An Outdoor Lighting Guide: What You Need to Know

Though this is primarily a site about concrete pavers, we of course want to cover all the aspects of outdoor home improvement and design that we can to maximize the beauty and functionality of your hardscape investment. When many people think of outdoor lighting, they think about the string lights that are often put up around homes during Christmas. But this is just a small fraction of the choices for lighting available, and the benefits you’ll get from installing it can be immense. If you are sprucing up your front yard or backyard, don’t forget about making sure it’s visible at night! The right outdoor lighting can transform the appearance of your home, and it can allow you to use your new hardscape and landscape through all hours of the night. Plus, it can also make your home look more attractive from the street.

Another major benefit is not just aesthetic, it’s also practical: safety. Making sure your backyard or frontyard environment is well lit is a good way to prevent trips, falls, and other accidents. You can also use it as protection against would-be thieves or interlopers.

Exterior lighting is resistant to water and weather – as it should be – and is relatively easy to install. However, some projects may require the aid of an electrician, especially if you are dealing with lots of electricity, so you will definitely not want to do this work yourself! You’ll want to make sure that you’re using lighting that’s meant for wet and outdoor areas – lighting meant for dry, indoor environments could short out and get damaged when exposed to the elements. In addition, you may have to get certain permits and follow certain rules and laws given your local area; you may also need periodic inspections to confirm that there are no hazards associated with your installation, especially if you have heavy-duty lights installed.

Of course, the huge amount of lighting options out there can be very confusing. This article thus seeks to give you a good guide to explain the many kinds of modern outdoor lighting available for purchase as well as a discussion of the design options you have at your disposal, regardless of the project.

While much of what follows applies to commercial lighting, much of this advice is most applicable to residential applications.

Picking the Basic Type of Outdoor Lighting Fixtures

There are two main types of outdoor lights – gas powered and electric (bulb) powered lights. Each comes with its own drawbacks and benefits.

Electric powered lights are very popular, as they give an elegant and modern look to the area. There are three kinds of ‘electric lights.’ One kind, powered by the electric mains, gives the strongest light, and is best for security and safety rather than aesthetics. For instance, these are best for outdoor flood lights, especially for a business or secure area that needs to be protected from interlopers. However, there is a ton of voltage and power going to these lights, so safety is an issue – for instance, the main line that connects to the light must be well hidden and protected. The amount of power that can be used ranges from 40 to 1000 watts. Only the brightest lights will need these high values; most will be satisfied with a 40 to 100 watt light.

If you don’t need such bright lighting, you could go with low voltage outdoor lighting. This is often used as garden lighting, such as that used to light up a particular path or to illuminate a flower bed or other landscaping installation. This lighting will not be as high a voltage (usually around 12V), so you won’t need to worry about protecting people from potentially getting electrocuted with it. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure the lines are out of the way and insulated against water and weather, but no extra special precautions need be taken like they do with mains lighting. Installing this lighting yourself is very doable, and there are plenty of low voltage outdoor lighting kits out there that you can purchase and set up without the need for a contractor or electrician.

The final type of exterior lighting is solar powered. These solar powered LED lights are not as bright as the other options, but they can still serve some aesthetic purposes if used correctly. The best feature for these is that they don’t need to be plugged into an electricity source, as they are powered by the sun – simply put them where you want them and you’re done! A solar panel diverts energy to a battery during the day; this battery then powers up the lights at night.

Gas powered lights are more ‘traditional’ but may be a bit more of a hassle to install and maintain, especially if you don’t have any gas to pipe in to the area. Still, if you’re looking for something nostalgic and antique-ish, go with this option, though you might find you have fewer options available here than you will with electric lights.

You will also want to figure out if you want to create a modern or antique theme to your lighting. Most homeowners go with the modern option, though the antique option can absolutely look well in many different home environments. Modern lighting is generally silver and black in color and is not very complex in its lines, while antique lighting can pull in a wider range of colors and designs.

Designing Your Outside Lights Project

Don’t stress too much about your lighting design. Sure, there are plenty of options available for you when it comes to your outdoor lighting design, but don’t worry about getting it ‘exactly right.’ You’ll have to experiment and use trial and error, unless you hire a contractor or designer to do the creating for you, so just go with your gut and what you think you’ll enjoy. Don’t forget the other factors besides looks – function, protection, and safety. And it goes without saying that budget can be an issue – a seemingly modest decorative outdoor lighting project can soon turn financially serious if you’re not careful!

Draw up a plan of your home, or have someone do it for you. On this picture, mark where you will want to install outdoor and landscape lighting. Obviously, if your project is small, you can skip this step. Make sure that it will be feasible to install the lights in those areas; for example, you may need to run a significant amount of wiring in order to have your plan work out like you want – this may mean added time and expense to your project.

One of the first things that you need to figure out is the location of that you want to set up your lights as well as how you want to ‘mount’ them in the area. Some of the popular areas to put lights include: walkways, patios, pool decks and other yard decking, gardens and landscape features, entrances and exits of yards, homes, and sheds/garages, and mounted on walls and columns to illuminate large patches of the back or front yard. They may also be useful as security, especially if they are set up with motion sensors. Some lights can also be put into water, such as if you have a waterfall or pond or pool in your backyard that you want to light up. Don’t forget about using lighting for ambiance as well – sometimes very low level LED landscape lighting is all you need to transform your landspace. There are many ways to mount your lights, depending of course on what kinds of lights you are dealing with. Your options include:

  • The most basic kind of mount is putting the light on a wall. You can either attach it directly to the wall or other surface, or you can mount a bracket on the surface of the wall and then set the light up there. These brackets themselves can give you many design options, as you can buy these items in a variety of styles and materials.
  • Mount your lights on a post or column. The column can be made from many different materials (such as wood or metal) and can be installed wherever you want at whatever height you want. This means you can mount your light at whatever height you want in order to produce the desired functional or aesthetic appearance. This option obviously includes the lights and torches that already come in a column or post format.
  • If you have an outdoor area available that is covered by some kind of ceiling, you can add hanging lights to the area.

During this process you also need to determine how many lights you will need to cover the space. Obviously this depends on a number of factors, including the types of lights you’re using, the square footage of the area, other light that may be already installed, and the amount of light you want to use (or the ‘effect’ you want to create with your lighting). This is where somewhat of a judgment call comes in, and you may want to experiment a bit with different kinds and numbers of lights (if feasible) in order to get the look you want. Obviously this testing won’t be possible for those on a smaller budget, so your mileage may vary here.

In addition, realize that there also many different ways to ‘display’ your lighting. In other words, you can do things like down or up lighting, spot lighting, shadowing, cross lighting, and much more. In other words: where is the light pointing? Is it direct or diffuse? How is it interacting with other lights in the area? Obviously, you don’t have to go fancy here if you don’t want to, but just be aware of these options here.

Note that getting lighting just right can be tricky. Sometimes lights that you think will be ‘understated’ will be totally invisible or even too much, while other times the opposite can be true. That’s why, though it’s useful to consult with pictures, videos, and other visual aids in order to see what works best in certain environments, it won’t be a cure-all, as your specific home context will be different from anything else you see.

Suggestions for Outdoor Landscape Lighting (Ideas)

  • Lanterns are an interesting throwback, though modern ones are also available. These can either be mounted on posts and columns, wall mounted, or bracket mounted. Some of these lanterns can be truly unique, so you’ll have a lot of freedom to explore different styles and designs, all depending on your home’s theme and your tastes and style.
  • Outdoor post lights are also a great way to either set off particular areas for seating (such as patios), but these poles are probably best used as a way to line a path or walkway through your yard or walking up to your house.
  • One of the coolest outdoor lighting ideas is path lighting. You can use path lighting for your gardens, walkways, and other installations. One very popular option for those who use concrete pavers or other paving stones is paver lights – these lights can be placed within the paver installation so that they seamlessly blend with your project. A especially useful version of this kind of lighting is step lighting – having your steps illuminated, or even surrounded by path lights, will both increase their beauty at night and prevent injuries, trips, and falls.
  • There are many different uses for outdoor wall lights, but most of the time these lights will be mounted in the front or back of your home. They can be used in the front to light up the façade of your home, or you can use them in back to help light up a patio or pool deck area, depending on the layout of your home.
  • Hanging lights are a bit less flexible due to the fact that they have to be ‘hung’ from somewhere. Of course, if you have an enclosed patio or walkway, this could work very well as a way to light a path in a unique way. However, don’t discount the use of these lights at the front of a home, hanging down from the roof or other overhang. They can be a great way to call attention to your home and make it stand out from the crowd.
  • Note as well that you can often get energy efficient or low energy bulbs. This is a great idea if you’re planning on leaving your lighting on more or less permanently, as otherwise you could face a rather hefty electric bill.