Outdoor Walkway Lighting: Do You Think Safety First?

When your landscape lighting plan consists of lighting walkways, pathways, steps, driveways and parking areas, think first about making them safe to travel. Save artistic considerations for later.

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When planning outdoor walkway lighting think safety first and artistic later.

How Much Light Do You Need?

Obviously, the thoroughfares around your home need lighting at the easy-to-see-your-way level. But the exact amount of light varies with the thoroughfare.

In general:

  • Steps need more light than level walks
  • Walks need more than most driveways
  • Driveways need more than parking areas
  • Parking areas need more than garden paths (maybe)

To arrive at a more precise answer, however, consider the following points:

  • The hazard – the greater the hazard, the more light you need.
  • The usage – the more use a thoroughfare receives, the more light you need.

The proximity to the house – the closer a thoroughfare is to a frequently used door, the more light you need. (The reason: when you step out from a brightly lighted home, it takes less time for your eyes to adjust to a well-lighted walk than to a dimly-lighted one.)

The Lighter The Paving, The Less Light Needed

Shine a light on a dark surface, does it get swallowed up? Shine it on a light surface and it spreads. We all understand the concept.

But don’t forget the idea when adding path lights to a walk. The lighter the paving color, the easier to see the paving and the less light needed.

Same Light But Different Effect

Another basic fact about walkway lighting; You can see them better when walking towards the light than when walking away from the light.

The obvious conclusion is if you want to light a path so you can see coming and going, either light both ends or space lights along it.

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Outdoor Walkway Lighting From High Or Low Level

You can light your walkways (perhaps several of them at once) with a few fixtures installed high above them or you can place a larger number of low-mounted fixtures along their edges. This is general lighting versus local lighting.

The advantage of high-mounted lights is the saving in fixture and wiring costs. If you live on a small lot, it is quite possible, in fact, that just one floodlight will illuminate your front walk, driveway and even sidewalk.

However, floodlights mounted on the house and directed out across the yard, detract from the appearance of the property. Flood lighting a large open area never looks very attractive), and certainly creates an objectionable glare.

Instead use more floods, directed straight down on specific paved areas. The alternative is to use a few post lights at entrances and low-voltage lighting along the edges of the front walk and driveway.

Lighting walkways with down lights mounted about 27 inches above the paving cost more because more lighting fixtures are needed and more wiring. And the effect is not good with unattractive paving.

On the other hand, the illumination is excellent because of the concentrated area on the paving. You won’t get the glare that you get from poorly concealed high-mounted lights.

Having talking in generalities, let’s get specific.


Lighting Walkways – The Alternatives

With Floodlights – Mount them 10 to 20 feet above the walk. Focus them on the most hazardous areas, such as a sharp turn or a spot that is often slippery. Space them so the circles of light overlap.

With Post Lights or Comparable Fixtures mounted 6 to 8 feet above the paving. Remember you need lights at both ends of the walk; and if it is a long walk or there are plantings which cut off light from the ends, you will probably need more lights.

With Down Lights place them along the edges of the walk so the light falls on the paving. Space lights no more than 16 feet apart, but as with all outdoor lights, experiment with the spacing before making a permanent installation.

With Walk-Level Lights – Use these small sealed lamps in weatherproof boxes and lighting walks and steps. Mounted 6 to 8 feet apart and level with the edges of a walk, the units give a soft, glareless light that illuminates the paving but little else. They are very inexpensive to operate.

With Wall-Mounted Fixtures – Use these where a walkway runs right alongside the house, garage, a fence or a wall. Mount ornamental fixtures similar to post lights but without the post high on the wall.

Or you can use Special Fixtures – little more than louvered metal boxes – and recess them in or mount them on the surface of the wall 16 to 24 inches above the paving. Space the recessed units about 8 feet apart; the spacing of surface-mounted fixtures can be somewhat greater.

Lighting Garden Paths

Some lean towards lighting garden paths brightly; others lean towards lighting them just enough to permit safe movement. I favor the latter using solar lighting.

Paths are not heavily traveled thoroughfare. It is what you might call a “mood” walk – a place to saunter along while enjoying the mysteries of the night.

You may agree with this or not. However, handle the lighting the same as for walkways. Hang floodlights in the trees or place down-lights along the sides of the path. Increase the intensity of the light in hazardous locations.


Lighting Steps

If you light nothing else, at least light steps well. Install one or more down-lights next to them, or light them from above with floodlights, post lights or hanging fixtures.

Clearly outline all the treads and risers, as well as the top and bottom landing.

Lighting Driveways And Parking Areas

To light a driveway, mount floodlights high on the garage or in the trees. Only the area in front of the garage requires lighting not the entire driveway.

An ideal way to control the lights is with an electronic switch which automatically turns the lights on when the car headlights strike a “seeing eye.”

Illuminate the parking area with floodlights. However, blanket the entire area because parked cars cut off the light. If packed in tight without enough light, friends may snag their clothes on bumpers or door handles.

To Scare Off Prowlers

One of my friends, an electrical engineer who lives well out in the country, long ago installed an electrical trip at the foot of his long driveway. When a car rolls over this, it automatically rings a bell in the house and, at night, turns on two or three outside floodlights.

Although not on purpose the certainly is a good way to discourage prowlers if you live back in a rural area. In towns, where prowlers are more likely to come on foot, a simpler installation is preferable.

Just mount floodlights on all corners of the house and aim them to illuminate the grounds around. Control the lights from a single switch next to your bed or better yet – motion controlled lights. Then if you hear any strange noises outside, you can flick on the lights and off will scamper the would-be intruder.

See Out Your Picture Window

When you’re sitting indoors at night, the windows around you are cold, black, impenetrable surfaces. This may not bother you too much if you have windows of average size. But picture windows are something else again.

They are so large you can’t help being aware of them. Unless curtained, they spoil the decoration of the room. And the fact that they were installed to permit enjoyment of a pretty outdoor scene makes their mirror-like blackness all the more annoying.

Picture windows should be as attractive at night as they are in the daytime. And outdoor lighting can make them so throughout the year.

Screened Porches, Too

Screened porches present much the same sort of problem. The screening at night becomes a black barrier between you and the outdoors. Of course, it does not reflect the interior scene as does a window. But the effect is bad enough anyway.

What To Do

In general, the solution to the picture-window and porch-screening problem is simply to throw enough light on the outdoor scene. This will balance the bright lighting of the room and thus to reduce reflections on the inside surface of the glass or screening.

To be specific, the first step is to raise the over-all light level of the garden with 150-watt floodlamps.

Mount fixtures 10 to 20 feet above the ground (at least 2 feet above the top of the window). If mounted on the house, aim they at about a 45-degree angle across the window.

The floods alone will go a long way toward solving the problem, but the light they give is pretty flat. So it is advisable to add sparkle to the scene by throwing some concentrated light on important features of the garden.

This may be done by spots, floods or small local lighting units.

One recommendation occasionally made is to light the ground immediately outside of the window as a final step in killing the reflections in the glass. This, however, succeeds only in killing the reflections near the bottom of the window.

Achieve complete elimination of reflections only by lowering the light level inside the room, or by adjusting the placement of lamps so they do not cast light directly on the glass. Use of opaque lamp shades also helps a great deal.

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