How to Install Outdoor Lighting

Looking to make a dramatic change to your landscape without a dramatic change to your budget? You can provide safety, security and curb appeal to your home by installing decorative outdoor lighting. We’ll show you how to create highlights and shadows with some strategically placed lamps. It’s a fairly simple project that you can easily complete in a weekend.


Tools and Materials

  • Lawn Edger
  • Wire Cutters
  • Tape Measure
  • Light Kit
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Lighting Your Yard

Low-voltage outdoor lighting systems are inexpensive to operate, easy to install, safe and movable. Installation is truly a do-it-yourself project. Low-voltage lighting is shock-free and safe. The hardest part is choosing from the wide assortment of styles.

Outdoor lighting around your home will make it a safer place to walk after dark, helping to deter crime. Reports show that a well-lit home discourages criminal trespassing. On the practical side, well-designed exterior lighting extends the evenings for outdoor activities.

To make it easier for guests and emergency vehicles to locate your house, light your house numbers. You can place them so your porch light shines on them, or just direct a small spotlight up from the ground to illuminate the address.


What to Buy

Outdoor wiring must always be grounded. It must also be rated as water-resistant-U.L. approved for outdoor use (U.L. stands for Underwriters Laboratories). Fixtures rated for interior use should never be used outdoors. For pool and fountain lights, use only fixtures that are especially labeled for use in these areas.

Sets — Prepackaged light sets offer the most convenient way to purchase complete, low-voltage outdoor lighting systems.

Separately — Mixing and matching light fixtures allows different lighting effects to be produced. Create a custom light set of any size. A complete line of accessories and components are available — power packs, cable connectors, bulbs, etc. — for completing custom lighting projects.

Architectural Grade — Fixtures are made of high-quality die-cast aluminum or industrial polymers that feature commercial durability and brightness.


Landscape Lighting Designs

Take a tour around your yard. One way to determine what areas you want to accent with lighting is to observe the effects created by the sun and moon on your home and yard.

Select a focal point or main element to build your lighting plan around. Elements to consider are large trees, the main entrance, a front walk or a specially landscaped portion of your yard.

Look for dark spots in corners and behind large bushes. Look for potentially hazardous steps and curbs. Light these areas for safety and security.

Combine lighting techniques (see Lighting Techniques) for interest and appeal. For example, backlight a row of bushes along a wall, uplight a nearby tree while bordering a pathway with soft downlighting.

Sketch out your yard and home on graph paper. Be sure to include landscaping and walkways. Next, sketch in the locations where you wish to install the fixtures and light patterns. After installation, test your plan. Rearrange or add to the plan as necessary to achieve the look and feel you want.

Be sure to check local codes when planning your lighting scheme. Outdoor electrical work sometimes requires a permit from your town or county before you begin installation. Also check for the location of easements. An easement is an area on your property where the city, town or county is authorized at any time to build a road, lay sewer, run wires, etc. If you don’t have a site plan with this information, check with town hall.

Next, check for underground gas lines, plumbing or cabling. Most areas are served by a dig safe service. This service is free and includes an inspector coming to your home to locate any underground lines. A quick and easy solution is to plug into an existing grounded outlet, on a deck for instance.

Soft lighting is the best for creating effects. The most common form of outdoor lighting is holiday lighting. Ordinary Christmas tree lights use less power than you might think: one-kilowatt hour for nine hours of light, which is about the same amount a small kitchen appliance would use in an average month.

When designing your outdoor lighting system, give thought to the most convenient locations for installing switches. You may wish to have them indoors so you can turn everything on or off from inside.

Special photocells attached to your lighting system will automatically turn the lights on. You can also equip your outdoor lighting with a programmable control system.


Plot Plans

Get a quality measuring tape. The longer the tape, the easier it will be to measure long distances accurately, with minimal use of stakes or other items to mark your place.


Measure the outline (border) of your property first, and then measure the distance from the property line to the house and other structures. Show all the walls, masonry and all the flower beds.


Be sure to write down all the measurements you make on your grid.


Add the shape of trees, shrubs and flower beds last and label them appropriately. Place a cross where the center of the tree trunk is located. (All trees over 6 inches in diameter should be drawn to scale.)


Now you can accurately plot where you’ll place your outdoor lights.


Lighting Techniques

To make choosing a little simpler, first determine what lighting effect you’re trying to achieve. Safety and security are both an apparent benefit when lighting up the dark however you choose to do it. Tier lights on steps and walkways create safer passage. Floodlights are a good choice for eliminating dark areas around windows and doors. With little effort, you can bring out the colors and shadows of foliage and the many textures your landscaping has to offer.

For further enhancement, consider adding more color to your outdoor lighting. Accessory items are available in red, green, blue and amber for creating just the right mood. Consider using one color scheme, such as blue, for a cooling effect, and amber for warmth. A mixture of colors will add drama to your outdoor lighting.

Consider the following techniques:

Downlighting — Lights are mounted high up in a tree or arbor and aimed downward for a soft and romantic feeling. Use spots, floods and spreads.

Uplighting — Fixtures are surface- or ground-mounted and angled upward to highlight a key object. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures.

Cross Lighting — Lights are mounted on either side of a tree, gate or arbor to reveal detail and soften shadows. Use spots or floods.

Shadowing — A light is placed at ground level to throw an object’s shadow on a surface behind it. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures.

Silhouetting — The surface behind an object is lit for a striking effect. Use spots, floods, or in-ground fixtures.

Accent Lighting — Intense light is focused on a specific object to contrast it against a dark background. Use spots or minispreads.

Spread Lighting — Circular patterns of light illuminate flowers and low shrubs from above. Use spread fixtures.

Grazing Light — A beam of light just grazes the surface of an object to reveal its texture. Use spots, floods or in-ground fixtures.



You’ll need to compute the total wattage of your outdoor fixtures to determine the necessary transformer.

Compute the Total System Wattage

Multiply the quantity of each fixture by the watts for each fixture, to determine the total wattage necessary to power them. Then add all total fixture wattages together to determine the total system wattage needed.

Determine the Right Transformer

Now that you’ve determined the total wattage necessary to power your lighting plan, you must select a transformer to handle the total wattage. Divide the total wattage by the transformer wattage to determine the number of transformers needed. Then select the control option (timer, photo control, manual on / off) you desire to control your lighting plan.

Estimating Your Cable Lengths


Determine the length of your individual runs, the distance from the last light to the closest outlet (transformer).


Select the gauge wire you need, which will be determined by the length of the run.



Connect the transformer (follow the instructions included with the transformer).


Lay the cable. Low-voltage cable can be covered with wood chips or decorative stones, or simply hidden under bushes or foliage.


A lawn edger cuts just the right depth in the ground to bury your cable. Or you may prefer to make a cut in the yard surface at a 45-degree angle, pry up the sod, drop in the cable and press the sod back into place.


Place the fixtures where you want them, adjusting for the desired lighting effect.


If the system has an automatic timer, set it to the desired on / off times.