Landscape lighting is a simple way to extend the length of time you can enjoy your outdoor spaces. This can be achieved several ways. Pathways, steps, trees, garden features, architectural elements, waterscapes, and decks call all be enhanced through landscape lighting. Low-voltage lighting is easy and, because it only requires 12 volts of electricity to operate, is safe for the do-it-yourselfer to install. For our purposes we will discuss the most common form of low-voltage lighting which is pathway lighting.
Landscape lighting consists of three main components: light fixtures, a transformer, and low-voltage electrical cable. The transformer must be plugged into an outdoor GFCI outlet fitted with a “while-in-use” cover. This cover is an over-sized plastic box that covers the outlet and has a notch for the power cord to go through. These are inexpensive, easy to install, and can be obtained from your local hardware store. The transformer allows you to step down the 120 volt electricity to a safe, usable 12 volt system that we will be using.
First, you must determine the areas that you wish to light and the effect you would like to achieve. Each light fixture is different. It is a good idea to find out the specifications of each light before planning out your design. For this article we will assume you have done your homework, shopped for your fixtures, and purchased the appropriate size transformer to handle the cumulative wattage of those fixtures. With that done, let’s begin.
Step one: Lay out your components.
Arrange the path lights along the walkway you are lighting. Then take the low-voltage cable and string it along the lights and up to the transformer, going under or around any obstacles you may encounter such as trees or shrubs. Leave the cable loose as we will be encircling each fixture with a small loop of wire before burying it. Use 14 guage cable for jobs totaling less than 200 watts, and 12 guage cable for systems that exceed 200 watts. The lights are typically around 6-10 feet apart and your first light should be at least 10 feet from your transformer.
Step two: Dig your trench.
Move your light fixtures out of the way and, using a flat-blade shovel, fold back a section of grass all along the path about 12 inches wide. Use the edge of the shovel to make a trench about 3 inches deep where the wiring will lay. You may need to set something heavy on the sod to keep it from flopping back into the trench you are trying to create.
Step three: Bury the wire.
Set the proper gauge of low-voltage wire into the newly dug trench. Remember to leave the wire slack. Smooth the soil back over the wire, but leave a section of it protruding at each fixture so that the electrical connections can be made. Make a hole in the folded-over grass where each fixture will be and stick the cable up through this hole, folding over the grass as you go.
Step four: Make holes for the fixtures.
Set the lights in the grass in their proper position, checking to make sure they are evenly spaced. Also check to make sure that the head of the light fixture doesn’t extend into the path so that they do not get disturbed when people are walking. Using a long steel punch or a screw driver, make a hole in the ground to accommodate the fixtures stake. Never use a hammer to drive the fixture into the ground as damage may occur to the wire and to the fixture. Screw the stake onto the bottom of the fixtures if you have not already done so.
Step five: Wire your lights.
Each brand of fixtures is different so consult your instructions enclosed with your brand of fixtures. However with most, you take the connector at the base of each light and slip it around the electrical wire until you hear a click. This indicates that the quick connect component has made a firm connection and has pierced through the low-voltage cable. In order to make a stronger connection you can also bypass this connection altogether, splitting the cable and wiring it with wire nuts as you would a traditional light fixture. If you choose to do this, make sure you seal the wire nuts with silicone to keep them waterproof. After wiring all the fixtures, push the fixture and its’ attached stake, firmly into the holes that you made earlier for them. Tuck the connector and wire at least two inches into the ground and make sure the stake is flush with the grass.
Step six: Plug in the transformer.
Strip the wires from the ends of the electrical cable you have placed near the transformer. The transformer needs to either be mounted to a post or directly to the house. Insert the wires into the terminals at the base of the transformer after it is mounted. Turn it on and, if you have done everything correctly, you should see the fixtures light up. If problems do occur, remember to check that your light bulbs are inserted correctly and working before assuming you have a faulty transformer. Once all the lights are working properly, tuck the grass around the fixtures, pressing it down firmly all along the trench. Water the trench well.
Step seven: Enjoy!
With a little hard work and advance preparation, anyone can enhance their night-time curb appeal with attractive, functional landscape lighting. Low-voltage lighting requires very little maintenance. Just remember to change the light bulbs shortly after they go out or you will shorten the life of the remainder of bulbs. Other than that, just sit back and enjoy a job well done!