Seeing the light

Features - Design/Build

An increasing number of designers are using energy-efficient LED lighting to create warm, inviting spaces.

February 13, 2013

Less than two years ago, Matt Carli would have hesitated to use LED lighting for an outdoor project.

“We would’ve thought about it, but it wouldn’t have been in the forefront of our thoughts,” says Carli, designer for Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems in Charleston, S.C.

But now it’s a different story.

“LEDs have evolved so fast and have so many benefits, they’ve become part of our daily designs,” Carli says.

Carli isn’t alone. Increasingly, LED lighting is being used to illuminate outdoor spaces – despite the fact that costs for LED fixtures are still higher than those for other traditional outdoor lighting options.

Illuminating the benefits.
LED stands for light-emitting diode, a small light source that becomes illuminated by the movement of electrons through a semiconductor material. LEDs emit light in a specific direction and only release a small amount of heat backward into a heat sink, rather than releasing both light and heat in all directions like incandescent or fluorescent bulbs do.

That’s why LEDs are usually cool to the touch – and why they’re touted for being so energy- and light-efficient. In fact, Energy Star-rated LED bulbs are 75 percent more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs and may last up to 15 times longer.

LEDs benefit contractors, too. “They simplify installation,” says Scott Ruhoff, owner and president of After Dark Landscape Lighting in Boise, Idaho. “You still have to engineer the system properly, but they cut back on labor time and downsize some of the components like transformers and cabling and such.”

Another benefit: It’s easier to expand systems. “You can put a lot more lamps on a system and can load up your transformer a lot more because there are less watts per lamp,” says William Knowles, owner of Northern Outdoor Lighting in Westford, Mass. Despite the benefits, early LEDs got a bad reputation.

“From a design standpoint, until this past year LEDs were very limiting because of color temperature issues, beam spread and appearance,” Ruhoff says.

“Now there are decent drop-in lamps available, and I’m starting to see more consistency in proprietary LED fixture designs from various manufacturers,” Ruhoff says.

“I think we’re getting through the initial era of trial and error and are getting stable platforms to work with in terms of LED design and reliability.”

“The biggest drawback, and I think it’s improving, is that LEDs didn’t have the lumen output you needed right away,” Knowles says.

“The light is not as bright in some instances. But that’s getting a lot better, too.”

Like Carli, Knowles was hesitant to employ LEDs early on. But in the past year, he used them in almost every job he worked on.

“It takes a while to get over the sticker shock, but once you explain the benefits, the energy savings, and how long the lamps are going to last, it’s generally an easy sell,” Knowles says.

Yet not all LEDs are created equal. According to Energy Star, after less than a year, poorly-designed LED bulbs may flicker, shift in color, look dim, offer uneven light, or continue to use power when turned off – all attributes that quickly can turn off customers to using LEDs, given their upfront cost.

“Don’t go for price,” Knowles says. “Go for quality, even if it costs a bit more.”

He recommends looking at lamp wattage versus lumen output to ensure the LED lamps produce enough light. In addition, he suggests checking that the lamps have been approved for use inside an enclosed fixture.

“We always make it a practice to test new products in different applications prior to installation to ensure that we are confident in the quality of the product.”

Still not perfect. LEDs still haven’t completely taken over the market. “We don’t view LEDs as a 100 percent end-all,” Carli says. “We still use a lot of incandescents. There’s really no set ratio. It depends on the landscape.”

There are still some situations where the cost of LED lamps and fixtures may trump the benefits, too. “It depends on how long someone is going to be in their home,” Knowles says.

“If someone just wants the system operational and looking good so they can sell their home, they’re not going to be there long enough to justify the cost (of LEDs).”

Still, in general, Carli says most customers see LEDs as a worthwhile investment.

“It’s a little bit more upfront, but as it begins to evolve, it will become more and more cost-effective for customers,” Carli says.


The author is a freelancer in Lincoln, Ill.

An easy sell

Convincing customers to try LED landscape lighting used to be a hard sell, but with improved technology, it’s easier than ever.

Matt Carli, designer for Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems, says educating the client is key. “We really emphasize how the LED protects the investment they are making and ensures the system they are investing in is one they will be able to enjoy for many years hassle-free,” he says.

Contractors who regularly use LEDs in their installations highlight these features to clients:

• Improved quality. Today’s LEDs have quality of light, brightness, and directional capabilities on par with incandescent bulbs, so they can be used in a variety of lighting situations. “There is still a perception of poor color quality,” says Scott Ruhoff, owner and president of After Dark Landscape Lighting.

“Early series, off-the-shelf LEDs had a real bad bluish color temperature that scared people away. So you have to educate them about color temperatures and how the improved LEDs can virtually match any halogen.” Carli says what helps them sell a project is referring customers to the Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems website, where they can view a portfolio and see what LEDs look like.

• Energy efficiency. Energy Star-rated LEDs consume one quarter of the energy of traditional incandescent bulbs, providing more efficient exterior illumination than other options. The Energy Star website ( provides stats and facts that help explain LED energy savings to customers.

• Longer life expectancy. Depending on what bulbs you buy, incandescent lamps generally have a life expectancy of 1,000 to 2,000 hours. By comparison, manufacturers say LED lamp life is 25,000 to 50,000 hours. In addition, LED lamps don’t actually burn out like incandescent ones do. Rather, their light begins to fade, so at 25,000 hours, the LED bulb may be emitting 70 percent of the light is gave off when it was first installed.

• Less maintenance. Because they last so much longer than incandescent bulbs, LEDs have to be changed less frequently.

This makes them particularly useful for downlighting applications, where a ladder is required to change burned-out bulbs.

However, Carli still stresses the importance of a maintenance program, as fixtures need to be aimed properly and vegetation must be pruned to ensure the best spread of light.