Choosing Outdoor Security Lights

Getting the light you want, when and where you need it

Exterior of house, dusk
Paul Conrath / Getty Images

There are a lot of different ways to add lighting for home security, but the light many of us think of first is an electrical fixture with one or two relatively bright light bulbs, mounted fairly high on a wall and throwing light on a large area when triggered.

Right here we've just listed the primary characteristics of most security lighting: it's bright, it covers a large area, it comes on when triggered, and it's often mounted higher than other lights -- which helps it cover a larger area.

There's one more point to consider: any light fixture that's mounted outside your house, and all of its components, must be designed and rated to survive out in the weather. That is, they should be rated as either WP, for "weatherproof," or WR, for "weather resistant."

What to Look For

First of all, fixtures that will put the light where you need it. This can range from high-mounted floodlights to (almost) low-level path lights that make walking or stair climbing more secure after dark. Porch and doorway lights, for example, serve as area lighting, decorative lighting, and security lighting all in one.

Secondly, fixtures and components that are made to be outside. If the fixtures will be under a roof, as porch lights usually are, then they should be made to tolerate dampness but don't have to be weatherproof. Fixtures installed on an exposed exterior wall or in any other unprotected area, such as in your yard or next to outside stairs, need to be weatherproof to last, long-term, and to be safe.

Consider when you want the light. With the exception of gas post lights, you will need the light to be on at some times and off at others -- on when it is dark and off when the sun is out, for example. For electric security lights, the on/off function can often be automated by installing a timer or a photocell to open and close the circuit.

If you want the light to come on, or to change from dim to bright, when someone is in the area, installing a motion detector can do that.

Then there's the design, or style, of the fixtures and controls. If the fixtures will be visible, you will want ones that are compatible with the style of your home, whether it is Colonial, Craftsman or Modern.

The controls can start with manual switches simple on/off switches that you operate by hand. Those can be replaced with timer switches to ensure that the light is always on when you want it to be. That can be especially useful for security purposes. If you're away from home overnight, the outside light will still come on and go off at its regular time, giving the appearance that someone is home.

A photocell can be used to turn electric lights on when it is dark and off when it is light. A motion detector turns the light on when someone moves into the area it is covering and turns the light off a few minutes after the motion is no longer detected. Combining these two controls can have the light ready to come on only after dark but stay off until there is some motion in front of the sensor. With many of the combined controls, there is also a setting that will turn the light on at a low setting when it is dark and make it brighter when there is motion.

Then the light will go dim again when the motion has not been sensed for some time.

With the drive toward more efficient use of energy, many of us are installing energy-efficient light bulbs, such as CFLs, halogens, and LEDs. One thing to be aware of is that not all of these are made to be controlled by automatic controls—especially by photocells. Many photocells don't provide full power at first, and light bulbs that require full power won't work with those. This is especially true with fluorescent bulbs. If you'd like to use CFLs as part of your automated lighting, then, installing ones that are dimmable will usually overcome the problem.

The Bottom Line

  • Outdoor security lights need to be installed so that they will provide light where you want it.
  • They should provide the light when it is needed; the most effective and efficient security lighting will be equipped with automatic controls.
  • All outdoor fixtures need to be weatherproof, weather resistant or if they will be protected from water, suitable for damp locations.
  • If the fixtures will also be part of the appearance of your home, they should be made in a style that complements the style of the home.
  • Use light bulbs that are dimmable if the light will be controlled with automated controls, especially if that includes a photocell.