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Jul 11 2016

Be picky when picking a transformer

Since LED bulbs use so much less electricity than traditional halogen bulbs, the overall electrical draw of typical outdoor lighting systems has gone down a lot. That makes very small cheap transformers tempting to use. After all, why install a 300W transformer if you need less than 50W total for your lights?

Well, here’s why:

There’s a lot more to a low voltage transformer than just it’s total power rating. And cheap, low-wattage transformers are cheap for reasons beyond just lower quality materials. They also skimp on important features.

Let’s compare 3 popular styles of low voltage transformer, and see if I can talk you out of considering 2 of them.

Outdoor Lighting Transformers With Manual Dial TimerOne style of low cost transformer is the “egg timer” style such as the one pictured above. These typically are black painted metal, which means they eventually fade, peel, and rust is a concern. I can’t even estimate how many rusted, broken versions of this kind of transformer we have removed and replaced from properties (none of them were originally installed by us).

A more immediate concern is their integrated manual timer. These plastic rotating timers have a lot of downsides: they don’t change for daylight saving time, they aren’t smart enough to know when dusk/dawn are, and they get out of synch whenever there is a power outage however brief. Also, if you rotate them the wrong way the plastic “gears” inside will break, effectively ruining your transformer.

They often put out “noisy” current, bouncing over and under 12V, and usually have just a single tap (connector for your wires) which is not just awkward for installing but also means you can’t “amp out” or balance the electrical load among your various lights and zones.

Basically, that style of transformer is a perfect example of paying very little and getting what you pay for.

Outdoor Lighting Transformers With Digital TimerAnother common style of low voltage transformer is the “digital integrated” style, like the one shown above. These are also typically made of black painted metal to keep costs down (with all the downsides as above).

This style avoids the plastic egg timer problem by including a basic digital timer, but again it’s an integrated timer which can be a point of failure that ruins your complete transformer. This kind of timer is also highly limited, with only “stay on for X hours” settings rather than specific time control, which is inconvenient especially in Canada where our dusk times vary hugely from Summer to Winter. Most people want their lights to come on at dusk and go off at a fixed time, for instance midnight, but if that’s what you want these transformers can’t provide it.

Speaking of dusk, these transformers usually include an “electronic eye” to turn on when it gets dark, but that means the transformer has to be placed somewhere in sunlight and cannot be hidden away inside sheds, garages, or under decks where they’d be out of sight. Also, these electronic eyes can be fooled by leaves falling on them, or car lights shining on them. They are prone to fail, and even when they work they are inconveniently unpredictable.

In short, this is a low cost style of transformer were you get (barely) what you pay for, with lots of inconveniences.

Both of the above styles share another big downside: they only have 12V connectors, and usually just one of them. You might think that’s okay, since outdoor lights are typically 12V. However, the longer the wire the more resistance, which drops the voltage. It’s important to be able to start the voltage higher at the transformer so that by the time it reaches the actual fixture it’s at 12V. That means you often need multiple lines starting at different voltages, so that across your landscape each fixture receives the correct final voltage.

Stainless Steel Low Voltage Outdoor Lighting TransformerA third style improves on the above in all ways. These are stainless steel, so no worries about paint fading or rust. They have multiple taps from 12V up to 15V or more, so each fixture gets the right final voltage. Plus they have have low voltage circuit breakers for safety and to protect the transformer from electrical shorts.

And instead of an integrated timer they have a place to plug in a range of smart timers. That means you can select the right kind for you, including low cost digital timers that understand dusk, dawn, times, self-change for daylight saving, include a 7+ day battery backup, and more. Plus because they use an internal, removable timer, then if the timer fails you haven’t lost your whole transformer. Also, such smart timers know when dusk and dawn are without the need for an electronic eye, so you can have “on at dusk” settings but still tuck your transformer into a shed, garage, or under a deck. You can also seamlessly add these transformers to a complete home automation system. And you can upgrade the timer as your needs change.

This style of stainless steel professional transformers cost a little more than the cheap black ones from big box stores, but their long-life, safety, expandability, and convenience are more than worth it.

Those are some of the many reasons why you should not settle for a low quality black painted transformer. And remember, even if a transformer is rated at 300W or more, it’ll only draw the actual electrical needs of your lighting system. So it is not wasteful to have a transformer with a higher capacity than you currently need — and a lot less wasteful than disposing of or recycling a whole transformer because of a broken plastic egg timer!

It certainly pays to be picky when picking your transformer.

Low Voltage Outdoor Lighting Transformers



Jul 08 2016

Lumens lies

There’s a sneaky secret in outdoor lighting that the bulb manufacturers don’t want you to know: the way “lumens” is used for light bulbs is effectively a meaningless term.

To explain that, let’s talk about candy bars for a moment. If one candy bar weighs 300 grams, and another one weighs only 200 grams, then we can be sure the 300 gram one is heavier. Labels can’t lie about the weight, and “grams” has a specific real-world meaning.

This is because a “gram” is one of the International System of Units, which also includes things like “second” for time and “ampere” for electrical current. This way, we can all agree how long a second is, and that there are 60 of them in an hour, etc. No funny business.

But imagine if “grams” wasn’t a standard. One candy maker could say their candy bars were 600 grams, but you wouldn’t really know what that means. Would a 600 gram “Chocolate Monkey Bar” be more or less than a 400 gram “Bubblelicious Yummy Snack”? You couldn’t tell, and it wouldn’t be fair.

Money LightbulbWell when it comes to light bulb packaging, “lumens” might as well be a made up word too. One brand’s “300 lumens” might be less bright than another brand’s “200 lumens”, and both depend on the shape of the bulb, the nature of the lens, and even the fixture it the bulb gets put into.

Lumens does have a fixed specific meaning (in fact it’s a “derived SI term”), but in real world use there’s no way to know how bright a fixture of a certain amount of lumens will actually appear in practice. So it may as well be a made up word.

For outdoor lights in particular it’s a tricky thing, since what we really care about is how bright a given surface or area ends up appearing to a viewer, not how much light is sent out in all directions from a bulb. A directional lamp (such as a spot light) will appear much brighter to your eye than one that casts a general area effect (such as a post light).

Even things like lux (lumens per meter) and foot candles (lumens per foot) can be slippery characters when it comes to package claims too. These terms should be a much more accurate way of expressing how bright a light will appear to you. But alas the reality is the output from most bulbs is not “measured” but just “calculated” (which really means “guessed at”).

All these words can still often be useful when comparing the brightness of one bulb to the next, but really only when comparing two bulbs of the same kind, from the same manufacturer, in the same light fixture, shining on the same surface. And even then, it’s not like you can count on anything other than “higher means brighter”. You can’t assume that 200 lumens will appear twice as bright as 100 lumens, only that 200 will look brighter than 100. Probably.

So the next time you are shopping for light bulbs, be skeptical of brightness claims. That no-name bulb with “500 estimated lumens” might not be such a bright idea after all.

Jul 06 2016

Add shadow effects with “attraction lights”

One way to add visual interest at night to a garden or pathway is through the use of an “attraction light”, which gets its name from the fact that it attracts the eye.

Custom designed path and garden lights
Click to view full size

Most outdoor lighting effects are cast in areas and shapes: circles around path lights, arcs of light across walls, cones of light up into a tree, etc. But an attraction light creates a shadow play, introducing new shapes and lines at night for a stunning effect.

Attraction lights come in many sizes and shapes, from as small as 13″ up to towering pillars that can form structural shapes or archways.

All of them work in the same basic way: a bulb mounting inside the fixture at the top shines downward, illuminating the cutouts on the fixture itself as well as casting shadows outward in all directions.

The shapes cut out of the fixture dictate the shadows you get, and everything from organic vine designs to angular geometric shapes are available. Another great effect is to have the street number or the name of your property cut into the attraction light, which gives you both a beautiful and functional driveway marker.

Jul 04 2016

Why are outdoor lights made of copper?

Copper is one of the traditional metals used to make high quality outdoor lights. But why? Is there any advantage to copper lights over aluminum ones, or over other metals?

There certainly is! The biggest one is rust.

Copper path lightContrary to what you might have heard, aluminum rusts. So does steel and the rest of the “base metals”. The only truly rust-free metals are what are called the “nobel metals”, which resist corrosion and oxidation in moist air. The nobel metals include things like gold, silver, and platinum, but as you can imagine those are too costly to make sense for outdoor light fixtures.

Luckily, there’s another choice that’s perfect: copper.

Copper is a nobel metal, so it won’t corrode, and it’s also soft enough to be crafted into an amazing variety of forms to direct and shape the light effect.

And while copper won’t corrode it will take on a lovely dark patina, ideal for vanishing into your landscape. Invisible during the day, beautiful lighting at night. But unlike rust, the patina on copper can be instantly wiped away back to a bright shine with any copper polish (or even just citrus and a bit of elbow grease!).

The best part is, unlike with painted aluminum or plastic lights, with copper fixtures you get a naturally dark fixture with no paint to peel, fade, or discolour over time, and no worry that the fixture will corrode to let water in causing the light to fail.

That’s why copper is often the metal of choice for an outdoor light that you can install once and enjoy for the life of your home.