Striving to be the Cadillac of Outdoor Lighting

I recently had to rent a car while my wife’s car was in the shop. I was upgraded to a Cadillac XT5 from the Toyota Corolla I had paid for. It was a nice treat to get to drive around in a car I only dream about owning. I happened to have an appointment for a lighting design consultation so I rode out there in style.

Because I met with the homeowner in his back yard he didn’t see the car that I pulled up in. It was a very pleasant consultation and we had a very good rapport. Then we walked to the front yard and his demeanor suddenly changed. We finished discussing the lighting design options and I gave him a ballpark figure knowing that I would need to get prices on a few special items that he had requested for his outdoor kitchen. He was not enthused.

“Why are you so much higher than the other guy I had out here,” he questioned?

“There may be a variety of reasons,” I replied. “Who was it that you had out here?”

“That doesn’t matter. I’m not paying more so my contractor can drive a Caddy!”

I have to admit I was a little taken aback. First, a contractor is the person you call when you know exactly what you want and you’re hiring them to do the labor.  I’m a lighting designer. People call me when they don’t know what they want and they don’t know where to start. I am here to create, consult, and execute the outdoor lighting plan for your home. But what really threw me was the idea that a nice car would reflect poorly on a business. “Why shouldn’t I drive a Caddy?”, I thought.

When you hire someone to do a job for you, you look for the most successful company- the one with the highest ratings and best reviews. You can be assured that they use quality products and don’t cut corners, and that they come with a long list of happy clients.

We left on a good note because I just laughed off his comment. By the time we were through I think he really understood why there was value in what I was offering. But I thought about his comment all the way home. I returned the rental the next day but I think I know what my next car will be.

How Much Does Outdoor Lighting Cost?

Well, it’s a very complicated question and I don’t think you’re going to like my answer. The best I can say is, it depends. But, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. Since getting involved in the outdoor lighting world I’ve seen all sorts of pricing schemes from cost per fixture prices to all-inclusive package pricing. If someone tells you that they charge $250 per fixture or that they can install 12 Lights for $2500 it might be a red flag. What that tells me is that they are not considering your specific job and are just trying to sell the maximum number of light fixtures. That may not always be the case but be sure to check fine print. The truth is that it’s very difficult to determine the price of a job without seeing the particulars. Any reputable lighting company should be discussing YOUR job and not trying to sell you some package that they have put together to McDonaldize your property. Proper landscape lighting has way too many variables for that to work.

So, what goes into pricing an outdoor lighting job? Well, lots of things. For one there are varying grades of companies that you can hire. A company that focuses exclusively on outdoor lighting is generally going to be more expensive than a company that just offers it as part of business. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for those companies. They can be great if you are selling your house and you are just trying to maximize short term curb appeal; or you know you’re going to move in 3 years and the longevity of the system isn’t really a concern of yours. A lighting designer should be asking you those questions in the very beginning and should inform you right from the start if you really need their services. There are some projects that just don’t require that sort of expertise and if yours happens to be one of them there may not be any reason for you to spend the extra money.

Another thing that could drastically affect the cost of a project is the materials that are selected. Prices can vary widely from inexpensive plastic fixtures you might find at a big box store to much higher priced solid CNC-machined copper or stainless steel fixtures. You can also rack up quite a bit just by using different types of wire connectors and cable. You would be surprised how much difference good cable can make in ensuring the life of a landscape lighting system. Materials used will play a huge role in the overall cost of a job.

Difficulty and size of the job will also be a factor. It’s pretty easy install a few lights in a mulch bed with a nearby GFCI outlet for a transformer. It’s much more arduous if you have to add an outlet and run wire 200 yards across a lawn and tunnel under sidewalks to position the fixtures. Likewise fixtures that are staked into the ground will be less expensive to install than those mounted high in treetops or in a deck or pergola. In-ground fixtures are also more challenging and require drainage which will add labor and material costs to the job. Larger properties also generally require more design work. This is another reason to be weary of a “per light” package. Sometimes the bigger a project the LESS it is per light. Sometimes it’s more. There are just WAY too many factors to account for.

The best advice I can give you is be up front with your budget. A good lighting designer will be able to take your budget into consideration and come up with a plan that works for you. A good rule of thumb is that your outdoor lighting should be somewhere within about 1-5% of the property value. But as I’ve said, it’s very hard to determine without looking at a specific job. If you are in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and would like to schedule a consultation please call The Outdoor Lighting Guy at 214-901-1197.

Benefits of Outdoor Lighting

It still amazes me that outdoor lighting is generally the last thing that anyone thinks about when purchasing or building a home. That is probably the worst thing about being a lighting designer. We always seem to get called way after everything else is completed which makes the installation so much more difficult and expensive. Aside from that, it can also compromise the lighting design because so much is unaccounted for when designing the home. There are many benefits to planning for (at best) or adding landscape lighting to your home and I hope to highlight a few of them here.

Beauty. Let’s face it: you want your home to look terrific. Complimenting someoneIMG_0684’s home is almost as flattering as complimenting their kids. When you add outdoor lighting, features like stone walls and interesting architecture stand out more because of the contrast against the darkness. During the day these features are easily taken for granted but when they are properly lit they can really pop. Most of our lighting throughout the day comes from overhead. So, when something is lit from below, like ornamental trees and shrubs, it takes on a very different mood. Shadows and silhouettes can also add to the ambiance and you are really able to use the architecture of the house as a canvas to create interesting patterns and scenes.

Safety. Obviously our surroundings are harder to navigate when it’s dark. Everyday tasks like bringing in the groceries or taking out the garbage can become, if not dangerous, at least more difficult than they need to be. Landscape lighting can highlight uneven surfaces or steps or guide people around low hanging tree branches, thorny plants or other outdoor hazards. Dark areas of the yard can be highlighted for safe passage and make your outdoor areas much more friendly to guests and residents.

Path lighting down an otherwise dark walkway.

Path lighting down an otherwise dark walkway.

Security. It’s been pretty well documented that a well-lit house is less likely to be a target for burglary. Just run a quick Google search on “how much safer is a well-lit home?” and thousands of articles come up. Potential intruders are more comfortable breaking into houses that are dark because they can use the shadows and dark spots to hide in. Using outdoor lighting helps to eliminate those areas and makes your home a less ideal target.

Functionality. In Texas we have pretty good weather for most of the year so we spend a lot of time outdoors. Landscape lighting can really extend your living space. Outdoor lighting increases the functionality of your outdoor environment so that you can use your entire property to relax and entertain in. A good lighting design creates different spaces to utilize. The lighting should help one area flow into the next but also create enough separation that they feel like different zones. This way your backyard almost feels like a second home.

Value. Adding landscape lighting to your home can really add curb appeal with pretty minimal investment. It is one of the least expensive home improvement projects that you can undertake. If you are planning on selling your home in the future it is an inexpensive addition that can give you quite a great return on the investment. And if you are planning on staying in your home forever you get the peace of mind knowing that your home is safer.

This is a small back yard I designed in the Castle Hills area.

This is a small back yard I designed in the Castle Hills area.

With all the benefits of outdoor lighting and the relatively inexpensive investment it is always hard for me to imagine why it’s not a more important part of purchasing or building a home. It is always less expensive to do it at the beginning stages of planning and developing your architectural drawings but even if your home is already built and all your landscaping is already put in, outdoor lighting is in my opinion the single-best improvement you can make for your home.

Why Hire a Lighting Designer?

I’m going to level with you here. No one NEEDS a lighting designer. Anyone with thumbs and half a brain can wire some fixtures together and stake them into the ground. Sure, there are a few more laborious aspects of installing outdoor lighting like tunneling under sidewalks, burying and hiding wire etc., that can certainly discourage most homeowners from taking on the task. But the actual installation of the lighting is pretty cut and dry, especially now with LED technology virtually eliminating voltage drop. You can hire a handyman or even a landscaper to install them and the truth is, it will probably end up being much cheaper than hiring a lighting professional.

Of course there is a difference between price and cost; and while the upfront cost of not using a lighting designer might be lower, eventually over the lifetime of the system you will end up paying more. Unfortunately, I have seen this on far too many occasions. When you hire someone who doesn’t specialize in lighting you are far more likely to have inferior products installed and have the system installed improperly. Having an improper installation can cause premature failure of lamps (even if you pay extra to have LEDs installed) and there is such a wide range of materials out there it is hard for people outside of lighting to keep up with what products are best depending on the application. When you hire a lighting designer that is ALL that we do.

 

This fixture has no silicone plug at the wire exit hole and so ants have turned it into a lovely home and ruined the socket of the fixture.

This fixture has no silicone plug at the wire exit hole and so ants have turned it into a lovely home and ruined the socket of the fixture.

In many ways exterior lighting design is a lot like interior design. Not everyone needs an interior designer either. Anyone can arrange furniture in some sort of pattern in a room. Anyone can pick out a couch. But you pay an interior designer to achieve a specific feel and add a specific ambiance and mood. You want the design to compliment itself. You want it to reflect a feeling that you hope people get by being in your home. It’s the same with outdoor lighting. There are several ways to light a house but a designer is going to know how to highlight different architectural features. A designer is going to know that stucco lights differently than brick, or that you light ornamental trees differently than you light larger trees. A designer knows the correct lamp to use depending on how tall or how narrow a feature that you wish to highlight is. A designer isn’t just going to stick the same fixture with the same lamp every ten feet along the front of your house. And honestly, if that’s all you want, you shouldn’t call a lighting designer.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that there is never a reason to put in less quality material or to hire the least expensive person out there. Sometimes you sacrifice quality and longevity of the system so that you can have the appeal of the lighting effect immediately. Not everyone can afford to spend $10,000 on an outdoor lighting system at the drop of a hat. In these cases I always suggest working in phases first. But if that is not an option I have suggested using inferior product so that my clients can achieve the look they want knowing that they will have to replace the fixtures in a few years. That’s the key. If the client is aware of what may come in the future, I don’t see anything wrong with installing less quality material. But a lighting designer will know the difference and will be upfront and honest with you about it whereas someone who doesn’t specialize in lighting might not even know that there’s a difference. They sell you cheap material because they don’t know what sort of problems those materials are going to cause in the long run. They sell cheap materials because they are less expensive for them to purchase and they help widen their profit margins. I’m not trying to suggest that these contractors are being disingenuous. I’m just saying that if lighting is not their main area of expertise then they wouldn’t know to suggest something better or to explain the long term problems that installing less quality materials could lead to.

This PAR36 fixture was installed without a cover and no one maintained it. Now all of the light output is blocked by dirt and debris.

This PAR36 fixture was installed without a cover and no one maintained it. Now all of the light output is blocked by dirt and debris.

This well light fixture was installed without using proper drainage so it just sat in water for who-knows-how-long. The terminal contacts were completely corroded on the fixture and the lamp. There were 14 of these on the house. Not an inexpensive repair.

This well light fixture was installed without using proper drainage so it just sat in water for who-knows-how-long. The terminal contacts were completely corroded on the fixture and the lamp. There were 14 of these on the house. Not an inexpensive repair.

Aside from material selection you also need to consider quality of the installation. Are they selecting the correct wire gauge to accommodate for the load? Are they leaving enough room on the transformer to grow your system as your budget allows for it? Are they making connections that aren’t going to come apart, requiring you to call in a service every 3-6 months because your lights are constantly not working? Are they putting above ground fixtures in turf areas that you are going to trip over or worse, hit with the lawnmower? And probably my number one lighting nerd pet peeve: Area/Path lights in the turf area down your front sidewalk? A lighting designer will take into account how you use the area you are trying to light. They will know how to eliminate glare and hot spots. A lighting designer will know how to light a path with lights that you aren’t going to be tripping over. Since we spend so much time in the world of lighting we just have more tools at our disposal. That isn’t a knock against landscapers or irrigation companies who install lighting as a separate stream of revenue. But I wouldn’t hire a dentist to remove my kidney and I wouldn’t hire a brake specialist to rebuild my transmission. Sometimes it makes sense to have a specialist and outdoor lighting is one of those instances.

This is an install I did in Castle Hills. I worked with the homeowners for several hours to determine just the look they were going for and they were very happy with the outcome.

This is an install I did in Castle Hills. I worked with the homeowners for several hours to determine just the look they were going for and they were very happy with the outcome.

For lighting help and information please call The Outdoor Lighting Guy 214-901-1197

 

What is CRI?

CRI stands for color rendering index. But before we can really understand what CRI is we first have to understand what COLOR is. The photographer Paul Outerbridge observed “No object of itself alone has color. We know that even the most brightly colored object, if taken into total darkness, loses its color. Therefore, if an object is dependent upon light for color, color must be a property of light.”

Color rendering index (CRI) is the measure of how well a light source accurately reflects all frequencies of its color spectrum. It’s based on a scale of 1-100. The lower the rating the less accurate the color of the object being lit is reproduced. If you ever walk in a parking lot lit with High Pressure Sodium lamps (which have a CRI of about 24) you may have a hard time telling a red car from a blue car. Or have you ever gone shopping and bought a red shirt and got home and realized it was orange? That’s because the CRI of the fluorescent shop lights (if they are cheap) is lower than the CRI of your incandescent lighting at home.

In most outdoor lighting projects LEDs are the lighting source of choice because of their excellent energy efficiency and long lamp life. But you get what you pay for. More expensive LEDs will have a much better CRI (up to 98) than the ones you will find at big box stores. And again, because of the contrast of light on dark surfaces in landscape lighting CRI is VERY important. Be sure you ask a lighting professional before making any purchases.

Examples of how CRI can make a big difference in how we perceive color.

Examples of how CRI can make a big difference in how we perceive color.

 

 

What is Color Temperature?

If for some odd reason you’ve been just shopping around for LED lamps (that’s fancy jargon for “light bulbs”) just for the fun of it, you may have seen on the side of the box a number somewhere between 2700K and 6500K and wondered to yourself “What on earth does that mean?”

The Kelvin scale is an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale using as its null point absolute zero where all thermal motion ceases. The scale is named after Lord Kelvin who noticed that when burning a block of carbon it burned a different color the depending on the temperature of the heat source.

In lighting, color temperature is the way we measure color of light output. Most of us are used to a nice warm 2700K that comes from our incandescent lighting in our homes. Offices typically use a “cooler” color temperature in the range of 4100-4500K. The higher on the Kelvin scale you get the bluer the light becomes. I tend to prefer warmer color tones on architectural features and decorative plants and cooler tones in downlighting from trees. Some people don’t like to mix and match but I think in the right application it can look really awesome. See the picture below as an example.

In outdoor lighting, consistent color temperature is much more important than in interior applications. Because of the contrast of light on dark material it’s easy to differentiate a very slight discrepancy in color temperature. As of right now there are not very good standards in marketing of LEDs so 2700K in one manufacturer can look much different in 2700K in another. I will blog more about that in a future blog. In the meantime trust a lighting professional to assist you in selecting the appropriate lamps for you landscape lighting.

This is a great example of how mixing color temperatures can look really good.

This is a great example of how mixing color temperatures can look really good.