If you want your outdoor lighting system to last as long as possible with only minor maintenance, you have to areas of concern. First, you need to select fixtures that will stand up to weather and other abuse they may get, such as lawn mowers, animals, and the occasional bump. However, no matter how durable your fixtures are, the part you don’t see can make or break your outdoor lighting system. How your system is planned the quality of the installation have a significant effect on its longevity. A well-planned and installed outdoor lighting system can last for many years without problems.
On the other hand, a lighting system that was installed poorly or not planned well can break down very quickly. Installation and planning affect both the longevity of the system and the longevity of your bulbs and fixtures. So it’s crucial when planning your outdoor lighting system that you account for high-quality installation of a well-planned system.
Planning is Crucial
If you have decided to install an outdoor lighting system, you probably have an image in your head of what you want your home to look like when it is all lit up. But going from a mental image to a written plan detailed enough to guide your installation takes a bit of work. You will have to figure out exactly which lights you want to install and where. There are a couple of ways of doing this.
First, you can start by drawing out a scale diagram of your home and any landscaping around it. Include large trees and other landscaping features. Once you have the scale drawing, make a copy and work on the copy. That will keep the original clean so that you can make more copies and try more designs as much as you like. Once you have your scale diagram, start filling in where you think you’ll put the lights. For this part, you can use a little imagination. But the next step is to test out and fine-tune your design.
To test out your design and get an idea of what it will look like, you will need a strong flashlight and a cheap clamp light. Go outside on a dark night and approach an area where you placed a light on your diagram. Shine the flashlight or the clamp light in the direction you imagine your light will face. Move around your home and landscape in this way, testing out the light and adjusting your diagram as you go.
Finally, once you have planned where all the lights will go, you are ready for the next step: planning the wiring.
Planning Your Wiring
This is one of the most critical parts of the process and will have a significant impact on the longevity of your lighting system. When planning your wiring, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- Voltage Drop
- Ability to Expand in the Future
In general, a good wiring plan will allow each fixture to receive just as much electricity as it needs, no more and no less. It should also avoid too much splicing. Every splice is an opportunity for water to infiltrate your wiring system, causing damage and even short circuits. Finally, you want a system that can be expanded at some time in the future. If you ever plan to add lights, even if you’re not thinking about it now, a system built for expansion can solve a lot of problems before they ever occur. If a system is not developed with expansion in mind, adding new lights can be a fraught and challenging task that risks damage to your whole outdoor lighting system.
Splicing and Voltage Drop
Splicing and voltage drop go together because they are both functions of how you lay out your wiring. Typically, a good lighting design minimizes both. A poor lighting design will be full of splices and will fail to deliver equal amounts of electricity to each fixture.
Many beginning DIY outdoor lighting installers make the same mistake. They try to lay out their wiring like you lay out Christmas light. The power source is on one end, and a wire leads to the first fixture. From there a wire leads to the next filter and so on, creating a daisy chain of fixtures. This may seem like a simple and easy way to install lots of fixtures, but it opens the door for many problems. First, you run the same risk you do with Christmas lights. If one fixture in the chain becomes damaged or burns out, it can affect all the other lights on the chain, or even put them out. Second, a daisy chain installation requires splicing between each and every fixture. With that many splices, the chances of something going wrong are multiplied.
Another problem with the daisy chain approach is voltage drop. Voltage drop is the name given to the problem that occurs when fixtures father away from the power source don’t receive enough voltage. The leading cause of voltage drop is the linking of fixtures together into a chain. The first fixture in the chain may receive enough energy, but the amount of voltage that is passed on to the next fixture is reduced. This carries on along the chain. Fixtures that are a few steps down from the power source can receive too little voltage to function correctly.
The Problem with Voltage Drop
Voltage drop causes a few problems. The main problem is, as the name suggests, a decrease in voltage. That means that the fixtures farther away from the power source will not shine as brightly as they should. If you designed your lighting layout with care and expect your lights to shine with their full intensity, you may be disappointed by the effects of voltage drop.
The next problem with voltage drop is that sometimes DIY installers attempt to make up for voltage drop by supplying more voltage at the power source. If you read the labels on your LED lamps, it would seem that this is a plausible solution, since most LED lamps function properly within a range of voltage. However, if you want your system to last, blasting the voltage is a bad idea.
The main enemy of LED lamps is heat. Heat can shorten the life of an LED bulb significantly, and everything about LED bulbs is designed to drain heat away from the diode. One way to turn up the heat is by turning up the voltage. So if you are blasting your closest fixtures with extra voltage, you could be burning them out at an accelerated rate. LEDs are more expensive to install, so their value comes mainly in their longevity. If you are burning them out prematurely, you could be losing money on the installation instead of saving it.
Designing to Avoid Voltage Drop
Three main design tactics aim to address voltage drop:
- The loop
- The T
- The hub
The loop is basically a modified daisy chain. Like the daisy chain, each fixture is installed in a long chain. The first fixture is wired directly to the power source. The next fixture is wired to the first, and so on. In a plain daisy chain, each consecutive fixture receives less voltage. However, the loop controls the voltage by linking the final fixture in the daisy chain back to the power source. If you are going to use this system, it is crucial that you match the polarity of the wires all the way around the loop. Failing to do so will result in a short and a failed system. When a loop is installed correctly, each fixture receives equal voltage. However, this method still relies on a lot of splicing. It is also harder to add onto in the future.
The T is a combination of the hub and the daisy chain. The first fixture is wired directly to the power source. From there, a daisy chain flows out in two or more directions. This minimizes the number of links in each chain, controlling voltage drop by cutting it in half or more. There is still a lot of splicing, and voltage drop is reduced instead of eliminated. However, in situations where a hub is difficult, a T-shaped installation is an improvement on a basic daisy chain.
Finally, the best option is the hub method. In this method, every single fixture is wired directly to a single hub that is wired directly to the power source. There is no underground splicing, and each fixture receives the same voltage.
Some people may consider a DIY solution to residential outdoor lighting. However, there are lots of places where a small mistake can cost you dearly. A lousy splice, a poor design, or mismatched wire can ruin your entire system. For the most long-lasting outdoor lighting system, there is no replacement for the skill and experience of professional outdoor lighting designers and installers. Contact Night Vision Outdoor Lighting to learn more about our services and how we can help make your home look great.