Installing a garden lighting scheme is one of the best investments you can make. Not only will it double the value of your garden by providing an exciting alternative experience, by creating views to illuminated exterior elements, you can dramatically enhance the mood, ambience and aesthetic quality of your interior spaces.
Bearing the above in mind and the fact that Ireland has among the lowest ambient light levels in Europe, it's disappointing that lighting is so underutilised by Irish garden lovers. While it has certainly grown in popularity over the last decade, the glaring truth is that the vast majority of garden lighting in Ireland is ill conceived, poorly considered and badly installed. To help you avoid the common pitfalls and get the most from your nocturnal garden, I've put together a general guide with some helpful tips and advice.
A spotlight on the pitfalls.
With a little insight, it's very easy to get garden lighting right. Unfortunately, most people don't give it a second thought and typically stumble into one of the many pitfalls. The ones which can easily avoid include;
Being seen from space. Good lighting is about subtly but this often escapes potential illuminators. Rather than lighting everything, pick a few key elements and light them to create a specific mood. Remember, for lighting to be perceived, it must be complemented with darkness. Use too much and you'll wash out the garden, annoy your neighbours and run the risk of confusing air traffic. Less is always more.
Halt, who goes there? Invest in appropriate lighting units designed to do the job right. Using wall-mounted floodlights will not create a desirable effect and are likely to make people feel uncomfortable.
See the light. It might be obvious but light is about light, not about lighting units. When placing lighting units, do your utmost to ensure that they are concealed from view and that viewers see nothing but the lighting effect you wish to achieve. If lighting units have to be visible, pay a little extra and purchase discreet, high quality ones. The same can be said of cabling. Bury cables to manufacturers specification and avoid trailing them around planting beds!
Rabbit in the headlights. When placing lights you need to ensure that garden viewers are not exposed to glare. I've visited plenty of gardens over the years where upon turning a corner I found myself blinded with light glare. It takes a little thought, but correct placement and orientation of the unit and beam makes a huge difference.
Green light. For various reasons, many people opt for store-bought solar lighting units. If you're considering this as an option, save your money. I've never seen a solar light work successfully in a domestic situation and worse still, they're usually ugly, cheaply manufactured bollards that break within a short time. If you want to save the world, you'd be better manufacturing you own candles. The above noted, systems are available which work from a centralised solar panel but power control remains an issue.
Cheap cheap! You don't have to spend a fortune on lighting you can if you want but please do invest in quality equipment. Cheap, store bought equipment rarely satisfies and is far more prone to breakage.
Failing to plan. If you are having your garden designed or landscaped, ask your designer/contractor for a lighting plan. A lighting plan is a simple drawing, which illustrates light positions, lit elements and overall mood.
Miss the boat. Even if your budget doesn't allow for the installation of lighting units, ensure that you have cables installed while any major works are being carried out. Cable is relatively inexpensive and you can always invest in the light units later on. It's far more expensive, time consuming and disruptive to install a lighting system after a garden has been constructed.
So now that I've highlighted some of the pitfalls, lets take a look at how to go about designing a scheme.
As with all designed elements, the design for a lighting scheme begins with a brief, so before you rush out to your local supplier, use the following information to formulate a solid lighting brief.
What is the function of the lighting?
Lighting can be divided into three broad categories; effect, functional and security. This guide is focused on the former two but it must be noted that effect and functional lighting has been shown to do the same thing as those hideous heat-detecting floodlights. Where I refer to functional lighting, I'm talking about step lights, illumination for a dining areas, lights for external buildings and so on. Functional lighting should be kept as subtle as possible; they should perform their task and no more.
What mood/response do you wish to evoke?
Intimate, dramatic, inviting, calming, compositional and so on. Different moods can be created using different lighting effects. See the end of this guide for an introduction to the most common forms of effects used in garden situations.
What garden elements are worth illuminating?
Trees, plants, architectural features and so on. For an average suburban garden, you might pick three key elements to light.
From where will the lighting be viewed?
Consider viewing points, inside, outside and from neighbouring properties. There is little point in installing lighting that you'll never see or which is likely to annoy your neighbours. Consider both seated and standing view points.
Light is rightfully considered a form of pollution and you should always careful to ensure it is as contained as possible.
How many circuits and switches?
It's much easier to include additional circuits during an install than later on so don't be tempted to take short cuts. As a minimum, I usually incorporate four circuits; one for effect lighting, one for functional lighting, one for external power/features and an extra one just in case. If you have a large plot you will have to include a number of circuits as voltage diminishes the longer the circuit. Make sure you have your switches installed in an appropriate location within the house.
How much do I have to spend?
As I mentioned above, you don't have to spend a fortune but it is important that you buy quality equipment. If you're having your garden landscaped but don't have money in the budget for lights, then the best advice I can give is to have the cables installed during the build. Cabling is relatively inexpensive and you can always add light units later on. If possible, purchase equipment from a electrical wholesaler rather than a retail outlet. Most wholesalers will provide you with a brochure and will usually share their expert advice.
What type of power?
Garden lighting is powered in two ways, mains and low voltage. Mains fed systems work directly on a standard voltage while low voltage utilises a transformer to lower it. The former remains the most popular in Ireland as it does not require additional equipment and is available in greater variety. Although requiring the inclusion of a transformer, low voltage carries the added safety benefits. In addition, when coupled with LED lighting, the running costs are a fraction of a mains fed system.
Most lighting available from retailers tends to be low voltage and typically comes with a plug in transformer. From experience, the DIY systems are rarely satisfactory.
Both types of power are entirely safe when installed correctly.
What type of light?
Surely light is light? Well yes and no. The are numerous forms of garden light available and all do their job well. The most popular forms of garden lighting include standard incandesant (just like you have in your house), LED (the same light used for large displays, TVs and so on) and fibre optics (just like those 70's lamps!).
While standard incandescent lamps are still the most popular form of lamp used in gardens, they are being replaced with more energy efficient types, particularly LED. LED has come on a lot in the last decade and initial difficulties with light power and colour spectrum have largely been overcome. LED will become industry standard in Ireland within five to ten years.
Fibre optics has not taken off in Ireland despite the best efforts of a couple of dedicated companies. The advantages of fibre optics include; the range of colour effects that can be created, one light source for many points of light and no heat emission from light points. The disadvantages primarily revolve around the specialisation and high cost of installation.
How I decide between the three usually comes down to a balance of budget and space. If a client has both to spare, I'll go for fibre optics. In the large majority of cases I stick with mains fed incandescent.
The beam angle of a light refers to its spread. The beam angle can be altered through the use of bulbs or specific light units. Simply put, if you have a narrow element to light, you'd use a narrow beam, if for instance, you are uplighting the canopy of a large tree, you'd use a wide beam angle.
Standard beam widths are 12, 24, 36 and 60 degrees
Unless you're trying to create a specific mood and have a suitable garden space, I'd stick to white light. Most people prefer it and coloured lights can often create a funfair effect.
Who will install it?
Unless you're a qualified electrician I'd steer well clear of external electrics. Even with years of experience, I'd never consider doing the job myself. Any good electrician should be able to do it for you. If you don't have access to a good sparks, then call Dublin based, Alan Coyne (087 9874221), he's one of the best in the business and is great value for money.
If you've managed to digest the information above, you should be fairly clear about what you'd like to achieve and how you might go about it. If you're still unsure, seek professional assistance. Even a short consultation with a lighting trained designer will prove illuminating.
Below are a number of commonly used lighting effects plus a short glossary of lighting terms, technical information and links to suppliers websites.
Single point up-lighting
This is the most common forms of lighting effect. A lighting unit is placed beneath a desired element and the beam angle points upward. Be careful when using this effect to ensure that the beam does not cause unwanted glare or light spill over into neighbouring properties.
Multi point uplighting
Where an lit element can be viewed from a number of points you may wish to use a number of lights. If glare is likely to be an issue, consider using below ground units with a directional louver, this will ensure that light is directed in a specific direction.
As the name suggests, moonlighting mimics the effect of the moon. Typically, a downward light is concealed against the trunk of a large specimen tree and light is angled to filter down through the foliage. Moonlighting can be an aesthetic alternative to omni security lights.
Downlighting is similar to moonlighting but is normally used to illuminate social spaces. Use lower wattage, overlapping beams to create a desirable effect and to avoid over-lighting.
Creating dramatic shadows is a personal favourite of mine. It involves exploiting light in combination with interesting plant forms and hard flat surfaces. Think of the surface as a canvas and shadow as your artistic medium.
This effect is created by using a lit wall to silhouette an element placed in the foreground. Dramatic effects can be achieved where a well structured tree or statue are located in front of a flat surface.
Spot lighting involves the lighting of a specifc object. This can be achieved using up, down or side lighting and careful attention should be given to beam angle, orientation and the concealment of the light unit.
This is a form of functional lighting which is used for the purposes of visibility. The most popular form of units includes in-ground/wall LEDs and bollards. If you are intending to use the latter, please ensure that the unit is discreet and that is features some element of shielding to reduce glare.
This has become extremely popular over the last ten years and typically involves the placement of small, recessed, LED lights within a deck. I've never specified them myself as I feel they belong in night clubs and not gardens!
Common lighting terms
Colour Rendering Index: A rating scale for light sources (lamps) from 0 to 100 to indicate how accurately colours can be perceived under a light source. The higher the CRI, the more accurately colours appear. Technically, CRI ratings should only be compared for lamps with similar color temperatures.
Footcandle: When one lumen of light falls of a 1-square-foot surface, the resultant illumination level is one foot candle. One foot-candle equals one lumen per square foot.
IP Ratings: The rating the garden lighting product (luminaire) is given to show its resistance to particles in the atmosphere and its resistance to water. The first number is resistance to particles and the second number shows the resistance to water.
Light: Light is subdivided by different wavelengths into colours. Light with the shortest wavelength is considered violet while light with the longest wavelength is red. Light is altered by addition such that white light results from the proper mixture of red, green, and blue.
Lamp: This is the industry term for what is commonly refered to as a bulb.
Luminaire: This is the industry term for the housing or fixture that holds a light source (lamp).
Lumens: light output is measured in lumens 100-watt incandescent bulb produces 1750 lumens. Lumens can be thought of as the measurement for the flow rate of light.
Transformer: A device for changing voltage, typically from 240v to low voltage. The reason for this is that when garden lighting it is much safer and easier to run cables across beds and lawns than to run mains voltage.
Voltage Drop When running distances in 12 volts the cable needs to be matched to the load and distance. Otherwise you may end up with less than 12 volts at the end of the cable run. This will not cause damage to the luminaire but if the voltage drop is large then the light produced will have a slightly yellow effect and may also appered slightly dulled.
Wattage: Load required to power one or a number of garden lighting fittings.