Painting with Light

When an artist paints a picture, or a photographer takes an exceptional photograph, the play of light and shadows are almost as important as the subject matter, sometimes even more so. You are taken in by the way the light hits an object, or the shadow almost hides it. In the same way, lighting “paints” a home’s landscape after dark, creating a picture that lights up the night. Shadows, colors and lights all work harmoniously to shape the canvas, illuminating what was once dark. Landscape lighting allows the homeowner many more hours to enjoy their investment, and is good for everyone’s bottom line.

With plummeting housing starts and soaring gas prices, homeowners are spending more time in their homes. And with a shrinking pool of new customers, contractors need to find ways to offset these declines by offering additional services. Adding landscape lighting to your menu of services fits the bill—a natural add-on for contractors, and a good investment for homeowners; it appeals to their senses, while raising their property’s resale value.

Well-lit nightscapes capture a variety of moods, and illuminated walkways, stairs, and areas around the house help avoid injuries due to falls and deter break-ins. In addition, a design that provides functionality, while painting a portrait with light, distinguishes itself.

Cruz Perez, vice president of marketing for Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting, Simi Valley, California, recounts, “I can’t tell you how many times a contractor has told me, ‘I just don’t have the creativity for lighting,’ but the fact is that there are 13 basic techniques you need to know to do a very good job, and usually on any particular site only three or four are used.”

3.jpgSteve Middleton, owner of Treasure Cove Landscape Lighting in Hobe Sound, Florida, who has lots of experience lighting landscapes, felt he needed more training. He explained, “In working with one client, she twisted my arm for lots of path lights, which I normally don’t like to do, but it looked great. It made me realize that I am getting opinionated and stodgy, so I’ve decided to attend a few design seminars, even in the middle of the busy season. You have to stay fresh, or you’ll get left behind.”

Landscape lighting design is so important to Middleton that he discusses “every single wattage and beam spread on a job,” with his crews. Fortunately, training is easily accessible and for the right price. “Most outdoor lighting manufacturers offer design courses that are either free or for a nominal fee,” says Tammy Blackwell, president of Central Pump and Supply in Florida, whose company offers seminars on various aspects of landscape lighting.

“The training courses themselves do not make a profit,” Blackwell admits, but she justifies it by saying, “Better designs and product knowledge are good for consumers, manufacturers and the lighting industry as a whole.”

Though training is available in all aspects of landscape lighting, many contractors already have the necessary installation experience. For the majority, training will focus on design, and it’s not just for newcomers to the field.

Perez, whose company offers free seminars, uses the same logic, “We don’t push our products during our seminars; we train contractors how to be designers.” The idea being that well-trained contractors lift the quality, and therefore the image, of the whole industry. Additionally, there are credentialed design programs for contractors who want to stretch their abilities or who are passionate about the field and its possibilities. The Association of Lighting Professionals (AOLP) offers such programs.

It’s possible for any contractor to be trained to design beautifully lit and functional landscapes. They need to learn basic lighting techniques, apply their creativity and passion, and upgrade their skills as needed or as possible.

Beyond the design skills, contractors also want to know how to find customers who will pay them to light their landscape and how much profit they can make. In other words, contractors want to know profit margins and marketing tools.


It is interesting to note that, according to some landscape lighting professionals, even in this struggling economy their business has remained steady. Middleton says, “Distributors are telling me that the industry is slowing down, but so far this year my sales are trending the same as they have over the past six years.” Middleton estimates that his company installed between 100 and 120 fixtures during the month of May.

According to Richard Lentz, at Lentz Landscape Lighting, Dallas, Texas, his business is doing well. Most of his clients live in higher priced homes, and he finds that, “When the economy is strong, I get a lot of customers interested in lighting their property for aesthetic reasons, and when the economy is weak, I find a lot of customers interested in lighting their property for security reasons.”

Lentz and others in the field believe there are a number of reasons that outdoor lighting continues to attract customers. High gas prices have people spending more time at home, and the ailing housing market, which includes less housing turnover, leads people to choose outdoor lighting as a way to make their extra time at home more relaxing and enjoyable. Then, too, there are people who simply take pride in creating a gorgeous home and desire a magnificently lit landscape, similar to people who buy paintings to enrich their lives and add beauty to their home’s interior.

So there’s a market for landscape lighting, but what about a contractor’s cost to start a landscape lighting service and what profit can he expect to make? The tooling costs should be low for most contractors, since many, if not all, will have the trenching and regular shovels needed for digging, and the drilling material needed for mounting.

Also, on the electrical end, necessary tools such as wire strippers and multimeters will likely have been purchased, particularly by irrigation contractors. Some profits will be made from the markup on lighting fixtures, but the largest margins will be acquired through design and installation time. Perez has seen profits as high as $1,000 on a $3,000 job.

Contractors, especially on larger jobs, may install both low-voltage and line voltage systems. However, low-voltage installations can be done without a licensed electrician, while line voltage requires a licensed electrician and more materials, so the 120-volt system carries additional costs.

On the other hand, a large number of distributors, manufacturers and contractors feel that the technology over the last 20 to 30 years, such as halogen lights that can last between five to ten thousand hours, and the new light-emitting diode (LED) lamp technology lasting up to 50 thousand hours, has made low-voltage systems a more affordable and suitable route.

From a business standpoint, selling the splendor and benefits of outdoor lighting is crucial. One instructive story concerns the late Bill Locklin, founding father of professional low-voltage landscape lighting. Locklin had a client who was expecting guests and he wanted his yard lit. To accomplish this task, Locklin created 12-volt fixtures from fruit juice cans, tractor headlamps and mayonnaise jars, powering them with a car battery. As it turned out, his client’s guests were President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie. The President and his wife reveled so much in the lighting that they hired Locklin to light their vacation retreat.

The point being that your past design and installation project will probably be your strongest marketing tool. Lentz tells a story where one of his lighting installations helped his client sell his house.

1.jpgAs he tells it, “I did an installation on a client’s house and he called me when he was moving to ask if he should take the fixtures I installed. I said, ‘Sure, they’re your investment.’ Not only that, but I told him that you can market your house as landscape lighting ready, since all the electrical components are already installed.

The man decided to move once more, and again he had me remove the fixtures to take with him to his new house. And again, he advertised his house as ready to install outdoor lighting. He called to tell me he was moving a third time, and I was set to go over to remove the fixtures, but he told me he wanted to wait until the last minute, so he could enjoy the lights a little longer, thinking that the house wouldn’t sell right away.”

“After a short time he called and told me, ‘I waited too long this time.’ What happened was a prospective buyer liked the house during the day, and when she brought her husband back at night, they were ready to buy. When the man told the couple that the lights were not part of the deal, they countered that that was one of the reasons they were buying the house.”

So Lentz’s lighting job not only helped his client sell his house, but gave him two extra design and installation projects from one contract. That’s the marketing power of a well-done design.

Landscape lighting is an exciting field that offers income opportunity and designers willing to share their knowledge, creativity and passion for the craft. Most of all, as Middleton points out, “Lighting is a great add-on . . . choosing not to offer landscape lighting services is a missed opportunity. Lighting is a viable industry, but you have to have a passion for it and be committed to design and sales.” Can you really afford to miss out?