Home Sweet Solutions

Install Outdoor Lighting

Make a dramatic change to your landscape -- without a tremendous change to your budget.

Want to provide safety, security and curb appeal to your home this season? All you need is some strategically placed lights around your yard to create dramatic effect. It's a fairly simple (and budget-friendly!) project you can complete in a weekend. Just be sure you have a lawn edger, wire cutters and a tape measure, and you're ready to get started.

Here are a few lighting techniques you can use to illuminate your yard:

  • Downlighting: Lights are mounted high up in a tree or arbor and aimed downward for a soft and romantic feeling. Use spots, floods and spreads.

  • Uplighting: Fixtures are surface- or ground-mounted and angled upward to highlight a key object. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures.

  • Cross Lighting: Lights are mounted on either side of a tree, gate or arbor to reveal detail and soften shadows. Use spots or floods.

  • Shadowing: A light is placed at ground level to throw an object's shadow on a surface behind it. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures.

  • Silhouetting: The surface behind an object is lit for a striking effect. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures.

  • Accent Lighting: Intense light is focused on a specific object to contrast it against a dark background. Use spots or minispreads.
  • Spread Lighting: Circular patterns of light illuminate flowers and low shrubs from above. Use spread fixtures.

  • Grazing Light: A beam of light just grazes the surface of an object to reveal its texture. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures

To choose the right lighting technique, think about what you're trying to achieve. With little effort, you can bring out the colors and shadows of foliage and the many textures your landscaping has to offer. Or you can use tier lights on steps and walkways to create a safer passage. A mixture of colors will add drama to your outdoor lighting. (Consider using one color scheme, such as blue, for a cooling effect, and amber for warmth.)

In addition, to make it easier for guests and emergency vehicles to locate your house, light your house numbers too. You can place them so your porch light shines on them, or just direct a small spotlight up from the ground to illuminate the address.


1. Take a tour around your yard. One way to determine what areas you want to accent with lighting is to observe the effects created by the sun and moon on your home and yard.

2. Select a focal point or main element to build your lighting plan around. Elements to consider are large trees, the main entrance, a front walk or a specially landscaped portion of your yard. Look for dark spots in corners and behind large bushes, as well as potentially hazardous steps and curbs. Consider lighting these areas for safety and security.

3. Consider combining lighting techniques for interest and appeal. For example, backlight a row of bushes along a wall, and uplight a nearby tree while bordering a pathway with soft downlighting.

4. Sketch out your yard and home on graph paper. Be sure to include landscaping and walkways. Next, sketch in the locations where you wish to install the fixtures and light patterns. (After installation, you can rearrange or add to the plan as necessary to achieve the look and feel you want.)

5. Check local codes when planning your lighting scheme. Outdoor electrical work sometimes requires a permit from your town or county before you begin installation. Also check for the location of easements. An easement is an area on your property where the city, town or county is authorized at any time to build a road, lay sewer, run wires, etc. If you don't have a site plan with this information, check with town hall.

6. Check for underground gas lines, plumbing or cabling. Most areas are served by a dig safe service. This service is free and includes an inspector coming to your home to locate any underground lines. A quick and easy solution is to plug into an existing grounded outlet -- on a deck, for instance.

7. Give thought to the most convenient locations for installing switches. You may wish to have them indoors so you can turn everything on or off from inside. You can also equip your outdoor lighting with a programmable control system or special photocells that automatically turn the lights on.

Once you have a better idea of what lighting techniques to use and where, you'll have to measure your yard to accurately plot where you'll place your lights.

1. Get a quality measuring tape. The longer the tape, the easier it will be to measure long distances accurately, with minimal use of stakes or other items to mark your place.

2. Measure the outline (border) of your property first, then measure the distance from the property line to the house and other structures. Show all the walls, masonry and all the flower beds. Be sure to write down all the measurements you make on your grid.

3. Add the shape of trees, shrubs and flower beds last and label them appropriately. Place a cross where the center of the tree trunk is located. (All trees over 6 inches in diameter should be drawn to scale.)


You'll need to compute the total wattage of your outdoor fixtures to determine the necessary transformer.

1. Multiply the quantity of each fixture by the watts for each fixture to determine the total wattage necessary to power them. Then add all total fixture wattages together to determine the total system wattage needed.

2. Divide the total wattage by the transformer wattage to determine the number of transformers needed. Then select the control option (timer, photo control, manual on/off) you desire to control your lighting plan.

3. Estimate your cable lengths. To do this, determine the length of your individual runs, the distance from the last light to the closest outlet (transformer). Select the gauge wire you need, which will be determined by the length of the run.


Now that you have all the necessary information and measurements, you're ready to get the lights. Consider your options:

  • Prepackaged sets: Prepackaged light sets are convenient because you get complete, low-voltage outdoor lighting systems.

  • Separate light fixtures: Mixing and matching light fixtures allows you to create different lighting effects. A complete line of accessories and components are available (power packs, cable connectors, bulbs, etc.) for completing custom lighting projects.
  • Architectural Grade: Fixtures are made of high-quality die-cast aluminum or industrial polymers that feature commercial durability and brightness.

Note: Outdoor wiring must always be grounded. It must also be rated "water-resistant-U.L. approved for outdoor use." (U.L. stands for Underwriters Laboratories.) Fixtures rated for interior use should never be used outdoors. For pool and fountain lights, use only fixtures that are especially labeled for use in these areas.

Congratulations, you're just one step away from illuminating your yard! Here's what to do now:

1. Connect the transformer. Follow the instructions included with the transformer.

2. Lay the cable. Low-voltage cable can be covered with wood chips or decorative stones, or simply hidden under bushes or foliage.

3. Use a lawn edger to cut just the right depth in the ground to bury your cable. Or you may prefer to make a cut in the yard surface at a 45-degree angle, pry up the sod, drop in the cable and press the sod back into place.

4. Place the fixtures where you want them, adjusting for the desired lighting effect.

5. If the system has an automatic timer, set it to the desired on and off times.


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Photo: Corbis Images