How To Use Landscape Lighting (Basics)

Susan Burke  |  July 10, 2014  |  3 Min. Read

Outdoor Lighting

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Landscape lighting is really the finishing touch to a beautiful yard and extending your living spaces. Outdoor areas can be considered rooms and sections of the home so why would you not be able to utilize them in the evening and be able to appreciate the space from inside your home.

One thing I always suggest to people building a home is to provide a couple of extra circuits for landscape lighting around the property. It's easy to do in the initial stages, yet hard after the house is completed.

Most often people try to do too much with too few lights. The days of blasting the yard with obnoxious flood lights is about as interesting as the big fluorescent light in the middle of your kitchen. Landscape lighting should be intentional and purposeful as any light you would chose for inside your home.


When planning for landscape lighting there are a few things to consider:

A) What do you want to light?

B) What is the reason for lighting them?

C) What is the best way to light them?

When choosing what to light you need to consider if it is accent lighting or task lighting. For accent lighting, I usually try to select the most interesting shapes of the trees and plantings. Japanese Maples, sculpted shrubs, & weeping cherry trees are some things that I will typically consider to be good choices. Very large trees and privacy hedges are usually less interesting. Also some trees look very nice when they have leaves on them and not so nice without the leaves!!!

Garden statuary and water features are a must when accent lighting around a yard. Often people will use landscape lighting to accent the house as well. Dramatic up-lighting can highlight architectural details like stone facades and columns.

Below are some examples of up-lighting trees, statuary and the home.

You may wonder why I mentioned “task lighting”. Walkways and stairwells are the primary spaces that require landscape lighting. Safety is the #1 reason for lighting these areas.  If you have ever tried to walk down someone’s stairs leaving their house you know what I mean. When lighting stairways always remember the top step and bottom step and then you can fill in appropriately. You do not have to light EVERY step.

For pathways, avoid the “runway affect”. You are just guiding the person along the path not “landing jets”. Often a combination of path lights, step lights and decorative post lanterns will accomplish most of the desired affects.

This image shows both up lighting for drama and path lighting for safety.

landscape lighting landscape lighting basics

Post lanterns alone light sections but adding a few path lights could make this walkway a little more interesting.

Step lights can work well to light stairs for both safety and complimenting the design.

Low Voltage vs. Line Voltage

Deciding what type of fixtures to use can be the most difficult part of planning your landscape lighting designs. Most landscape lighting today is “low-voltage”, meaning it operates on 12 volts vs. 120 volts. Low-voltage landscape lighting offers a lot of flexibility. The wires do not have to be buried as deep as 120 volt wires. The low-voltage fixtures are easy to install and adjusting them for location as things grow and for lighting angles.

Most of the low voltage fixtures offer a standard lamping option or LED versions to suit your needs. One critical point with low-voltage landscape lighting is the transformer. Low-voltage transformers are available in many sizes based on total wattage needed, and features or options desired. To determine what size transformer you need, first select your fixtures and size the transformer based on your needs. I usually will allow a little extra capacity in case you want to add any fixtures or adjust the wattages of some of the fixtures. I like the LED options. The life is much greater than incandescent.


Some of the options you can also consider are timers and photocells. Photocells turn the lights on at dusk and off at dawn. Many homeowners today often will use a photocell to turn the lights on and a timer to turn the lights off. These options make your life much easier than having to deal with adjusting timers based on seasons and time changes. Another factor is that sometimes you may need multiple transformers based on your design. This allows for less complicated wiring and no issues with overloading the transformers.

Shown on the right is a transformer with timer and photocell built in. Many others transformers offer the options as an “add on”.

Whatever you decide to use for landscape lighting one thing is that you will probably need to “fine tune” the installation. The fixtures will need to be adjusted as foliage grows. The wattages may need to be adjusted for affect. And based on where you live sometimes winter or severe weather can cause some damage. The use of low-voltage lighting makes this an easy and safe task. You can start out with smaller sections around the property and then add where necessary.

The use of landscape lighting can add drama and extend you living spaces. It can make a tremendous difference in the aesthetic value of your home and make it more enjoyable for yourself from both inside and out.

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