Know how to install backyard lighting before you start

5 Y 1108 AqClay Johnston is the owner and president of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Southern Virginia, and he's got a pretty succinct way of summing up the work that his company does: "I think what we specialize in is making wonderful homes and landscapes look absolutely spectacular at night."

Sounds pretty simple, and to hear Johnston talk about it, there are a lot of landscapers and pool builders who approach the job thinking that's about all there is to it. Just put some lights around the yard and the project will be magically transformed. If it were that easy, Johnston, his crew, and countless other lighting professionals would be out of work.

"I see a lot of pool builders using the wrong fixtures or the wrong bulbs, so that they don't have adequate beam spread or beam distance," he says. "They'll try to light everything up as opposed to really focusing on design."

We spoke with Johnston about some of the design principles he often sees violated by the well-intentioned but inexperienced and about the novel way his company and the 80-some others OLP franchises in the United States work with homeowners to ensure satisfaction. (Big hint: They basically set everything up for free and move lights around until a customer's happy.)

Don't Go It Alone

According to Johnston, entrusting anyone but an experienced lighting professional with lighting a backyard and pool area is pure foolishness.

"It's almost like asking your dentist to perform heart surgery," he says, then quickly realizes the hyperbole. "That's probably a bit of a radical comparison, but . . .

"Quite honestly, I think most pool builders just want to build pools anyway; get the pool in the ground then get out of there. Several of the pool builders that we work with farm out the decking, the electrical. They just come in, dig the hole and build the pool."

That's a description that certainly applies to a lot of AQUA readers who prefer to stick with what they do best and leave other aspects of backyard beautification to other contractors.

That's a good idea, according to Johnston, but it's also important to think of it sooner rather than later.

"If we're working with a pool builder, the best thing is to actually start at the point of the plan that perhaps the pool builder has or the landscape architect has designed," he explains. "That's because with pool areas where you wind up with concrete and pavers or some kind of decking, you want to make sure that there's appropriate conduit underneath certain areas so that you don't get blocked out of lighting those areas."

Johnston's company is currently working on a project with a general contractor that's overseeing a $750,000 project that includes a new pool, hot tub, fire pit, retaining walls and extensive landscaping.

"In those particular cases, we want to get conduit into the retaining walls so that we can actually mount lights either in or on the walls themselves," he says. "So from the standpoint of new pool construction, it's never early enough to get a start in the planning stages so that we can set the project up appropriately in order to illuminate certain features that are going to be built along with the pool."

Of course, Johnston isn't always called in as early as he'd like, often getting a call after the landscaper has done his or her work or even after the entire project has been completed.

"Sometimes we have pool areas that, you know, who knows when they were constructed," he says. "But the people will get one of our marketing pieces and we'll get a phone call saying, 'Hey, come out and do this.' We've done a handful of those this summer, and you typically just try to make the best of what you have to work with."

Accommodating those requests is more difficult, but certainly not impossible. Johnston can run wire all the way around the pool area, and since the fixtures are almost always low voltage, that wire doesn't need to be buried more than about 6 inches deep. The limitations come into play when the pool builder or the homeowner decides they want light in a certain area, say, a retaining wall.

"If there's concrete that's already been poured and you're trying to get underneath that concrete, it can be a problem," he explains. "There are ways to do that, but it just makes the job a little easier (not to mention less expensive) if it's all planned for ahead of time."

Other Advantages

Besides making it easier to run wire, getting the lighting designer and contractor involved early gives them an opportunity to offer suggestions about what will look best when lit up at night. Think about it: a beautiful pool surrounded by a boring backyard isn't the project it could be, nor will it be any more exciting when lit up.

"When we typically design a system for a pool area, the more interesting the landscape, or if there's a pergola or an arbor or a water feature or something like that, a retaining wall, we'll try to create a very elegant and subtle scene, very similar to what you might see at a very upscale resort. You just need some texture and multiple levels."

Waterfalls and other water features are especially good for lighting, he says.

"We've done waterfalls that dump into the pool and used mounted lights underneath the waterfall in order to illuminate it," Johnston explains. "We have one water feature builder who utilizes a lot of large boulders in the water features and waterfalls that he creates. You can light up those boulders with certain types of fixtures and make it look very, very dramatic.

"Stone walls behind the pool area are also a favorite target of ours, from a lighting standpoint. We'll create a wall wash on the stone wall or on a backdrop of beautiful landscaping."

Safety is another important issue that lighting can address, and it's particularly important around the perimeter of the pool.

"That's where a lot of times having access to properly designed fixtures and a variety of fixtures comes into play," Johnston says. "We will use fixtures that have been designed for us and that are properly shielded, you don't typically see the light source; you just see the effect of the light it's actually creating on whatever the object is that we're lighting up. So fixture selection and shielding is very important. You don't want to blind anyone."

Safety should always be the primary objective in a pool project, from the time the builder tosses the first shovelful of dirt all the way to the time the homeowner throws the switch to illuminate the scene. That's a message Johnston and every other professional that's involved in the business wants to get across.

He's also got another message, and while it may not save anyone from harm like an appeal to safety can, it's one that can save a project from falling short of expectations.

"When you're working with someone like us, with a great deal of experience in design and utilizing top-quality fixtures, knowing which fixtures to use in which applications, that can have a major impact on the overall effect that's created," he says. "If you're working with somebody that typically does landscape or with an electrician that's not a specialist in this type of work, the designs have a tendency to be significantly lacking."

Unique Selling Propositions

If you think back to high school or college English classes, you probably remember your instructor hammering home the point that it's better to show than to tell. As a writer, you can tell your readers that a character is clumsy, but having him fall down a staircase conveys the idea more vividly.

The same principle applies to landscape lighting. You could tell a homeowner, "This tree is a good candidate for uplighting. We'll shine four lights on it. And that fence over there? I think lights on every other post would be a nice touch." A better bet would be to show the homeowner exactly what that'd look like.

"We have kind of a unique approach to that," says Clay Johnston, president of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Southern Virginia, "and that is that we will provide the homeowners with what we call a free evening design session, where we actually go out and visit with the homeowners, look over the area or areas that they wish to have illuminated and then actually set up an entire lighting system and customize it to suit their taste in lights.

"That way they get to see exactly, in this case, how the yard and pool area will actually look with a professional system that we would install. A lot of folks have a great deal of difficulty trying to visualize what the property will actually look like. This way, there are no surprises."

The company hauls carted transformers around the yard, then pulls wires in which to plug the lighting fixtures. Once the initial setup is complete, the homeowners are invited outside to add a light here, take one away there.

"Hopefully, by the end of the evening we'll come up with a result that they'll absolutely love," he says. "And most of the time we can have the lights installed within about a week after we've been there."

From a business standpoint, doing the work ahead of time eliminates the possibility of callbacks from customers who aren't happy with the way a scene that was described in such beautiful detail fell flat once the sun went down and the lights came on.


Low Voltage, Low Impact

When Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Southern Virginia is called in during a project's beginning stages, the workers dig around and run conduit without worrying about trampling a planted area. When they're called in on more-or-less-finished backyards, however, they need to be a little more careful.

"Probably 95 percent of what we do, we do by hand," says Clay Johnston, owner of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Southern Virginia. "So those folks, when we've completed a project, can't even tell we've been there, other than the fact that when the lights come on at night the place looks absolutely spectacular.

"That's one of the advantages of using low-voltage lighting - we don't have to create the massive trenches to get the wire down a foot or 18 inches below the surface, depending on the code."

One notable exception to the general rule of using low-voltage lighting is when a customer wants a moonlit deck. That requires line voltage and mercury vapor-lights be placed high above the yard and shone down through the leaves.

"We don't do a lot of that," Johnston says. "Our preference is to work from the ground-up if possible. I think the trees look more interesting throughout the year that way, as opposed to only six months of the year when there are leaves on the trees."


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