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.
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!).
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.