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How Low-Voltage Landscape Lighting is Estimated

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

One of the first questions we get asked when we meet a potential client has to do with cost. Here's how we develop a quote.

We start by walking your property with you. That helps us to learn more about your landscape and the architectural features of your home. We are experienced at this and even though we’re looking at your house in the daytime, we’re visualizing it in the dark. We’re picturing what things will look like when lit at night.

We’re doing quick mental calculations about things like beam spread, beam height, and how the lights will react with existing landscape and architectural elements. Will there be shadows, dark spots, glare? Will the beam shine into windows and be distracting on the inside?

We also ask questions and we listen to what you have to say. Homeowners have differing ideas about what they’d like their house to look like when lit by landscape lighting. They may have seen other homes lit a certain way and want to do something similar.

Some homeowners are more concerned with safety and security than with enhancing the beauty of the home’s curb appeal by highlighting certain elements. We want to know how you feel and how we can best realize your visualization.

Once we have some idea of what should be lit, how, and where, we’ll start to think about the installation and we’ll jot down some notes. We’ll probably take a bunch of pictures and we might draw some diagrams, too.

An experienced designer makes all kinds of mental calculations and decisions while walking around your home. We call the information gathering visit a walk-through. It also gives us a chance to get to know more about you, your home, and your family. You’ll likely get to know us better, too.

Sometimes two people will arrive for the walk-through. One will be focused on the design while the other will be talking with you, the homeowner. We don’t rush the walk-through. It’s an important time for both parties. We want you to be comfortable and have a lot of input. We will treat you with respect and the utmost professionalism. We’re also very friendly.

Now that we have the basic information we need, some diagrams and photos of your house and landscape, and a good idea of your needs and desires, we’ll go back to the shop and start to design your landscape lighting. This is where it gets interesting.

There are a lot of decisions to be made.

We’ll think about how many and what type of fixtures we might need, how much cable, how the fixtures will be connected, where the power will come from, and whether or not we’ll need more than one transformer (a transformer literally transforms the 120 volt house current to a lower voltage, typically 12 volts).

Will there be uplights and downlights? Will we use area or pathway lights? Will we have any challenges to a smooth installation?

We need to make some initial choices about fixtures. There are many different fixtures available from many different manufacturers.

We consider things like the look, size, and construction material of the fixtures. Fixtures made of brass are very solid, will stand up to any kind of weather, and are almost impossible to damage. We need to select fixtures that fit your design and we have to consider how they’ll be installed.

Another consideration is the warranty the manufacturer offers on the fixtures. These range from 1 year (maybe) for a black coated aluminum fixture from a home improvement store, to anywhere between three years and fifteen years from reputable manufacturers.

We use fixtures that have a lifetime warranty. And yes, they are more expensive and worth every penny.

How big a transformer will we need? That’s based on the number of fixtures and how far away from the power source the furthest fixture will be. Home improvement kits come with only a few fixtures and a low wattage transformer. But if we’re looking at a large number of fixtures and a long distance from the power source, we need a transformer that can handle that load while still providing enough power at the end of the run. Will we need more than one transformer? Are there exterior GFCI outlets we can use, or will we need to install one?

We bury all the wiring. Most do-it-yourself people don’t bother with this, it’s too much trouble. But it’s important. The cable we use must be rated for direct burial so the cable must be tough, moisture resistant, and heavy. If that cable is going to be buried somewhere that might be disturbed, like a flower bed where the plants get changed every season, we have to bury it really deep or enclose the cable in a conduit or raceway so it won’t be damaged.

Then we have to think about the lamps. These are the bulbs that go into the fixtures. We use interchangeable fixtures, which means we can choose the lamps we’ll put in them. Kits from the home improvement stores are fixed lamps. You can’t change them. What you get is, well, what you get.

We need to be able to choose how bright our LED lamps need to be (we only use LED lamps). Intensity is measured in lumens which translate to watts like the incandescent or halogen bulbs you use inside your home. Incandescent bulbs might be rated at 40 watts, or 60 watts, or 100 watts. You may even use three-way bulbs with 60, 100, and 150 watts available in the same bulb. In the outdoor lighting world, it’s a bit different.

We use lamps equivalent to 2 watts to 5 watts, typically. It may not sound like much, but a 5 watt LED lamp is pretty bright.

Then there’s the beam spread. That literally means how wide the light beam might need to be. That can range from a hot spot, which is just what it sounds like, to a beam spread of 30–100 degrees or more. That’s really wide and will light an entire wall, so we use them where the light washes or grazes a wide area.

If the light will shine up a wall, we need to know how far up the wall that beam needs to reach. It’s not optional in the home improvement store kits. But it’s an important factor for us.

We also have to consider the color temperature of the lamp. Again, you don’t get these options in a home improvement store.

Color temperature is a measurement scale that ranges from a softer, warmer and more yellow light at the low end to a cooler and brighter light at the bluish end of the spectrum.

It seems like a lot of information to gather, doesn’t it? It is.

Once we’ve gotten all the decision making consolidated into a design, we’ll contact our suppliers and start formulating a quote for you.

In the meantime, we may have agreed to come back and do an overnight demonstration at your house, so we’ll be getting the demonstration fixtures together for you.

The demo doesn’t always show you everything we plan to do. For example, downlights in trees are a little hard to demonstrate without actually doing at least a temporary install in the tree. That’s time consuming and a bit dangerous, so we try not to do it if it can be avoided.

We’ll come out and place main fixtures where we think they should go, plug in the transformer at twilight, and then we’ll watch your reaction when the lights come on.

It’s the best part of the job!

We haven’t really installed anything or buried any cable so we can move things around, adjust, and tweak. We can add things and we can remove things until you’re happy with what you’re seeing.

Then we’ll give you an idea of the cost. Not very detailed or specific, because there are still decisions and adjustments to be made. But we’ll give you a range to think about.

The demo stays up for two nights, usually. At the end of that time, we can give you a solid number and you’ll say okay or goodbye. If okay, we’ll schedule to complete the install which includes a free one-year limited warranty on the installation. If you decide against it and we can’t reach a deal, we’ll take everything away and we’ll part as friends.

That’s how it all works.

If you have any questions, as always, we’d love to hear from you!

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