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Low-Voltage Home Lighting

Most of us are concerned with the way our homes look. That's why we keep the lawn mowed, the woodwork painted and the hedges trimmed. Each day is a new opportunity to refine, tune up and simply appreciate the appearance of our surroundings.

That doesn't have to change when the sun goes down. In fact, during the nighttime hours you have a new kind of control over the way your home and grounds appear. You can illuminate just what you want, with the intensity that suits your mood. It's not only the shapes and objects that make up your outdoor environment, it's also how you choose to make them visible. And with today's low-voltage exterior lighting systems, lighting up your night is easier than ever.

Of course, creating an interesting visual nightscape around your house isn't the only reason to consider exterior lighting. Properly placed fixtures can increase the safety and usefulness of paths, steps, entrances and driveways. Plus, exterior lights can contribute to home security.


For the homeowner, 12-volt, or low-voltage, systems have several advantages. Most important, low-voltage equipment is easier to install. Except for the transformer that's connected to a 120-volt circuit, the entire system runs on harmless 12-volt current. Low-voltage wiring is lightweight and can be laid on the ground or buried just below the surface.

In contrast, a 120-volt system runs on the same power that supplies your home and requires the same precautions and expertise that normal house wiring does. Outdoor 120-volt lighting will need to be installed according to code and may require buried conduit. Once installed, 120-volt systems are relatively permanent, while low-voltage fixtures can easily be relocated if you wish to change your lighting scheme.

Another advantage of low-voltage equipment is that it can be relatively inexpensive. And, when you do the job yourself, the bottom line for low-voltage looks even better. Not only can the capital outlay for a standard high-voltage system be greater, but you may need to hire a pro for part or all of the installation.

One of the most common uses for outdoor light fixtures is to define pathways and shrubs in the garden, yard or along the driveway. Lower-powered 12-volt lamps provide tasteful illumination and increase security.

On the downside, low-voltage generally means somewhat less lighting power. For example, if you want a brightly lit parking area for security purposes, you may require the muscle of 120 volts. Most grounds and garden situations, however, don't need this much light and can actually look better with tastefully placed low-powered lamps. For extra beef, bright 12-volt halogen lamps can be very effective when used to flood an area with light.

The low-voltage transformer that powers your system must be sized to match the combined wattage of your lamps. If you buy a system that comes with six fixtures, for example, adding new lamps may mean upgrading the transformer or adding a second one. And, because voltage drop over long distances is more pronounced in a low-voltage system, using wire that's too light can affect the output at the lamps.

In addition to 12- and 120-volt systems, some light fixtures use the energy in sunlight to provide electric light in the evening. These solar lamps have a photoelectric panel that charges a battery while the sun shines. When the sun goes down, a light sensor activates the lamp.

Equipment Types

Outdoor fixture designs vary to suit a range of lighting situations. For example, path lighting usually sheds light on the ground or shrubs, while in-ground fixtures throw light up and out to highlight a garden structure or wall. Other examples include tree-hung fixtures, spotlights, and deck lighting that's built into posts or steps to create a visual effect and add an extra measure of safety.

For automatic control, some transformers have a light-sensing mechanism that turns the lights on at dusk and off at dawn, while others have a timer that controls on and off cycles. You can also buy a motion sensor to switch on the lights when a moving heat source is detected.

Low-voltage lighting is available in kits or as individual fixtures. The advantage of a kit is that you get the proper transformer, wire and one or two fixture styles all in one box. Kits can range in price from around $20 for plastic lamps to well over $100 for metal fixtures. Individual components, on the other hand, let you customize your lighting system, although you'll have to determine wire gauge size and transformer capacity to match your plan.


Individual fixtures, primarily cast aluminum, sold through electrical distributors and lighting showrooms: