Landscape & Hardscape Ideas

Environmentally-Friendly Lighting Design for the Patio

As the days get shorter but the weather stays mild, some relaxing time outside is in our future. The evening can be a peaceful time to unwind and get some fresh air after a long day spent indoors.

Getting extended-hour use out of your patio is one of the main reasons to install an outdoor room. It should be a priority in any Hardscape design plan. Ideally, a homeowner would work with the contractors from the beginning to integrate lighting into the Hardscape. Unfortunately, lighting tends to be added on later, which can lessen the effectiveness and efficiency of the lights and of the patio itself.

If you are starting a patio project, insist on designing lights in the Hardscape. There are many ways and areas where your low walls, pool decks, ponds and walkways can house lighting. If you are looking to illuminate your already-existing patio, there are steps you can take to get the best solution to your lighting needs.

When designing outdoor lighting, first and foremost is to think about the environment. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, overdone and poorly-designed nighttime lighting wastes over 1.5 billion dollars a year. It also causes 12 million tons of carbon dioxide output. While most of this waste comes from civic and commercial interests like over-lit highways and corporate centers, homeowners contribute to the problem by improperly lighting their outdoor spaces. Too much light, light misdirected toward the sky, and the wrong wavelength of light bulbs contributes to light pollution and electricity waste.

Shielded lights with low wattage bulbs are best for lighting walkways. A shielded light is a lamp that has a solid cap over the bulb. The cap directs the light downward and prevents the beam from shooting up needlessly into the night sky (and adding to the wasteful “nightglow” of light pollution). Many home stores offer solar-powered shielded lights for walkways. These are an elegant solution to after-the-fact lighting design or outdoor wiring problems. Consider lighting pathways, too. The frequently-used “short cuts” may not be paved but they still get a lot of foot traffic. Lighting the path makes it a little safer to use at night as well.

Gentle illumination rather than harsh lighting gives an intimate aura to your outdoor room. For evenings spent outdoors, warm glow is what you’re after, not the cold blue of floodlights. Of course, any grills or built-in stovetops should be well-lit for safety during use, but perhaps add an extra switch for dedicated cooking lights. That will allow those brighter bulbs to be shut off when the grilling is done.

Beside adding safety to walkways and stretching the use of outdoor rooms, other reasons some owners cite for outdoor lighting is to showcase architectural elements not noticed during the day and to enhance or change the color (thereby changing the mood) of the space at night. Be careful when lighting vegetation, though. Lighting trees at night, according to Purdue University’s Forestry and Natural Resources department, can also alter the growth cycles of your trees. Purdue says “annual cycles of growth and reproduction in trees [is] controlled by day length can potentially be altered by supplemental night lighting.” So it’s important to direct light only where it is needed and to use the lowest amount necessary.

Yet, landscapes with lit trees are inspirational. It can be done well by following a few rules. Floodlights from above shooting down toward the tree are preferable to those at the base of the tree directed upward, but it’s possible to gently illuminate only some of the tree to get the desired showcase effect without the use of floodlights. A different beautiful and dramatic option would be to wrap the trunk or branches with low-voltage string lights. Purdue suggests using mercury vapor, metal halide or fluorescent lamps in order to protect trees and vegetation from unwanted impact. Avoid high-pressure sodium lamps and low or high intensity incandescents. And any outdoor lights, except those absolutely necessary, should be set on a timer to ensure they are shut off.

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