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“Excuse me, are you an electrician?”
Just this morning while I was at my local electrical supply house, a homeowner asked me that question. It’s a question I get pretty frequently and I will typically make an effort to help answer their subsequent questions. Today the fellow asked me “how to wire a three way switch in combination with two outlets?” He had just exited the supply house which has a strict policy of not answering electrical questions from the general public. This keeps them free of liability in case the homeowner does something wrong. So when this homeowner saw me coming, he thought he’d try again.
I started explaining what he needed to do when he offered up some additional information. “Well I have 12 wire but I ran 14 wire between switches because it is easier to work with.” At that point I had to stop and explain to him a very important fact; you cannot just pick a wire size because it is convenient, you like the color better, or it’s more malleable. He then shared that he researched the process online but because it was confusing, he thought he would just come down and ask someone how to do it. He followed with “Why does it have to be so confusing? Shouldn’t it just be run some wires and find a way to make it work?” At this point I simply had to tell him, “Sir, you are going to have to call a licensed electrician. It is obvious you are in way over your head, and you can seriously hurt someone. I cannot help you out with this matter.”
In reality, I could have drawn out for him on a piece of paper what he needed to do, and maybe he would have done it correctly. Then again maybe he wouldn’t have, resulting in significant damage to his house or even worse, someone being seriously injured. Once I gave him information on how to do this, the liability would have been on me.
So a word of caution to anyone who searches the internet for “how to’s.” Sometimes the information is worthy, you can save yourself money, and you can take pride in learning something new. But sometimes hiring a licensed professional to do the work correctly is the smarter, safer, and more economical choice.
Whenever I talk about landscape lighting, inevitably the talk will turn to pathlights. Some love them, some hate them but most don’t know the real deal with them. Some of the well-known manufacturers of landscape lighting have hundreds of different types of pathlights. I tell my clients that there is a philosophy that I bring to my lighting and that approach is most apparent in pathlighting. The problem with the multiple choices of pathlights is that they are like dog toys. The pathlight will, in most cases, get the job done of applying light to the area but the decorative aspect of them is irrelevant. Like a dog toy, the toy, is enjoyed by the dog but all of the fancy colors are not for the dog because they are color blind. The colors are for the dog owner. They buy them because they look fun or pretty. To the dog, it just doesn’t matter. The same goes for pathlighting.
Even the name pathlighting is confusing. Due to the fact that these fixtures are associated with the “runway” lighting effect that so many uneducated lighting designers, electricians and landscapers create by installing these in a “column of ducks” along a walkway. Pathlighting can obviously, be the choice for lighting a path, they have another use as well. Installing these in the garden near low plants allow the colors of these plants to come alive. Contrasting plant colors with the dark, earthy look of a nice mulch bed, brings this area of a garden to life at night that otherwise would be forgotten. Between focal points such as ornamental trees, pathlighting eliminates the dark pool that inhabits the areas between these specimens. Without that cohesive lighting, usually less than the focal points, you create imbalance in the brain due to the fact that as the eye moves across the area, it opens and closes creating discomfort in the brain.
When talking to a lighting designer, know that the really good lighting designer is never going to talk about the look of the pathlight. In fact, it is best if the pathlight could completely disappear into the landscape. That way the light produced does the work. It enhances the garden appearance at night and does not compete with it. Ideally, even during daylight hours, the pathlight will never distract from the beauty of the garden.
In a previous post I mentioned that for landscape lighting designers “our goal is simple”. While this is true, our job, is not so simple. I have to reference again the presentation to landscape architects on outdoor living spaces. In one of the presentations on landscape lighting design, the presenter went into all the subtle nuances of fixtures, beam spreads, junction temperatures of LED chip sets, and color temperatures of lamps. Some of the architects eyes rolled back in their heads and they were lost. The question is, did the presenter overcomplicate it? The answer is both yes and no.
First, I will say no. The reason I say no is because everything that was discussed in a forty-five minute presentation on landscape lighting design was spot on.
Secondly, I will say yes because it was too much for most of the landscape architects. They were given years worth of information in a forty five minute presentation. So much information in such a short amount of time that a lot of them tuned out and didn’t get back into the presentation until it came back to what they understood. What they wanted to understand is, “How will this make my project look good?”
The reality of this for anyone thinking about lighting is there is too much behind the scenes for you to do correctly to get the right effect. It is our job as a lighting/design build company to not only specify what fixtures go into the scene but to also to know why. A colleague of mine once said, “we move stuff around until it looks good.” There is a lot of truth to that. Landscape lighting is an art and it is open to artistic interpretation. Landscape lighting is also a trade. A trade, that requires electrical licensing in Connecticut to install. We, the professional lighting design/build contractors know all the equipment and code requirements to get to the point where we can “move it around until it looks good.” We have done our own testing and research. We don’t take a manufacturer’s “word” for reality. We have found what works and we rely on the products we use to ensure that our lighting systems are built to last. I think as professionals sometimes we may oversimplify exactly what we do.
The overall effect of what you can achieve with your landscape lighting can be increased dramatically by having a lighting/design build company work with you. A landscape designer or architect should never have to worry or even think about what kind of fixtures do they use in a particular situation. If they ask a manufacturer’s sales rep they will only get the standard company line that the rep has to give.
If the landscaper works with the lighting design/build company they will get the proper fixtures in the necessary places. They will get the wiring done safely and effectively to National Electrical Code requirements. More importantly, the end user will have a system that was installed to effectively light the landscape and last for years to come. Everyone wins in this scenario.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a presentation on landscape lighting for a group of landscape architects in Connecticut. It was a good presentation on outdoor living spaces that lasted all day. When darkness finally rolled around, we were able to take them on a walkthrough of a lighting demonstration. The demonstration showed a Shagbark Hickory tree lit three different ways.
First, was how you might expect to see lighting done by a regular electrician or landscaper with just a few lights and basically putting light on a tree. The effect was dramatic. One minute the tree wasn’t there and then it was.
Second, we showed what a few more lights spaced evenly around the tree could do. It gave the tree dimension and depth and it was instantly understood that better lighting makes a difference. The effect on the group was instantly noticed. The tree took shape and wasn’t just a blob of foliage in the night sky.
Lastly, the third scenario tied it all in. Light went up along the trunk of the tree and downlighting from the tree tied the tree back to the ground plane. The downlighting made it “feel” more natural. The warmth of the bark on the trunk combined with the coolness of the foliage tied everything together.
The demonstration made sense to all of those in attendance. Was it for everyone? No, in fact one of the architects said, “that is too many lights, who will ever pay for that?” The response from another person in attendance was perfect. “This is not for everyone.”
Landscape lighting indeed is not for everyone. There are many things that can turn someone off to it such as budget, or they don’t have a good enough composition to effectively light or they just are not passionate enough about their property to do it. As landscape lighting designers, we plan our lighting according to what is around us and how the area is going to be used or viewed. Our goal is simple, we make everyone else’s work look great…at night.
About thirty years ago I was reading an article in a guitar magazine. It featured Keith Richards who was talking about guitar players. He said something along these lines and of course I am paraphrasing, “I am not interested in being the fastest gun in the west, anyone can do that with enough practice. I am interested in the chord and how simply moving a finger changes the entire sound.”
I hope to this day that I remember this quote accurately enough but I am going to stick with this memory. This is an example of having a passion for his art. That is the way I approach lighting. It is not about having a ton of lights on everything, but about having the right amount of light at the right spot that creates the emotion you will feel. Anyone can show up and pop lights in the ground, place light on a tree and call it landscape lighting. That is not it at all because there is no passion. You cannot simply go through the routine and have the same result as someone who is passionate about their profession. I think you know when you have found the right contractor, hair stylist or even accountant. How do you ask? When they make what they do seem exciting. Maybe when you are looking for the obligatory three estimates for your project you not only compare the economics of it but also the passion of what your contractor is bringing to the table as well.
RLI Electric is not only limited to the outdoor lighting world. We are a fully licensed electrical contracting company. This means we can “blur” the lines from the exterior to the interior from both an artistic means and a technical means.
Our interior lighting designs are based upon TADA, which is our acronym for:
These are the layers necessary to create not only a beautiful lighting scenario in an interior environment but is also a physiological proper lighting design. A lighting design that will allow you to move through a space comfortably while at the same time accenting the pieces and elements that demand attention. Lets look at these one at a time.
Task lighting is the lighting that allows you to do your day to day tasks. For instance, in a kitchen it would be the recessed lighting to give the area general “fill” light. It is the lighting that allows you to see what you are doing while preparing meals or cleaning up.
Accent lighting is the form of light that will make an interesting object or area come to life. It is the lighting that enhances art work, granite countertops, cabinetry or even a place setting on a table.
Decorative lighting is the fancy aspect of the design. It can be a crystal chandelier or a pendant fixture that has exciting colors in the glass work.
Ambient lighting is the soft light that fills space and eliminates shadows created by the other lighting methods. Sometimes you can even use a non-light source as the ambient light creator. Think of bouncing light off of a sloped ceiling to fill the area with light.
In a proper lighting design, no one type of fixture can accomplish all the layering techniques. You cannot light an entire kitchen with a chandelier as it would be too glary to be a good solution. For example, picture recessed lighting in a kitchen with pendant fixtures over the island and the sink. The recessed lighting is the task lighting and the pendant fixtures serve a couple of different layers. The pendant can provide the decorative, showcasing the intricate glass work while providing ambient light. The ambient light provided would eliminate the harsh shadows that the recessed task lighting would create. Couple all of that with undercabinet lighting which would serve double duty of task lighting. The task of the undercabinets is to light your work space while the accent aspect of the task would be to emphasize the grain in the granite that you originally fell in love with.
All of the methods of TADA are used by RLI Electric to create the atmosphere in which you want to live in and enjoy every day and night.