Painters of Light

One Christmas morning, I unwrapped a very special gift from Santa. It was a big metal tin full of little squares of dry paint, the kind you have to wet first to paint with. I already owned one, with eight colors. But this one had 24 different hues, three times as much! Now my creativity could really soar.

That’s the same kind of excitement, albeit more mature, that contractors who design and install low-voltage landscape lighting have been feeling lately. These ‘painters of light’ have an increasingly expansive rainbow of color temperatures available to them now, plus lots of other technological advances have come alongside too.

Outdoor lighting has become a vital part of a landscape contractor’s roster of services, as much as irrigation or maintenance. It allows a client to extend the time he has to enjoy the outdoor part of his home for many hours after the sun goes down. The growing demand for outdoor living spaces is driving the market for landscape lighting. People want to enjoy their outdoor kitchens and living rooms into the wee hours, and they can only do that if the lights are on.

And, it adds a dimension to their property that it doesn’t have during the daytime, sort of like getting two landscapes for the price of one. You worked hard to beautify their landscape and maybe their hardscape, too—why not light it up?

There’s lots of money to be made in this segment, and it’s only going to get better. But many contractors who’ve added landscape lighting to their businesses as just another profitable service discover, after they master the basics, that they’ve developed a passion for it. They hunger to go on to the next level of excellence. The creative light within them has been lit. Even if they stay with it at the most basic level, they’re sure to find it a moneymaker.

If you want to learn how to paint with light, there are lots of ways to do so. The technology of professional outdoor lighting equipment is amazing, and the manufacturers that make it are only too happy to help you start discovering it, in person or through tutorials on their websites. In addition, there are college classes and courses offered by various professional organizations.

John Pletcher, owner and principal designer at Natural Accents Lighting Designs, LLC, Liberty, Missouri, took the five-day Intensive Course offered in varying locations by the nonprofit International Landscape Lighting Institute (ILLI), Troy, New York.

As we said, the equipment manufacturers are a great resource. They’ll even send someone to help you in the middle of a job. Cody Tobias, field supervisor at Landscapes by Jeffery in Westlake Village, California, says a manufacturer’s rep schooled him during one very challenging job.

This project threw him for a loop, even though at that point, he’d been doing landscape lighting for ten years, and was confident of his skills. The average residential project uses about 50 fixtures; this one ended up using 350.

“When I asked this client what he wanted, he said, ‘Disneyland.’ He told me, ‘go nuts, go crazy.’ He wanted me to light up his driveway, install a bunch of overhanging lights to illuminate the back side of a waterfall, and to put fixtures up in perches to shoot statues that were 30 or 40 feet away, things like that.”

Tobias said doing some of these things required the use of higher-powered LED beams. These types of fixtures weren’t something he’d had much experience with. He called the company that makes most of his equipment. “If I feel uncomfortable in any way, they’ll send someone out to help me,” he said.

The rep explained that, first, he needed to determine what ‘burn rates’ (wattage) he’d need. How ‘hot,’ color temperature-wise, did he want things to be? After that, he had to consider angles, anywhere from 24 degrees to 180.

“He’d walk up to a specific tree, and say, ‘This is a big one, so we’ll want three 5.5-watt lights down here, so it’s a little brighter, but not crazy-bright. We’ll want a 36-degree spread, because we’re going to form a triangle.’” Did the owner like the results?

“He was ecstatic,” said Tobias. It was the first job where he got more deeply involved with burn rates, angles, and multiple types of fixtures.

Since then, he’s looked at landscape lighting from a completely different perspective.

Better painting through technology

Landscape lighting designers love what they do. And most of them make very good money doing it. Tom Crowley fits both of those descriptions. Before starting Paradise Landscape Lighting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he was a landscape contractor and florist. Doing holiday lighting as part of his landscape operation triggered a desire to light landscapes all year ’round. And, he was in the right place to do it.

“In Florida, people live and entertain outdoors 12 months out of the year,” he said. That’s true of his clients of more modest means, and it’s especially true of his many wealthy customers with large estate homes, some of whom are high-profile celebrities who keep South Florida homes “just for entertaining.”

There’s a much bigger palette for artists like Crowley to play with now. “The new technology has created a lot more opportunity for me to be creative, which hadn’t been the case before. There are different sizes, different numbers of lumens, and a whole variety of effects I can achieve.”

“Back in the day, with outdoor lighting, it was just a wire, and a halogen light bulb, and highlighting whatever landscape feature a client wanted,” said Tobias.

“That was about it. Now, with the new technology, I can pretty much do whatever I want. I have dimming capability, lots of different color options, and the ability to rig up a house with different ‘scenes.’” When he says, “lots of different color options,” he’s not talking about a dozen or so; try 30,000 options. We’ve come a long way from the early days of LEDs that had a ‘cold’ look, a bluish hue that turned customers off. That’s long gone.

“The way lighting was done for years, you had a transformer connected to a series of lights,” said Ryan Williams, product marketing manager at FXLuminaire in San Marcos, California. “When the transformer was on, all the lights were on; when it was off, everything was off.” Now, designers can do zoning and dimming.

“If you wanted to have different sections on at different times, you needed to have two or three transformers. The technology we have now bypasses that need. One central control system runs all the lights. You can adjust each zone’s intensity and color temperature independently of one another.”

This allows a designer to create distinct moods for various areas of a landscape. It’s what Tobias calls “Show and hotel up front, romance in back.”

When installing lighting on a large estate property, he’ll typically give the front grand driveway and its avenue of trees and large shrubs a bright, bold, welcoming look (show and hotel). Behind the house, where the outdoor kitchen, pool and entertainment area is, he’ll create a more muted feel, more befitting an intimate cocktail party or dinner for two (romance in back).

And, he can do it all with a single transformer. “Not only can I dim the entire house, but if I wire it up correctly, I can break it up and dim different sections independently, or shut certain sections off and turn other sections on,” said Tobias. “That helps me give these areas an ambiance, a certain vibe that I’m looking for.”

Floating trees?

Trees, the crowning glory of any landscape, present their own particular set of challenges. “If you only light the trunk of the tree, you’ll only see the trunk of the tree,” said Pletcher. “You have to put lights up in the branches, and downlight out of them to what’s below. It takes multiple fixtures.”

Looking at a tree in daylight, you easily see that it’s connected to the ground plane. But at night, if you look at that same tree with uplighting alone, your mind will say, “I wonder why that tree is floating in space?” Where you position a fixture is very crucial, said Crowley. If you have a very large tree, and only put one light on it, and position that light really close to the trunk, you’ll get that floating effect. Placing the fixture about five or six feet from the trunk helps ‘ground’ it.

We see in 3-D, especially during the day. But at night, one of those dimensions can get lost. “Have you ever looked at a lit-up tree at night, and said, ‘that tree looks flat?’” asked Pletcher.

To see in 3-D you have to light in 3-D. That means, you can’t just put one super-bright fixture out in front of a tree and expect that to look right. During the day, it’s lit all the way around. That’s how you have to do it at night, too.

Lighting a landscape is different from lighting objects.

Landscapes change over time. What you see this year is not what you’ll see next year.

“You may be lighting a tree that’s four years old,” said Pletcher. “But you have to think about what it’s going to look like when it’s ten years old. Maybe now it takes three or four fixtures. But if that tree triples in size, then your fixtures need to triple, too. In six more years, you might need twelve.”

Crowley recalls one job in which he had to light a grove of oak trees on a large estate. The owner had built her house around them, as the trees were 150 years old and protected. Even though these antique oaks and their gnarled trunks were beautiful during the day, at night, they made the backyard very ‘spooky.’ “It was pitch black out there,” he said. “And we’re in Florida, where all kinds of creatures come out at night.” That didn’t make the prospect of entertaining on the patio very inviting.

Crowley’s lighting design made all the difference. “I used the most powerful LEDs available at that time, 700 to 900 lumens, with the widest beam spreads, 60 to 80 degrees, because these old oaks’ trunks were so wide.”

This took the Halloween-ish quality out of the landscape. Where once the trees seemed threatening, their long branches looming out of the dark, now they seem to welcome. The job turned out so well, it was featured on the cover of a catalog for one of the major outdoor lighting companies.

Good lighting

“I tell my clients, ‘no lighting is better than bad lighting,’” says Pletcher. In that statement, you hear the perfectionism of the master craftsman. A former landscape designer, he opened his own outdoor lighting business 14 years ago so he could devote himself exclusively to “this addiction or passion, whatever you want to call it.”

According to him, an excellent outdoor lighting system has four elements: good design, high quality equipment, proper installation, and regular maintenance.

This artist also considers the ‘gallery’ in which his work will be viewed. Where is the client going to be sitting or standing when he looks at the element he’s lighting; the patio, the living room, the bedroom?

The illuminated plants and objects should look good from every angle.

The cost factor

Though LEDs cost more than halogens or incandescents at the outset, their initial price tag is more than offset by their longevity and low power demand. A good quality LED will last 50,000 hours, or about ten years. By contrast, halogen and incandescent bulbs generally last about a year or less.

It’s a simple swap-out to retrofit old incandescent or halogen fixtures with LEDs. But some contractors still use the old bulbs, and some clients still prefer them. Cruz Pérez, Esq., vice president of sales and marketing at Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting of Simi Valley, California, says that 35 percent of the fixtures the company sells are incandescent or halogen.

There is one thing about LEDs that should be mentioned. While LEDs may last ten years, they won’t maintain the same lumen output that entire time; by the end of it, their brightness will have dropped about 30 percent. Like old soldiers, they’ll never die, but simply fade away. Still, the idea of only needing to replace bulbs every few years as opposed to once a year or more is a good selling point.

What’s ahead?

There’s already so much capability with the tools available now, it’s hard to imagine it getting any better. But it will. Already, a client can adjust his lighting system using his smartphone, even when away from home. Outdoor lighting control systems are being integrated into the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

“Landscape lighting lags a couple of years behind commercial lighting,” said Williams. “Whatever new thing you see happening in that market will be next for us. That’s how we know we’ll have even more integration with smart home devices and Internet connectivity going forward.”

Chip-on-board (COB) technology is the current cutting-edge thing that has lighting artists excited. Comparable to how computer chips cram thousands of tiny transistors onto a little piece of silicon, COBs cram a whole bunch of micro emitters onto a small chip.

“If you look at the face of a standard LED fixture, you’ll see multiple LEDs with multiple reflectors around them,” said Pérez. A COB has one emitter, or what looks like one emitter. If you look beneath the substrate, there are 64 micro emitters under there. The amount of lumens is so high, you only need one.

As Pérez explained it, with normal LEDs, if you want 20 watts, you need three emitters; 35 watts, six emitters, and so on. Trying to align all of those, to look consistently smooth all the way across, you still have to blend all those emitters together as one.

“If you take a multi array, or multiple emitters on a fixture, and focus them on a white wall, you can see the blend marks,” said Pérez. With COBs, you have one source, more light, better control and one reflector that can do everything. You can get all the way down to a very narrow spot, under 13 degrees. That can’t be done with multi arrays.

OLEDs, or ‘organic’ LEDs, in the form of flexible sheets, are the next big thing, according to Pérez. They’re already being offered by some outdoor lighting manufacturers, but because they’re new, they’re pricey.

What’s cool about OLEDs is they are almost like wallpaper. Attach a sheet of OLEDs to a wall, and you can change its color. Say you want one wall red, another blue, and another white, for a Fourth of July party; OLEDs will do that.

All three of the ‘painters of light’ we talked to say they learn something new every day. Like all true artists, they’ll never stop experimenting with new techniques, trying different strokes, and expanding their portfolios. And you can be sure that the outdoor lighting manufacturers will keep putting more and better paints in their paint boxes.