Ambiance is that special atmosphere or mood created by a particular environment. This is the goal of landscape lighting, along with safety and security issues. Strategically placed lighting that illuminates the landscape after dark, the lights and shadows creating an ambiance that is at once welcoming, but different from the daytime mood. Trees are spotlighted, sometimes casting shadows as warm luminescence bathes over stone walkways. Even the grey concrete driveway that looks drab during the day somehow looks unique as sections of light glow across the cement.

Lighting can enhance a landscape, and extend its beauty beyond the daylight hours. Clients get to enjoy and appreciate aspects of their landscapes long after the sun goes down, and the contractor is still able to show off his professional quality landscaping work into the night. The beauty and functionality a lighted landscape affords is coupled with the additional bonus of safety to the property. There's more light for people to see where they are walking, and fewer places for a potential thief to hide.

It is a wise investment for the client and a wonderful profit center for the landscape contractor. In many parts of the country, nature steps in and takes a huge cut of business from the construction end of the business. Natural inconveniences, ranging from a dozen feet of snow and a weekly bombardment of hail to extreme summers and the droughts that come along with it, are conditions that have the tendency to cause a negative impact on the bottom line of a landscaping construction business, a business which is heavily dependent on the seasons and their cooperation.

Night lighting, however, is a business undertaking with inherent flexibility. Installation carries over to all seasons, in many varying conditions and can be done year round.

“There are great profit margins in landscape lighting,” says Cruz Perez, marketing manager for Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting, located in Simi Valley, California. “It will also help protect your customer base. If a contractor does not offer landscape lighting and the client wants it, where will the client go to get it? The competition.”

“In fact,” says Perez, “year after year, landscape lighting has been one of the most profitable segments of the green industry.”

“The labor for installing the lights often goes hand in hand with landscaping work,” explains Perez. “Contractors are already onsite digging ditches to install irrigation, and wiring cables can be laid down in those same trenches. It’s just a matter of dropping wires into the trenches they’ve already dug. The labor costs are kept to a minimum because of this.”

Contractors are also increasing their value to their customers. They will be able to offer yet another service to clients already loyal to their work. Many in the industry make the argument that it is far harder, and more expensive to land new clients, as opposed to selling another service to the current client base.

And the promotion for your company that results from a good night lighting installation will probably outperform any flyer hung on a doorknob or sign on a work truck. The evidence is right there in plain view. Word of mouth about your work from these satisfied clients is, after all, the best advertising.

With all the good things that landscape lighting has to offer the landscape contractor, why aren’t more doing it? The answer, according to Perez, is usually associated with self-doubt. Seminars held by lighting manufacturers and distributors are designed to take care of this, and put contractors on the path to enlightenment, excuse the pun.

“In the beginning of our seminars, we usually like to ask contractors what it is, or was, that held them back,” says Perez. “Almost always, they are afraid of two things: electricity and design. As soon as contractors get over those two concerns, they can’t wait to incorporate lighting into their business.”

Lighting manufacturers offer a variety of training programs for contractors looking to get started in the business. These training seminars are intended to dispel the nervousness of dealing with electricity and will teach contractors the essentials of landscaping lighting, particularly on correct installation and basic design principles.

“Get as much training as possible,” emphasizes Todd Hostetler, sales manager for Cascade Lighting, Inc., in Akron, Ohio. “Most manufacturers have some kind of training available. Good distributors offer training as well. We offer three to five training seminars a year.”

There are often a few side benefits to attending these seminars as well. Many companies that offer training give perks to contractors who attend, such as discounts on lighting products and free marketing materials -- such as demos -- that will go to help contractors close the deal and sell their services to their clients.

A contractor should expect the seminar to feature products of the manufacturer that is hosting it. However, those in the industry warn that a good seminar will not just serve as a convenient place to throw a sales pitch.

“When attending a seminar, contractors need to be taught how to install lighting, not why they should use a specific brand,” says Perez. “We are not there to give contractors an infomercial; that would be unfair.”

“A contractor is not going to be comfortable if I tell him this product is better for this application if the contractor doesn’t know what the application means,” continues Perez. “It’s important he learn the fundamentals important to this trade.”

Because of this, it is important for contractors to do some research before committing to a specific seminar.

In training seminars, contractors will spend some time in the classroom learning about the technical side of lighting, such as the importance and implications of volts, watts, and amps and their relation to one another. In particular, contractors need to know Ohm’s law and safety installation practices that meet UL and NEC standards.

“We try to keep the classroom time to a minimum, because the way you learn how to do this kind of stuff is by actually doing it,” notes Perez. He says that contractors, as well as most people for that matter, make the matter of electricity more of an issue than it really is, and in effect, manage to “psyche themselves out” at the thought of it.

“We like to remind contractors that they are working with the same voltage that powers the little cabin bulb inside their car,” says Perez explains. “It really isn’t that big of an issue if you can remember that and keep the electricity part of lighting in that perspective.”

While there are critical “rules” to adhere to when installing lighting, like the basic practice of having to maintain a 10-12 volt rating throughout the system, people in the industry insist that installing landscape lighting isn’t complicated enough to justify not pursuing it as a business opportunity.

“This is not rocket science and it really isn’t that difficult,” says Lew Waltz, vice president of landscape for Hadco Landscape Lighting, Littlestown, Pennsylvania. “People get the mindset that because its electricity, they can’t touch it. Ironically, many of these contractors work with electricity all the time when installing irrigation systems and controllers.”

Landscape contractors generally learn the trade faster than the average person, based on what they already know from experience in their line of work. In fact, some say that irrigation contractors catch on the quickest.

“I’ve noticed in my experience teaching these seminars that irrigation contractors have an easier time with engineering and installing outdoor lighting,” says Mark Hansen, president of Touchstone Accent Lighting, based in Long Lake, Minnesota. “Water flow and voltage levels have many similarities. As soon as they make that connection, they catch on fast.”

“Water pressure in irrigation is very similar to behavior of voltages,” agrees Perez. “We try to create that correlation for them.”

Another factor that should convince a contractor teetering on the edge of indecisiveness to go ahead and add lighting to their repertoire is the fact that in most states, contractors do not need an additional license to be a professional installer. “Certification laws vary from state to state, but usually if the system is simply a plug-in transformer, contractors don’t need a license,” says Hansen.

So now that we understand that the electricity aspect is nothing to be afraid of, we are left with the design factor of lighting. The good stuff is always saved for last.

“The design element is the most important factor in landscape lighting,” says Jim Fellhauer, vice president of franchise development for Nite Time Décor, based out of Lubbock, Texas. “A client wants the finished work to look pretty, so in any training seminar there has to be a strong emphasis on the design aspect.”

The design aspect of the lighting actually can become quite lucrative. Many landscape contractors carry over their habits from their normal line of work to lighting. The jobs are priced from time, material, and some kind of markup. When these contractors add lighting to their services, many contractors forget to charge for their design.

“I know contractors who get $5,000 just to design the site, before a single light bulb has even been touched,” says Waltz. “As a contractor does more installations, he begins to take on a more artistic look; his own style. That style becomes more and more valuable. Many contractors simply forget to charge for designing; the profits that can be made just from this are huge.”

Open up any manufacturer’s catalog and the vast myriad of different lamps, bulbs, wiring, and transformers may make a novice installer a bit nervous. But Fellhauer says that contractors will quickly figure out it isn’t as complicated as it may seem at first glance.

“Contractors are simply going to use the appropriate light to illuminate a particular subject. You wouldn’t use the same lights for a pond that you would use on a tree. It will eventually seem like common sense,” assures Fellhauer. “Typically, you are going to use half a dozen fixtures 90% of the time and specialty lighting products 10% of the time.”

Waltz agrees. “Don’t get hung up on the fact that the lighting companies make many different types of landscape lighting fixtures. In all reality, you’re going to consistently use about 15 of them,” Waltz said.

Contractors will also have plenty of time to practice and become comfortable with what they learn at the seminars.

“When contractors come here for training, they will do a few installations here, and then we’ll design a few jobs on paper,” says Hansen. “But when they come home, they’ll practice on their own house, a friend’s or a good client who’s willing to let their place be used as a test site. When they feel they’re comfortable with the design aspect, they’ll add it to their services.”

“The sudden onslaught of electricity facts and figures, and design principles tends to be a bit overwhelming at first,” says Perez. “But the vast majority of contractors pick it up and then can’t wait for the first opportunity to try out what they learned.”

Even outside of the seminars, there is an abundance of resources to help contractors. Manufacturers have detailed technical manuals that contractors can refer to, whether they attended a seminar or not. Many have websites that post tips and how-to’s.

“We list the top 100 frequently asked questions on the site,” says Waltz. “This industry has been around for more than 40 years. Someone is bound to have had a problem before you did.”

Many manufacturers also have a technical assistance phone number that contractors can call when they are in the field and faced with a problem. “Don’t feel like you’re alone in this,” Waltz advises. “There is always a ton of help available.”

There is even some optimism regarding the contractors who perhaps tried the field without undergoing the necessary training, and maybe didn’t reach the kind of professional level of installation they were striving for.

“There are big differences in the work quality of contractors who make the effort of attending classes and seminars and taking the time to experiment on their own so they’re able to do the job right, the first time,” says Fellhauer. “However, in defense of the contractors who went out on a limb and might have installed lighting that wasn’t exactly on par with a professional installation, it still looks 100% better than the darkness it replaces.”

For the most part, attending classes will help provide the technical and design know-how to install landscape lighting in the correct way, and is at the same time flexible for additional lighting, should the customer wish to expand.

Classroom training is an important step in learning how to install landscape lighting.
Photo courtesy: Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting

“Make a good and complete installation,” stresses Hostetler. “But also allow for some additional fixtures to be added at a later time by using a larger transformer than is needed. It will be much easier to sell additional fixtures than it is an expensive new transformer.”

To wrap up, the two big factors, or detractors, of landscape lighting shouldn’t keep any contractor from pursuing this profitable niche in the landscape industry. Electricity and design are made accessible through the extensive training available to contractors. Manufacturers benefit from your success; they have established great training opportunities for anyone wishing to make money installing landscape lighting.

So, is that light bulb on over your head yet? It really is a bright idea.