Guyses! Earlier this spring I made the biggest easiest improvement to increase our nighttime backyard chill vibes, and it was so incredibly simple. I’m unlocking the mysteries of landscape lighting for ya. I command (yep, command) you all to follow my lead and do the same with your outdoor spaces!
So, I always thought you had to have tons of money and an electrician to enjoy a nicely lighted landscape. I mean that would make sense to me, for lots of reasons. Number one, we’re talking about electricity and the elements (like rain, and kids!), so I would assume cables would have to be buried 18″ below the ground, and stowed safely inside of conduit – but that is not true. Also, because you’re hooking up light fixtures to wires with flaming hot electricity running through them, I would assume that you would need a professional electrician to hook it all up properly – nopers! Also, I assumed it would all cost thousands of dollars, and it totally doesn’t.
Seriously, alll you need is an GFCI outdoor outlet, a transformer, some low-voltage cable and landscape light fixtures.
The key to making this easy enough for you and I to do this without electrocuting ourselves is the transformer. It plugs into an outdoor outlet and doesn’t need to be hardwired. The transformer knocks down a 120V standard current outlet, to a low 12V, which is safe enough for us typical non-electrician homeowners to use without worrying about getting zapped. And with the advent of LED lighting, the wattage necessary to run a backyard full of lights is incredibly and surprisingly low. For reference, I have 9 lights in my backyard running on a whopping 48 watts – that’s like the same as one incandescent bulb! I insist that you purchase LED lights for this reason alone. Because of the low wattage, the transformer can be really small, I am running everything on a 120W transformer, whereas just a few years ago, the same lighting layout might have needed a transformer that ran between 600 – 1,200 watts – and watts cost, bros. To figure out what size transformer you need, add up the total amount of wattage your fixtures will be using and then purchase a transformer that can support that amount. I would recommend leaving at least 25% extra in case you want to add extra lighting in the future.
The low-voltage transformer then hooks up to low-voltage landscape cables, it’s recommend that you use 12 to 16 gauge wires for small wattage transformers. I used about 130 feet of cable in my backyard. After using the chart below, I determined that using a 14 gauge wire would be cool for me.
It’s super easy to connect the wire to the transformer (which should come with easy to follow instructions). To break it down; after unplugging the transformer, strip the wire, and then attach it to the bottom of the transformer using a screwdriver. Then… ha ha, jokes on you! There is no ‘then’, that’s it!
The Portfolio transformer I purchased has two transformer connection points so that I could run two lines of cable off it. This made it easy to run wire from one side of the backyard to the other, since our outlet was located near the middle of the house. Imagine the wiring as a ‘U’, and the transformer is in the center of it, the cables extend outward in each direction.
When figuring out your lighting situation consider what landscape that you’d like to illuminate. I wanted to illuminate the small trees that we have in our gardens by using spot lights. The trees are spaced evenly in the yard, which in turn allows for evenly spaced lighting, each spotlight is about the same distance apart. We have another walkway that runs along a garden to our garage. This garden is full of plants all under two feet tall so spotlights weren’t necessary. Instead, I thought it would be appropriate to use a path light to light both the garden and the path. I did have to fish the wire under the walkway (call 811 before you dig!), and to do that I created a crimped pipe (aka old curtain rod) and hammered it under the path. I used a third type of lighting near our garage where we have two branchy dogwoods. For this I illuminated the dog woods with a buried well light. I love the dramatic effect of all of it! Seriously, you guys!
You always want to consider how many lights you have on a cable. As you attach more and more lights, the ones farther away from the transformer may be slightly dimmer, so don’t overload yer cables! This is why I used two lines instead of one. Also, your first light on the line should always be placed at least 10 feet down the cable – if you want to place a fixture near the box, just bury the ten feet of cable in the ground – make sense? The pros say you should stagger your lights down a pathway and try to avoid light overlap. I mean, you wouldn’t want to confuse people walking in the evening with overlapping light, I guess it can be a trip hazard?? Also, if you think you might want to add more light onto your cables down the road, make sure to bury extra sections of cable every once in awhile so that you can have that option later on. I already want to do this, because duh, it’s me.
Now that you are designing landscape lighting like a bawse, the only thing left to do is to attach your fixtures. Remember guys? No fancy splices required here! Just purchase fixtures with connection points. All you have to do is screw two prongs down into the landscape wire, and it’s safe and secure. After connecting all my fixtures I lightly buried the cable under the mulch near the border of the garden. Running the cable along the border makes it very easy for me to find it if I want to add more plants to the garden or if I want to add more lights onto my cable. Bury or cover your low-voltage cable in a safe spot to avoid accidentally digging it up or catching it on the lawn mower. If you want to make it harder for yourself and decide to purchase fixtures that need to be hard wired, make sure to use a weather proof electrical nut, however the fixtures I choose come with their own connection point.
The expense is all relative. Personally, I thought it would cost much more, and the impact that it had on our yard was well worth the $300 we spent on the project. You can easily find lighting kits that start as low as $80 and still achieve the same effect. I’m already planning on doing the front foundation garden and side garden next year, and asked my concrete guys to run a channel of PVC under the walkway in the front yard so I can easily get cable from one side of the yard to the other. We’ll need an electrician to come install an exterior outlet in the front of the house, otherwise I’d already be all over that.
You guys gots to do this, I’m not kidding!
I love this! Excellent job and thanks so much for all the info – cannot WAIT to do this!
Fer sure, dude!
Thank you for this post–never realized how easy and cheap to operate this project could be!
I was surprised too! I’ve wanted to do something like this for so long!
This is so helpful. I’m going to hang some LED outdoor string lights, but the only option for electricity is the garage about 25 feet away. I bought an outdoor extension cord thinking maybe I would just leave it unplugged until we wanted to use it – but that’s dumb. Your option is a million times better and safer. I couldn’t tell from the picture, is there a place to plug in the string lights?
Hey Alyssa, I have the string lights on a all weather extension cord that is plugged into the garage. There is a timer involved too so that they will just go on every night for a few hours. The LED landscape lights on the other hand, need to be plugged into an outdoor GFCI outlet. Our transformer and outlet are located under a deep overhang outside, and should technically have a proper weather cover on it, but because it doesn’t get touched by rain, I haven’t been too quick to change it out.
Just to clarify, you can’t plug string lights into the transformer, only landscape lights.
Thanks for the clarification! Glad to know the outdoor extension cord isn’t a crazy idea after all, especially with the timer idea — a much better solution than plugging and unplugging.
Your yard was already beautiful, but landscape lights take it to another level! Nicely done.
Dude, your yard is magical. I love the addition of the lighting!!! :)
Your garden is looking lush, loving the lighting. Nice work!
Oh man, this is so good to know! Too bad we have no outdoor outlets on our 104-year-old house, but maybe I could rig up something through the garage outlets. They have to be GFCI outlets, though? Might have to file this away for someday when we have electrician to add some outdoor outlets, but bookmarking for then. Thank you!
What kind of trees are those by your garage? They look so pretty. Great job.
This. Is. Amazing. If I ever graduate to this level, I’m doing this. Meanwhile…could you share the identity of the plant that accompanies the pretty maple in the sixth (I think) image? I’m looking for something bronzy like that to go in front of a false cypress and a Spirea. (It’ll probably turn out to be a very obvious ivy or something. Apologies…I’m still a newbie.) Thanks!
Never mind. Heuchera! (And sorry for treating you like my personal garden consultant.) Now to go find a couple!
I’m doing this! Your yard is a paradise, beautiful, Alison. :)
Thanks for the great post and the big push I needed! When I first thought about doing this I looked into it to see if it was something a novice could do. As soon as I saw it required an outdoor outlet I stopped and thought “oh well, we don’t have any, better call the pros”.
So I did, and the first quote I got told me there was a $2500 minimum, and that included only 7 lights. After reading your article I see that it makes much more sense to simply call an electrician and have outdoor outlets installed, then buy a kit and do it myself.
Thanks for absolutely INSISTING that your readers follow your lead and do this ourselves. It was just the push I needed!
I love the trees you have beside the garage. What kind are they, and how deep are their roots? Were yo at all worried about the garage foundation?
Perfect timing! Just finished redoing the pool and we wanted to install landscape lighting around that and at the front of the house! Just saved me from doing all the research.