What’s the BEST Landscape Lighting Available?
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There is no reason why you can’t enjoy your landscaping even after the sun goes down. With the proper landscape lighting, your outdoor spaces are more inviting, secure and beautiful.
Landscape lighting discourages crime, makes access more safe and secure, and reveals the daytime beauty of your outdoor environment.
New, energy efficient lighting technologies and lower voltages make landscape lighting less expensive and safer.
With proper lighting techniques, you can literally paint your landscaping. Low voltage access lighting makes walkways easier and more inviting to use. Accent lights can illuminate sculpture and hardscape features, while warm-colored spotlights can bring dramatic focus to ornamental plantings, even particular tree branches.
Here are various ways you can use landscape lighting as well as some different types of lighting that are available for residential use:
Frame and focus
Well-planned landscape lighting adds prestige and permanence to any home; that’s why realtors recommend landscape lighting as a relatively inexpensive way to increase property value. Lighting can hide obvious landscape problems while accentuating positive features, leaving the “cover of night” to help minimize what you do not want to illuminate.
Basic “rules of thumb” dictate that facades and architectural features should be illuminated from below; spotlighting brings out textures more effectively while foliage can be made more dramatic by placing lamps below or behind it.
Fountains and water features can be lighted to draw the eye, inviting you to enjoy the restful sounds and soft illumination. Underwater lighting works best in fountains and ponds, with the light source placed back from the area to be illuminated.
Lighting can focus on a gazebo, garden architectural feature, or archway. Lighted hedges discourage prowlers while bringing wilderness textures to your nighttime landscape. Use focused colored lighting to highlight a tree or an amenity such as a swimming pool or hot tub.
Illuminated handrails, paths, and stairs improve accessibility and safety. Brighter, more energy efficient lighting should be used around tennis courts, pools, and other activity areas.
Motion controlled single fixture spotlights are designed for incandescent bulbs and are inexpensive. Spotlights pre-wired to a cable can be used to illuminate landscape features.
Fixtures vary from small plastic bulb housings to sealed, low profile enclosures for high-efficiency bulbs. Faux rock fixtures are also available to completely hide landscape lighting.
Spotlights can illuminate sculpture and fountains. A Houston resident used a low-voltage pin spotlight to illuminate a garden pond and waterfall under an exterior wall.
Can-type spots may be mounted under a roof eave to illuminate patios and walkways.
Wall-mounted barbecue area lighting can enhance after-hours entertaining.
Grade-level fixtures are usually placed in the ground or upon the ground. Because they are exposed to weather and water, make sure your landscape lighting designer uses only weather-sealed units designed for outdoor use.
High mounted floodlighting is preferred for security because the higher a fixture is mounted the more an area is illuminated. Floodlighting and security lighting should be high-efficiency HID fixtures and bulbs.
Posts and bollards offer freestanding lighting and can serve as concealing decorative touches. Bollards can be used to illuminate stairs or patio borders; internally lit posts can be integrated into fencing to provide low-profile lighting.
Low voltage LED lighting wins high praises
Low voltage (12 volt) systems are becoming widely used for residential lighting. Although incandescent lights are not as energy efficient as other types they are low-voltage and low-wattage, thus saving overall energy. These types are usually mounted on built-in stakes, and are flexible and movable.
LED lighting has replaced many low-voltage incandescent bulbs because they can be used with 12-volt power. Technically these produce a pure white light but the light does appear slightly bluish. Extremely low-wattage these lights can produce excellent illumination for walkways, railings, and steps.
Prices have been somewhat high but are coming down at a brisk pace as manufacturers ramp up production. Small, flush-mounted LED fixtures can be molded into concrete steps and other hardscapes for a sophisticated, high-tech appearance.
Small spotlights and decorative fixtures are available and most use an integrated photocell to automatically turn them on and off.
Another low-voltage alternative to explore is fiber optics lighting. Individual strands of ultra-pure glass conduct light from remote sources. Buried plastic coated fiber optic cables surface wherever needed such as along walkways.
Molded into concrete walkways or walls, fiber-optic fixtures can be placed wherever needed. No electricity or heat is transmitted through the cable so fiber optic lighting is ideal where safety and fire protection is a concern such as a wood retaining wall.
As a general rule, low-level, low-key illumination does a better job than overhead fixtures. Landscape lighting should imitate starlight and moonlight, the softer the better. In addition, that unless they have a decorative theme, lighting elements and fixtures should be concealed from direct view whenever possible.
While colored lighting can add drama and beauty, too many colors and your landscape may take on a carnival-like feel.
Cords, wires and conduits should be buried, and only all-weather, exterior wiring and cables should be utilized to reduce fire hazard and risk to pets and children. Low-voltage lighting systems also increase safety by eliminating high-risk electric shocks.
Outdoor illumination should be easy to operate; the fewer controls the better and switches should be accessible at doorways and along frequently used routes.
Saving money is important but durability is also crucial. Shiny interior light fixtures may look fine inside, but after just a few months of outdoor exposure, finishes can peel, leaving metal to rust and disintegrate, so make sure to use only outdoor rated lighting fixtures.
Consider how your lighting may affect plant growth, especially in brightly illuminated areas. Many plants may thrive in extra light but light also destroys auxin. Plants that are overexposed to light can produce weak stems because of low auxin levels.
Plants that need more hours of darkness may only produce flowers under conditions that provide less light than darkness.
Design lighting should illuminate your property and not “spill over” onto neighboring properties. Consider the impact of your lighting plan on your neighbors and keep in mind that you are ultimately responsible for making sure your installations do not negatively affect surrounding areas by projecting inadvertent “light pollution.”
Amateur astronomers are working with municipal planners to reduce stray photons; properly designed landscape lighting can help.
Energy: efficiency vs. cost
If you plan to regularly illuminate your landscape at night your landscape designer can help you select a low-voltage energy-efficient system that will spare you from a dramatic spike in your utility bills. Shop for systems that utilize newer technology compact florescent and LED lighting.
Here are some of the most commonly used types of lighting and their relative energy efficiency:
–LEDs (or light emitting diode) lights, consisting of tiny two-metal electrodes encased in epoxy lenses, are now revolutionizing lighting, especially in landscaping. Technology in this field is changing rapidly and ever-brighter LEDs seem to appear almost monthly.
They are dimmable, waterproof, can tolerate impacts, and with an operational life of 100,000 hours or more, they last longer than any other kind of light source. LEDs are about 30 percent energy efficient but that rating is constantly increasing.
Colored LEDs that are now available eliminate the need for colored lenses.
–Incandescent lighting uses old-fashioned tungsten filament bulbs; simple and reliable the technology hasn’t changed significantly since the late 1800s. New types of incandescent lamps produce light more efficiently by using xenon and halogen gases inside the bulb.
Incandescents are dimmable.
Expect to replace incandescent bulbs every few months — more often if they are used extensively or in severe climates. Incandescent bulbs are one to ten percent energy efficient (that is, they only turn that percentage of the power they use into light). These bulbs are the least expensive but they also have the shortest life.
Compact florescent bulbs combine these components into the base of the bulb so they can be used almost anywhere an incandescent bulb will fit.
However, these bulbs must be placed inside weather-protected fixtures or their internal electronics may fail. Most florescent bulbs cannot be dimmed.
Although more expensive than standard incandescent bulbs, many utility companies pay rebates to retailers or consumers who purchase compact florescent bulbs.
Lifespans can be as long as 20,000 hours but substandard bulbs may fail early. Overall, these types of bulbs are about 40 percent efficient.
–HID or high-intensity discharge bulbs light with an electric arc. Mercury vapor bulbs produce a bluish (distorting to skin color) tint and are 20 percent efficient. Metal halide bulbs are similar but produce a whiter light; even better, they approach a 50 percent efficiency rating.
Sodium bulbs are up to 80 percent efficient but they produce a starkly yellow appearance that washes out colors. These types of bulbs are larger, much more expensive and often require special lighting fixtures and starters. They are not usually dimmable but they have a much longer service life.
Low quality lighting products provide a false sense of economy because they may fail early, especially in severe weather, heat or cold. Although regular maintenance will reduce corrosion and sudden darkness just when you need light, the best practice is to choose products for their durability and efficiency out of the box.
As 90 percent of all crimes occur at night, landscape lighting can do double duty as security lighting. In fact, in Montgomery County Maryland and other locales, police departments recommend security lighting as one of the most cost-effective security tools available for deterring criminal activities.
Motion sensors are recommended for high-wattage security lighting, not only to save energy, but also to encourage natural surveillance. You and your neighbors will look outside if security lights are activated.
Point at least one motion sensor light fixture some distance away from your home, so if anyone approaches, the light will turn on early.
Lighting can be used to encourage or discourage access. Properly placed illumination can either help make visitors feel welcome or give prowlers reason to think again before approaching a property because it gives the appearance someone is there, even if that is not the case.
You can choose to manually switch on your landscape lighting but it makes more sense to utilize automatic systems such as photocell, timers and motion detection.
Exterior lighting switches should be easily accessible, simple and protected from weather. Your landscape designer can work with an electrical contractor to design simple, logical outdoor lighting control.
Timers can be programmed to turn lights on during the hours you’ll want to utilize your outdoor spaces, such as 6 to 9 p.m. Because daylight hours vary seasonally, most timers must be reprogrammed from month to month. Seasonally programmable controllers are available but are generally costlier.
Photocells and motion detectors both automatically activate lighting, but they operate and provide illumination in different ways.
Motion detector activated lighting normally stays off until the sensor detects movement. Because wild animals, birds and pets can trigger motion sensor systems, most fixtures provide a way to adjust sensitivity. Motion sensor lighting comes on automatically for a fixed period of time and most units can be adjusted to stay on anywhere from a minute to several hours.
Photocells activate lighting during hours of darkness and can be combined with timers and motion detectors to ensure they only work when you want them to. Photocell-activated lighting does not need to be programmed seasonally but light sensors can fail.
A wise choice might be to choose from among inexpensive outdoor security light fixtures now available that combine both photocells and motion detectors.