Guide To: Outdoor Lighting
Exterior lighting brings façades and outdoor spaces to life. Whether utilizing fixtures for security, landscape or dramatic effect, exterior lights can transform how you see and understand a building or pathway. While exterior lighting may fall under a landscape architect’s purview, it’s important for every type of architect to understand how outdoor lights can integrate with a building and its larger site. By understanding the play between light and dark, architects can use contrast and shadows to create inspiring and intriguing spaces.
The main starting point when considering exterior lighting is establish the primary design goal: are you hoping to identify key features, add drama to surfaces that don’t normally stand out, or to simply create a clear path and entryway? You can both highlight a building’s architectural features and draw attention to plantings and trees. From task lighting for safety to ambient string lights for the perfect outdoor party, start by identifying the outdoor spaces you want to use and then find solutions for each area. Next, you should understand the basic types of fixtures when making your lighting plan. Finally, you should consider security and maintenance. These steps are reviewed in the following guide and provide a solid foundation for understanding different ways to brighten your design.
Task Lighting: It’s important to start with task lighting for illuminating pathways and entrances. Task lighting is paramount when performing specific tasks. This type of outdoor lighting can be achieved by using pathway lights, deck lighting and outdoor step lights. If your fixture is exposed to the elements, you will want to make sure to get a wet-rated fixture. And always make sure that the light fixture is specifically identified as outdoor lighting.
Ambient Lighting: This lighting provides an area with overall outdoor lighting. A common mistake is using too bright a bulb outside. A bulb that uses a lower wattage or has a lower lumens output is generally adequate in the dark. Usually, these are outdoor wall lights or post lights. Ambient lighting is also known as general lighting, which radiates a comfortable level of brightness without glare and allows you to see and walk safely.
Accent Lighting: Accent lighting adds drama to an outdoor space by creating visual interest. Take time to plan and focus your lighting for particular features: walkways, the doorway, landscaping. You can highlight trees, planting areas and architectural details. This type of lighting is usually provided by spotlights. Here, up lighting can be used to create drama with a taller structure or tree.
Outdoor Lighting Fixtures
Path Lights: This is the most common type of landscape lighting. Path lights are small posts that have a light built in and are capped with a diffuser. They can be used to frame out a space or feature in a yard, or spread out down a walkway. They can be place around a pond, along a driveway or lining a pathway.
Ceiling Lights & Hanging Lights: Ceiling lights and hanging lights are usually selected for damp locations where they’re never directly exposed to rain. Made to be integrated in a surface or as a featured light, they are normally specified as brighter fixtures. You can find hanging lights in a wide range of styles that offer varying levels of brightness.
Wall Lights: The classic front or back porch light, wall lights can be mounted on virtually any vertical surface. One of the most commonly seen outdoor fixtures, wall lights are a durable and attractive. Outdoor wall lights are usually used for decorative purposes, providing ambient or accent lighting rather than focused, bright lighting. These are the ideal choice for patios or porches
Post Lights & Pier Mount Lights: As the name suggests, post lights are fixtures that mount on top of posts. When a more architectural light is needed, post mount lights are designed to install onto a post or on top of a structure. They’re commonly used for entries, gates, fences or around a deck. Because they’re usually placed in open-air settings like driveways and pathways, most post lights are “wet rated,” meaning they are designed to withstand direct exposure to rain and moisture. Pier mount lights look much like post lights, but are designed to be installed on top of columns or walls.
Landscape Lights: Landscape lighting is a low voltage system separate from the wall and ceiling lights. Path, spot and floodlights can be used in combination to created layered lighting. Spotlights can be used for featuring a number of outdoor elements like trees, buildings, sculptural and architectural details. Well lights are recessed into the ground to create a seamless look in both landscape and hardscape setting. The inset profile is minimal and can be used to up light trees, walls or art.
Deck and Step Lights: Deck and step lights are installed directly into a yard’s hardscape or decking. They are used as an accent to architectural details and added safety to dark stairs. They can also be used for washing light down stone walls or lighting up entertainment spaces
DIY Outdoor Lighting Tips for Beginners
No Electrical Experience Necessary
Since most outdoor lighting is low voltage, it’s safe and easy enough for any DIYer to install. In fact, the only special tool you’ll need is a wire stripper. Find out what’s trending in outdoor lighting before embarking on your project.
Install Underground Wiring After Planting
To prevent accidental cutting of wiring for ground-level fixtures, install wiring after your landscape has been planted. That way you won’t accidentally chop through it with a shovel. Also, don’t install wiring in digging areas like garden beds, and be sure to bury low-voltage wire at least 6 in. below the surface.
How It All Fits Together
A low-voltage system has three parts:
The transformer plugs into a nearby GFCI-protected outlet and reduces 120-volt current to 12 volts.
The low-voltage cable carries current between the transformer and the light fixtures.
The light fixtures get connected to the cable with wire connectors made specifically for outdoor use.
Keep Your Fixtures; Upgrade Your Bulbs
For decades, halogen lights reigned supreme in low-voltage outdoor lighting systems, but LEDs have all but replaced them because they cost less to operate and last much longer. But you don’t have to tear out all your old halogen fixtures to enjoy the benefits of LEDs—retrofit bulbs are available. Just be sure to replace each halogen bulb with equivalent wattage and the same base type. Expect to pay about four times more for an LED bulb, but they use less energy and you’ll get up to 20 years of life from one compared with only two or three years from a halogen.
Don’t Overlap Pools of Light
The purpose of most deck lighting is ambience, and professional outdoor lighting designers say it’s best not to create overlapping ‘pools’ of light on decks and patios. So avoid mounting fixtures too close together. For decks, choose fixtures that cast a 4- to 5-ft. pool of light. Keep them 30 in. up off the deck’s floor and space them up to 10 ft. apart. Overlapping lights on deck stairs and walkways can be a good thing, however, by providing enough light to help people avoid tripping.
Everything You Need to Know for Stylish Outdoor Lighting
As day turns to dusk and dusk into night, some carefully placed lighting will provide warm ambience, enough light to eat by, and a measure of safety along dark paths. Much like its indoor relatives, outdoor lighting can be made up of a combination of overhead, wall, and table fixtures. Additionally, lamps that sit on the floor—in the form of lanterns and hurricane lights—can provide a dash of summertime style.
These versatile strands of sparkle can do almost anything: define edges and borders; wrap columns, banisters, or even trees; hang suspended over a space like twinkling stars to cast a magical and romantic glow.
Length: The best way to estimate the length you’ll need is to use twine as a stand-in, stretching it from point to point exactly where your lights would go. (Don’t forget to include enough to reach the outlet.) For columns or trees, measure once around and multiply that by how many times you’ll wind your light around. Once you determine the total length, divide that by the length of a single strand for the quantity you’ll need to purchase.
Installation: To attach to walls, beams, columns, and trees, use a staple gun with 3/8-inch galvanized-steel staples (they won’t rust). Start near the power source, and make sure there’s a little slack when you attach the first point (after unplugging, of course). Always keep the strands centered so you don’t staple through the wiring! For larger, more spaced-out bulbs, staple half way between each bulb. For smaller, closer lights, you can get away with stapling every 12-24 inches, depending on the weight of your lights.
Bulbs: Smaller bulbs provide a gentler, more decorative background twinkle, while larger ones can provide a fair amount of direct illumination. Remember that once they’re installed, you can always add other types of lighting for extra brightness. Consider where your lights are going and don’t overwhelm.
Colors: White lights are the most versatile; colorful strands or fun bulb covers can be vibrant options for special occasions—shell-shape ones for a beach house, flamingos for summertime, mini Japanese lanterns for the backyard. Halogen and LED bulbs are brighter and cooler, while incandescent or Edison-type globes are timeless and warm.
Outdoor lighting: A beginner’s guide
Warmer weather is on the way, which means more opportunities to spend time outdoors. So in addition to picking up some new outdoor furniture, it’s also a good time to figure out your outdoor lighting setup. To help you get started, we asked two experts for tips and advice and included a handful of product picks to consider as well.
“I find value in addressing multiple layers of lighting, especially as we spend more time outside in the warmer months,” she says. “From looking at task lighting for safety and illumination for the entrance of your home, to using ambient lanterns, candles, and string lights to make your outdoor space more inviting.”
Drawing up your own plan is especially important if you aren’t working with a professional. “This will help you put together your budget as well as prevent you from ordering too many lights or not getting the right lights for different areas,”
Start with task lighting
Once you’ve figured out your goals for outdoor lighting, task lighting should take priority. “For task lighting, it is important to illuminate pathways and entrances,”
“If your fixture is exposed to the elements, you will want to make sure to get a wet-rated fixture,” she says. “In many instances, a damp-rated light will work with a fully covered porch.”
OUTDOOR LIGHTING GUIDE
DON’T JUST DREAM ABOUT A PERFECT OUTDOOR SPACE
There are so many places you can add style and so many ways it can make your home safer and more functional at night. Illuminate all those important locations with ease: entryways, driveways, pathways, decks, dining areas and more. With more light comes more reasons to head outside, extending the function of your outdoor spaces well after dark.
Benefits of Outdoor Lighting
Today’s outdoor spaces are extensions of our homes with kitchen equipment, dining spaces, lounging areas and more. Here are a few of our favorite lighting tips to help you enjoy these spaces -day into night.
Outdoor lighting enhances the natural beauty and energy of your home. It highlights charming features, illuminates pathways and creates an alluring ambiance. As you think about outdoor lighting, consider all of the features worthy of attention. Do you have a beautiful tree in your backyard? Spotlight it. Are there attractive architectural details on your patio? Call attention to them with outdoor accent lights. Did you work hard on a gorgeous garden? Lead the way with path lights.
Increased Safety and Security
Safety is always a priority. When you’re home, evenings are prime time for outdoor entertainment so key pathways need to be well-lit. When you’re not home, outdoor lighting can help protect it.
At night, the right outdoor lights allow you and others to move around safely in the dark. Outdoor post-mounted lanterns are perfect for driveways and stair railings. Outdoor wall lights help you identify doorways and exits and brighten entrances. Step lights and path lights illuminate stairs and walkways, while address lights make it easy for people to find your home.
Outdoor lighting triggered by timers helps protect your home against intruders. They look great, too. Our outdoor wall lights are elegantly designed to enhance security without sacrificing style.