This is part 3 of our series on landscape lighting. In part 1, we went through the different ways that you can provide light for your garden. In part 2, we talked about the different types of lighting effects you can use to add night time interest to your yard. And now it’s time to figure out how to use all of those ideas to design and install landscape lighting in your own garden.
Figure Out Your Functional Needs
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The first thing you will want to do is plan out your functional lighting requirements. For example, sidewalks that lead to your door need to be illuminated so that people can see where they are going.
For these, you will want to use fairly bright lights that direct the light where it needs to go. I usually use low voltage lighting (rather than solar lights) for these spaces because they distribute the light better.
Make sure that steps are lit so everyone knows where to step down. Solar lights work well for this application, especially for an existing deck. No wires makes them very easy to install!
If you have a deck or patio where people sit after dark, you’ll want to provide enough light for them to see each other. One of my favorite way to do this is to use patio umbrellas that have lights under them. For these, the solar version does actually work pretty well (yes, I actually broke down and bought one)…which makes it easier to install, since you won’t need any wiring.
You might also want to add Citronella candles or torches in this category. Not so much for the light they provide, but to ward off the mosquitoes and other insects that can be a nuisance outside.
Determine Your Focal Point(s)
Next you will want to decide what parts of your garden you want to highlight as focal points. These could be fountains, specimen plants, statues or anything else in your yard that you want to be able to showcase at night.
For these you will usually be using spot lights to provide up-lighting or down-lighting. These lighting effects will make your garden focal points stand out. If you’re not sure what these effects look like, go back and visit part 2 of the series to get some ideas.
I usually use low voltage lights for these applications as well. Most solar lights just aren’t strong enough to provide the amount of light required to make up-lighting look effective.
Plan The Filler Lights
Now plan to add in some lights that act as filler. Pretty much any type of lighting can be used for this category. The idea is to make your garden lighting look cohesive.
One light installed all by itself in the middle of the yard doesn’t give the effect most people are looking for. It ends up looking more spooky than inviting. So if you have any areas like this, plan to add some additional lights around it to create a grouping. Fill in any “black holes” with some kind of light that will join the lighting groups together. Repeating the same type of lighting multiple times (like down-lighting multiple hanging baskets) is an easy way to make this happen.
The idea here isn’t so much to highlight anything but to provide a connection that your eye can follow around the yard.
Don’t be afraid to include fun lights that you love and add some of your personality to the yard as well.
Lay Out The Wiring
Now that you know where you will be putting your lights, figure out where the wiring will need to run. Use hoses or string to layout where the wire will go.
Generally, you don’t want to run more than 100′ of wire in one line. This is because the electrical signal through the line decreases the further it has to travel. So if the wire is too long, the lights at the end won’t be as bright as the ones at the beginning.
If you need more than 100′ of wire, plan to run more than one line. Some transformers can be connected to more than one wire. These are good if you can locate it in a central spot and run 2 wires from it that go in different directions. Otherwise, you may need to plan to have more than one transformer that are placed in different locations. As an example, I have 4 transformers in my yard, and 2 of them run more than one line.
You also need to identify where you are going to plug the transformers in. They should be plugged into GFCI outlets that will automatically turn the power to the line off if water does get in (and that does happen occasionally).
If you have some lights that are a little out of the way, you may want to consider using solar lights for those. It will make the installation a little easier.
Once you have figured out the wiring layout, measure the length of all of the wires so you know how much you will need. I always buy 12-gauge landscape lighting wire. It is a little more expensive, but can handle larger loads. That makes it easier to add more lights later on without having to replace the wires.
Pick Your Light Fixtures
Next, pick out (or order) the exact fixtures that you are going to use for each of your lights. Keep in mind which ones you wanted to be low voltage and which ones can be solar.
In most cases, you will not need more than 20 W bulbs to accomplish your landscape lighting effects. I usually use 20 W for up-lighting, 10 W to 20 W for down-lighting, and 7 W to 12 W for path lighting.
For each of your wiring lines, add up the Wattage for all of the lights that will be connected to that line. You will need this to determine the size of the transformer.
What Size Of Transformer?
All low voltage transformers come with a Wattage rating. That is the total number of Watts that it can support on all of the wire that extends from that transformer.
For example, if you buy a 200W transformer, the total number of Watts for all of the light fixtures that are attached to that transformer should not exceed 200 Watts.
I usually leave at least 30 Watts of the capacity free just in case I want to add another light later. So if the total Watts on one of your wires came up to 140 Watts (the calculation you did in the previous step), adding 30 Watts would mean you need a transformer that has a capacity of at least 170 Watts. And just as a side note, there is no problem with getting a transformer that has more capacity than you need.
If you buy a transformer that supports multiple wires, there will be a Wattage rating per line. That will tell you how many Watts you can install on each wire that comes out of the transformer.
Install The Transformer and Wire
1. Run the wire along the string or hose lines that you laid out previously. The end of the wire does not need to be taped or capped like a regular electrical wire would. So don’t worry about that.
2. Attach one end of the wires to the appropriate connection points on the transformer.
3. Install the transformer on the side of the house or a post following the directions provided by the manufacturer.
4. If the transformer has a separate light meter, place it where it will get a true light reading. If it is in a really shady spot, your lights will come in before they need to.
5. If your transformer is configurable, choose how long you want your lights to stay on at night.
Install the Light Fixtures
Now go back and install the light fixtures where you had planned them.
Low voltage lights usually come with a connector to attach them to the low voltage wire. If you have a flat connector, the wire from the fixture usually goes in one groove and the main wire lies in the other groove. When you screw the two sides together, the points on the other side of the connector will stick through the 2 wires and make the electrical connection.
If you have this style or connector at the end of the light fixture wire, separate the two pieces. Position them on either wide of the main wire. Then push the two halves back together so that the points go into the main wire. If the pins don’t go all the way through the wire cover, the light won’t come on. So sometimes you need to push them in really hard to get the light to work.
Push the fixtures into the ground or attach them to a structure.
When it is dark enough to see what your lighting looks like, take a look at it to make sure you like it. If anything looks out of place or unbalanced, disconnect the light fixture and move it. Trust me…the little bit of extra work now is worth it! Otherwise every time you go outside, that off-balance lighting will bug you. Don’t worry about the holes in the wire…they usually aren’t big enough to cause any issues. I usually end up moving the light fixtures around quite a bit before I get it to look like I want it. I’m sure my neighbors think I’ve lost my mind when they see me sitting on the ground with a flashlight after dark trying to re-connect a light fixture 🙂
Enjoy Your Lighting!
It does take a little work to get landscape lighting set up, but once it’s there, you really don’t have to do much with it.
The lights will come on every night, and your garden will look amazing!
Every year in the spring, I go around and replace any bulbs that have burned out…but that’s about the extent of the maintenance work.
Just enjoy the results of your work!
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This post was originally published on August 17, 2016 but was updated with new content on November 20, 2021.