The actual design of an outdoor lighting system is determined by the site characteristics, the landscape effect desired its function, and the homeowner’s personal tastes.
Most hardware stores and home improvement centers sell low voltage kits with a built-in transformer and a timer which lets you determine when the lighting is activated or deactivated.
The transformers use 120-volt current, which is standard in nearly all households. The transformer then converts the current to 12 volts resulting in a safe and economical power source.
GFCI receptacle will be required to install low lighting. Most homes
don’t have these receptacles and it will be necessary to have a
licensed, qualified electrician to install one.
Before starting to dig, it’s absolutely necessary to contact your local utility companies (gas and electric) to make sure that you will not cut any existing underground cables or piping.
The first planning requirement involves deciding which type of outdoor lighting you will install. There are basically five from which to select.
Up-lights: These lights provide ground level illumination with the lights pointed up. The purpose of the up-light is to highlight points in the landscape, such as trees, and other architectural features. Up-light fixtures include spot and flood lights as well as in-ground fixtures.
Backlights: Back-lighting can create a very dramatic effect when done with taste. Be sure not to use overpowering back-lighting because it may result in a “Halloween effect”. The basic idea of back-lighting is to strategically place a lighting fixture behind an object such as a statue or even a small plant. This object or plant should be fairly close to an outside wall. The goal is to use this fixture, such as a spot light or a floodlight or even an in-ground light, to create a silhouette on the wall. The fixture should be out of sight to provide some “magic” to the desired effect.
Path lights: One of the most common (and dramatic) uses of outdoor lighting is to create a guide on either side of a path or walkway or even a driveway. Besides providing an appealing decorative look, path lighting can be a safety feature, keeping visitors from wandering off the lighted area. Unlike most other outdoor lighting, path lights should be placed above ground (but fairly low) and should be the kind that spreads the light with a gentle glowing effect. Don’t use too many path lights in a particular area to avoid an “airline runway” look. The lights should be strategically placed with understatement being the operational consideration.
Down lights : Spotlights and floodlights can be used to illuminate an entryway such as a rear door or an entrance to a bordered garden area or even over a gazebo. Unlike a path light, a down light should not be seen so that a natural lighting effect is achieved. Besides providing a decorative effect, down-lighting offers security for areas, deterring most intruders
Specialty lights: Creativity is the key to the use of specialty lighting. The goal in using this lighting is to create a magical and inviting mood to an area. If you have a rock garden or an area with water and perhaps even a waterfall, strategically placed lighting can highlight these landscaping features and provide a very dramatic nighttime effect. Remember, specialty lighting is limited only by the homeowner’s creativity. There are a variety of home and garden magazines on the market and some very innovative uses of specialty lighting can be found by perusing a few of these periodicals.
Before beginning the installation phase, be sure to match the areas to be illuminated with the style and types of lighting fixtures that you will use. Don’t be reluctant to visit neighbors who use outdoor lighting and ask what they selected in terms of lighting fixtures. This may involve several trips to other neighborhoods but these trips will certainly be worth the effort. Although you will be paying night time visits, a polite and sincere introduction to the homeowner with a word of two of flattery will no doubt provide you with an invitation to look at the work that they have done and most will be more than willing to share their secrets with you.
Most outdoor lighting is either four or seven watts. Keep in mind that these lights are designed to highlight a fairly small area with the goal of providing understated intimacy. If the area you plan to illuminate is fairly large, you may want to purchase a few more lights than you expect will do the job. You can always return the extras for a refund. The lighting specialist at the store can help you select the right transformer and may suggest you buy one that can accommodate the additional wattage you may need if you decide to expand your outdoor lighting later on.
Rather than just jump into grabbing that shovel and starting to work, remember why they include instruction booklets with toys, etc. that need to be assembled. What I’m getting at is that you need a written plan from which to work. While this may be a time-consuming part of the project, it will pay dividends as you begin the actual work. Many homeowners who jumped right into installing outdoor lighting, ended up having to do much of it over again as they found that their mental plans didn’t yield the same benefits that a carefully laid-out written plan did. Another advantage to putting it in writing is that you may discover additional areas that could benefit from outdoor lighting as you move along. The written plan will allow you to note this so that you can revisit the area to install the additional lighting.
With all the preliminary work completed, you will be ready to start the actual project. Although there are a variety of approaches that can be used, one of the most effective is to refer to your plan and lay the lighting fixtures at the area where they will be installed. Some of the lighting fixtures such as path lights will include a detachable stake that you will use to anchor the fixture into the ground. A common mistake some homeowners make is to attempt to drive these stakes into hard soil. In today’s market, most lighting fixtures and accessories are made of plastic. While the plastic stake may be made of high-grade material, driving it into hard soil or a soil-clay mixture may result in the stake breaking. It’s often difficult if not impossible to find a replacement stake and the homeowner may end up “biting the bullet” by having to purchase another complete lighting fixture. To avoid this potential pitfall, you can do one of two things. First, you can use a spade to loosen the soil and then pack it down firmly. It’s often not necessary to loosen the soil to the complete length of the stake. Try loosening it about ¾ of the length of the stake. Generally, with a good start, the stake will not be damaged when fully inserted. Second, you can water the area liberally the day before you begin the project. If the soil is very dense, use a pitchfork or similar tool to create irrigation holes. You may find it necessary to repeat the watering process several times.
With the soil prepared, place the lighting fixtures where they will be installed. At the GFCI fixture, run the cable to each of the lights. Don’t run the cable so that it’s tight because you may decide to reposition your lighting fixtures at a later date. Most lighting fixtures have instructions that indicate how they are to be attached to the cable. This is usually a fairly simple process that doesn’t even involve the use of any tools.
After separating the end of the cable, strip off about ½ inch of insulation and attach the wires to the proper terminals on the transformer. You are now ready to see if the lighting circuit is working. Turn on the plugged-in transformer and then look at each light to make sure it’s working. Bury the cable as you install the light fixtures. Four or five inches will do in terms of the depth the cable should be buried.
The last step is to set the timer to come on at the right time and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
The information contained in this article is written by a non-certified and non-qualified electrician. I take no responsibility for any injury or other accidents or damage to equipment that may occur as a result of following any of the information contained herein. If you have any doubts about your ability to follow these directions or to safely install your outdoor lighting, I strongly urge you to hire a qualified professional electrician to do the job.
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