Landscape Path Lights: Advice You Need to Get Started

Pathway Lighting
Pathway Lighting. Mother Daughter Press / Getty Images

Landscape path lights are not just about safety.  In numbers, they act like a paintbrush for remodeling your property with light.

Find out which type of landscape path light to purchase, how they are installed, the difference between low- and line-voltage kits, and the wisdom of buying solar vs. wired lights.

Wired, Low Voltage Lighting Is Easy To Install

Bottom Line:  As long as you have an outdoor GFCI outlet, you can run wired low voltage lights almost as easily as solar powered lights.

For serious, long-term landscape path lighting, forget the solar lights:  you need to plug into a GFCI outlet on the outside of your house.  Wired path lights provide the benefits of:

  • No Light Failure:  Your lights will run as long as you want.  They are not dependent on a battery charge supplied by a stamp-sized solar panel.
  • Change or Expand:  When you have a low voltage cable running through your yard, you can change out old light fixtures for new ones and even add new fixtures.
  • Extra Features:  Many wired systems have photo sensors on the transformers that turn the lights on or off in response to ambient light.  Some systems have clock timers.

Low voltage wired lights will never be as easy to install as solar lights, but they come close.  As long as you have an outdoor GFCI outlet located within about 10 to 15 feet of your first light location, the rest of the installation is a matter of laying cable and clipping in lights.

Line Voltage (120V) vs. Low Voltage (12V)

Bottom Line:  Purchase low voltage lights, not line voltage.

Low voltage or line voltage?  The names sound similar and are easily confused, yet they are vastly different.

Line voltage path lights use thick cable, must be buried 18" underground, must be run through conduits, and need weather-tight junction boxes.

 While line voltage lights are perfectly fine, they are not well suited for the average DIYer.

Low voltage lights are most commonly sold and installed by homeowners.  They are easily identifiable because they have three elements:

  • Cable:  About the thickness of a lamp cord, this 50' to 75' long dark-colored cable runs through your property.  It begins at the transformer and finishes at the very end point of the light run.
  • Transformer:  The transformer is a box that plugs into your outdoor GFCI outlet.  On the back of the transformer is a terminal for attaching the cable.
  • Lights:  Lights attach at any point along the cable with a "push-pierce" type of connector or are manually hard-wired in.

Path Light Kits Are Often a Good Entry Point

Bottom Line:  Path light kits are a good way to begin lighting your path and yard, though quality may be lacking with some kit products.

Instead of creating your pathway light system from scratch, piece by piece, you may wish to purchase a unified kit.  Low voltage path light kits come with a transformer, cable, and between 4 and 8 pathway lights.

Less expensive entry-level pathway kits are often lacking in quality.  Consider a quality kit of 6 lights from a supplier like Volt Electric, which runs over $500.

 These kits have reliable transformers, all-metal light fixtures, and are hard-wired into the cable (vs. using push-pierce connectors).

When path light kits offer a transformer, cable, and 6 lights for $50 to $100, the math does not add up; something has to give.

What gives is the all plastic light construction; faulty connectors; and potentially defective transformers.

Still, if creating a path light system from scratch is a stumbling block for you, you can do worse than purchasing an economy-level path lighting kit.

How to Size a Transformer For Lights

Bottom Line:  The transformer's wattage rating dictates how many and which kinds of lights you can plug into the system.

Whether you buy a path lighting kit or assemble it from scratch, the heart of that system is the transformer.  

Once you have a transformer, you can add more lights, change their positions, and even incorporate lights of a different brand (as long as they are electrically compatible).

Scenario

If you begin with path light kit that has a 150 watt transformer, 6 path lights, and 2 floods, can you add more lights to the system?  Break it down this way:

Fixtures

Add up the watts of each fixture:

  • 6 path lights @ 7 watts each = 42 watts
  • 2 flood lights @ 20 watts each = 40 watts
  • TOTAL DRAW:  82 watts

Transformer

Transformer:  150 watt rated

  • Per the NEC, a circuit can only be loaded to an 80% maximum, you can effectively call this a 120 watt transformer.
  • Because of current loss through the cable, you may wish to bring this number down another 10%, leaving you with a transformer that is good for 108 watts.

Transformer - Fixtures

108 watt transformer - 82 watt existing draw = 26 watts available.

In this scenario, you could add one more flood light or three more tier lights.

Solar vs. Wired Path Lights

Bottom Line:  For more effective and permanent lighting, purchase wired path lights that plug into an outdoor outlet, not solar lights.

Solar path lights have their place, providing minimal light when you need it quickly, like for a backyard party or for guests unfamiliar with your property.  

They install easily:  just push them into soft ground.  Because they are cheap (about $2 per light), your purchase commitment is low.  But take note that they:

  • Are Dim:  Take a cue from the fact that solar light kits often come in large quantities of ten or fifteen.  The feeble light they cast is more about defining the outlines of a pathway or patio than for providing any actual light.
  • Have Small Solar Panels:  The larger the solar panel, the more light it can collect.  Yet the larger the panel, the more top-heavy and visually noticeable the light becomes.  
  • Have Short Lighting Periods:  Solar lights collect the least amount of energy at the time of year when you most need it.  During short winter days, solar lights store less energy and thus the lights shine for a shorter period of time.  On top of this, due to shorter days, the lights turn on earlier.