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Types of Outdoor Lighting and Installation

1/1/17
Revised: 1/27/22
Grainger Editorial Staff

Outdoor lighting is one investment that offers many valuable benefits in return — from improved safety and security to enhanced aesthetic appeal.

Based on the goals you hope to achieve with your lighting, there are many types of outdoor lighting fixtures to choose from.

Before working with electricity or performing any lighting installation project, it's important to take all necessary safety precautions. Turn off power at the source, and install GFCIs for added protection against electrical shock. It's important to consult with a licensed electrician before working with electricity or installing any new lighting system. 

Browse this outdoor lighting guide to learn more about different types of outdoor lighting systems, where they're used and some general guidelines for installation. 

What Are Floodlights?

Floodlights have an adjustable-angle beam that can be rotated to focus on a specific area. They can be installed in the ground or mounted on structures, walls or poles. LED floodlights last longer and use less energy than floodlights that use halogen or fluorescent lamps. Outdoor floodlights are commonly used to aim light on a fixed item, such as a monument or flagpole, or to illuminate large areas, such as sports fields, parks, playgrounds and parking lots.

By flooding dark areas with light, floodlights can help to improve safety by making it easier for people to see potential hazards that can cause slips, trips and falls. Floodlights can also discourage property damage, crime and vandalism. One study showed how outdoor lighting reduced crime by 39 percent in some New York City housing developments over a six-month period.

LED full-size wall packs project a bright, clean light and reach full brightness instantly. They use LED lamps, which last longer and use significantly less energy than wall packs with other lamp types, such as high-pressure sodium or compact fluorescent. They also produce very little heat and can withstand temperature changes and humidity. These wall-mounted outdoor lighting fixtures are commonly used to replace traditional lighting wall packs on commercial and industrial buildings.

Where Floodlights Are Used

  • Parking lots, driveways and walkways
  • Large outdoor areas (patios, pavilions, etc.)
  • Stadiums, arenas and sports fields
  • Outdoor performance venues
  • Billboards and signage

Considerations Before You Purchase

Before investing in outdoor lighting and installation, decide which type of floodlight is right for your application by considering the brightness level you need. Floodlights come in a wide range of options for brightness and color temperature. 
Selecting the right option depends on how the fixtures will be used. For cost-efficient operation, select floodlights with LED lamps vs. halogens or CFLs. LEDs handle temperature fluctuations better and require less maintenance because they last longer (The U.S. Department of Energy's Building Technologies Program offers helpful information on color and lumens for LEDs.).

Tips for Floodlight Installation

  • Select your location and identify a nearby power source (which can be indoors or outdoors).
  • Make sure you have a safe way to access the installation location.
  • Cut a hole to fit the fixture and run electrical wire through it.
  • Connect the fixture to a power source and test the lights and features.
  • Make adjustments accordingly.
  • Consult a licensed electrician if you have any doubts about a lighting installation.

What Are Landscape Lights?

Landscape lights rely on fixtures like spotlights, lanterns, sconces and globes to create an aesthetically pleasing lighting design that highlights building and landscaping features at night while also improving safety and security.

Where Landscape Lights Are Used

  • Parks
  • Office building terraces 
  • Public spaces and pathways
  • Entrances/exits
  • Along walkways and driveways
  • Near architectural, signage or landscaping features

Considerations Before You Purchase

When it comes to landscape lighting, selections are nearly endless. Different types of fixtures can be used to accent, highlight, create silhouettes and shadows, wall-wash and spotlight. The fixtures you choose should be based on what you want to accomplish with your outdoor lighting and installation. 

You can also use a variety of angles and fixture types — pathway lights, uplights and directional lights, for example — to create layers and visual effects, as media platform Rethinking the Future points out.

Keep wattage or lumens in mind when selecting lamps for landscape lighting fixtures. If they're too bright, then they may create a glare.

Tips for Landscape Lighting Installation

  • Locate an available power source.
  • Spread fixtures on the ground between 8 and 10 feet apart to create a pathway.
  • Use a shovel to separate grass from soil and fold over the scalped portion of sod to create a 3-inch trench.
  • Bury low-voltage electrical wire no more than 3 inches into the ground.
  • Connect the wire to an outdoor electrical outlet.
  • Prepare holes for the fixture's stake with a large screwdriver.
  • Make electrical connections and insert the fixture into its metal ground stake.
  • Test the lights to ensure a steady connection.

What Are Motion Sensor Lights?

Any outdoor light can have a motion sensor or photocontrol included to help manage lighting. The motion sensor lights up when something passes by the infrared beam and lighting goes on for a specified time. This is a great security and safety device, but also an energy saver, since the light typically stays on for just a few minutes. 

A photocontrol or photocell acts more like a timer, and is most commonly found on parking lot lights. The lights turn on at dusk or a certain level of darkness, then turn off in the morning when the sun is rising. Photocells are also used for many outdoor lighting applications. 

Depending on how long you want lights to stay on after the sensor detects movement, built-in timers can be adjusted accordingly. 

Where Motion Sensor Lights Are Used

  • Driveways, Garages, Alleyways
  • Walkways
  • Entrances and Exits

Considerations Before You Purchase

Motion sensor lights are most effective in areas that aren't frequently used and don't need constant illumination overnight.

They can be calibrated so they don't detect too much movement and turn on unnecessarily (such as when leaves or birds fly by). This can be done during installation by limiting the sensor's field of view and adjusting the distance range setting.

Because a sensor needs a reasonable sensing range — which often depends on mounting location and operating conditions — fixture placement matters. The sensors should be able to see the right subjects at the right times. Installing the fixture too low or too high can limit the field of view.

There are also different types of motion sensors. The type you need depends on the application. Selections can include passive infrared (PIR), active infrared, photoelectric, dual technology and more.

Some motion sensor lights may also include an option to turn the light on manually. If this is a feature you need, be sure to choose the appropriate fixture.

Tips for Motion Sensor Lighting Installation

  • Identify the proper location for the fixture — not too high and not too low.
  • Adjust the field-of-view angle to set the distance range at an appropriate level.
  • Set necessary controls for distance range and timer.
  • Position the lamp and detector far apart so heat from the lamp doesn't set off the sensor.
  • If the fixture won't be protected, then select a bulb with bulb seals and position it facing down so water doesn't infiltrate the socket.

What Are Spotlights?

Spotlights provide focused light that emphasizes a specific feature for safety, wayfinding or aesthetic purposes. They allow you to highlight a specific area without casting wide beams of light elsewhere. 

Where Apotlights Are Used

  • Near signage and entryways
  • To highlight architectural or landscape elements 
  • Around pools, ponds, fountains and waterfalls
  • Along pathways

Considerations Before You Purchase 

Spotlights offer interesting versatility in lighting design. They can be used to create visual accents horizontally and vertically and help distinguishing features stand out while leaving others in silhouette.

When you use too many spotlights, however, you may over-light an area. If your intention is to create wide beams of light across a large space, then you may want to consider types of outdoor fixtures that are suited for that purpose. 

Tips for Spotlight Installation

  • Select an area for the spotlight and determine the trench line before digging (if a cable is required).
  • Locate a GFCI outlet and place the power pack nearby.
  • Dig a hole for the stake and drive the spotlight in.
  • Connect the spotlight to the power source.
  • Connect the power pack to the GFCI outlet.

Choosing the Right Outdoor Lighting

When it comes to selecting the right type of outdoor lighting fixtures, start by mapping out your goals. Fixtures designed to improve safety and security are different from fixtures meant to highlight the architectural features of a building. Once you understand what you want your lighting to accomplish, then you'll be able to select fixtures to support those goals.

Use this chart to select the best type of outdoor lighting based on what you want to accomplish.

Application

Type of Lighting

Best Fixtures

Accent Lighting

Landscape Lighting

Lighting Spotlights

Bullets

Globes

Pathway Lights

Wall Sconces

Focused Areas

Spotlights

Bullets

Large Areas

Flood Lights

Halogen Flood Lights 

Induction Flood Lights 

Security

Flood Lights 

Motion Sensors

Bullets 

Spotlights

Wall Packs

 

Powering Outdoor Lights

Bringing power to outdoor lights depends on available power sources and frequency of use. 

There are three ways to power outdoor lighting: 

    Low voltage: Operating at 12 volts, low-voltage lighting is energy efficient and easy to install.

    Line voltage: Operating at 120 volts, line-voltage lighting requires electrical conduit to protect wires and junction boxes in outdoor applications. This option is best for floodlights and high-powered lighting.

    Solar: Requiring no wiring, solar-powered fixtures need to be installed in a location that receives lots of natural light. Solar-powered lights are easy to install and great for outdoor areas where electrical power isn't easily accessible.

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to outdoor lighting or any kind of lighting for your facility.

Read more tips about lighting and energy management services here.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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