Types of Landscape Lighting Fixtures Part I: Landscape Lighting Fixture Material
Landscape lighting fixtures can be made of plastic or composite materials, as well as different metal types. The most common types of metals are aluminum, copper, brass, bronze and stainless steel. There are many manufacturers out there (and some installers) that use the weight of the fixture to create the illusion that it is good. But there’s really much more to it than that. Below are the pros and cons of the different fixture types.
Composite landscape lighting fixtures are made from a mixture of plastics and are easily the least expensive fixture type to buy. You can find these at the big box home improvement stores and even places like Sam’s and Costco. While they are much less expensive than professional grade products, I don’t recommend using composite or plastic fixtures unless you are only planning to be in your home for a few years. Or, if you just want your house to be lit immediately and you are ok just putting in something temporarily until you can get better fixtures in place.
If you have to go this route my biggest tip would be to make sure you have a quality transformer installed and use the best cable you can so that the entire system won’t need to be replaced, just the fixtures. Word of caution though: most outdoor lighting specialists will not service this type of system. Generally, they are going to recommend that you upgrade the entire system. So be sure to stay in touch with your original installer or long term maintenance could end up costing you way more.
Aluminum is less expensive than other metals and can be a good option if you are on a budget. It is still going to be more expensive than composite but not so much more that it is not affordable. I should say this now while I am introducing metal: not all metals are the same. The aluminum that is in less expensive fixtures is not the same kind of aluminum in higher end product. Typically, you get what you pay for.
While aluminum is widely used for producing landscape lighting fixtures, the metal will oxidize when exposed to moisture. The acidic soil and hard water in much of North Texas exacerbates the oxidation process, leading to ugly looking fixtures and a variety of other issues.
When oxidation occurs near a joint on a fixture, it creates an entry point for moisture. Moisture will affect the LEDs longevity and performance. One way to protect against moisture is to be sure that the manufacturer’s powder coating is of high quality and UV stable. You should also use fixtures that have a a substrate layer between the aluminum and the powder coating in case the paint layer is chipped by a lawnmower or weed eater. The substrate will help protect the metal from moisture.
Brass is a great material for landscape lights. It is made primarily from copper and zinc, but cheaper brass fixtures will have additional filler metals that will compromise the alloy. You want the zinc content to be relatively low – less than 15% is best but anything below 40% will last quite a while. There is a huge price difference between yellow brass (high zinc) and red brass (low zinc) so just be sure you know what you are getting for your money. Zinc is a highly reactive metal and the higher the zinc content the more dezincification will occur. I will explain dezincification in more detail in a future blog. Make sure the fixtures are solid brass as well and not just brass plated, as the metal coating will fall off over time and leave your fixtures susceptible to corrosion.
I like quality brass a lot and I’d say over 70% of my installs are done using this material. Homeowners tend to like the look of it because it blends in very well with mulch and landscape materials and it’s very robust and long lasting. But be wary of cheap brass. There are many manufacturers who use the cheapest brass they can get away will selling and tout that it will last forever when it may not last any longer than premium aluminum with a good powder coating.
Although copper isn’t as tough as brass, it is probably aesthetically my favorite material. Like aluminum, copper oxidizes- but the oxidization doesn’t create the same sort of issues that aluminum oxide creates in aluminum fixtures. By contrast, oxidized copper results in a patina that looks more and more elegant as it ages with no compromising effects on the metal.
However, there are some drawbacks to copper. Stamped or rolled copper can be brittle. It will also crack if exposed to too much ammonia. Dogs love to pee on light fixtures. So, if you have dogs I don’t suggest this metal unless it is machined. 100% machined copper, although more expensive, will be incredibly robust and last a lifetime.
Bronze is another great alloy made from copper, tin, zinc and lead. But again, the zinc/tin/lead content should be low. Bronze is incredibly durable and is second only to stainless steel in its resistance to corrosion. The main drawback to bronze is that there aren’t many styles to choose from. Sand-casting bronze is a difficult artisan process, so there aren’t many manufactures who produce it- meaning you won’t have a ton of options. For this reason, it can be expensive. But if you want a fixture that is going to last and you are okay with limited selection, bronze is a terrific option.
Although Stainless steel is a ferrous metal, it holds up well outdoors because of its high chromium content. The name is a misnomer unfortunately. It does stain. It just stains less than steel. Expect water marks every time it rains, or your sprinklers kick on. It will need to be cleaned on at least a weekly basis. Don’t use this material unless you are going to be able maintain it over the life of the fixture.
There are several grades of stainless steel. 316 is the best for outdoor lighting. Also make sure the finish is electropolished to remove the ferrites from the outside layer of the fixture. Stainless steel can be terrific in more modern architectural applications as it looks very nice when taken care of but it does require some TLC. Another great application for stainless steel is in in-ground fixtures that need to be driven over. Stainless steel is a very strong metal and the color blends in well with concrete.
Not many manufacturers currently produce pure zinc fixtures, but I wanted to mention them because zinc is good for outdoor lighting as long as you have a quality powder coating to protect the metal from moisture. Because zinc is a highly reactive metal, it can cause problems in alloys. But when zinc is alone, it just as strong as copper or brass. I am hoping this material catches on because it is a similar price point to aluminum but it doesn’t have the same oxidation problem. That’s not to say that it doesn’t oxidize. It just oxidizes more like copper than aluminum.
Why is fixture material important?
Well, of all the lighting in and on your home your landscape lighting is absolutely going to take the most abuse. It must be outside 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year and must withstand the natural elements. If you are going to spend money on something that has to hold up in those conditions you need to ensure that the material you are selecting is going to be suitable to those environmental factors.
Next week in Part II I will discuss different manufacturing processes and what can be expected from each. Until then, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to give me a call. 214-901-1197