Serving Toronto, Oakville, Mississauga, Newmarket, and the greater 905 area
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Aug 30 2016

Encapsulated LED bulbs

When it comes to Bi-Pin LED bulbs, along with various size and brightness differences there are two general categories to choose from: encapsulated and non-encapsulated. So, what’s the difference and why would you want one or the other?

Encapsulated LED bulb (on left)

Bi-Pin bulbs (the kind with the two small pins that stick directly into a socket) are a mainstay of landscape lighting fixtures. Bi-Pins are the usual bulbs for pathway lights or other fixtures that are non-directional. Unlike a directional bulb, such as an MR16, a non-directional bulb just send the light out in all directions. Perfect for pathway lighting and when you want a wide effect, such as a wall wash, but not so great for spot lights.

Pictured above are two different Bi-Pin bulbs that give off the same lighting effect. They are both the same pin-size, the same wattage, the same lumens. At night, their effects look pretty much identical. They differ in only one respect: the bulb on the left is encapsulated, and the bulb on the right is not.

An encapsulated bulb is encased in clear silicone. The silicone is soft to the touch, almost spongy. Unlike halogen bulbs that shouldn’t be touched by bare hands (due to oil deposits from your fingers), encapsulated LED bulbs are okay to handle without gloves.

The main point of the encapsulation is wet weather protection. Encapsulated bulbs shouldn’t automatically be considered submersible, but they are water tight and suitable for wet location use. Also, they are pretty much a requirement around salt water or salty air. Encapsulated bulbs are also generally better at withstanding vibration and swings in ambient temperature.

Not just for the boat, but also the dock and pier lighting.
Click to view full size

You should always use encapsulated bulbs for any fixtures on boats, docks, near back yard water features, etc. Think of how many of your own path lights are directly in the path of pop-up sprinklers, or near pathways/driveways that get salted in winter. But there’s no downside to using them in any fixture, so they are increasingly the standard as cost for encapsulating comes down.

It will likely be the case eventually that all LED Bi-Pin bulbs will be encapsulated. The only thing holding them back is cost, but that cost is coming down.

There’s no reason to go out today and replace your still-working non-encapsulated bulbs with encapsulated ones. But once your bulbs start to fail or dim, you should upgrade to encapsulated LEDs at that time. That’s especially true in places like here in Toronto where large seasonal temperature differences and high lakeside humidity can really affect outdoor LED bulb life.

Aug 29 2016

Light bulb colour temperature

You probably have heard the terms “warm white” and “cool white” referring to light bulb colour (or “color” for our American friends). But what does that really mean? And how does it help you select which colour light bulbs you’d prefer for outdoor lighting?

The scale of light colours from red to blue is called the “colour temperature“, and usually expressed in Kelvin, using the symbol K. For instance, a bulb colour might be referred to as “3,000 K”. Lower numbers are “warmer” and higher numbers are “cooler”. In other words, lower numbers are more red, and higher number are more blue.

To illustrate the differences, here are some light sources and their typical matching colour temperatures:

Colour Temperature Example Light Source
1,850 K Sunrise/sunset or a candle flame
2,400 K Incandescent bulbs
2,700 K “Soft white” bulb
3,000 K “Warm white” bulb
4,100 K Moonlight
5,000 K “Cool white” bulb
5,500 K Noon sunlight
6,000 K Direct sunlight
7,000 K Overcast sky
5,500 K Clear blue sky

Those are all typical approximate values, and they all can vary. Also, the colours you see in the chart above will be affected by your monitor settings, ambient colour in the room you’re sitting in now, etc. But the chart gives you an idea of warm and cool colours in relation to each other.

Which colour is best for outdoor lighting? Well, there is no “best”, there’s only what appeals to you personally.

Most people opt for soft white or warm white colours (that is, 2,700 K or 3,000 K) for their outdoor landscape lighting. These warm colours have a hint of firelight in them, and they can feel inviting and attractive. They compliment most stone and hardscape colours, and usually look pleasant against the “Earth tones” you’ll find in most gardens.

Some people prefer a cool white colour, especially if the lighting is more for security or for checking there aren’t any raccoons outside before you let the dog out.

As a rule of thumb, any colour that is cooler/bluer than the ambient light will seem to “pop” or stand out more, which is very good for security lighting but can be a touch stark for general aesthetic lighting. So for outdoor lighting design, colours cooler than moonlight (above 4,100 K) are less typical for landscape lighting.

But it’s all just personal preference, and if you want your lights as bright as possible then choosing a cooler colour can make them stand out more and add to apparent brightness.

One thing to keep in mind is landscape and architectural lights are cast upon subjects that have their own colour: green leaves, red flowers, grey stones, etc. It’s the mix of bulb colour PLUS subject colour that you actually see. Landscape lighting design should take into account the colour that results when the light illuminates an object, not the just colour coming out of the bulb.

The only rule (and it’s really just a rule of thumb) is do not mix lamp colours in your design, at least not without purpose. If some of your lights are 2,700 K and some are 5,000 K then your lighting design might have a patchwork feel to it. It’s typically better to select one colour and use that throughout your landscape. The objects in your landscape will add in their own colours, and the resulting shades will feel more natural.

Incandescent coach lights and warm white up-lights
Click to view full size

If you already have exterior house lights, such as coach lights or the dreaded “pot lights”, then you’ll probably want your landscape lighting to match the colour of your existing bulbs for a seamless effect. The image to the right is a “before” example showing why matching bulbs is important. A quick bulb change later, and the effect was seamless and lovely.

That said, if you just have one or two exterior lights by your door or garage, then if their current colour doesn’t appeal to you it makes more sense to change those few bulbs rather than committing your entire landscape lighting to something less attractive.

Old LED fixtures were notorious for having very blue light, often 7,000 K or above, and that made them very unattractive on landscapes. Low quality LED lamps today can still have that problem, and many (perhaps even most) solar lights still are that unattractive harsh blue. But a quality outdoor lamp will usually be available in a range of warmer colour temperatures.

Unfortunately, just like with their dubious claims of higher and higher lumens, bulb brands can not always be trusted with their colour temperature claims. One brand’s 3,000 K can look different than another’s, and many brands apply the term “warm white” to just about everything under the sun (literally). An outdoor lighting professional can supply you with bulbs that truly match the colour you want. In fact they should be able to come look at your existing bulbs and supply you with matching replacements, or suggest changes for a more attractive effect. But if you’re getting bulbs from a big box store, you might want to buy just a couple to view at night before you commit to a bulk purchase.

Aug 26 2016

Focal point lighting

Every property is unique, and outdoor lighting design should help draw the eye to what makes each landscape special. Focal point lighting is a great way to highlight distinctive items such as a statue, fountain, arbour, water feature, or even a unique tree or wall.

Often, focal point lighting is a great candidate for using a singular fixture or lighting effect not used elsewhere on the property. That helps accentuate the specialness of the focal point, by making the lighting effect as distinctive in context as the subject of the light.

There is no single type of “best” effect for focal point lighting. Really, it usually comes down to using an effect for the focal point that is simply different than most of the other lighting effects around it. A spot light isn’t inherently a focal point light, but a single spot light after five path lights will stand out.

Leaving the tree canopy unlit gives this gazebo more focus
Click to view full size

Focal point lighting will often break a pattern, such as by introducing a new light shape, or intensity, or even direction. That doesn’t mean focal point lighting needs to be brighter. It’s difference that draws attention, not always brightness.

Of course, you need to establish a pattern before you can break it. Just like you don’t want to use too many fonts on a page, you generally don’t want to use too many different effects in a design. Not everything should be the same, but not everything should be different either.

A common technique for focal point lighting is to narrow the effect around the subject. Spot lighting a piece of art or a fountain, for instance, is a great way to separate it from its surroundings. This is especially effective with items against darker backgrounds, or where the colour and/or texture of the subject is very different from its backdrop. In this case, the surroundings become a sort of frame or stage for the subject.

When the focal subject is close to its backdrop, such as a small statue nestled in a garden, then the focal point lighting fixture should generally be placed slightly offset from the typical viewing angle. This will let the subject’s own shadow create a dark outline, making the subject stand out from the surroundings.

Statue lighting
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Statues should generally be illuminated from an oblique angle, so that shadows on the statue help bring out its 3D shape. Straight-on lighting can artificially flatten a statue, while lighting too much from the side will create long shadows across the statue that can also wash it out. A slightly askew angle is usually best to create the right balance of depth and highlight.

Using direction to draw focus, rather than colour or intensity, can add emotional impact to the design. It feels to the viewer like they’ve selected the focus on their own rather than having it demanded of them, which means the design can have more personal resonance. It just “feels right”.

For instance, if a design was lighting most trees with well lights or up-facing flood lights, then a subtle way to draw the eye to one particular tree would be to illuminate it from an angle instead. All the lights could be the same flood effect, and share the same colour and intensity, but the direction of the light helps highlight a unique view.

A good rule of thumb with focal point lighting is to keep the word “singular” in mind. That doesn’t mean a focal point should only have one fixture, but rather than the design should underscore its uniqueness. A given zone of a property should probably have a single focal point light. If everything is a focal point, then nothing is. As one of our designers puts it, “not everyone in the band can play lead.”

When you’re selecting the best focal point lighting for your unique property, we’d love to help. Give us a call any time for a free on-site lighting design consolation.

Aug 18 2016

How to install path lights so they don’t lean over

When it comes to DIY outdoor lighting installation, a common question I get asked is: what is the best way to install a path light so it doesn’t lean over?

Well, I have good news, and I have bad news.

The bad news is, all path lights installed in soil will lean a bit as the years go by, no matter what you do. This can happen because they get knocked by animals, or just because the ground freezes and heaves. But the good news is with the right kind of mount you can make your path lights stay straight much longer, and even add flexibility to raise or lower them over the years if needed.

But first, it all starts with correctly mounting your path lights into the ground. Generally, path lights come in one of two kinds: stake mount, and conduit mount.

STAKE MOUNT PATH LIGHTS

Stake mount path lights are common. They are threaded on the bottom, and they simply screw into a PVC stake. Stakes come in a variety of sizes, and you should use the largest stake that your soil permits, but at least 50% as long as the fixture is tall (i.e. an 11″ stake is good for path lights 22″ or shorter).

To install, you can either hammer the stake into the ground first and then screw on the light, or attach the stake to the fixture and push both into the ground together. Either way, it can be tricky to get the fixture installed bolt-upright to start, so often you have to wiggle it straight. That loosens the soul beneath the mount, and if you leave it loose the path light will likely start to lean over within a short period. So once you have the fixture sitting properly upright, it’s important to take a mallet and stomp down the soil all the way around the light. Do this a few times, round and round, until you are sure all the soil has been packed very tightly. Loose soil or mulch can then be spread at the base of the fixture for a natural look.

How to mount a path light
Click to view full size

The downside to stake mounting is there is no flexibility for the height of your path light. If the nearby plants grow larger over the years, you cannot adjust the path light to be any taller. Landscapes and gardens are very organic designs, and stake mounting your path lights does not give you any flexibility to account for changes.

CONDUIT MOUNT PATH LIGHTS

I prefer path lights that use a conduit mount. This kind of mount is more common on premium quality path lights, and not something you’ll see much in path lights from big box stores. These fixtures are not threaded at the bottom, but instead are designed so a 1″ PVC conduit will snugly fit into the stem from the bottom.

To install, you hammer a piece of 1″ PVC conduit straight into the ground as deep as the earth will permit — basically, down until you hit rock — then cut off the excess conduit above ground level. That means you always get the deepest mount permitted, not just limited to the length of a small stake. Next you sheath the path light stem snugly down over top of the PVC conduit, and press it into the ground. The conduit will guide it straight down. You should still tamp down the soil with a mallet, but the soil will not be nearly as loose to start as with a stake mount.

The two big advantages of conduit mounting over stake mounting are: (1) you always get the deepest mount the location will permit, and deeper mounts mean less lean over time, and (2) the stem of the fixture will be longer, so you can raise or lower it to adjust for changes to your gardens over time. It’s both a stronger and a more flexible mount.

Because a conduit mount path light will have some part of its stem actually underground, you would usually select a taller fixture. For instance, you could select a 24″ stem to give you the same above-ground height as an 18″ stake mounted path light, but have the flexibility to mount the light higher or lower as suits the location. You’d then also be able to pull the light up later if needed, or press it down lower into the ground, if the nearby plants changed over the years (as happens in all our gardens!).

Installing copper garden lightsANNUAL ADJUSTMENTS: BRING YOUR MALLET

Unfortunately, every kind of mount will work loose over time due to ground freezing/unfreezing, foot traffic, animals brushing against the fixture, or even the occasional soccer ball aimed the wrong way. Conduit mounts better resist side impact and ground heaving, but both kinds of mounts will still need adjusting over time. The reality is, outdoor lights require a bit of annual maintenance to keep them looking and working like new.

Straightening your fixtures and re-tamping the soil should be part of the annual maintenance to keep your path lights rod-straight over the years. It’s the perfect time to check the connections too, to make sure everything is still secure and waterproof. If mounted correctly, this maintenance should only have to be a quick annual adjustment, and can be done at the same time as changing any halogen bulbs, re-burying any wires that have surfaced, trimming plant overgrowth, etc.

Outdoor lighting is an investment, and a bit of annual maintenance will keep your system looking new for many years to come.

If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area we offer a fantastic outdoor lighting tuneup that includes all the above and more. But if you’re the DIY kind, then simply setting aside a Saturday each Spring for “mallet and trowel day” will keep your path lights on the straight and narrow.

Aug 17 2016

The 5 questions to ask any outdoor lighting company

How do you pick an outdoor lighting company? Naturally, I think you should definitely choose OLP if you live anywhere near the Greater Toronto Area. But let’s imagine you live far away. What advice would I give for selecting the best outdoor lighting company near you?

Of course, you’d want a company that offers high quality products. But they all claim to do that. So before I even looked at any fixtures or designs, I’d ask these 5 questions first:

Discuss your lighting goals on-site with designers

1. CAN I SEE YOUR INSURANCE?

The very first step is to eliminate the risk of an under-insured or non-documented crew working on your property. If there is an accident, make sure you won’t be at any risk. You should ask for verification of active liability insurance coverage of at least $5,000,000, and up-to-date Workers compensation coverage and WSIB.

2. DO YOU SUB-CONTRACT ANY WORK?

Many general landscape contractors use third parties to do the actual work, and this is often the case with outdoor lighting. But then you have no assurance of who will actually be working on your property and what their qualifications are. Plus it leads to “finger pointing” if something goes wrong. I’d strongly advise you to only consider companies that have their own on-staff designers, installers, and maintenance crew.

3. IS OUTDOOR LIGHTING YOUR ONLY BUSINESS?

A lot of companies just dabble in outdoor lighting, especially when times are slow. But think of it this way: no matter how great your plumber is, you wouldn’t hire them to do your interior decorating. Companies that only do lighting part time generally don’t have access to the highest quality fixtures, nor the same range of solutions. Instead, they’re likely to want to sprinkle the same bullet lights everywhere — the old “I only have a hammer, so everything looks like a nail” problem.

4. WHO STANDS BEHIND YOUR WARRANTY?

A warranty is only as good as the company backing it up. Ask how long the company has been in business, but just as importantly ask what happens if they go out of business? Is there a national or international network in place to back up their warranty and continue service?

5. DO YOU OFFER A NIGHTTIME DEMONSTRATION?

Outdoor lighting is a highly visual thing. Not long after installation, your fixtures will become invisible to you during the day. But the nighttime effect is always front and centre. Seeing the actual proposed lighting effects, at night, right on your own property, can sometimes be the only way to be sure the design is right for you. Don’t rely on a 3D rendered walkthrough, either, since those are notoriously inaccurate compared to how the actual effects will look in person.

Only after asking all 5 of the above questions would I want to see any fixtures or start talking about designs. If you can’t get the right answers to the above, it’s better just to look somewhere else (such as one of the 60 Outdoor Lighting Perspectives locations all across the United States).

Of course, if you need outdoor lighting in the Greater Toronto Area then you can get great answers to all of the above questions if you give us a call. Just saying.

Aug 15 2016

Top 5 Outdoor Lighting Wire Tips

There are real advantages to using quality outdoor landscape lighting wire. Quality wire will save you both money and time. But how can you tell the good stuff from the bad? Here are 5 easy tips for selecting high quality wire for outdoor lights.

Technically, any 2-strand wire (even speaker cables!) could be used for outdoor lighting. But you wouldn’t want to use just anything, because you’ll end up with problems such as uneven lighting due to voltage drops, and electrical shorts which can be a real pain to track down and fix.

As a rule of thumb, for landscape lighting projects you’ll want to use UL-listed “12/2 wire” (in other words: 12 gauge wire, with 2 strands). But the aisles are full of wire all claiming to be great for outdoor lighting. How can you spot the good stuff?

Here are 5 things to look for when selecting your outdoor landscape lighting wire:

Spools of wire for outdoor landscape lighting
Spools of outdoor wire
(Click to view full size)

1. DIRECT BURIAL

Wire labeled as “direct burial” or “underground” is specifically designed for installing underground where it will be exposed to the elements. The water and chemicals in soil will eat away at the insulation sheath, and direct burial wire better withstands this year round attack. Specifically important here in Canada, direct burial wire will much better resist stiffening and cracking due to cold. Look for the words “direct bury” or “underground” printed right on the wire.

2. SUNLIGHT RESISTANT

You might wonder why you need your wire to resist UV rays when it’ll be underground? Because it’s easy for you or your gardener to expose a small length of wire when turning your soil. Often this goes unnoticed since it’s black wire against dark soil or mulch. The sun will attack that exposed length of wire, which causes polymerization. In layman’s terms, it’ll turn the insulation sheath into goo. That can lead to corrosion and short circuits which are maddeningly hard to track down. Look for the words “sunlight resistant” or “UV resistant” printed on the wire.

3. HIGHER VOLTAGE CAPACITY

A quality wire should be rated for a much higher voltage than you will ever expect it to handle. Higher voltage ratings are not just good safety, they’re a handy rule of thumb to separate the quality landscape wire from the low grade stuff. Look for wire that says it’s rated to handle 150V, and as with all these tips only trust the words printed directly on the wire itself not just the claims of salespeople and web site. Look for a higher voltage rating such as “150V” printed on the wire.

4. FLEXIBILITY

Some wire is far more flexible than others, and often a good strong UV-resistant sheath makes a wire hard to bend. This makes snaking the wire around your garden much more difficult. Look for a highly flexible wire with a PVC sheath that’s very pliable. Unfortunately, if you’re buying from a big box store you often have to choose between quality and flexibility. A professional outdoor lighting provider can supply you with wire that is both strongly UV-resistant and highly pliable. Flexing the wire by hand is the only way to test this for yourself, which makes buying wire over the internet more difficult.

5. DISTANCE MARKERS

Part of a successful outdoor light design is taking into account zones of fixtures, so you can evenly distribute voltage. This is true for both LED and halogen, although halogen bulb are more dramatically affected by “voltage drop”. Any quality wire will have distance numbers printed every foot so you can keep track of wire lengths when you are load-balancing your system back at the transformer. Look for distances printed every foot along the wire.

High quality outdoor light wire
High quality outdoor light wire
(Click to view full size)

Pictured to the right is an example of a high quality landscape lighting wire that meets all 5 of the above criteria. Click the photo to see how the details are printed right on the wire itself.

It’s relatively easy to replace an outdoor light fixture if it gets damaged, but when the problem is a tiny crack in a wire “somewhere” on your property, it can take hours of frustrating digging to hunt down the problem.

You’ll save a lot of time in the long run if you use quality wire for your outdoor lighting.

Outdoor landscape lighting wire is available from many places, including big box stores, electrical supply shops, some landscapers and sprinkler companies, and of course from professional outdoor lighting installers such as Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in Toronto.