Lighting the Yard

While summer is winding down everywhere else, San Francisco's heat is just arriving. For me, it's the right time to set up backyard lights.

I recently moved into a wonderful home with a beautiful yard, but a yard that takes a bit of time to care for. I've been spending a good chunk of my weekends trimming, weeding and mowing it, and it makessense for me to get twice the enjoyment out it by highlighting it at night. The problem is, there are countless ways to light, at every price, starting with the cost of a sandwich and going up to the price of a laptop. Here's what I learned about the low end, the high end, and the sweet spot of lighting a yard well without spending a ton.

Those cheap lights? They're cheap for a reason.

Lighting the Yard

I started with a 10 pack of Solar pathlights for $30 (Amazon) made by a company called Moonrays. Each packs an LED, a rechargeable battery, charging panel and are set to fire up when the veil of darkness drops. I threw em together, staked them into the ground (cracking the plastic on one out of the 10 during the install process) and charged em in the sun all day. Easy.

But come night, it looked like there were 9 fairies twinkling out behind my house—or that a few errant bits of stardust had fallen out of the sky. Sure, the Moonrays are bright enough to let you know there's an LED glowing in your yard. And they give you the vague notion of some green things dimly silhouetted nearby. But they suck.

To throw some dramatic lighting on the trees, I also picked up Malibu's "brightest spot lights." The set amounted to three uplights, each connected to a remote panel with batteries by 20 feet of wire. They were $50, and they were akin to good, natural moonlight. In other words: pretty poor. Like the Moonrays, the Malibus shone blue enough that I noticed the coldness of the light without comparing it to warmer traditional incandescent lights.

The high end

Lighting the Yard

At some point during my research, I discovered that my yard has a lighting box set up by the previous owners (and their excellent landscaping company, Breaking Ground). I thought I could go without spending money on the better lights, but after my disappointment with cheap solar, I thought I'd use the transformer already on property. The box, by Luminaire FX, houses a really robust 300 watt transformer that can be simultaneously set to a timer and photovoltaic trigger, and has separate power rails for 11, 12, 13, and 14 volts to adjust for the power degradation over long runs. Neat. It was only a matter of wiring up the box through the yard and picking out the fixtures.

Lighting the Yard

I got some path lights and uplights from the same company. I also opted to retrofit the 25 watt lamps uplights with 5 watt LEDs. They cost less than going for out of the box LED lamps and use about 75-80% less power. The 4 lamps cost about $80 each and the LED bulbs ran about $25, from my local DIY lighting/garden supply store, Urban Farmer. Running the line, stabbing the lights into the ground, and wiring everything using silicon filled wire nuts and covering the joints with zip tied plastic bags only took me about 30 minutes. That even included burying the line under mulch. I set the lights up to the 11 volt rail because, actually, my LEDs weren't able to vary brightness, and anything over 11 volts gets expended as heat energy.

When night came, I saw the leaves of my trees from inside the house, and the lawn looked inviting enough to lie down on, had the dew not set. The LEDs weren't blue, and had really uniform lighting patterns. I am happy with this set up, but I figured out some important things about the wide gap between professional grade set ups and the 3 dollar path lights I started with.

The middle ground and the truth about solar

So those cheap lights I got? They're actually the standard by which all other solar pathlights are measured by. They're rated at 1.2 lumens and at Home Depot, you can get pieces of varying output rated at 3x, 5x, 6x and even 24x of the 3 dollar variety. I spent 24 dollars on a pair from Hampton Bay rated at 6x—I'd guessed 24x would be overpowering and at $50 each, approaching the cost of a wired set up. They were good enough for the side of the yard I preferred to keep more dimly lit.

Lighting the Yard

So, you have options in solar, for pathlights, if you want to pay for them. But for uplights, your options are limited.

The guys at Urban Farmer told me that both they and home depot sell advanced solar lighting systems that cost $200-$300 for a 10-30 watt panel that needs to be mounted on a fence or a roof to catch optimal sunlight, and a car battery sized dry cell that needs to be stashed somewhere. Even then, you're talking about only powering 3-5 higher output LED lights—or 10 high-end LED pathlights—for a few hours at night. And you'll end up recycling the battery at some point, even if you take your lighting system off the grid.

For that cost and trouble you can wire a yard with a cheaper version of my wired set up. Home depot sells kits of 4 lights, plus little transformers for $180 and up. The differences are most of these kits aren't LED driven, and the transformers don't do neat tricks like supply varying voltage to increase brightness or decreased voltage to extend bulb life. There's also the matter of quality. The kind you'll find at home depot, as compared to the kind I got at Urban Farmer don't look nearly as weatherproof, don't look as nice, and feel cheaper overall because they're made from aluminum or powder coated steel versus copper or bronze. And the warranty of the FX stuff, at 10 years for the transformer and 3 years for the fixtures, beats the typical 1 year guarantee.

The bottom line for all of this is that you can get away with cheap solar path lights that are rated for at least 6x the output of the cheapest kind. But you're probably better off going for a wired setup—even if a cheaper kind— if you have to do any sort of significant lighting involving uplights. And if you're worried about being greener you should just go LED. There's no debate there, as long as you know what color your LEDs will be.

Lighting the Yard

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