3_15.jpg That depends on whether you've given them one of the most important elements in landscaping today -- outdoor lighting. If you have, your clients are undoubtedly enjoying their nighttime landscapes as much as they do during the day. Their properties are just beginning to glow with a new kind of beauty.

Beautiful, enchanting nightscapes are showing up everywhere, and they get noticed. This is one of the reasons why outdoor lighting is quickly becoming an essential component in quality landscape design.

Full-service landscape contractors should always offer landscape lighting, says Dale Carey, director of sales & marketing for Blue Heron Landscape & Design in Parsonsburg, Maryland. Blue Heron added landscape lighting to their service offerings in the late 90s. Creative installations focusing on unique designs and quality fixtures led to very rapid growth in the company's lighting sales.

"Today, with many projects completed, we've found that calls specifically for landscape lighting are on the rise," says Carey. "Over the past year, our landscape lighting business has increased to the point that the volume will require a dedicated staff just to install lighting systems."

Blue Heron's experience with lighting is echoed by landscape companies across the country. There are many reasons for this increased demand. The main reason is that more consumers recognize that a small investment in outdoor lighting can add tremendous value to their landscape.

The first way it adds value is by dramatically increasing the useability of the property. "I always recommend that my clients include lighting because it adds so many more hours of enjoyment to their landscape," says Dan Eskelson, owner of Clearwater Landscapes in Priest River, Idaho.

"Outdoor lighting greatly extends your living space," says Steve Parrot, media and marketing director with Cast Lighting. "Without lighting, it's like the outside world disappears as soon as night falls. Your world becomes smaller. When you light the landscape, you're not confined by your walls. You can experience and appreciate the entire property at night. It's a very expansive feeling."

4_4.jpgThis is a welcome experience for people who don't have much time at home during the day. "The majority of America still works during daylight hours," says Lew Waltz, vice president of landscape sales and marketing for Hadco. "On most days, they're at home only at night. They need light around the property to enjoy it."

Consumers are also looking for new ways to turn their backyard into a favorite getaway spot. "People are staying home more. They're spending less money on vacations and more money on their backyards," says Michael Southard, national sales manager for Kichler Landscape Lighting in Cleveland, Ohio. "Many are putting in outdoor rooms or outdoor kitchens. They want to light up these spaces so they can use them more often." Lighting also adds value by enhancing safety and security. It can make for safer navigation around walkways and stairs. It also discourages prowlers and provides a sense of security for people returning home after dark.

"Safety and security are big issues," says Eskelson. "A lot of people I design for have children. Lighting increases their safety around pools, decks, and other areas." The last way outdoor lighting adds value is by adding beauty. For a fraction of the cost of the landscape itself, outdoor lighting can give clients an entirely new way to appreciate the outdoor environment you've created for them.

Lighting can be used to establish a certain mood, to create a sense of drama, or simply to add irresistible eye appeal. "Outdoor lighting isn't just beautiful to look at, it actually creates a multi-dimensional experience that the homeowner participates in," says Parrot. "The experience changes as you move through the property and different scenes are revealed."

3_8.jpgSeeing the light

Outdoor lighting can be one of the easiest, most lucrative add-ons for an existing landscape or irrigation contractor. Today's low-voltage outdoor lighting systems are safe and they are relatively simple to design and install.

"Landscape contractors or designers can add lighting to their services with minimal investments in tooling and training," says Carey. "The investment in landscape lighting is the least of any segment of services Blue Heron offers. A fully equipped electrical bag with a low-voltage digital meter and minimal electrical wire tools along with basic hand tools is generally all the equipment needed to get started."

Training is also widely available and inexpensive, or even free. "We didn't have to invest a lot of money for training," says Carey. "Local distributors, along with manufacturers, offer great one-day, hands-on training seminars that include not only the installation process but also marketing and costing information."

"It's a no-brainer really," says Eskelson. "I actually had previous experience with low-voltage electrical systems, but even if I hadn't, it would have been fairly simple to learn, and the return makes it very worthwhile."

Eskelson points out that the return doesn't only come from immediate lighting sales. It also comes from an overall marketing boost for the company. "Even when customers don't take advantage of lighting, just the fact that I offer it is a bonus that's attractive to new customers," he says. "It identifies me as a well-rounded designer."

Including a lighting design in a landscape plan often leads to future business as well. "Clients who don't initially purchase due to budget limitations will generally call back wanting landscape lighting later," says Carey.

Many irrigation contractors find lighting to be an especially attractive supplement to their business. They already have the tools they need and the client base. But because lighting is an artistic product, it has the potential to offer higher financial rewards.

"Lighting is an aesthetic installation," says Waltz. "It's not as price-sensitive or time and materials oriented as irrigation, which is more cut and dried. Once you're working with an artistic product , there's much more room for a creative contractor to get paid more for his time."

In order to get the most profit out of this service, it?s important to establish yourself as a lighting artist, not just a lighting technician.

"Most contractors easily learn the mechanical parts of a lighting system and are more challenged in the design end," says Carey. "Though the training available is very good, nothing beats experience. We suggest experimenting with different fixtures, lamping, and other options that can take simple to spectacular."

What separates the artist from the technician is the ability to use a variety of imaginative techniques to perform the same important functions. "For example, a contractor can light a path with a few simple path lights," says Waltz. "Or he can get more creative by putting a couple of bullets in a tree and shining them down on the path for a much more interesting, naturalistic effect."

"We design every system with layers," says Carey. "Each layer provides a function, whether it's beauty, safety, or security. We often operate outside of the box, using fixtures in ways different from what they were designed for, many times with great success. These successes have allowed us to distinguish ourselves from other lighting contractors."

Carey cautions against overdoing nighttime lighting. "Many contractors feel that they need to highlight every tree," he says. "Our lighting systems are subtle, highlighting the features of the home and landscape."

He also emphasizes the importance of original, unique designs. "Many contractors make a mistake by duplicating lighting effects. Today's homeowners want to be different from their neighbors. No two homes are the same nor is the landscape, so neither should the lighting system."


The new generation of lighting products

Better lighting technologies and products are one reason why outdoor lighting is experiencing such phenomenal growth today. Professionals with many years in the landscaping industry know that low-voltage outdoor lighting has had a checkered past. In the early days, poor wiring techniques, low quality fixtures, and limited transformer technology meant that lighting systems didn't always work right and just didn't last. Often, installations caused more trouble for contractors than they were worth.

Those days are gone. New professional-grade fixtures made of high quality materials like solid bronze, brass, plastics, and stainless steel are replacing old stamped steel products that had a shorter lifespan. Smarter wiring methods are creating solid, trouble-free systems

Transformer technology has also improved. Multi-tap transformers allow outputs in excess of 12 volts to make up for voltage drop. As electricity zips along a wire, it loses voltage the farther it travels. This means that some fixtures may not have sufficient voltage, resulting in weak light output. Too much voltage, on the other hand, results in hot lamps and decreased life.

Using fewer or lower wattage lamps, shorter circuits, or larger gauge wire are all options to maintain voltage at a desirable level. But a multi-tap transformer offers greater design flexibility because it allows for voltage outputs that precisely meet system needs.

LED (light emitting diode) technology is another area that everyone is keeping an eye on. Today's LEDs are brighter and whiter than they were in years past. They save energy because they require a smaller amount of wattage to produce the same amount of light. They also last much longer than halogen or incandescent bulbs, making them an especially attractive choice for hard-to-reach places.

"I think LED is the best thing that's happened in a long time," says Eskelson, who values LEDs for their environmental advantages. "The more we can do to become more energy efficient, the better off we are."

But as Waltz points out, not all LED fixtures are the same. "A 50,000 hour LED can last around twenty years," he says. "That's amazing, but that only applies if you use it with an appropriately designed LED fixture. LEDs are very heat sensitive. To get the longer life benefits of LED, you really need a fixture that is properly designed to dissipate the heat."

Catching the glow

What's the best way to jump into this rapid growth service? "Start with some Web research," says Southard. "Contact distributors to see what kind of training they offer. You can also contact the Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals, which offers certification in low-voltage landscape lighting. I also recommend getting some products and experimenting with them in your own yard."

Carey recommends demo kits. "Demonstration kits are available from several manufacturers. We suggest shopping for a kit that is quick and easy to set up, thus reducing your investment of time. Demo kits will probably be the largest investment you will make to get into landscape lighting, but they also create a greater return."

Using high quality products is priority one. "When working with landscape lighting, the quality of the products you use is critical," says Parrot. "It's very, very important for contractors who want to build their reputation to put together a system that's going to last year after year."

Picture this: It's another warm summer night and you've added lighting to your services. What are your customers doing now? Some of them are dining al fresco in the inviting warmth of a softly lit patio. Others are enjoying the interesting play of shadows dancing on the hardscape. Another one is just arriving home after a long day at work, welcomed by the silhouette of her favorite Japanese maple. And they're all thanking themselves for choosing you.