Outdoor lights

Outdoor lights – Five things you need to know about outdoor lights

Most lighting designers spend all their time designing interior lighting, and many times outdoor lights are neglected. Before I start talking about some outdoor lighting facts, I would like to convince you that outdoor lighting is as important as indoor (interior) lighting. Why? Firstly, because most people that look at your house won’t even see your interior lighting (they won’t enter your house) and secondly, because outdoor lights make a good (or bad) first impression on your visitors (and neighbors). That is why it’s important to focus some time on proper outdoor light selection.

Unfortunately, selecting outdoor lights isn’t the easiest task. In this article, I will help you with some tips and tricks. I will present to you two different groups of outdoor lighting, explain what a photocell is, give you some tips for the usage of switches and dimmers, and share with you some other interesting facts. Let’s get started.

1.) Lighting comes first?

No, it doesn’t! Before you start thinking about lights, you need to have a complete plan for your outdoors – you need to know where you will have outdoor furniture (if you will have it), garden(s), paths, fountain(s), and so on. After you know how every square foot will be used, you can start thinking about lighting. Remember, lighting mostly depends on a space’s uses.

2.) Two types of outdoor lighting

In other articles I’ve talked about light layering (task, accent, decorative, and ambient lighting). Light layering is important when it comes to outdoor lighting, but there is also another division among outdoor lights – there are house lights and landscape lights. House lights (like deck lights) are designed to light the house (from the outside) and landscape lights (typically pathway and garden lights) are made for landscape illumination. Typical house lights are outdoor wall sconces, outdoor ceiling lights, and outdoor pendant lights. Typical landscape lights are post lights, path lights, rail lights, and flood lights.


Picture 1: Path light (source: amazon.com)

3.) Photocells

Simply said, a photocell is a light sensor that adjusts the light from a fixture according to the natural light (or other source of light) available. When there is enough natural light, the photocell will switch the light off, and when the photocell notices that the available natural light isn’t sufficient, another light will be switched on. Fixtures that have photocells installed are often called “dusk-to-dawn lights” (they are switched on at dusk and switched off at dawn).

Photocell sensors can be combined with motion sensors (motion will trigger the light only if there isn’t enough light) and with a timer (you probably don’t want your lights to be lit the whole night – you can program the system to turn them off at 2 AM, for example).

4.) Switches and dimmers

Let’s start with light switches. Switches for outdoor lights are usually installed at the main entrance of the house, which is what I would recommend as well. Because you can’t have switches outside your house, this is the best solution, but it has some disadvantages – switching your path light on when you come home makes no sense (you need it when you walking on the path, not after you’re already safely to the house). That’s why it’s recommended to use photocell and motion sensors for essential outdoor lights. Outdoor lights with a decorative function can be switched on separately from inside the house.

If you have many outdoor lights, I suggest a separate locker with switches and labels for each switch (so you will know which switch is connected to which light – trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way). You may also want to have switches in your bedroom or at least somewhere on the 1st floor as well (if you forget to switch them off, you won’t have to walk to the entrance of the house).

And now a few words about dimmers … some experts don’t recommend using dimmers for outdoor lights because green objects don’t look good if incandescent light is dimmed. I have no personal experience with that; I can only say that our house looks much better when decorative lights on the wall are slightly dimmed, but these lights aren’t incandescent. It probably depends on each concrete situation (maybe some advice from a light designer would be helpful to you here).

5.) Too much attention hurts

Another important thing about outdoor lighting is that you don’t want to focus too much attention on the lights themselves – if you focus too much attention on the lights, no one will notice the things illuminated by those lights. Even when you choose decorative lights (which are meant to be noticed), be careful and don’t overdo it.

You now know that you should leave lighting design for the end of your landscaping project, you understand the difference between house lighting and landscape lighting, you know where to install light switches, and hopefully, whether or not you should install light dimmers. You also know the benefits of photocell and motion sensors and possible combinations with timers. Finally, I would like to stress one more thing – outdoor lighting isn’t just about your home’s outside appearance, it’s also about your view of the surroundings from the inside.

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