Landscape Lighting: Selling That Finishing Touch

By Russ Smith

You’ve just finished a huge landscaping job for busy clients. Yes, it’s been a long haul, but more importantly, they are happy with what you’ve done and the quality of your work. What if there was a way to add a finishing touch? Just one more thing that would be the icing on the cake, maybe something that could add hours for your clients to enjoy the beauty of their landscape. That thing exists; it’s called landscape lighting.

If you’ve never considered lighting a yard, take a moment to think about all the benefits, especially for those busy clients who leave their home at dawn and don’t get back until dusk. Landscape lighting lets them enjoy their landscape every evening, not just on weekends or the rare ‘staycation’. It adds safety around the rocks and hardscape, and highlights a water feature, showcasing all that work you did. In addition, it can deter prowlers.

If you’ve put off installing landscape lighting because of your concerns about the complexity and danger of working with electricity, relax.

“It’s really not that difficult,” says Scott Keener of Keener Landscaping Inc., in Orrville, Ohio. “Now they have quick-connect options, so that you don’t even need to have much electrical experience, and it’s low voltage, so there’s no getting shocked, or anything like that,” he said.

Get Going

The best way to get comfortable with lighting design is to try it out. Get a demo kit of eight or ten fixtures from your distributor, and mess around with it in your backyard. Try your hand at uplighting, downlighting, silhouetting and moonlighting. “There are about 13 different lighting techniques, and once you understand one, two, or even three of them, you can pretty much light up any job,” said Cruz Perez, vice president of sales and marketing for Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting in Simi Valley, California.

Try to visualize how the area will look in the fall or winter. See how the light plays on different surfaces, and how wide and narrow beams in the same spot produce different effects. “When you go out and set up lighting, the first thing you’re looking for are focal points,” said Cody Tobias, of Landscapes by Jeffery in Westlake Village, California. “That’s your base.” His company got into lighting after seeing the shoddy work that resulted from contracting those jobs out. Now Tobias is the company’s lighting specialist, a title he’s happy to have.

The good news is that much of the information for installing landscape lighting is readily available, usually at no charge. Most distributors and manufacturers of outdoor lighting products provide some sort of initial training, and partnering with them can be a great move. “What good manufacturers will do is give a basic introduction—these are the components, this is how you design it, this is how you install it, this is how you maintain it,” says Perez.

Once you have your training and you’re somewhat comfortable, start cross-selling to your client base. Install a demo kit on the lawn of your best customer for a couple of nights. If they like it, lighting their front yard will be an easy sell, and if they don’t, no harm, no foul.

Most manufacturers will offer to go out to the first couple of jobs with you, to check your work and make sure you’re comfortable with it. Tobias asks for a representative from the manufacturer to come check his work every time. “Sometimes they’ll make changes, sometimes they won’t, but I have the company backing me all the time, which is great for me,” he says.

The best part is that sales serve as advertisements to everyone who lives nearby. “Every installation presents an opportunity in a neighborhood,” says Brandon Stephens, president of Nite Time Décor, based in Lubbock, Texas. “You can pursue all of the other households in the neighborhood; they have a professionally completed installation to look at right there.” Anyone ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ will start looking at their own yard with fresh eyes.

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Going further

Once you’re up and running, cross-selling to your clients just skims the surface of what landscape lighting can do for your business. For those who are ready to invest some serious time and energy, landscape lighting can offer much, much more. Lighting a landscape requires a lighting design, and can command designer margins. Billing only for parts and labor is selling yourself short. But how do you start making a name for yourself? More planning, more marketing and more training.

For Jonathan Adams, owner of Twilight Solutions, designing systems for longevity is the smartest move a contractor can make. His company works in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where a number of Chicago’s elite have their second homes.

All lighting systems need annual maintenance, mostly consisting of cleaning fixtures, checking connections and repositioning those that have been nudged out of place. “There’s no such thing as a no-maintenance system,” Adams said. “A lot of these manufacturers are making fixtures, transformers and LEDs that they’re offering 10- year warranties on.

They’re not going to hold up for 10 on a regular basis.” This yearly years if you’re not maintaining them your maintenance plan, just as much lighting check should be included in as snow removal or seasonal yard cleaning.

When you’re selling lighting, expect some resistance, and plan ahead. Clients are quick to cut lighting from landscape plans as an un- necessary add-on, so bring some photos of your work. Show your clients the difference between the LED fixtures. It can be persuasive old halogen lighting and the newer and engaging.

Keener brings one of the old, cantype well fixtures to his potential clients, and compares them with the modern-looking LED fixtures. “You’re not going to say, ‘I’m interested in buying a new car,’” said Keener. “You go look at a car before you buy it…well, it’s the same with lighting.” Letting them see the fixtures can only help your case.

According to Stephens, roughly one-third of the opportunities for landscape lighting come from cross-selling. The other two-thirds are people looking for ‘aftermarket’ add-ons to enhance their landscape. “You get to know that people appreciate this type of thing,” Stephens said. “They invest in their property, they invest in their landscape, and when shown what landscape lighting can do for their enjoyment, they will invest in that as well.”

“We find that about 20 percent of our customers who purchase landscape lighting will add on to their project within 18 months,” he said. Make a point of checking in on your client when you’re doing your annual maintenance. Perez says that the emotional connection of lighting will drive client purchases. “Once they see good lighting, they add it to their front yard, and then extend it to their backyard; it’s a cycle,” he says.

The industry has changed quite a bit in the past decade. Low-voltage LED lighting has replaced halogen lighting as the preferred fixture. “A typical halogen lamp is 35 watts, and a typical LED is 5 watts,” said Chris Davey, senior marketing manager of Unique Lighting Systems. “That’s an 85 percent differential.” This means that smaller transformers and thinner gauge wire is necessary than when halogen was king. More importantly, LEDs use less energy.

As a landscape lighting contractor, you’ll benefit from the ever-improving technology coming out of the market. “You can’t correlate lighting with construction; you have to correlate lighting with tech,” said Tobias. That means a new generation of LEDs could be coming out every nine months.

Although LEDs with voltage regulators make it harder to over-volt a fixture, voltage drop is still a factor. Although it’s unlikely, take care that you aren’t pushing the transformer’s maximum capacity for your application. Make sure the transformer you install has a multi-tap.

After all, you want to leave room for later installations, to add on lights without swapping out the transformer.{::PAGEBREAK::}

What’s new?

New, smart transformers give a greater level of control over lighting than ever before. “You can zone them, which means you can have multiple fixtures on the same wire run, but you can turn each of them on and off individually,” said Kevin Gordon, director of sales for FX Luminaire in San Marcos, California.

“You can also dim each individual fixture, so you can have the first one at 100 percent and the second one at 50 percent, if you choose to.”

The latest in the realm of LED advances is in Chip-on-Board (COB) technology. In a COB LED, the diode is integrated directly into the chip, instead of having discrete bulbs. This means a single reflector and a single set of optics, rather than the multiple optics commonly found in standard LEDs. That, in turn, means reduced pixelization, reduced overlap, and reduced glare.

The new timers have astronomic functions, which automatically adjust for the changing of the seasons and Daylight Savings Time. It’s all controlled wirelessly, so the customer can adjust the system from their phone. If they want to set it to full power for a half-hour every weekday when they leave for work, no problem. They want it to come on 45 minutes after sunset so they can enjoy the fullness of dusk? Piece of cake. They want to dim the lights near the patio for a barbecue? It’s done.

The absolute bleeding edge, though, is color-changing LEDs. It’s a very special sale, not common by any means, but it really adds a ‘wow’ factor for certain customers. “The people who are buying the color changes are people who throw a lot of parties, are very spiritual with holidays, or are really big into sports,” said Tobias. “I had a guy who bought the color-changing package solely because he was a huge USC guy.”

The best way to find new ideas is to network with other landscape lighting contractors. They’ve been facing the same challenges, and have some novel advice: “The best landscape lighting designs are the ones where you see very few or no fixtures at all,” said Adams. “Work hard to conceal your fixtures, so that your client can enjoy the effect without the nuisance of glare.”

“If you have an evergreen tree, you don’t necessarily want to put a yellow or a white type of light on that,” said Keener. “You may want to go with blue, because the blue transfers off to the evergreen, and makes it look greener at night.”

“For many trees, you’re going to want to install two fixtures,” said Tobias. “And if the customer only wants to pay for one, it’s your job to explain why they need to buy two. If you put one light on a tree, you’re shooting that tree’s center mass, which means you’re only going to get 50 percent of the best part of that tree.”

Getting off the fence

You like the idea of working with higher margins. You can handle the engineering aspects, and you’re intrigued by the prospect of design, but you just aren’t sure that it’s worth the extra time and energy it’ll take to learn. You’re asking yourself, ‘How many people are really interested in something like this?’ Do yourself a favor, and try this: next time you’re driving around at night, look around at your neighborhood and try counting all the lighted yards. I can practically guarantee there’ll be more of them than their unlit brethren. Then compare the quality of that landscape lighting against the pictures in this article.

You know how to build landscapes—you know how they should look during the day, and now you know how they could look at night. If you can give even a tenth of those people the chance to view their landscapes in the evenings for even more enjoyment, you have a phenomenal opportunity.