Landscape Lighting: Tips for Easy Installation
Over the last couple of years, Scott and I have made huge strides in improving our small Chicago backyard. What was once a soggy patch of weeds and grass was ultimately turned into a relaxing retreat – our own little slice of peace and quiet in the city. Although the space has come a very long way, we weren’t quite ready to call the space ‘done,’ that is, not until we added a dose of landscape lighting! In my mind, landscape lighting is a job that would be costly, time-consuming and most importantly, confusing. Well, the good news is that it’s surprisingly simple, it only took us one afternoon to complete, and we spent less than $300 to get the job done. Here’s how!
Tools + Supplies:
- LED landscape light fixtures of your choice
- Transformer (low voltage for LED compatibility)
- Landscape wire
- Outdoor smart switch (optional)
- Deck screws
- Wire cutter
- Wire stripper
- Electrical tape
First, allow me to give you the lay of the land. Our backyard is a modest 20′ square (give or take), and we lined the perimeter with raised garden beds. The patio is accessed from our kitchen, which is at the back of our home. This is the view from the kitchen, taken from the top of our deck landing:
How to Shop for Your Supplies:
Step 1: We knew we wanted a handful of uplights to illuminate the height of our garden, as well as the trellises against the siding of our garage. That said, there’s a wide variety of lighting to choose from, including downlighting, path lights and well lights (among many others!), so I encourage you to consider the shape of your landscaping when deciding on fixtures to purchase. This is your chance to get really creative! We also decided to use LED lighting for it’s low power draw and long life. For our yard, we brought home 2 large LED uplights and 3 small LED uplights, which turned out to be more than enough.
Step 2: With our lights picked out, we now needed a transformer, which is essentially a small black box that will get plugged into your outdoor outlet. In a nutshell, the transformer takes a standard 120V outlet and reduces it to 12V, perfect for landscape lighting applications. To choose the correct transformer, simply tally up the watts of all of your light fixtures and purchase one that is, at a minimum, capable of bearing that load. For example, our 5 fixtures totaled 60 watts, but we purchased a 120-watt transformer in case we had any desire to add more lighting down the road!
Step 3: The next step is choosing the right length of landscape wire in the proper gauge. The gauge is going to be dependent upon the total wattage of your lights, but again, bear in mind if you think you may add lighting down the road. In most cases, a 14-gauge wire is going to be sufficient, but for our small yard, 100 feet of 16-gauge wire was all we needed. (Tip: The higher the gauge, the thinner the wire.) This chart is a great reference point, but luckily, many hardware stores will have an information sheet, too.
Step 4: Do you have a home automation system? If so, consider adding a smart outlet your setup. Our smart home communicates with Z-wave, meaning that we had to choose a Z-wave compatible outdoor smart outlet. This would allow us to sync the landscape lighting to our whole home automation system. The good news is that the majority of transformers on the market will also have a built in timer if this isn’t an option for you.
What We Did:
I’ll admit, shopping for supplies is half the battle, but once we had our light fixtures, transformer and wire at home with us, the install was a snap! We started by mounting our transformer under our deck, near our outdoor power outlet. The transformer was plugged into our smart outlet, and the smart outlet was plugged into our outdoor outlet.
Next, we began adding our lights! We started with the farthest light from the outlet, which would also be the end of our landscape wire. Using a trowel, we made a deep hole in of our garden beds, and we pushed each light as far into the soil as we could, in the approximate position we desired. We continued around the perimeter of our yard until all the lights were in place.
Now we could add the landscape wire. This is the part that I thought would be scary and difficult, but I was surprised to learn how easy the whole process really is! Starting at the far end once again, the landscape wire snaps in-between the clip quick connector, which is already on the stake of every landscape light. That exposed wire end was wrapped and protected with electrical tape.
From there, we continued to run the landscape wire from bed to bed, pulling it taught as we went. Here’s something a newbie like me didn’t know beforehand: Do not cut the wire! Each light fixture’s quick connector pinches together to snap onto the wire as we went along.
Once all our lights were connected to the wire, we ran the remaining length to the transformer, making sure to leave enough slack so that we could bury the excess underground (more on that in a second). At this point, we unplugged the transformer. Scott snipped off the excess wire, stripped the ends, and using a screwdriver, he connected the wires to the transformer. Note: Follow the instructions with your transformer for connecting the landscape wire safely.
With the wires connected, Scott plugged the transformer back in, and we walked from light to light to make sure they were all shining bright, which they were. Success!
With the assurance that everything was working as it should, we went from fixture to fixture and wrapped electrical tape around each clip connector. This step further protects the connection from the elements.
Finally, if you, like us, have big gaps between the areas you’re looking to light, you’ll want to bury the landscape wire no more than 6” below ground. We had about 10’+ feet from the closest garden bed to the outlet, and in our case, we have a decorative gravel pit. We were able to use a trowel to make a small valley for the wire to be disguised beneath, but the same can be done in grass as well.
At dusk, we took some time to play with the angle of all the light heads, swiveling them right and left, up and down.
The instantaneous coziness the landscape lighting added to our backyard is astounding! Beforehand, we had two downlight sconces only – one on the back of the house and one on the back of the garage. This made for dark evenings on the patio, and we were in the habit of bringing out candles for any nighttime barbecues and gatherings with friends. Now, we’re surrounded by a soft glow:
A pleasant surprise was the intricate shadows and patterns that our plants cast onto the nearby fence and siding!
I encourage anyone who is considering landscape lighting to give it an honest try. Lighting is such a sculptural element that will add instant depth and ambiance to your outdoor space. Although I was initially baffled by transformer options and wiring gauges, I was happy to learn that a lot of the steps just require simple math. Start by gathering inspiration from your favorite blogs, catalogs and books, and remember to have fun with it!