In general there are three levels of exterior lighting: area lighting, task lighting and accent lighting. Area lighting is most often serviced through exterior house fixtures (110v), whereas task and accent lighting are best serviced though a low-voltage landscape system.
I will be focusing on non-traditional approaches to accent and task lighting in terms of the design of the fixtures themselves as well as how the light is handled.
Humm, there's an existential twister...handling light...?
LANDSCAPE LIGHTING - AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
Every landscape benefits from low-voltage lighting. The landscape lighting industry has also greatly benefited; developing , packaging and selling an array of light fixtures that have become tried, predictable and for the most part, unattractive.
How about some refreshing alternatives !
I would like to present to you two alternative approaches to landscape lighting:
(1) installing inexpensive and durable light fixtures, hidden in the landscape, that will put-the-focus upon your accent feature, path or area and,
(2) to create unique and attractive fixtures as sculptural elements. By placing the wiring components, within “Found-Objects”. Let us first discuss hidden light.
Hidden light fixtures can be considered cousins to stage lighting.
It is the light itself that is important, not the fixture; if your landscape is worth viewing and navigating through, then let’s focus on its illumination rather than the focus being on the light fixture itself.
Go ahead and install your underground wiring. Use 12-2 stranded, copper wire purchased at your lighting or landscape supplies dealer.
For the wiring components I like to use the standard black PVC lawn-lighter fixtures. They come with a PAR-36 light bulb (it looks like the head lamp for a car). You can also purchase the stripped down, wiring components for halogen or bayonet light-bulbs with some inexpensive casing.
Partially bury these light fixtures and direct their beams towards that which you want illuminated. You can also plant ground-cover around the fixture to complete its disguise, (occasionally trim back any ground-cover that starts to block the lighting).
Next, build a small, rock grotto over the partially, buried fixture (either loose stones or mortared, whichever best goes with your landscape theme). The idea is to disguise the source of the light, and put the focus on the feature or area to be lit. Pretty elementary, but a series of light fixtures, sticking out of the ground, really does not enhance the scene.
Don't forget to leave an additional 12-18 inches of coiled wire beneath the base of the light when installing (this will allow for easier access to the bulb, when it needs replacing).
The above application is most often used as either a wall wash, or to up-light tree canopies. The suggestion here is to extend this application into further lighting opportunities. You can recess these fixtures into soil berms, walls and pathways (to name a few). Again, the idea is that it is the light itself that is important, not the showcasing of the light fixture.
Light-rope sandwiched between perforated metal mesh screen.
Tile light runner: Perforated, one inch stainless steel rigid square tubing, w/ light rope threaded within.
Interesting pathway and accent light.
Note: when utilized in a concrete patio pour, the recessed channel also can serve as a disguised expansion
The second lighting discussion is on building unique light fixtures, that I call Found-Objects light fixtures. This incorporates the above discussion on hiding the base wiring components, while incorporating an above grade sculptural light fixture. As above, install your underground wiring leads back to the transformer.
In this lighting scenario we want to ’show-off’ the light fixture while providing illumination to the desired areas.
“Found-Objects” are just what they sound like; Objects that you may collect which appeal to your sense of aesthetics, and the theme of the landscape itself.
They can be formed from metal, wood, stone, clay whatever, so long as they have a concave opening in which to fit the light components.
There are many places you can go to find such objects:
Driftwood on a beach, large seashells, Redwood burls or hollowed-knots from other types of trees, soft-stone quarries, metal scrapyards such as aviation scrapyards for aluminum objects, car scrapyards for pistons and the like, landscape patio stores that have discarded clay pots or broken sculpture, the list is as open as is your imagination. and your willingness to scrounge around!
Another favorite fixture material is perforated steel panels. Sandwiching a string of lighting rope between two panels is an interesting effect, see example at
There are few requirements as far as size is considered, as long as the shape and size fits with your landscape theme and sense of aesthetics. These “Found-Objects” require a hollowed-out area in which to place the wiring components and light-bulb. It can be as small as 3 square inches (for bayonet or halogen bulbs), or 3” x 3” x 3”.
Naturally, this cavity may be larger but any smaller would be difficult to work with. When using PAR-36 bulbs (as mentioned above) the cavity would need to be at least
5” x 5” x 5” to accommodate the larger bulb. I personally, like to use halogen lights in my “Found-Objects” light fixtures, which only require the smaller space i.e. 3”.
However, the PAR-36 bulbs are more affordable and less fragile.
First, drill a hole into the sculptural element serving as the fixture. Through it, run the wiring into the hollow. Next, fasten the two wire leads to the receptacle (this is either a receptacle for a PAR-36 bulb or a receptacle for a halogen or bayonet bulb). As mentioned, such receptacles may be purchased either on-line from a lighting outlet, or from a electrical and lighting store. They are as easy to assemble as a toy railroad set.
Go ahead and put the light-bulb in and then place the fixture in the desired location. In the evening adjust the orientation of the “Found-Object” fixture to maximize the illumination.
A completed Found Object light fixture is quite affordable and will add an aesthetic that is lacking in conventional fixtures;These light fixtures offer a really nice alternative to the manufactured types. They integrate far better into your landscape composition's unique quality that cannot be duplicated by the mass market efforts. They are just as durable, serviceable and oftentimes more cost effective than the run-of-the-mill alternative. You can create these fixtures or have your landscape contractor follow this prescription in your behalf.