Landscape Lighting Basics

Landscape Lighting Basics

Why Install Landscape Lighting?

Aesthetic Benefits

  • Safety: Good lighting on steps, walks and driveways help avoid accidents
  • Security: Floodlighting and other landscape lighting will deter prowlers and vandals
  • Investment: Grounds which are dramatically lighted at night look like a luxurious estate, increasing the resale value of your property

Practical Benefits

  • Show off the beauty of your home after dark
  • Highlight favorite flowers and shrubs
  • Dramatize trees, pool, fountains and masonry texture
  • Accent statuary and other focal points
  • Relax in your backyard or entertain on your patio or deck

Why Use Low Voltage & What Is It?

Voltage = the measurement of the rate at which energy is drawn from a source that produces a flow of electricity in a circuit. A typical outlet is rated and should be 120V or what's known as 'line voltage'.

Low voltage is typically rated at 12 volts.

A 12-volt system, which requires a transformer, has a number of advantages for the average or smaller property:

  • Simple do-it-yourself project; lower overall cost
  • More energy-efficient and often more light output per watt
  • Little or no risk of shock or other electrical hazard
  • Minimum disturbance to lawn and garden (Cable can be buried without conduit and junction boxes or it can be left above ground)
  • Easy relocation of fixtures when desired

Planning a Landscape Lighting Layout

Important Guidelines:

  • Conceal the light source behind shrubs, etc., where possible - except where the fixture itself is a decorative element
  • Don't over light - a little light goes a long way
  • Be creative in using a mixture of lighting techniques for drama and excitement.
  • Arrange for an automatic device to turn lights on and off, such as a timer or photocell
  • Be considerate of your neighbors - aim lights so they do not shine into their windows

Types of Landscape Lighting

Example Type Function
Outdoor Wall Light Cylinder, Box Shape and Bullet Shape These designs help focus and direct the light beams. Some also cut off glare and protect the lamp and socket from debris and moisture
Path Light Spread and Diffused These low level units are designed to cast illumination in a broader pattern for: flower beds, perimeter plantings, driveways, steps and paths
Well Light In-ground or Well Light Burying these fixtures flush with the ground conceals the light source. Use for up-lighting trees and shrubs, an grazing textured walls
Spot Lights Spot or Accent Lights
Versatile/adjustable fixtures used for uplighting, cross lighting, accenting and grazing. When mounted high up these provide focused downlighting and moonlighting
Outdoor Wall Lantern Wall Bracket, Ceiling Close-up, Chain hung Lantern Mounted at entry doors, over garages and on porches, these stylish units cast light outward either direct or diffused
Post Lights Bollard and Post Lights These standing fixtures light pathways, steps, garden walks, deck and pool areas. They also provide attractive light patterns for driveways
Fountain Light Swimming Pool and Fountain Lighting These fixtures are installed in sides and at ends of swimming pools and bottoms of fountains. Wet niche fixtures can be removed for lamp changes, while dry niche fixtures require access to the back of the pool shell. Colored lighting is popular for this application

Common Uses and Terminology

  • Down Lighting or Area Lighting
    • Mount lighting units high up in trees or on the house to cast broad illumination over wide areas. Floodlighting enables you to entertain in your backyard or outdoor area after dark, and does double duty for security and safety. For highlighting flower beds, paths or steps, the down light is positioned close to the ground.

  • Up Lighting
    • Lights aimed upwards (sometimes buried in the ground) create a highly dramatic effect akin to the theater Use it with interesting trees, a statue or textured wall surfaces. Autumn leaves or swirling snow provide spectacular views.

  • Moonlighting
    • Like down lighting, but using soft light sources positioned very high up, this technique simulates the lovely effect of moonlight filtering through branches, casting attractive shadow patterns.

  • Diffused Lighting
    • Where you require circular patterns of light on flowerbeds, larger shrubbery or ground cover; spread light covers a wider area with low-level illumination. Some units, such as these bollards, cast softly diffused lighting for patios, decks, driveways and pathways. Wall brackets provide a similar lighting function.

  • Accent or Spot Lighting
    • These lights focus a controlled, intense beam to highlight the focal points in your garden; flowers, small shrubs and statuary. This creates sparkling islands of interest in your landscape lighting plan.

  • Shadowing
    • Light the object from the front and below to project intriguing shadows on the wall or other vertical surfaces.

  • Grazing
    • Positioning the light close to an interesting surface can bring out the texture of tree bark, a masonry wall, wood shingles or an attractive door.

  • Silhouetting
    • When you conceal lights behind and below a tree or bush, you achieve that same wondrous effect as seeing it on a ridge silhouetted against the sky at dusk.

  • Cross Lighting
    • Illuminating a tree or statue from two or more sides reveals the three-dimensional form in a striking perspective.

  • Pool and Fountain Lighting
    • Underwater lighting creates dramatic effects in pools and at fountains. Install a dimmer for turning lights up to add excitement. Note: Water may be used as a mirror by lighting the area behind the reflecting surface.

Transformers, Wattage & Options

The transformer is the 'power block' or device that alters the line voltage from an outlet or circuit and changes it to another voltage, or in this case 12V 'low voltage'.

Most transformers will have a wire and plug that you can simply use with an exterior outlet located in an adjacent area.

Choosing the correct transformer depends on the number of fixtures being used and the total wattage of all the lights in your plan. Wattage ratings are found on the bulbs themselves. A larger wattage typically means a brighter output.

Calculation Example:

  • 2 x 20W flood lights
  • 4 x 12W path lights
  • Total wattage = 88 watts
  • Choose a 120W transformer which will allow for expansion in the future.
  • Transformer Options

  • Hi and low switch (acts much like a dimmer)
  • Photocells which detect light and will automatically turn on lighting at dusk
  • Timers - either clock-based or shut off timers that work with the photocell
  • Thermal protection fuse to prevent overload
  • Landscape Lighting Kits

    Landscape lighting kits are available from most lighting manufacturers and typically include some or all of the following items. If you find a kit that you like and are unsure as to what is included please feel free to contact us for further clarification.

    • Fixtures
    • Bulbs
    • Connectors
    • Transformer
    • Wire

    Lighting Tips

    Take the time to install correctly. Lighting fixtures will last longer, cast more light where you want it and require less maintenance.

    The farther a light is from the transformer (and the more lights installed between it and the transformer), the less light it will put out. A good rule of thumb is to put no more than 100 watts of lighting on one line. If you want to put ten 20-watt lights on a circuit, make a tee connection with five lights on one line and five on the other. You can also minimize voltage drop by using a thicker gauge wire.

    Always leave a little extra wire as you hook up the lights. This will give you the freedom to move a light after you've hooked it up for testing or after you've installed it.

    Burying the wires should be your last step. Lay everything out, hook up your lights, test your voltage, and look at your results at night before burying the lines.

    Buy a larger transformer than you'll initially need so you can add lights later as your landscape (and imagination) expands. If you'll be installing 400 watts of lights, buy a 600-watt transformer.

    Purchase a transformer with a built-in photocell and timer. Orient the photocell with some western (sunset) orientation so it doesn't turn lights on too early.

    Avoid over lighting. Outdoor lights look best as accents, broadcasting pools of light. Flooding sitting or planting areas with "stadium lighting" can make them look washed out.

    When lighting a path, decide whether you want to light only the path or both the path and the features around it. As a rule, the broader the field you want to light, the higher the light pole you'll need. Path lights with a 20-watt halogen bulb at a 24-in. height should be spaced every 10 ft.

    Consider seasonal factors. Install lights where they won't be easily damaged by plows or shovels. And bear in mind that some plants, like hydrangea bushes, sumac and dogwoods with colorful stems, look excellent lit up, even when they're leafless.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Q: Why do low voltage lighting systems require a transformer?

      A: You must have a transformer to reduce the 120-volt AC home current to a safe 12 volts AC. Do not attempt to hook up a line of 12-volt lamps directly to an ordinary home outlet without using a 12-volt transformer.


    Q: Can you mix different wattage fixtures on the same cable run and transformer (e.g., 14-watt floodlights with 18-watt entrance light fixtures)?

      A: Yes. To mix different wattage fixtures simply add up the total wattage of the lamps. As long as the total wattage does not exceed the output of the transformer, you can mix and match lights.


    Q: What do I do with the bare wire at the end of the cable?

      A: If cable is left over once you've installed all of your lights, cut it and bury it. The cable is harmless and there is no threat of electrical shock. If there is any possibility that the end of the cable will touch metal, seal it with a piece of electrical tape to avoid shorting out the system.


    Q: Can I use any 12 volt lamp with my fixtures?

      A: For best results, use the lamps that come in the kits or are recommended by the manufacturer which we will cross merchandise on the product pages. Do not exceed fixture lamp wattage rating.


    Q: Is there a positive or negative in the wires or cable?

      A: There is no polarity in the wires or cable unless you loop it to the transformer which is not necessary.


    Q: Should transformers be used to their full capacity?

      A: Yes. As the load decreases, the output voltage of the transformer increases. Therefore, the life of low voltage lamps will be shortened unless the transformer is carrying close to its rated capacity. The rule of thumb is to use at least half the transformer's wattage rating.


    Q: Are low voltage lights safe around children and pets?

      A: Yes, low voltage lights are safe. Since they operate on 12-volt electrical current, as compared to conventional 120-volt systems, there is no fear of shock. In fact, the system may be installed with the power pack turned on so that lights can be tested as they're connected.