Low Voltage Landscape Lighting 101

Low Voltage Landscape Lighting

Have you recently added curb appeal to your home? Perhaps a new paving stone driveway, walls, pillars, steps, water features, statues, stucco, paint, patio cover, artificial grass or landscaping.  These changes are amazing during the day, but perhaps ignored and not enjoyed to its fullest potential when the sun goes down.

Low Voltage Landscape Lighting can enhance the features of your home’s curb appeal and create a more inviting atmosphere. There is a functional side to lighting your space.  Being able to navigate your walkways/steps and guiding guests to your front door would be a functional aspect of lighting.  The function of bringing light to a dark space could also be for safety and security. There is, however, many other reasons to consider Low Voltage Lighting for your home and yard.  

Low Voltage Lighting will make your yard usable past dark and will completely change the way your yard is being used.  If you are not lighting your space you cannot see it, what you cannot see you cannot use.  Lighting will change the entire feel of a space and visually connect different areas in your yard.

Your home’s hard and softscape features are a work of art waiting to be highlighted.  With the proper Landscape Lighting Design and lighting placement you can create a dramatic transformation.  Lighting will add depth and dimension to your space and reveal beautiful details that may be hidden during the day.

When designing a Lighting System for your yard there are many things to consider.  Looking at your yards features during the day is the best place to start.  This will give you an opportunity to decide what aspects of your yard you would like to highlight at night.  

Lighting Fundamentals:

  • Placing a fixture in a designated area will make that area visually active.
  • More light means less light.  This is due to apparent brightness.  Where you do not have light you are creating a “black hole” which can strain the eyes.
  • Don’t place a fixture in front of every (front lighting).  Establish levels of light to create contrast and provide depth and visual dimension.
  • Pick focal points and anchor points.
  • Between focal and anchor points use fill-in lighting or bridge lighting to create cohesion.

Understanding how eyes adjust to light is an important aspect of designing your landscape lighting project.  Eyes will be attracted to the brightest light so it is important to fill in the dark area of your yard (black holes) with soft cohesion filler lighting.  

Being able to see the the fixture and light can create glare which is harsh to the eyes.  This can be resolved by directing the light on an angle toward your objects and away from the viewing angle. I will focus more on fixtures in my next post, but glare can be reduced by adding frosted lenses or smaller size bulbs.   Often your home will already have outdoor light fixtures with visible bulbs. To maximize the beauty of your new low voltage lighting you may want to consider changing these fixtures to a light where the bulb is not visible, change the bulb to a frosted bulb or leave these lights turned off while your low voltage system is turned on.

Your lights are placed at your focal points and now you are creating the fill lighting.  This can be achieved by another lighting fixture and by reflecting the light off of surrounding objects to create ambient lighting.  Ambient lighting is referred to as low level lighting and can be cast off of walls, plants or trees.

In addition to placing your fixtures in front of your focal points, lights can be placed behind and on the sides of an object.  This helps fill in the “black holes” and creates excellent fill lighting.  A good example of this is lighting the front of a tree’s trunk, but then casting a light into the foliage of the tree at various angles.  By doing this you are connecting the areas of your yard and creating a change in light levels from darker to lighter or lighter to darker.  It is the contrasting fields of light that create an interesting portrait.

Creating Contrasting Fields:

In addition to proper fixture placement, there are several ways to create contrast by reflecting light off of different surfaces of your yard.  When doing this it is good to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the surfaces made of?
  • What color are they?
  • What color-to-color transitions are there?
  • What are the surface textures?
  • What is the density of the plant material?
  • Will you get reflective light from one surface to another?

Contrast is usually not achieved by using lower wattage lamps.  Contrast is achieved by the distance of the fixture from the object you are lighting. The further the light source is from an object, less light will reach the object.  

Light will reflect off of surfaces differently.  Smooth surfaces like glass, chrome, aluminum, marble, granite and high gloss paint have a high reflective nature.  Matte surfaces have medium reflect-ability.  Matte surfaces like stucco can help spread light for a medium lighting scenario. Textured surfaces like brick or self-stacking walls can also cast shadows that is visually satisfying.  Texture and color effect light.  With colors, the effect of the perceived brightness is due to reflecting or absorbing light.   Light colors reflect light and dark colors absorb it.  Medium colors have a medium reflective nature.  Different colors and material density will affect light absorption.  Light surfaces will absorb very little light and reflect more while dark surfaces will absorb more and reflect less.

Using tree foliage and plants is an excellent way to provide contrast.  Depending on the density of a plant’s leaf, light may be able to travel through it. Placing a light under or below will create a glowing effect.  Taking advantage of your plants cover is a great way to provide contrast.

The main take-away with contrast is that it is achieved by color, density, textures and placement of fixtures as well as the degree of the angle of the fixtures.

Using Lighting for Horizontal and Vertical Visual Expansion of Space:

As I referenced earlier, lighting has the ability to create space.  Installing your lights allows you to control the size of your viewing area.  You can expand, contract, narrow and draw the viewer away or toward points in your yard.  When doing this you can define your property lines, establish boundaries, and create space.

Lighting and Lighting Fixtures:

The main goal for creating a beautiful lighting project is achieved by the effect of the light.  In most cases it is not the fixture creating the light, but the bulb within the fixture creating the light.  That being said, all lighting fixtures are not created equal.  Investing in the proper fixture(s) will be the difference in a system that will last for years versus replacing fixtures every few years, which will end up costing much more in the long run.

(Special thanks to Nate Mullen and Tom Kuenzi who have provided me with Low Voltage Lighting training and resources for over a decade.)