The Truth About Landscape Lighting: Solar, Store-Bought, and Professional:
By James Racine, Lead Lighting Specialist at Juniper Landscape Company in San Diego
As a homeowner, I consider myself rather handy. I enjoy taking on a number of projects from tile backsplashes to replacing the wax ring on a toilet. On top of the cost-saving benefits, there is a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with these projects.
One of the projects that many handy and frugal homeowners consider taking on themselves is landscape lighting. The effects of landscape lighting can be impressive, and if you have seen the stick-in-the-ground solar lights at the retails stores, it seems all too easy, right? So why not?
In this article, I hope to shed some light on the truth about low-voltage landscape lighting as I have come to discover through trial, error, my own experiences, the experiences of others, as well as my years working in the industry.
First, let’s begin with store-bought landscape lighting kits. You might have seen names like Malibu or Patriot selling lights at your local retailer for as little as $3-$4 a fixture. I mean, talk about a screamin’ deal! Entire packages are sold for less than $50, including a transformer, and wire.
Let me tell you about my friend Mike. He initially purchased two store-bought landscape lighting kits ($50 each) for his home and paid a very capable friend some cash ($300) to install them. With a total of 24 fixtures for his front yard, he felt that he had made a great investment and saved himself a lot of money. Within a month of installation, several of those fixtures had started giving him issues. So, he went out and bought some new bulbs ($5). He replaced a few, but also found that some of his issues were more than just bulbs. The wire connections were failing. So then he bought a third set of lights ($50) and started replacing the failing ones. After six months of continual maintenance, problem-solving, replacing more lights ($50), and replacing more bulbs ($5), he had had enough. That’s when he decided to call me, a low-voltage contractor.
When I came out to take a look at the lights, I found numerous issues that should concern anyone. The landscape wire itself was hard as a rock. This happens when there are too many amps (heat) running through the lines. The plastic coating had begun melting and hardening, melting and hardening, like a child’s plastic toy in the oven. The amps continued to increase because of three things; exposed wire connections, no primary fuses, and no secondary fuses. Store-bought transformers and even many professional transformers do not have these critical safety features built into their systems. Clamp-on or direct burial wire nuts are prone to corrosion, and corrosion leads to reduced current, which requires the transformer to work harder. This is a recipe for disaster. I was able to run additional homerun lines, add fused hubs, and replace the poor connections. In the end, my friend Mike has put over $1,000 into his landscape lighting… and he isn’t done. For this investment, he could have had a professionally installed contractor-grade lighting system installed, one that would last him 10+ years, have a far greater impact, and he could have been spared the frustrations, the trips to the hardware store, and the embarrassment.
Next, let’s talk solar. Wow, do I love the potential of solar power and the possibilities of cutting down on our carbon footprint! As an environmentally conscious citizen, there are few things more compelling to me than solar-powered lighting. These lights are an absolute breeze to install. With no wires or transformer, even my grandmother could install a solar-powered landscape light. So is this the route to go?
The truth is that solar technology and energy cells are still young in their developmental stages. A standard solar-powered landscape light advertises that it will run for “up to 8 hours”. What this really equates to is this. In ideal conditions; receiving 12 hours of direct sunlight, one solar-powered 40-lumen light (the same brightness as your iPhone flash) will run (though slowly dimming), for up to 8 hours, when the batteries are new. But most landscape solar panels will receive an estimated average of 4-6 hours of direct sunlight, and the charge they receive will largely be expended in the first 1-2 hours of output when the photocell (night-sensor) turns the lights on. This means that by the time it is fully dark (6 pm in the winter) your lights might have another hour or two of juice left in them. To summarize, when you want your lights on the most, during the fall and winter, solar lights receive the least amount of sunlight and will be done-zo long before your company leaves your house.
I have been so disappointed by these well-promising lighting products. I have tweaked with the solar panel placements, adjusted the timers, and have still found the results to be lackluster, at best. I wanted them to work, truly, but the technology, at least when it comes to residential landscape lighting, is just not there yet.
Finally, there is the professionally installed, contractor-grade, lighting systems. These systems, unequivocally, deliver a result that store-bought and solar lights simply cannot. Here are the five reasons I would advise even my best of friends to not throw money at the cheaper options.
In the end, the investment is certainly worth it. You win. Your landscape wins. The earth wins. We all win! If you are interested in receiving an estimate for landscape lighting, or in a complimentary lighting demonstration at your house, please contact us at 619.334.9464 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.