Angie's LIST Guide to
Security and outdoor lighting

The installation and proper placement of outdoor lighting can enhance the beauty, security and safety of a home. Learn about lighting options, sensors, placement and other strategies.
 

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Outdoor lighting can brighten up any landscape and provide security to those safely inside. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Bruce H.)
 
 

Security lighting options

Security and safety are two major uses for exterior lighting. Because they are similar in nature, they can often be accomplished at the same time using the same lighting fixtures. Security lighting deters vandalism and home invasion; safety lighting, on the other hand, protects homeowners and their guests from injuries caused by trips and falls in dark locations.

Yard lights can be utilized for security lighting. These lights can be purchased or rented from the electric utility company and are normally high-intensity discharge fixtures. The lamp choices may be either high-pressure sodium or metal halide bulbs. The HPS bulbs will emit a yellow to orange light, while the metal halide bulbs will emit a blue to white light. Yard lights are generally mounted on tall poles to illuminate large areas. They can also be mounted on taller outbuildings.

HPS bulbs are less glaring to the eyes, making it easier to see and identify objects. This is one reason that high-pressure and low-pressure sodium bulbs are used along streets and highways. One drawback to the HPS is that colors are not well defined or easy to distinguish. Therefore, if color recognition is important, then metal halide bulbs are better suited for the task. One drawback to using HID lighting is that the bulbs must cool down before they can relight. Short power outages of a few minutes can render the light inoperable for as long as 20 minutes.

Security lighting should be mounted high enough to prevent tampering. Security lights can also be protected by a plastic guard or metal mesh cage. A higher mounting location also works well for most safety lighting. While spotlights can be used, floodlights are normally used, as they will illuminate a larger area. Some areas that should be illuminated are yard areas close to the house, fenced-in yards and driveways.

When placing and aiming exterior lights, they should illuminate the homeowner’s property; however, they should not shine through the neighbors windows. While the initial adjustments can be made during the day, fine-tuning should be done after dark. If used with security cameras, lights should be placed and adjusted to prevent excessive glaring and shadows.
 

Lighting control options

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Outdoor lights can be set to timers so they illuminate as the sun sets. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Jason K.)

Lighting control can be accomplished in several ways. Most yard lights are controlled by photoelectric sensors, motion sensors and timers.

Timers: Light timers can be set to automatically switch on and off at predetermined times. They can provide additional security for people who travel out of town, and create the impression that a person is home.

Photoelectric sensors: Also referred to as photoeyes, these sensors detect changes in light and provide automatic operation from dusk until dawn. Photoelectric sensors can be rented from the electric utility company or purchased from a home improvement store. They are often used for yard lights and flood lights. They are a good alternative to  timers because they don't need to be reset as daylight hours fluctuate.

Motion sensors: These sensors detect the presence of motion and automatically switch on. They are good for security because they can easily alert a homeowner, and startle unsuspecting burglars.

Combination: Another option combines a photoeye and motion sensor. It turns on the light at dusk, and then reduces the power by half. When motion is sensed, the light returns to full power as long as movement is present. When movement is no longer sensed, light is again dimmed to half power.

Additional considerations

Security lighting can lose its effectiveness if it’s overused, or not used properly. Security lighting that remains on all night is sometimes ignored, and activity in the area may go unnoticed. Motion sensors can help alleviate the problem by drawing attention to any activity.

It’s also wise to have a security lighting plan for the interior of the home, especially if you plan to be away for an extended period of time. Security experts recommend using timers to control interior lighting. The best timers will allow random settings so there is no fixed pattern to signal the homeowner’s absence. The technology is also available to control lighting by remote control using an Internet connection or smartphone. This gives the homeowner complete control over the lighting schedule, even when they are away from the home.

Decorative and accent lighting

Decorative lighting can add personal touches to any landscape. (Photo courtesy of Tanya Gayle)

Decorative lighting gives the home character. It can be used to highlight flower gardens, decorative architectural components and landscaping. Walkways can be accented with small, low-voltage fixtures that are placed along the edges. These fixtures can be powered by the home electrical system, or solar cells that collect and store energy during the daylight hours.

Handrails and stair steps can be accented and illuminated by rope lighting. Rope lights are plastic tubes that house a string of LED lamps. Often these rope lights are used on deck railings to create a festive look. The lights can come in one color or in multi-colored sets.

Small spotlights are often used for accent lighting. These fixtures can be manufactured with a spike that pushes into the ground for easy installation. The light head can be rotated and angled for precise positioning. These fixtures can be powered by solar panels or by the home’s electrical system. You can buy special filters to place over the spotlight to create festive colors.

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