How to Light an Outdoor Path
Our expert Randall Whitehead lights the way toward more effective exterior illumination
Randall, I need a little advice on lighting a walkway. My two estimates vary by $2,000-$2,500, mostly due to differences in lighting. The first landscaper (with the cheaper price) suggests low voltage (12V) alongside the walkway. The second (who also happens to be a contractor) suggests high voltage (110V) with a large carriage post light at the beginning of the walkway. I am less concerned with the price than which way is better (or safer). Can you help?

Advice you want? I'm full of it. We normally recommend the use of a combination of both low voltage (12V) and line voltage (120V) fixtures. We use line voltage for decorative fixtures, such as a post lantern at the front end of a walkway and a pair of wall-mounted lanterns flanking the front door. And in between, we use low voltage fixtures to highlight the pathway and plantings.

Low voltage accent lights, mounted under the eaves and in the trees, gently guide guests from the gate to the front door. I suggest using a low-wattage bulb in the decorative fixtures—25W is good. If you put too high a wattage in the decorative fixtures, they produce glare and visually overpower the plantings in the yard, actually making it harder to negotiate the pathway. Even at 25W they will guide people to the beginning and the end of the pathway.

Also, select decorative fixtures with some sort of translucent glass, such as frosted, instead of clear or beveled. It hides the bulb and cuts down on maintenance—clear glass always needs cleaning.

Then let the low voltage fixtures do the real work of safely lighting the pathway, allowing the decorative fixtures to give the illusion of providing the area lighting. We like to mount low voltage lights inside trees, pointing downward, to create a dappled pattern of light and shadow along the pathway. This technique—the "moonlighting" effect—is especially effective in regions where there is snow, which would cover up ground-mounted fixtures. It is much more natural than installing a line of pagoda lights, which make your front yard look like a runway.

Randall Whitehead, IALD

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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