But for safety reasons, it pays to install walkway lighting that will gently guide everyone to your front porch or your backyard picnic table. Contrary to conventional wisdom, you don't have to have a degree in electrical engineering or an offshore bank account to get started. Designed to operate in low-voltage systems, the lights are almost as safe to handle as a 9-volt battery. Shown: "Light defines space," says Mike Gotowala, president of Preferred Properties Landscaping, in Connecticut, who designed the award-winning layout for this home.
To achieve a nice warm glow, he recommends that path fixtures be installed about 14 inches high. For homeowners pressed for time and patience, manufacturers offer this simple solution: Everything you need comes in one box.
Fixtures range from $3 to $400 apiece, cables cost roughly 50 cents per foot, and a transformer can set you back up to $1,000. Warranties on fixtures and transformers range from one to 10 years, but high-quality copper or brass lamps will light the way for decades.
Small in stature, the lamps serve a vital function: preventing missteps. Fixtures can be installed in risers, on a wall beside the stairway, or beneath the lips of treads. When placed high on a tree, the long, narrow fixtures create a moonlight effect, bathing a stairway or a stretch of path in a soft glow. Set on stakes driven into the ground, these lamps have canopies in a range of decorative styles, but their real purpose is to project pools of light down toward your feet.
The glass lens and metal body make for a sturdier, more weather-resistant construction than the plastic parts of bargain-basement rivals. The powder-coat finish, applied to the cast-aluminum body after a five-step cleaning process, has been proved to withstand harsh weather. The copper body can endure decades of sun, wind, rain and snow, developing a maintenance-free patina along the way.
In some northern climates, the sun's rays produce 8 to 10 hours' worth of energy in summer but only 3 to 6 in winter.
Bottom line: Solar lights have grown more efficient, but they can't defy the weekend weather forecast. By this time next year, though, Thomas Edison's energy-squandering incandescent will be officially retired due to the stricter efficiency standards adopted by Congress in 2007.
The future of pathway lighting belongs to the LED (light-emitting diode) and its electron-driven semiconductor. LED bulbs burn cool and reduce power consumption by as much as 75 percent, but that savings will cost you more up front. The bulbs live significantly longer (about 25,000 hours), they can be powered by a smaller transformer, and the light they give off—once derided for being too blue—is much warmer these days.
By contrast, halogen bulbs are less expensive, produce a glow comparable to their old-school peers, and consume 30 percent less energy. When shopping, also note the life span of each bulb and the number of lumens, which indicates the amount of light generated. Before installing any pathway fixtures, you need to step down the voltage from your household system so that you don't have to worry about harming pets or small children who might fiddle with the cables.
If you don't have an outdoor receptacle at the ready to receive the transformer plug, hire an electrician to install one. To determine which one is best for you, add up the number of watts required to power all your fixtures, then multiply that figure by 1.25, just in case you decide to buy more lights later on. Mark Piantedosi of Commonwealth Landscape Lighting has been installing fixtures in Massachusetts for 13 years. Ideally the lamps should be placed 10 to 15 feet apart, creating pools of light that gently point the way.
Despite the extra effort to run a line beneath the walkway, it's more attractive to place lights on both sides of a path. With the right touch, path lights bring the most charming features of your yard into view, creating a late-night dreamscape.
Instead of showcasing the property's concrete work, the fixtures in this layout let the lush greenery beside the walk lead the way. Much like a certain heavenly body, a downlight placed on a branch of a favorite shade tree invites romance. These ethereal globes don't throw a lot of light, but they do signal a change in elevation in a very bewitching way.
Though fixtures are designed to perform from dusk to dawn year-round, many lighting-installation experts offer service contracts. For a fee, they return to your home once a year to straighten fixtures, clean lenses, and replace bulbs. "If the first fixture gets more than 12, the bulb will burn out faster," says Andrew Coleman of McKay Landscape Lighting, in Omaha.
A real pro also knows how to move solar fixtures in the dark days of winter to capture more light.