Outdoor low voltage lighting provide a pleasant alternative to glaring floodlights. They can be strategically positioned to accent the plants and features you want to highlight. They can be used for safety—to illuminate paths, steps and dark zones. When artfully placed, they can be as beautiful and natural looking as the landscape itself. And since they’re low voltage (you can literally add wires and lights to the system while it’s operating), they’re safe to use and install. Here we’ll show you the special tips and tricks the pros use to install them.
Selecting the right design and components
Figure A: Low voltage outdoor lighting plan
A successful low voltage outdoor lighting plan requires selecting the right fixtures, then placing and wiring them correctly. Use waterproof pond lights for illuminating pools, fountains and other water features; offset path lights for lighting walkways; cone lights for highlighting both walkways and the surrounding plants; tree-mounted spotlights for simulating moonlight; and flood lights for illuminating trees, buildings and other large elements.
Walk into any home center or garden center this spring and you’re guaranteed to run into a towering display of outdoor low voltage lighting. You’ll find $69 prepackaged sets and $100 individual lights; plastic fixtures and metal ones; lights you can shine down from trees and up from ponds. The bottom line is, you’ll get what you pay for. We decided to pay about $90 apiece for metal “architectural grade,” low-voltage halogen lights. The halogen bulbs cast a whiter, more focused beam than standard lights—almost like natural sunlight. And the bulbs last longer, some up to 10,000 hours. The metal construction of the fixtures means greater longevity for them too, and we loved the natural burnished look.
As you design and shop for your lighting system, keep in mind:
- 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.
- 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 cool lit up, even when they’re leafless.
For safety’s sake, call 811 to have your utility companies mark the location of underground wires and pipes before you dig. The service is usually free—and you’ll avoid dangerous and costly surprises.
Install the lighting components
Photo 1: Position all the fixtures
Lay out your light fixtures and wire. Use 10-gauge wire for the main lines from the transformer to where the lights begin, then switch to 12-gauge wire between the lights. To bury the wires where they cross the lawn, use a flat-nosed shovel to cut a slot and fold back the sod. Bury these wires at least 6 in. deep so they won’t be damaged if the lawn is aerated. In protected planting beds, the low-voltage wire can simply be covered by mulch or soil.