Hardscape lighting, made easy

By Kevin Smith

Adding lighting to hardscapes adds warmth and helps make outdoor living environments even cozier and more inviting.

Hardscape projects, especially outdoor living areas, have become a popular aspect of landscape design. These projects include seating walls, fire pits and fireplaces, outdoor kitchens, and water features. Lighting is a big part of these projects, and several different landscape lighting fixtures and lighting design techniques can be used effectively in these applications.

Paver lights and driveway beacons. Paver lights and driveway pucks allow for good traverse lighting, especially if there are elevation changes on a property. Paver lights are generally available in most common paver sizes. These fixtures usually consist of a box the size of the paver with a light source and a translucent lens. Colored lamps and lenses can be added for holiday accents. I often specify these types of fixtures for sloping driveways. They provide a nice “runway” effect and are great choices for contemporary-style landscapes.

Driveway beacons are installed on the sides of driveways facing the center. They can be installed in a triangular pattern or directly across from each other. The light beams normally produce a “V” or half-moon pattern on the driveway. Beacon fixtures are available in surface-mount and well-light versions. Surface-mount types can be installed directly to pavers before being set in sand or concrete. Well-light styles come with different kinds of slotted tops in brass or aluminum. Like sprinkler heads, the slots have quarter-, half- and full-circle openings.

It’s important to order extra lead wire for these types of fixtures. Core out a ¾- or 1-inch hole behind them where you can coil up a repair loop in case the fixture ever needs to be fixed or replaced.

Step and bar lights. Almost every outdoor lighting manufacturer offers louvered step lights and under-cap step lights. These provide great downlighting effects and increase safety by revealing the length and depth of a step. Louvered step lights aren’t really step lights; they were originally designed for walls.

These very common fixtures are often used incorrectly. When installed on the face of a step, there’s always a chance of the front plate and lens becoming damaged by being kicked. If the louver and lens are damaged, it can result in terrible glare from the exposed light source, thus defeating the whole purpose of having them.

Under-cap step lights come equipped with a mounting plate and light source. A common method for installing these in a seat wall is to use an angle grinder to cut a slot across the top of the wall before adding the cap stone. The light wire is then laid into the slot and the cap stone is installed. Again, it’s a good practice to leave some extra wire behind to ease a future repair or replacement. Cut a 1-inch-wide, ¼-inch-deep slot through the brick or concrete base. Make a figure-eight loop with the cable 1 inch behind the entry of the fixture and lay it in the slot, and then install the cap stone.

Tape and strip lights. Tape and strip lights have become very popular accents for hardscape elements, as they provide a seamless lighting effect on steps and concrete seat walls. Mounting a tape light is a fairly simple process; just peel off the paper to expose the adhesive backing, then apply it under a counter or on a lip of a wall.

Strip lights do not come with adhesive backs; they’re normally mounted with construction adhesive or in an aluminum channel. Both tape and strip lights are available with fittings that allow for corners, power feeds, couplers and end caps. Because they’re being mounted outdoors, it’s important to choose products with a minimum IP rating of 65. This means they’re dustproof and can be hit by water jets at any angle.

The good news is that hardscape projects seem to be one of the line items that are rarely cut from landscape budgets, so be sure to make them part of your service offerings. Adding lighting to hardscapes adds warmth and helps make outdoor living environments even cozier and more inviting.

Kevin Smith is the national technical support and trainer at Brilliance LED LLC, Carefree, Arizona, and can be reached at kevin.smith@brillianceled.com.