Summary: Landscaping lighting adds curb appeal, safety and security to your home. It may be helpful to look for guidance in planning light placement. Installation is generally a do-it-yourself home improvement project. Depending on the layout you'll need to decide on solar or low voltage landscape lights.


We are planning on installing some landscape lighting around our home. We've started to research it but there are so many different products and everyone seems to be trying to push having a professional landscaping contractor do the job - we're intimidated. Are we in over our heads or is this something we can tackle?

A: Look at it this way - landscape lights are a commodity product. A lot of retailers carry the same lights and get similar profits on those products. To increase their profits they look to sell folks on 'back end' products and services. So, they either have their own landscaping crews or contract out to those crews for a cut of the profits.

Granted, nothing wrong with this. It's just a reality of business.

And that also doesn't mean hiring a contractor is a bad idea. In some cases it's a smart thing to do. But, for me, I think you can likely tackle the job yourself or with a little help.

Let's look at some of the cheaper things you can do to get some outside help (to make it less intimidating) and then look at some of the product options you have available.

Do you know any college students who are going into landscaping architecture? How about folks in your community who have a reputation for doing a great job with landscaping (I can think of two women I know right off the bat). It's simply a matter of asking around a bit and then tapping into their knowledge base. And, their services will be a lot cheaper then hiring a professional.

The point here is to get good ideas for the layout of your project and the aesthetics. I truly believe that the actual work of installing landscape lights can be tackled by most homeowners who have basic skills and a strong work ethic.

Also, the more elaborate your project the more I would recommend tapping into the resources I named above.

Since you didn't mention how elaborate your project is - I'll leave that decision up to you but with almost any landscaping project planning is the key. And the better job you do of that and the more input you get the better the final product will likely be.

Now, onto the various lighting options you have (and, you're absolutely right, there are a ton of them) but you can probably break them down into two general categories:
(1) Solar Powered Landscape Lighting

(2) Low Voltage Landscape Lighting

Whichever option you ultimately end up going with will be dependent on your particular situation but you can guarantee you'll come out with a number of benefits:

You'll add to the beauty of your home and any architectural features you want to stand out. Also, the extra lighting will improve safety by lining walkways, driveways, steps and so forth. The value of your home will likely go up a bit. Now, it's hard to say what the payback will be - but considering the amount of work you put into this kind of project it generally pays back well compared to other more expensive and elaborate projects like kitchen a bath remodels. Finally, if security is a concern - lights like this are a no-brainer. It's a well known fact burglars and vandals avoid areas that are well lit and where they run the risk of being seen/caught.

Now, onto the type of lights mentioned above. First, lets look at solar landscape lights:

Easy Installation - basically, with solar powered lights you find the spot you want the light, push the spike into the ground and your done. There is no digging to run wires underground. Can't get any easier then that.

Use No Electricity - obviously, since the lights are solar powered they don't tap into your home electricity grid so they aren't adding to your electric bill. This is also friendly for the environment as you are tapping into a free - and renewable - energy source.

This grid-free strength of solar landscape lighting can also be a detriment. Here's why: solar lights obviously require sun. But, with a lot of landscaping projects you're talking trees, bushes and other shady areas which means - little or no sun available. That can be a huge problem. And the worse part is it doesn't really take that much shade to make solar lights ineffective or less effective.

In fact, for solar lights to function adequately it does take direct sunlight to make that happen. Most models do charge a bit during the day even if there is some cloud cover or rain but it isn't enough to really give the output most homeowners are looking for.

Most solar lights - if fully charged during the day and exposed to direct sunlight - can give you six to twelve hours of light each night.

The best thing to do is check the individual manufacturers specifications before you install and make sure you have a guarantee or warranty based on performance. If you don't - and the area is shady - you'll want to look at your second option:

Low Voltage Landscape Lights

As the name implies - these are LOW voltage as compared to the lights in your home which would be considered high voltage. So, how does this happen? Through transformers. If you've ever driven down the road and seen a little electrical station that sends electricity to parts of your community. Those are 'transformer' stations and allow the voltage to be dropped for home use. Same idea, the transformer drops the voltage down even further from what you have in your home to be used in your landscaping.

The next obvious question is why? Well, pay attention the next time you go by any corporate establishment with landscaping lights. Most of those are high voltage lights and must be installed by a licensed contractor. In most states (maybe all states - but make sure to check your area) low voltage lights can be installed by homeowners.

Now, lets look at some of the obvious benefits of this setup:

First of all, you're not worried about the sun or lack of it. As long as you have power to your house you'll have power to your lights. Of course, the added drawback of this is that the lights must be turned on and off or set up on a timer and it adds to your electrical bill each month.

Now, keep in mind with this system you'll be running wires. But, unlike high voltage lines which need to be buried at least 18 inches deep in most states low voltage lines just need to be 'kept out of the way'. Which means, that if you change your mind on the layout down the road, it won't take an act of congress to move the lights.

But remember, if you have to run the line a long way from the transformer you'll have a phenomenon known as 'voltage drop'. This happens in all electrical set-ups and is something you should account for as it can cause lights to dim the farther they are away from the power source.