Lighting the Landscape... It’s Easier Than Ever


If you ask most green industry contractors how they got into the profession, most of them won’t answer, “Totally by accident.”

Robert Shomer is an exception. After a successful career in corporate sales and marketing, he took the company he founded public, and started looking around for his next challenge.

“I was at an age where I was too high-priced for the business world, and anyway, I wanted to do something completely different. My son had some friends who were doing holiday lights, and making a fortune at it; they were driving Ferraris.” But after just one season, he knew it wasn’t for him.

“People will call you in the morning, and want you there by the afternoon to fix a single bulb that went out in a strand. I thought, ‘What can I do that’s related to lighting, but can be done year ‘round?’” That’s when Shomer discovered low-voltage landscape lighting. As owner and president of Nightscapers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he’s been designing and installing these systems for the past 12 years.

We tell you this story to illustrate how unintimidating the world of low-voltage landscape lighting has become. Here’s a man who’d worked behind a desk for his whole career; he wasn’t an electrician or electronics hobbyist. Yet, in a few short years, he’s become a very successful landscape lighting contractor.

Landscape lighting really is kind of magical. It transforms trees into silvery, shimmering sculptures, and makes a home look friendly and inviting in the dark. It brings another dimension to the beautiful landscape you created for your client, and allows him to continue enjoying it, no matter the hour or season. It adds value to his home, makes it safer and, thanks to LEDs, does it all without spiking his power bill.

LEDs changed everything

About ten years ago, when LEDs entered the picture, it rocked the world of low-voltage landscape lighting. Although halogen lamps are still around, most contractors prefer LEDs, even for the older systems. Incandescent lamps are a thing of the past.

LED technology has made the whole process of installing, repairing and retrofitting these systems practically foolproof. “Essentially, you have a transformer, some wire and some fixtures,” said Ryan Williams, project manager at San Marcos, California-based FX Luminaire, a division of Hunter Industries, Inc.

While it does take a bit of training to learn how to work with the components properly, the learning curve isn’t steep. And training is available at low or no cost from all the major manufacturers and distributors.

You used to have to worry about voltage drop, where a lamp furthest away from the transformer would be noticeably dimmer than the one right next to it. “Now there’s a wider operating range; it doesn’t matter if a fixture is getting nine volts or 15,” said Scott Pesta, senior product manager for landscape lighting at Kichler, Cleveland, Ohio.

No longer do you have to employ a lot of different wiring methods, as you do for halogen lamps. The halogen lamps require 10.8 to 11.8 volts, which leaves you with a very small one-volt corridor within which to work. Too much voltage, and the lamp burns out; too little, it dims.

“You could only put so many halogen lights per zone on a string,” recalled Matt Barton, owner and president of Coppercreek Landscaping, Inc., in Spokane, Washington.

“If a customer wanted to add a light in a certain spot, but the nearest hub was maxed out, you’d have to run line out to a whole new hub, which sometimes required trenching. Now, we can just tap into a nearby fixture, and set up a new lamp or fixture. And we’re not having to check or match voltages, or any of that sort of thing anymore.”

A greater amount of wire was also needed to complete jobs, and all of that together increased installation costs, according to Todd Goers, national sales manager for WAC Lighting in Port Washington, New York.

By contrast, LED fixtures can be daisy-chained together, and the light output will be the same from end to end. It doesn’t matter if the first fixture is right next to the transformer, and the last one is hundreds of feet away. Every light along the cable will have the identical brightness and intensity.

The old problem of cold, blue-tinged light that the early LEDs gave off was corrected years ago. Now, the range of color temperatures, measured in degrees of Kelvin (K), is vast, with at least one company claiming as many as 30,000 possible degrees.

‘Color temperature’ is not the same as color; it has to do with how ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ a white light is perceived to be. While there is a wide variety of color temperatures available, two lamps are most commonly used in residential landscape lighting. The first is 2700K or ‘warm white;’ the second is 3000K, or ‘pure white.’ Some higher-priced systems contain chipsets that produce different hues to fit various moods or seasons, such as red and green for Christmas, or orange for Halloween. A less expensive way to achieve shades other than white is by snapping on removable, colored filters.

Types of fixtures include spot lights, well lights, flood and path lights. The exciting and creative part is placing these fixtures in various ways, in order to create different effects.

Spot and well lights are mostly used for uplighting tall trees. ‘Down lighting,’ also called ‘moon lighting,’ uses spotlights mounted high up in a tree’s branches and aimed down, creating a circle of light.

Down lighting is very dramatic and, “When the wind is moving through the branches, it creates a spectacular effect on the ground,” said Cruz Perez, vice president of sales and marketing at Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting in Simi Valley, California. By placing spot or well lights behind an element, such as a statue, tree or fountain, a ‘silhouette’ effect can be achieved. Or, you can ‘shadow’ something by aiming a spot, well or flood light directly at the object, provided there’s a flat surface behind it. ‘Grazing’ is another technique that uses well lights to bring out a texture on a wall or hedge.

Steven Delicato, general manager at Landscape Lighting Specialist, LLC, of Ann Arbor, Michigan and Wailuku, Hawaii, explains how he would highlight a special tree. “If it’s really the focal point of someone’s yard, I would uplight it, using a small MR-16 accent light with a wide, 60- degree beam spread. I’d place a fixture in front of the tree and another in the back, so you get full illumination of the tree at any angle. This gives you that beautiful, glowing canopy.”

Winter is landscape lighting’s time to shine. “All the foliage is off the trees, and they look like natural statues out there against the backdrop of the snow,” said Delicato. “It’s absolutely stunning.”

A high-margin business

In landscape lighting, the voltages may be low, but the revenues are high. “Our margins on it are very good; it’s one of the higher-profitability areas of what we do,” said Barton.

Potential customers include anyone with a landscape, but especially the folks who want to enjoy them to the hilt. If you’re cashing in on the outdoor living trend, building fire pits, water features, and patio kitchens, you’re leaving money on the table if you’re not lighting those areas up for your clients as well.

“Specialty hardscape items are the most moneymaking parts of our company, and lighting is a component of that,” said Barton. “When people make big investments in their backyards, lighting is almost always a part of it.”

Barton just completed a $45,000 lighting job for the owner of a large estate property. Its outdoor living space includes a built-in barbecue, heaters, misting stations, a swimming pool, a waterfall, an under ground bunker and $50,000-plus worth of appliances—including a TV that pops up out of the kitchen’s granite countertop. The fully automated lighting system he installed is the icing on that cake.

But while these installations practically mint money for contractors, they don’t have to break the bank for their clients. A basic system can be had for around $1,500. Most of Barton’s residential customers buy systems costing between $5,000 and $8,000.

Shomer also has a lot of high-end clients for whom money is no object. But he doesn’t turn up his nose at more modest projects. “I’m happy to do a $2,000 job, because I can knock it out in a couple of hours. It’ll cost me about $1,000 in parts, and $100 in labor. For three hours’ work, I’ll make $900.”

You needn’t be a high-pressure salesman, either. Outdoor lighting does a pretty good job of selling itself. “If someone isn’t planning on incorporating lighting into their outdoor living space, but agrees to watch a demo, he’ll definitely want it once the demo’s over,” said Barton.

When you’re selling to a commercial customer, the owner or manager of an office complex, HOA or retail megastore, you can skip the big, splashy sales presentation, says Shomer. “They’ve heard it all.”

“What you need to do instead is make them feel comfortable about dealing with you. Make them believe that you’re the guy who’s going to treat them fairly, and do the best possible job.”

Retrofitting

There’s also money to be made retrofitting and repairing outdoor lighting systems. LEDs have made that much easier for both residential and commercial applications. In most cases, you just screw out the old lamps out and put the new ones in.

Older commercial systems often have HID (high-intensity discharge) or HPS (high-pressure sodium) fixtures with ballasts (devices placed in line with loads, to limit the amount of current entering circuits). Often, when there was a problem, it wasn’t caused by a bulb going out or a wiring break, it was a faulty ballast. “You’d have to spend time fixing a part of a fixture, and that’s just not very profitable,” said Delicato.

Once these systems are retrofitted with LEDs, things get much simpler. “There’s no need for additional wiring,” said Delicato.

Last, but far from least, don’t forget to tell a prospective client how retrofitting with LEDs will make his home or facility’s energy bills go down. The more lights you replace, the lower the bill. While LEDs may cost a bit more upfront, their life-