For millennia, philosophers and physicists have tried to answer the question: What is light? The poor fools should have asked people in the landscape business. For them, light is money.
It?s incredible, says Lew Waltz, vice president of landscape sales for light-fixture manufacturer Hadco. Landscape lighting has shown somewhere between 15 and 20 percent growth a year for the past eight or nine years. Says John Aleck, president of the Illinois landscape design and construction firm Aleck & Associates, In the last couple of years, it?s come on quite strong.
So strong in fact, that it?s become a standard part of landscape design. We do lighting in conjunction with our landscapes, so just about every design will include some landscape lighting and we generally price it out as an option, notes landscape contractor Larry Gill of the Ohio firm Gill Landscaping. About two out of three clients will go for the lighting.
What are the selling points of landscape lighting?
One is sociological: the baby-boom generation is nesting. Aleck says, Instead of going on vacation or running away for a weekend, they?re staying at home with their kids and spending time out on the patio. It?ll be lots of time: The average principal resident today stays at his property almost seven and a half years, as opposed to four and a half 25 years ago, says Waltz. People are renovating their homes after being there so long, as opposed to just moving in, staying a couple years, and then building or buying something else.
Gill points out that light adds time. Customers make a pretty good investment in their landscaping, and lighting allows them to be able to extend the hours that they can enjoy it. And they can enjoy it even in weather so bad that it keeps them indoors. Lighting lets you literally enjoy your outdoors year-round, says Jack Miller, general manager of landscape lighting for the Cleveland-based manufacturer Kichler Lighting. It lets you enjoy the outdoors from inside.
Another factor that clients consider is safety. Do your guests stumble over the steps coming in? asks Bill Locklin, president of the Southern California lighting manufacturer Nightscaping. As Waltz points out, people need light to see where they?re going without tripping over a limb that fell out of a tree or Johnny?s skateboard in the middle of the sidewalk. According to Patrick Asteleford, owner of the Southern California landscape installation and design firm Cornerstone Landscape, You also want to take elevation changes into consideration, like around raised decks or pool decks.
Light also makes a home more secure. If a burglar sees lights going on, he may assume that someone?s home and will pass by. It even works when the homeowner isn?t there. With most of the lighting systems that we do, we can either set them on a timer or a photo cell, a device that turns lights on in darkness and off in daylight. This gives you the ability to have the lights come on if you?re out of town, explains Gill.
Finally, there are sheer aesthetics. Landscape lighting creates a whole new atmosphere, says Miller. You?re highlighting items, you?re highlighting architectural features on your home, you?re highlighting aspects of your garden or driveway. For instance, lighting can make an object look bigger: As you light up a feature, such as a plant, the shadow and the light that passes through it are then cast on whatever is behind it, explains Asteleford. You can make a two-foot-tall plant look eight feet tall.
Fortunately for most landscapers, you don?t have to be an electrical engineer to do landscape lighting. Generally, it?s installed by a landscape contractor or irrigation contractor, says Dave McWilliams, president of the lighting distributor California Landscape Lighting.
But even someone who?s no lighting expert needs to know the basics. A landscape lighting system is generally made up of four parts: the lamp or bulb, which runs on low voltage, usually 12 volts; the fixture that houses the lamp; the wire or cable that runs from the fixture (or a row of fixtures) to the transformer; and the transformer, which converts line voltage(the 110-volt or 120-volt power from the house) into the lamp?s 12 volts. (If you skip the transformer and plug the lamp directly into the line voltage, you?ll damage the lamp.)
The client?s back yard will usually need more lamps than the front. Patios are popular areas for light, as are walkways. In planning lamp placement, the first thing to set is the perimeter, the exit and the entrance to the property, says California Landscape Lighting Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Clay Martenies.
While voltage is the power that goes into the lamps, wattage is the power that they put out, and a contractor installing a lighting system should watch the watts. Heavy wattage simply puts a blinding glare on a landscape, whiting out its features as if they were the details in an overexposed photo. Everybody uses a 100-watt light bulb in their reading light beside their favorite chair in the house, says Waltz.
However, when you go outside in a real dark environment, you?re not trying to read a newspaper.... You?re trying to look at the beauty of the environment. It doesn?t take that intense a light in order to focus on the environmental features in the back yard.
Seventy-five watts is the most that even the brightest outdoor 12-volt lamps put out, and many lamps go much less, under two watts in some cases. After all, this is nighttime, Locklin explains. It?s supposed to look like nighttime.
While a lamp is a fairly straightforward electrical item, fixtures slip into the land of art. Bell-shaped, mushroom-shaped, brick-shaped, petal-shaped; cylindrical, conical, angular, flat; ringed, visored, grated, pinholed; plain, decorated, textured, patterned?the range is endless. How can a contractor choose?
One important criterion in both the fixture itself and the finish that covers it, is the material from which it?s made. Most experts prefer metal fixtures and finishes rather than plastic, but there are exceptions. Ferrous metals, the iron-bearing materials that are easily susceptible to rust or other corrosion, should be avoided. On the other hand, composite (a plastic made with fiberglass-reinforced resin) is more durable and attractive than some metals.
As for color and shape, most authorities prefer fixtures that blend into the landscape. Although Miller disagrees, With an attractive fixture, you don?t have to hide it. It?s a handsome addition to a garden during the day, yet at night it highlights objects and creates atmosphere.? Yet, most experts tend to agree with Waltzs opinion: Just show the effect of light, not where the light comes from.
One other note when selecting fixtures: Watch out for fixtures that involve complex arrangements of screws and other fasteners. Lamps are going to burn out, and it?d be nice if they could be easily re-lamped, says Martenies.
While well-made fixtures are fairly durable, they and the other elements of a lighting system are vulnerable to outside forces. Probably the most vulnerable components are the wires. Lawnmowers, weed wackers and aerators can cut a wire to bits, while acid rain or old-fashioned salt scattered on a snowy driveway or hanging in an oceanfront property?s air can corrode it.
To avoid these problems, some experts suggest burying the wires at least four inches deep, far enough underground to avoid problems, but shallow enough to dig up (if necessary) without destroying the nearby plants. It?s a fairly straightforward procedure. As Locklin says, You lay down your cable, cut a slit trench, drop it in and step on it, and you?re done.
Of all the parts of a lighting setup, the transformer may be the most intimidating. Any machine that deals with line voltage can be scary, but it needn?t be.
A transformer isn?t complex?at least in theory. It?s a device that you literally can mount on the outside of your home, and you plug it into an outlet. Then you take your cable, and attach it to the transformer, and you run that through your yard where you want the lights, and you attach the lights to that cable, says Miller.
But be careful. Make sure that you?re using a properly rated transformer for the installation application that you have, cautions Waltz. Transformers can go indoors or outdoors and a transformer intended for one spot but put in another can cause a fire.
Once you understand the purpose and power of lighting, the components of it, the installation and the maintenance, the next step is actually getting a client to buy it.
Unfortunately, the average homeowner really doesn?t know what they want in landscape lighting, says Miller. For instance, Martenies points out, One homeowner will say, I don?t want it too bright, but that?s not telling the contractor how bright they want it.
Or a homeowner may think it?s too costly. According to Aleck, you may face questions like, Are we looking at a lot of dollars if we want to do some lighting? As Miller points out, Most homeowners think that landscape lighting is a $50 kit that you can buy from the Home Center.
Respect the clients? limited knowledge. To make them realize that your system is worth whatever you?re charging, there comes into play a little bit of education, and you have to be a salesman, says Asteleford. You have to make them understand that what they?re getting is a 25- or 30-year lighting system. They?re not buying something that?s going to decay within five years.
Sit down with the client and ask what he wants. Locklin says, I can put in the most beautiful lightscaping project you ever saw. And it isn?t worth the powder to blow it up if it doesn?t suit the client. Locklin spends a lot of time asking clients what they want the lighting to do: provide safety, security, sheer beauty or something else. Maybe you?re a fancy orchid grower. You?d love to walk at night and watch your night-blooming cereus. Let?s light it correctly.
And if possible, demonstrate what you can do. The successful people go out to somebody?s home with some fixtures, a battery pack, and they?ll literally show a homeowner, Hey, here?s some of the effects that you can achieve with professional landscape lighting, says Miller. Once they really show the customer what landscape lighting is about, it?s a lot easier.
And that, to answer the philosophers and physicists, is how light is money.
It?s an easy add-on for most people who do landscape services, says Gill. It?s a pretty easy sell. You?re already there on the property, doing the work and beautifying the property. It gives the contractor an opportunity to sell himself, to be creative, to be different, to build a name for himself, Locklin says. And as you well know, once a tradesman has a name, he?s got it made.