If you’re like many homeowners, you’re thinking about taking to the great outdoors—without even leaving your property. Outdoor kitchens, music systems, and fire pits are hot trends in backyard living, but another element to outdoor life that you can enjoy all year round is lighting.
While landscape lighting has been around for years, the same trends driving next-gen lighting experiences inside the home are occurring outdoors. LEDs offer performance, reliability, and energy-saving benefits on the lamp side, and smart home control features can bring convenience, security, and even dramatic flair to the landscaping, walking paths, and entertainment areas in your yard.
A Window to Your Outdoor World
Outdoor lighting “gives you a view out your windows,” says lighting designer Janet Lennox Moyer, author of The Landscape Lighting Book and She Paints with Light. “We’re just used to having black mirrors as windows because the lighting levels outside are usually so much lower – or nothing – compared to the lighting levels inside.” Landscape lighting is similar to interior lighting in some respects, but when creating a lighting design that encompasses both, you have to think about the light levels of each and “what lights you don’t want on so the neighbors won’t see you,” she continues.
When you want to see landscape lighting at night, Moyer notes, you either have to bring your interior lights down or raise the lighting level of your outside lighting to a much higher level than you would want when you’re out in the garden. That’s where lighting control comes in.
You can use outdoor lighting to highlight trees and other landscaping, border a driveway and walking paths, add visual indicators to a security system, and set the ambiance for a particular mood. Techniques vary according to the effect you want to achieve and the areas you want to highlight or downplay.
Downlighting: Creates an effect similar to the sun or the moon gently shining down to highlight leaves and flowers.
Uplighting: Can give a soft glow to lighting or can be used to create a dramatic effect of contrasting dark shadows with bright light.
Spotlighting: Focuses on a particular tree or garden feature.
Crosslighting: Illuminates a focal point from both sides, which eliminates shadows.
Ambient lighting: A gentle swath of light to create an overall effect versus highlighting a particular area.
“Controls are so valuable for landscape lighting,” says Moyer, who tells her clients they can turn everything on at various levels to create a desired balance, by pressing a single button. When you’re inside the house, you can have a beautiful view of your landscape with one scene. When you’re outside, a different scene can bring all of the lighting levels down to a brightness level that’s still balanced among the various elements, but more comfortable for viewing outside. Against a dark nighttime sky, the light levels that you want outside are three to four times lower than what you want for indoor task lighting, she says.
Creating a Scene
A lighting control system makes it easy to change the lighting levels based on mood or activity. A setting for the hot tub could be dimly lit and quiet, and also incorporate mellow music, in a scene that can be called up from a single keypad button—or an app on your smartphone. A party mode, on the other hand, could signal the lights to be brighter and a music system to play dance or pop music, depending on your taste.
A lighting designer can create specific lighting scenes for particular sections of the yard, as well. One of Moyer’s unusual requests: a client who wanted bright stadium-level intensity for a college sports team that practiced on his grounds. A political fund raising event, on the other hand, would call for less harsh, but broad coverage to encompass a large area without glare. You can have different areas lit in any way you want, Moyer says. “If you want to go all the way out to the patio that’s beyond the pool but not have anything in the front yard on, you can do that as well.”
The Low-Down on LED
Also gaining in popularity as a lighting option for the outdoors is LED. It’s a good way to illuminate the driveways, doorways, and the exterior of the house, due to its long life (they can last two to three times longer than halogen lights). Lifespan is crucial because fixtures have to withstand the elements year after year and are often installed in locations that can be difficult to access.
Just know that some LEDs aren’t dimmable due to compatibility issues between drivers and LED lamps. An LED that doesn’t dim properly exhibits annoying effects, such as strobing, says lighting designer Janet Lennox Moyer says. “You really want to be careful if working with LEDs” and to be sure the installer is up to date on the technology that’s “changing every day.”
Home systems integration firm Automated Lifestyles of Texas, in Houston, typically creates four to six scenes for clients, says owner Jeremy Andrews. He’ll create custom scenes for customers who want to illuminate certain features, like waterfalls and rock gardens, but he finds that most customers want to have a core set of scenes around four scenarios: home, away, security, and party modes. Everybody seems to want a party mode, he says, which typically involves brighter lighting settings in entertainment areas around the pool, kitchen, and grill. Clients typically build on those basic themes with custom settings tuned to their lifestyle, he says.
Control, Convenience, and Security
Even with the ability to control lights from an app on a smartphone or tablet, most home systems integrators say wired keypads are usually a better choice. At Plainview, N.Y.-based Audio Video Systems, lighting designer and engineer Johnny Ventura likes to install a dedicated keypad outside the rear door of the home from which lighting control can be initiated. Using a wired controller eliminates concern over a wireless controller being damaged or misplaced, he says. Portable controllers or apps on a smartphone or tablet can offer convenience for customers who want more flexible control and the ability to change scenes or raise levels without going inside, Ventura says. In reality, though, there’s not a lot of need for remote control because an outdoor lighting system doesn’t involve the same kind of level changes as indoor lighting, he says. People tend to choose a setting and stick with it.
The Cost of a Controllable Outdoor Lighting System
The cost of a lighting control system varies depending on the level of customization of the control features, the scope of the lighting design, the number of fixtures, the amount of integration, the difficulty of the installation, and the geographic market. Projects handled by Houston-based home systems integration company Automated Lifestyle average around $10,000 with 20 to 25 fixtures included, says owner Jeremy Andrews. Lighting designer Janet Lennox Moyer says a two-scene outdoor lighting system can be as little as $8,000 to $10,000 for a basic installation that includes an outdoor setting along with a “view out the window.” Designing for a control system can be “very time intensive,” she says, with documentation for control running between $5,000 and $15,000. “It makes sense to keep things simple,” she says, “to keep design fees down and programming down.”
Lighting Control System Manufacturers: CentraLite, Crestron, Control4, Leviton, Lutron, RTI, Savant, URC, Vantage Controls
When interfaced with a security system, your outdoor lighting offers additional benefits. A home systems integrator can link the two so that sensors that are part of a home’s security system can trigger lighting events—both indoors and outdoors. “We can configure the two so that when the security system is activated all the lights go to full brightness and the lighting keypads are disabled so they can’t be shut off by an intruder,” says Ventura, describing a scene that would be programmed for a family away on vacation. Or, lights can be programmed to flash so that the police, security guards, or fire department can easily find the home in the event of an emergency. It may make sense to do a combo: flash the outdoor lights if the home is in a secluded location while keeping all indoor lights at full on.
While emergency alert capability is there for peace of mind, convenience is the benefit of lighting control you’ll experience day to day. Your imagination is the only limit when it comes to creating scenes for outdoor lighting. Andrews of Automated Lifestyles describes a favorite installation including a half mile of path lighting up a winding driveway with uplights highlighting a canopy of trees. When the homeowner is 20 minutes from home, he taps a Welcome Home button on his car visor and a timed sequence goes into motion: The driveway path lights illuminate and the AC goes on. When he reaches home, the front gate swings open, the garage door rises, lights inside go on, and the TV powers up to The Weather Channel. “There’s no fiddling to open the door,” says Andrews. EH
Rebecca Day is senior editor of Consumer Electronics Daily and in addition to Electronic House has written for Popular Mechanics, Rolling Stone, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Robb Report magazines.