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Low-Voltage Landscape Lighting

New systems offer electrical contractors low-maintenance options for their clients.

Low-voltage landscape lighting provides a safe and inexpensive alternative to high-voltage systems. Because installing and maintaining such lighting is a simple process, electrical contractors can install a low-voltage system for clients and don’t have to worry about returning for warranty work.

“I sell a lot of lighting systems over my competitors by offering [low-voltage landscape lighting],” says Gary Hart, owner of Hartscape Company, a landscape construction company in Westminster, Calif. “I professionally install it for my clients, and they can maintain it for very little money.”

And installing a low-voltage lighting system is as safe as it is inexpensive. The standard voltage in a home is 120 volts, and a low-voltage lighting system typically runs at 12 volts. That reduces the chance of electrical shock and means it’s safer to install and maintain than a standard-voltage lighting system, says Terry McGowan, director of engineering and technology for the American Lighting Association.

Simple Installation

Setting up low-voltage lighting is a hassle-free process compared with the complicated task of installing high-voltage lighting, Hart says.

Contractors have to run wires through conduit and bury them deep in the ground with 120-volt lighting, but the 12-volt systems are made for direct burial. No conduit is needed. You can bury the wire a few inches underground, or lay it on top of the ground and hide it with vegetation or mulch, McGowan says.

“[Burying the wire] three inches would do fine as long as it’s covered so people won’t trip on it,” McGowan says. “The worst thing that could happen is [the wire] could be damaged or broken with gardening tools.”

Because there’s little risk of electric shock, Hart says he likes to turn the lights on while installing low-voltage systems.

“You can actually see how everything is lit up while you’re installing it, while with installing high voltage you have to guess,” he says.

And because installation is simple, you can easily rearrange the lighting scheme if the client isn’t satisfied.

The process is less complicated because low-voltage schemes don’t require the strict installation codes or permits that high-voltage systems require, Hart says.

They do, however, require a transformer to convert standard voltage in a home from 120 volts to 12 volts, McGowan says. The transformer can be installed on the side of the house, in a basement or garage or on a post outside.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Problems

Before you install a low-voltage system, map out a lighting scheme to determine the amount of wire and number of fixtures you need.

This will help you avoid voltage-drop, which occurs when not enough current reaches the lights at the end of a run, McGowan says.

“If you don’t take length [of wires] into account, the light at the end of a run will be dimmer than the light at the beginning,” he says.

To prevent this, the distance between the wires and the lighting fixture should be 25 to 50 feet, he says. You should also consider the wattage of the fixtures to stay within the capacity of the transformer. Loop the far end of the wire back to the transformer to ensure both ends of the loop are powered, which also prevents the lights from going out if the wire is broken somewhere along its length, McGowan adds.

The Future of Landscape Lighting

Because lighting technology, especially the energy-efficient variety, is changing quickly, it’s important to continually learn about new products. McGowan recommends becoming familiar with the low-voltage products available for purchase and becoming an expert on a few of them.

“Look at the new products out there — especially the ones using LEDs and energy-saving controls,” he says. “Try them out, try servicing or installing them in cold, wet or snowy weather with gloves on. Experiment. Decide on a few that you like, and get good at installing them.”

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