In this report
Lighting design
January 2008
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Outdoor lighting: Illuminating finds
Yard with light fixtures.
LESS IS MORE   With outdoor lighting, subtle effects are generally more pleasing than lots of brightness.
Low-voltage outdoor lighting used to have all the allure of a hitching post. No more. Low-voltage--12-volt fixtures that generate areas of soft light--now dominates lighting for pathways, lawns, and gardens. That’s because it comes in the broadest range of styles and sizes, and can easily be installed by a do-it-yourselfer. What’s more, our tests show, you don’t have to pay top dollar for well-made lights.

You can spend as little as $5 for a fixture from Home Depot or Lowe’s, or as much as $200 for a solid brass heavyweight from a lighting store. You can also save money by buying the lighting in a kit containing several well-made fixtures, the wire that connects them, and the transformer that powers them. Kits we’ve seen sell for $40 to $140, depending on the style of fixture and the number of fixtures in the kit. Transformers sell at home centers for about $30 to $150.

Low-voltage lighting isn’t the only choice for the yard. At one extreme are lights powered with regular 120-volt household current, but they generally require professional installation. At the other extreme are solar-powered lights, which need no wiring at all. Simplicity and negligible operating costs are major selling points. But, we have found, solar fixtures deliver fairly anemic light. They’re for decoration, not for tasks such as lighting a path.

How to choose

Understand the basic types. See Types for the pros, cons, and best uses of low-voltage, 120-volt, and solar fixtures. Then, check Lighting design to get a sense of how various styles of fixtures can be used.

Settle on a price range. Lower-priced lights are available at home centers and mass-merchandisers. Specialty lighting stores generally sell higher-priced products. Our tests show that inexpensive lights are very much the equal of the high-priced lights in important areas of materials and construction quality. We suggest higher-priced lights only if you can’t find the look or materials you want in an inexpensive fixture.

Look for high-quality construction. Check for important details like these:

  • Fixtures that screw together, or that have welded, soldered, or riveted joints. Twist-lock or press-fit assemblies, usually on lower-priced plastic fixtures, may loosen, become brittle, or snap in short order.

  • Long or wide spikes. These are especially important if you’re considering a tall fixture or have soft soil. Narrow pointy spikes should be OK on short, lightweight lights, however.

  • Quick-connect wiring systems. They let you wire in fixtures without cutting or splicing.

Person installing low-voltage lighting.

FEW TOOLS REQUIRED Many low-voltage lights emphasize easy installation. Quick-connect hardware lets you attach the wiring without splicing.

Remember that brighter isn’t always better. You don’t want your home to look like a national monument or an opera house. You can always put in a lower-wattage bulb to lower the light level.

Match the transformer to the system. With low-voltage systems, the transformer’s capacity needs to match the number of fixtures. Total the wattage of the bulbs to determine the transformer’s capacity: 100 watts for five 18-watt fixtures, for example. Don’t choose a transformer with much more capacity than you need: The added capacity will overpower the fixtures and may cause bulbs to burn out prematurely.