Aug. 9 2018 11:50 AM

Many landscape contractors are realizing they can extend the enjoyment of a landscape with lighting, and customers are appreciating it.

It’s true— people are willing to spend a pretty penny to make their yards look nice. That’s probably one of the first things you realized when you got started in the landscape or irrigation business. And, it’s also why you’ve been able to make a good living for yourself helping them do it.

Did you ever think about how you could help your customers extend the number of hours in which they get to enjoy the beauty of their landscapes? Many of your clients are at work all day. By the time they get home, change clothes, have dinner and are finally able to sit down on the back patio with their spouses, the sun is already going down. Before they can even uncork a bottle of wine, the crickets are already chirping and they can’t even see their beautiful garden anymore. You have the power to help them enjoy their back yard longer and create eye-catching effects with lighting that even the sun can’t accomplish.

This is one area where imaginations can and do run wild, from the clients’ own requests to the designs of the lighting professionals themselves. Luckily, the options are just as plentiful as the ideas that flow. When you factor in that the cost, convenience and look of landscape lighting has greatly improved in recent years, this industry has hit the mother lode.

“The landscape lighting segment of the industry continues to grow annually,” says Todd Goers, national sales manager of WAC Landscape Lighting, Port Washington, New York. “I constantly hear from distributors that it is growing at a greater pace than their irrigation sales.”

Goers says in addition to lighting-only companies, many landscape and irrigation contractors have entered the field and are also installing lighting systems. And hardscape contractors are building illumination right into floors, railings and stairs.

Be the right kind of contractor

While it’s exciting that so many people are taking the plunge into landscape lighting, the ability to dig a hole and screw in a bulb does not make one a qualified installer. Kevin Smith, national technical support and trainer for Brilliance LED, Phoenix, cautions that not all lighting contractors out there are reputable.

“There are two different types of contractors out there,” he says. “You see a contractor who is using a very poorly made and inexpensive product that he purchases online. Then you find the other side, someone that takes a lot of pride in his work and is using quality lights.”

Smith says a good contractor will be educated on every aspect of lighting systems. With the advent of websites such as Pinterest and Houzz, however, he has his work cut out for him. Many homeowners, armed with ideas from these sites, are sometimes becoming more design-savvy than the contractors they hire. But that doesn’t mean they know how to achieve the looks they want.

“The trouble is, homeowners who see this stuff want to go as cheap as possible. They don’t look at the longevity the project could have,” Smith says.

It happened frequently prior to the recession, according to Smith, and those people are now paying the price. “People went crazy and bought the cheapest thing possible and ended up having to replace the whole system.”

He is also concerned about contractors out there who are simply buying stuff on the cheap and “plunking it into the ground.” They may think that’s the fast track to success, but for many of these contractors, he says, “It’s a race to the bottom.”

A reputable contractor will have a strong knowledge of landscape lighting products and applications and will offer solid experience and exhibit good listening skills, notes Goers. “The contractor should articulate his design plans clearly after listening to what the homeowner envisions for the property.”

If you’re able to distinguish yourself as the latter type of contractor, you shouldn’t have any trouble attracting clients.

Just ask Robert Shomer, in business since 2005 as the owner of Nightscapers, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Word of mouth about his excellent work spread quickly in Broward County’s elite circles, and the company has worked on dozens of projects for commercial real estate developers and homeowners’ associations as well as the homes of NBA players and Fortune 500 CEOs.

“Our business is phenomenal,” he says. “We don’t do any advertising. All of our business comes from people calling in. We are busy every day of the week if we want.”

Shomer enjoys what he does in part because of the flexibility it offers him. He keeps it simple, just him and one full-time employee. “I don’t want to have a lot of employees,” he says. ”Taking my business to the next level would mean more employees and more management but not incrementally that much more money. I keep it small to maximize profit. We don’t have a huge staff, but we do a lot of business and do very well.”

Nightscapers’ projects have involved LED lighting products almost exclusively since their introduction into the market around 2008. And in that short 10-year span, major improvements have come along.

“Now we are seeing in the 12-volt lineup a lot more powerful lights than we had in previous years,” says Shomer. Not only are they a lot brighter, they consume less power. “It is a lot more feasible to do things now with LED that were only feasible to do with 120-volt light in the past,” he says. The newer fixtures also are more resistant to voltage fluctuations.

Nightscapers goes the extra mile to ensure the longevity of the systems it installs. For example, Shomer will use heavy-duty 10-gauge wire which he says improves voltage flow. The heavier-duty wire with heavier-duty insulation also lasts longer. And, to prevent moisture from getting into and shorting out fixtures (a big problem in humid Florida), he solders all the connections.

The equipment options are plentiful and keep multiplying, which is fun for contractors as they can play with color changes and other lighting accents. Shomer says there’s been an increase in fixture types, including wash lights that provide a wide spread, and newer lights that have the ability to go from 2,700K (Kelvin) to 3,000K. “Adjustable beam spreads and adjustable brightnesses are getting pretty commonplace now,” he observes.

Goers says lighting fixtures have become more flexible with the 2016 introduction of WAC’s adjustable LED accent, wall wash and well lights. It’s been a godsend to landscape lighting contractors. “Instead of carrying a dozen or more different fixtures in their inventory, the landscape or irrigation contractor can use a single, versatile product such as an accent light, which adjusts to accommodate a multitude of features, including various brightnesses and beam angle distributions.”

Gaining popularity

Landscape lighting has become a big segment of Hulihan Territory Inc.’s business. The Atlantic Beach, Florida-based company also installs irrigation systems, pumps, wells and drainage solutions, but lately a large portion of the work being booked is landscape lighting. “It’s become a pretty big segment. We’re probably doing two or three jobs a week,” says Ric Sinclair, senior sales associate.

Sinclair’s been installing landscape lighting for 18 years, before LED became a game-changer for the industry. He says, as customers have become more educated about LED products, “they aren’t as difficult to sell as they were in the past.”

Another big change in landscape lighting has less to do with its appearance or how much power it consumes, and more to do with how it’s operated. Hulihan has gone almost exclusively over to Wi- Fi to control lighting systems because, according to Sinclair, it’s more reliable than mechanical and astronomical timers. “We’ve gone to full Wi-Fi now and found it works better,” he says.

Hulihan has been lighting a lot of garage doors for customers lately. Its a newer option the company is offering its clients. Apparently, a lighted garage door is becoming a distinctive feature of high-end homes, and the company is hoping to capitalize on that. “We are trying to get that going,” says Sinclair.

Entertaining with light

Lighting up landscapes is just the beginning of outdoor lighting’s possibilities. Today, homeowners are doing more outdoor entertaining, putting emphasis on the ambiance that can be created with light.

One big trend in this area is bistro lights, strung across a patio or yard. The Blaze series of lights from Brilliance LED that simulates the effects of fire has been popular this season.

Sinclair has seen an increase in demand for “Edison lights,” elongated LED bulbs that have the retro look of early lightbulbs. “They are actually prettier and more incandescent-ey than the LEDs. You can really see the filament glowing.”

Other parts of the country are faring quite well with lighting as an add-on business. Wasson Nursery is a design-build landscape firm with three locations in Indiana. While it owns garden centers, its primary business is landscape design, installation and maintenance. And while it’s not the company’s cash cow, landscape lighting is so closely related to everything else the company is doing, it makes good sense to offer it.

“The lighting portion of what we do is a smaller portion of the business, but it is a good accent to what we do because if I am designing a big project, lighting is automatically budgeted into it,” explains owner Dan Wasson. “Everyone gets a lighting quote regardless if they ask for it or not.”

He adds, “Lighting is a good add-on service, because the homeowner is in the mood to buy. If he’s already paying for a $50,000 to $70,000 landscape project, what’s another $8,000 to $10,000 for lighting?” For Wasson, it all goes back to the time of day when people are around to enjoy their outdoor space. “At 12 o’clock in the middle of a weekday, you aren’t out on your patio, but at 6 or 7 o’clock when those lights pop on, that’s when you’re using it.”

Taking control

Wasson installs WAC’s Integrated LED lighting fixtures. He says the biggest thing customers want with their lighting is control. They want to be able to adjust color and brightness, but most importantly, they want to be able to do it from their phones.

“They want it in their phone, on an app and they want it easy,” he says.

Of course, this is all part of landscape lighting systems’ integration into the Internet of Things. People increasingly expect to be able to manipulate all of their household systems, including irrigation, security, heating and air conditioning as well as their outdoor lighting through their smartphones. Thanks to lighting manufacturers staying on top of these trends, they can.

Color is another area where control is increasingly in demand. More and more of Wasson’s customers are requesting color-changing LEDs for a variety of effects they want to create.

He shared the story of one client who bought a bear sculpture at an auction to put outside. He wanted to bathe it in blue light whenever the Indianapolis Colts are playing — and he wanted to control it with Bluetooth. Done. Another client wanted his patio lights to glow orange when he throws his annual Halloween party. Wasson made it happen.

Sometimes customers aren’t even aware of the color control new LEDs have. Wasson says customers can sometimes be wary of LED lights because they think they will give off a harsh, blue-tinted white light.

That was true of some of the very the first LEDs that came on the market, but with the newer generation of bulbs, that fear is no longer warranted.

Lighting temperatures can now be changed to give LEDs that warm, incandescent-type glow everyone wants to achieve with their lights.

With more companies offering landscape lighting, more homeowners are starting to see its value. Luckily for them, they won’t have to look very far to find someone to install it.

As Wasson says, “The demand is there, but it is also about offering the client the whole package.”

Thinking of getting started?

Take some advice from those who’ve already chosen to add lighting to their business offerings. Dan Wasson, owner of Indiana-based Wasson Nursery, offers the following guidance.

1 Pick a good brand. “Offer one brand and stick to that rather than offering everything under the sun,” he says.

2 Send your employees to train with the brand you choose to offer. Wasson says most landscape supply companies offer training.

3 Train all your installers on how to do lighting because they can make better use of their time and provide increased efficiency.

4 Always put lighting into your quotes regardless of whether the customer asks for it.

A fish out of water

Premier Ponds, Silver Spring, Maryland, is another company that found itself in the landscape lighting business because it saw a need expressed by its customers that wasn’t being met.

Andrew Lingan and his partners install underwater LED lights as part of their pond business. “We’ve seen consistently at many of our customers’ homes that they had inadequate or broken outdoor lighting,” he says, “so we kind of just applied what we knew about putting lighting underwater to out of the water.”

Premier Outdoor Lighting officially began as an extension of Premier Ponds last September. It hasn’t seen enormous growth, but Lingan says it’s only the beginning. “It’s been a slow start with that, but we have gotten a few jobs from our pond customers, not so much from the outside as of yet. But it’s really just starting to ramp up.”

And he uses the same reasoning for lighting up a pond as a contractor might use for a landscape, “If you buy a beautiful pond, you’re only able to enjoy it for half the day unless you put lighting into it. We are big proponents of ‘lighting it up’ and our customers are too. I would say over 90 percent of them have lights in their water features.”

That interest is what spurred Lingan and his partners to expand from water to land. “It brings a new dimension to your landscape and your water feature,” Lingan says, and he is ready to bring on more landscape lighting clients. “We are going to create the trend outside of the pond. It is up to us to show them what is possible.”

Opportunity also lies with homeowners who have outdated lighting systems.

He’s seen homes that still have halogen systems installed who are probably paying through the roof on their electric bills. “We think we can give them better than what they have and help them upgrade from those old energy-hoarding systems,” he says. And they will look trendier too — for example, a light that looks like a tiki torch.

He also understands the importance of quality. “You have different levels of quality out there that might turn people off from the idea all together. A lot of people are out there doing it like Walmart, with Walmart results, whereas we are trying to give them a Nordstrom experience.”

Lingan says water-feature lighting and landscape lighting aren’t that much different. “Landscape lighting has more different types of lights for different features where the water features, you just have different intensities of light.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at