Install-It-Direct at (858) 925-3000 to speak to a design consultant today.
As mentioned, trees are one of the many features on your landscape worthy of illumination. Residential property owners also benefit from bringing this same uplighting to bushes, shrubs and other greenery. Done right, landscape lighting adds depth, dimension and a touch of personalization to your landscape.
Imagine sitting outside and relaxing while gentle uplighting shines through the trees and brings a glow to your patio, or the uplighting from bushes casts light on your walking path. A few strategically-placed lights will leave your landscape looking naturally serene! More than that, you’ll also shed light in a practical way.
Uplighting for trees and general landscape lighting for greenery do more than set the mood. They deter trespassing, keep you safe from accidents and bring you peace of mind by dispelling the darkness. A few strategic lights for perimeter bushes, featured trees or ground level plants (with wall washing) turn your property into a bastion of comfort and safety when the sun goes down.
Here at LampsUSA we are proud to offer a very wide range of outdoor lighting including wall lights, porch lights, post lights, flood and security lights, and various other kinds of outdoor lights including outdoor lamps. We always strive to add the latest designs and technologies including LED outdoor lights.
Browse our hand-selected categories below to start exploring the outdoor light fixtures available.