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Setting the Mood: Tricks From A Low-Voltage Landscape Lighting Designer & Installer

By Bunny Frank, Founder/Creative Director of Light My Landscape

So you’re thinking about becoming a low voltage landscape lighting designer and installer.

Your very first investment is to purchase two (2) books, think of them as your bible, The Landscape Lighting Resource Manual by Nate Mullen and The Landscape Lighting Book by Janet Lennox Moyer. I firmly believe, if you wish to stand out as a designer/installer, you owe it to yourself to read, and re-read Nate’s book. Underline, highlight and tab the pages that are most important. Remember, our role, as a low voltage lighting designer is to implement light to create a pleasing environment. It is light that allows us to enjoy a property each and every night.

Low voltage lighting is a large investment. So it is important that on your first meeting all parties, who will make the final decision, be present. Hopefully they will have viewed your web site. Make sure they understand that digital images (photographs), especially when displayed on a computer monitor, do not truly capture the essence of nighttime lighting. In order to truly appreciate the “ART” of landscape lighting it must be observed in its true environment. I always take them to several of my completed portraits. It is important to know exactly what they are looking for; where do they spend their time, inside the home, as well as outside. You want your lighting to harmonize with these locations.

I approach landscape lighting from the perspective of an artist and an exterior decorator. When I stop and think about lighting a property I consider all of the elements. The most common mistake is the failure to light the architecture. Like “Ugly Betty”, light, when properly installed will always create something of interest and beauty. Often I find that the landscaping has an imbalance and/or a lack of flow. Too much hardscape - it makes the site cold/austere.

When you are planning your lighting portrait, the need to add fixtures to what may appear to be inaccessible areas, will present itself. Remember that nothing is inaccessible! Removing paver stones, Chicago brick or core drilling is routine for me. I also create new landscape beds, add planters, light up columns and roofs. While my crew is trenching for the wire (in conduit) we will install drip tubing. Speaking of my crew, I try to keep them healthy and happy with vitamins, Gatorade, vitamin water and food. A healthy, happy crew results in a great install every time. Oh yes, they are dressed in company-supplied logo T-shirts, pants and hats. It is important that my crew looks sharp. I’m an illuminator. It is all about being seen in great light!

By far my greatest challenge (I triumph 95% of the time) has been to convince my patron(s) to remove those awful, glaring coach lamps. They remind me of dangling, chandelier earrings. When first observed, it is as if you are looking into headlights. Coach lamps make it impossible to appreciate the ambiance and, are a visual distraction to the artistic illumination I create. I often use Unique’s Orion wall sconce as a replacement. This is an up/down fixture that allows me to introduce the vertical element of light to the building. Be aware of those high hats glaring down, they shorten and flatten the structure. I’ll program them to come on after the landscape lighting turns off. On one of my portraits, I installed thirty-three Orion’s. I had them powder coated to match the structure. But first I had to saw cut many of the walls, install electric and fixtures where none existed. And to finish, I had to stucco and paint the walls. My patron, an NFL player, and his wife, when viewing their completed portrait for the first time, called me at 1:15 at night. He apologized for the hour but then shared with me how thrilled and excited they both were with their nighttime lighting masterpiece.

Finally I’m ready to begin the cost process. My work is completed to National Electric Code (NEC) specifications. Generally, it is permitted which requires trenching at least eight (8) inches to end up with 6” of cover. I layout my fixtures on the site plan (a must have one). My typical project averages 150 fixtures with six (6) to eight (8) transformers (I install Cast and Unique) so it is important I have done my homework. Electric, even though it is low voltage, is like water. If you don’t size it correctly you will have a problem at the end of the line! I do a complete wire length and electrical calculation on every hub. And I know the length of my homeruns. Again, like irrigation, start at the ends and work back to the valve (hub). And from the valve to the controller (transformer). Estimated costs for all of the incidental expenses beyond the light fixtures are provided in my Agreement/specifications package.

All my ideas have been accepted and the Agreement has been signed. I have received my deposit, with the balance due as each transformer becomes hot. Prior to my final installation I do an above ground install. And heaven help anybody that moves them. I return that evening to critique my work. This is the adjustment period- relocate the fixture, use a different lamp, use a different fixture, etc. If I am satisfied, the next day I will allow my crew to begin the digging process. At the conclusion of the installation, every hub and fixture is amped and volt tested. A documented ‘as installed plan’ is created (get a copy of their site plan) for the patron and my records.

A Maintenance Agreement is a portion each Agreement. My Lifetime Warranty for the equipment, is to the address not the patron, is valid as long as this agreement is kept in force. Lighting, like a fine woman, needs to be maintained.

You may ask how do I provide Lifetime Warranties (first year is absolutely cost free)? I use only what I believe to be the best equipment available. Cost is factored into the canvas. Without Unique and Cast I could not possibly paint or power my portraits. I use Casts no-ox tin coated wire (25 year warranty) for my home runs. I solder every connection and then insert the splice into Northstar’s silicone cap. “Old World Craftsmanship…Today’s Technology”

My patrons (you may have noticed I don’t refer them as customers) understand “that purchasing landscape lighting is not unlike commissioning a work of art”. Light is what makes a Monet painting glow and light is my paintbrush. Through the intimacy of light my goal is to paint breathtaking and thrilling nighttime portraits. Low voltage lighting, when properly designed and installed, will create moods, from elegant and romantic, to safe and secure.

I am proud to say, I leave my patron with a low voltage lighting masterpiece that will last a Lifetime.

Remember, I’m Unique…I Perform Nightly

Bunny Frank is the Founder/Creative Director of Light My Landscape
She is a Licensed, Certified Landscape Lighting designer & installer and a member of AOLP.

References

1. Cast Lighting, Inc.
2. Unique Lighting, Inc.
3. The Landscape Lighting Resource Manual by Nate Mullen
4. The Landscape Lighting Book by Janet Lennox Moyer

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of PIPELINE a publication of FIS. Permission has been granted by the Florida Irrigation Society, Inc. for reprinting this article.

 

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