External Lighting Guide

Exterior lighting can be used to create a striking decorative effect.

Exterior lighting can be utilized for a number of functions ranging from the purely decorative to ones that enhance your safety. Your design for exterior lighting involves aspects of home ownership that include security, illuminating outdoor recreational areas like a swimming pool or creating a dramatic impact on your landscaping. The key to a successful outdoor lighting design integrates purpose with the most appropriate technological choices. Does this Spark an idea?

Codes and Regulations

Planning an outdoor lighting system begins with researching and understanding municipal building codes and abiding by any neighborhood regulations. You will need to ensure you get the proper permits related to installing wiring and equipment. Making sure that your lighting choices don’t violate any rules or regulations related to the amount or strength of illumination is also an important element of lighting design.

Current Choices

Exterior lighting offers two basic choices: 120-volt and 12-volt fixtures. The 120-volt lights connect directly to the house current. The 12-volt option typically includes a voltage transformer wired to the house; this converts the power to the voltage required.


The safety issue related to exterior lighting design is relatively straightforward. If not installed or used correctly, the 120 volts running on house current can potentially present the threat of a lethal shock. By contrast, the 12-volt exterior lights offer compete protection against the possibility of electrical shock.

Ease of Installation

If you plan on making your exterior lighting design a DIY project and are looking for the easiest method of installation, go with low-voltage lights. Low-voltage fixtures can be clipped onto wire laid into the ground along any point your desire. Installation involves connecting wire to the transformer box, connecting the lamps to the cable, hiding the wires and positioning the individual fixtures.

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Matching Type to Purpose

Standard house current and low-voltage lighting are not equal when it comes to achieving certain purposes. When you need to light up a large area or throw illumination on a sizable focal point, 120-volt house current is usually more effective. Precision lighting is much more effectively achieved with a low-voltage setup.

Current Pros and Cons

The advantages of standard house current fixtures are that they tend to be more durably constructed than low-voltage fixtures. That advantage may not be enough to overcome the many disadvantages inherent to 120-volt lighting. Fixtures are larger and therefore more difficult to hide, as well as being more expensive to install and harder to move. Standard voltage installation also requires building permits and must be wired through ground fault circuit interrupters. Standard house current light wires need to be encased in conduit if they are not buried a minimum of 18 inches underground.

Lighting Effects

Outdoor illumination offers the opportunity to create a dramatic impact on your landscaping through specific placement of fixtures. Placing several small lamps high above the ground creates a soft pool of lighting that mimics moonlight. A fixture placed low and in front of an object can cast a significant silhouette behind it. Downlighting is a means of casting illumination downward and is an effective means of lighting up a pathway.