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Complete Guide to Choosing Outdoor Lighting

Everything you need to know about keeping the outside of your home lit.

Architecture modern design, beautiful house, night scene
Architecture modern design, beautiful house, night scene

How do you choose the best outdoor lighting? The best lighting option isn’t necessarily the one that is most visually appealing, though that is certainly one component. The main objective of outdoor lighting should be for safety and security reasons. When beginning your journey, select the most-frequented areas first, then you can move on to the rest of the yard.

Table of Contents

Things to Consider

There are many things to consider when searching for outdoor lighting ideas. Unfortunately, some people tend to focus on the wrong aspects when planning lighting for an outdoor space. Some will focus on something that looks aesthetically pleasing, like soft lighting or simple accent lighting, over the correct light for the correct location. Furthermore, sometimes the emphasis is more on looks than functionality.

Safety First

Security should be kept at the forefront when choosing outdoor lights. You may find lights that look great and perfectly match the style of your house. But if they don’t emit enough light or aren’t designed specifically for that purpose, then you may be placing the safety of the family at risk.

When choosing outdoor lighting, first examine which entrances household members frequently visit. Do most people enter by the front, side, or back door? This should be your focus. Additionally, sidewalks, garages, and pathways should all be illuminated for safety in addition to entrances. These areas can potentially cause an accident if they are not well lit. 

Illuminated houses are deterrents to break-ins. Intruders do not want to be identified, so they stay in the shadows where people can’t see them. The light should not just illuminate a doorway but should spread over the entire covered porch to be effective. You may need two wall sconces and pendant lights to do so, but safety should always remain the goal.

After entryways are secure, you can move on to the side and back light. While you can use posts, poles, pendants, and sconces to light up the side and backyards, most people find motion detectors the most cost-effective and convenient. 

Many motion detectors run from dusk to dawn, so they intuitively examine outdoor conditions and adjust accordingly. They only turn on when there is motion and do not run continuously. 

The advantage is that they are energy-efficient, and you don’t have to manually turn them on and off to operate. They automatically turn on when someone enters the garage backyard and they have a wide range of illumination which draws attention to any intruders.

The only downside is that they can and often do come on when it is windy. This may initially startle homeowners, wondering why the lights are coming on when nothing is there. Additionally, they will turn on if neighborhood pets are patrolling the area.

Once the perimeter has proper illumination, homeowners can focus on the backyard or landscaping. Landscape lighting can create different atmospheres to any outdoor area, and homeowners often use them to highlight outdoor elements or architectural features.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Rating

When looking for outdoor lighting fixtures, the next important factor is the UL rating, with the second feature being what type of weather it will need to withstand. UL damp and wet ratings indicate that you can use the fixture outdoors and specifically give the environment it is best suited for. 

The Different Ratings

There are three different ratings: wet, damp, and dry. Each of them can go in different places, depending on what conditions they can handle. This is especially important if you live in climates that have extreme temperature swings or in a coastal area.

Wet Rating

  • Handles intense rain, snow, and ice
  • Withstands harsh, salty ocean breezes
  • Best suited for a pergola, gazebo, lanai, veranda, or exposed deck

Damp Rating

  • Designed for covered outdoor areas with no direct exposure to snow, water, or rain
  • Can handle areas with dampness and moisture
  • Best locations include carports, screened porches, porches, and covered patios

Dry Rating

  • Only for indoor use or completely enclosed areas
  • Shouldn’t be exposed to any moisture
  • Can’t be used in wet/damp areas or outdoors

Size

Aesthetically, the main objective when determining the placement and size of fixtures is to enhance curb appeal. Curb appeal creates an instant great first impression of your home and is especially important if/when you are looking to sell. The way to do this is to incorporate safe and secure lighting placement. 

When it comes to size and location, here are a few general guidelines:

  • Garage/front door outdoor wall lights – ¼ or ⅓ the width of the door frame (measured in inches). Center the placement above your door with 6” above the door. 
  • Front door sconces and carriage lights – ⅓ or ¼ of the door height (inches). It should be 6” from center to floor of the fixture.
  • Front porch pendant ceiling lights – ⅓ or ¼ the width of the door frame. These should be centered above your door with 6” above the door.
  • Hanging lights, front entrance – ⅕ of your door’s height measured in inches. The location should be centered above your door with 6” above the door.
  • Garden lamp posts for driveway – ¼ the height of the mounting pole/fence pole measured in inches. It should rest 1’ from your driveway or street with 5 ½’-6 ½’ from top to bottom of the fixture.
  • Patio chandeliers – ½ or ⅔ of table width in inches. The positioning should be centered above the living space or table. It needs to be 30-34” above your table for clearance or 7’ above ground.

Garage Door Lights

Garage lights are not only visually appealing but completely functional. You can install wall mount fixtures on both sides of the door or above to illuminate the surrounding area. For a fixture just above the garage door, the bottom should measure 12” to the top of the garage. 

For the fixture size, multiply the garage door width by 0.25 (single door) or 0.33 (double door) to ensure it is out of the range of any moving parts. To place it in the center, divide your garage door’s width by two. For lights that flank the sides, divide the front door’s height by ⅓ and ¼. This will provide you with the correct size.

Outdoor Walls

The lighting used for the outdoor walls should illuminate the front door, back/side entrance, back/side porch, and the pool house or shed. They come in a multitude of designs, finishes, and styles. It will provide a stylish touch to any area and an extra layer of security as well.

In determining size, multiply the height of your door (inches) by 0.25 for a standard appearance or 0.33 for slightly oversized. The installation should be 66” from the ground at the center of the fixture.

Carriage Lights

The wall sconce should be placed at 66” high from the fixture’s center to the ground. The same applies if you are adding one to each side of a doorway or the sides of a garage door. 

Front Porch Ceiling Pendants/Lights

Front porch lights are the best option for screened or front porches if you want to incorporate your own style and save space overhead. The light is mounted semi-flush or flush against the porch, entryway, or patio. Even though they are smaller in size, they can still provide a great deal of light.

Hanging lights are a gorgeous way to marry form with functionality to illuminate an entryway, outer foyer, or gallery. They provide warm, glowing, ambient lighting in a variety of designs and shapes. Styles range from modern and contemporary to antique brass. 

To determine the size, multiply the width of the door frame by 0.24 (single door) or 0.33 for a double door. The height should have a 6” clearance from the top of your doorframe. Deciding on the proper illumination depends on the type of door frame. 

In terms of placement, it should have 6” of clearance from the top of the door frame for best visibility. Measure this from the lowest point of the fixture. When it comes to pendant lights, you want them to fully illuminate the door. In this case, center them using the door as a reference. For other areas, measure the middle cross sections for the placement.

For pendant lighting, the fixture size should be ⅕ the height of the door. Pendants hang using stem, cable, wire, or chain connections. Chain connections tend to be the most customizable, but stems have that elegant appearance. When measuring for the fixture, you do not need to include the stem or chain’s length. 

However, if you are using the cable, wire, or stem hanging method, you need to consider the length to ensure the light doesn’t hang too low. The overall height should be no less than seven feet from the floor. 

Driveway/Garden Lighting

The best way to illuminate these areas is by using post lighting. Post lighting is ideal for spreading light throughout a yard. Adding lights up a driveway not only creates a majestic appeal but enhances security. 

The fixture size should be ¼ the height of the pole, with the pole height measuring 5.5 to 6.5’. Place it 1.5 to 2’ below the surface. In terms of placement, ensure that you can secure the pole an adequate distance below the ground. To do this, make sure to contact water and electrical to ensure that you don’t hit anything when you are installing the pole.

The entire height of the pole should be about 8’, with 5.5 to 6.5’ of the pole exposed to accommodate the length placed underground. Place it 12″ away from the street, walkway, or driveway in terms of clearance. 

It needs to be far enough away that it won’t interfere with vehicles or snowplows. After you establish clearance, there are no standard placements. Add it where there is the most curb appeal. For security, the radius of light should slightly overlap.

Patio Chandeliers

Chandeliers are a great way to add elegance to an entrance, dining area, or patio. They are sure to leave an impression on guests, and there are many options to choose from.

To find the best size of chandelier, multiple the table width in inches by 0.5 for a standard-sized light or 0.66 for a larger one. The bottom of the fixture should rest 30-34” above the tabletop.

When it comes to landscape lights, these are purely for visual appeal. They should naturally flow with the surrounding areas without being too big or too small. You should place them strategically to highlight the best elements of the outdoor space and architectural elements. The lights also need to illuminate frequently visited places.

Materials

Outdoor lights come in many materials, with the most recommended being solid brass, wrought iron, and cast aluminum. A variety of lights are available in cast aluminum and have more variety.

People tend to shy away from wrought iron out of concern that it will rust quickly, but this isn’t the case. While all types of iron can rust when exposed to moisture and air, wrought iron contains a higher carbon content than pure iron, which means it is better protected against rust.

The Best Outdoor Light Fixtures

In addition to the recommendations made above, choosing the best outdoor light fixture will boil down to illumination, location, style, and finish. There are many great products on the market suitable for any house design. When selecting your fixtures, make sure that there is continuity and flow between different areas. 

Best Porch Outdoor Light: Tobusa Modern Outdoor Wall Light

Wattage: 60W

Lifespan: 25,000 hours

Waterproof IP: IP65

Working temperature: -4°F – 104° F

Power Source: Corded electric

This outdoor light is activated by a motion sensor and runs from dusk to dawn. The advanced built-in IC sensor automatically detects the brightness of the surroundings. It is superior at saving money and conserving electricity, plus homeowners do not need to switch it on and off. But if you want to use it as a manually operated light, just cover the sensor.

This light is premium aluminum and will last for years. It won’t rust, and with the waterproof ring, it resists corrosion. Your outdoor light will look new long after installation.

Pros:

  • Works well in all weather and temperatures
  • Modern design
  • Easy to install
  • Lights illuminate up and down for a cozy, welcoming atmosphere

Cons:

  • Not easy to install
  • Mounting bracket spins a bit

Best Garage Light (Security): Aooteck Solar Lights

Lifespan: Three years

Waterproof IP: IP65

Power Source: Solar

This garage light offers three modes and comes in a pack of four. It operates in security light mode (sensor turns on the light for 15 seconds, then automatically off), permanent (stays on all night), and smart brightness control (stays on all night and becomes brighter with motion). The sensor on this light detects people coming within 26’ and within a 120° angle. 

High-efficiency LED lights accompanied by wide-angle illumination makes these lights extremely popular. 

Pros:

  • Waterproof and heatproof
  • Good in extreme conditions
  • Solar-powered
  • Extremely bright

Best Garage Light (Mounted): Mlambert 2 Pack Solar Lights

Lifespan: Three years

Working Temperature: Resists high temperatures

Power Source: Solar or AA battery

This outdoor light has a two-in-one design that ranges from bright light to flickering flame. It will turn into a bright light when you are within 10-16’ of it. Made from quality material, it is weather-resistant and waterproof. This light will work for six to eight hours. When you use a AA battery, it runs for eight hours. 

Pros:

  • Easy installation
  • Sensor angle is 120°
  • Frost resistant

Cons:

  • Not as bright

Best Walkway Light: Noma Outdoor Street Light

Wattage: 100W

Power Source: Hardwired

This classical lamp post offers a nice warm light to any area in your yard. Created from cast aluminum with clear glass paneling, it provides an elegant finish to any space. The aluminum material withstands weather conditions without rusting. 

Pros:

  • Waterproof
  • Weather-resistant
  • Installs by a concrete base
  • Easy to assemble

Cons:

  • Screws rust
  • Steel holding anchors too thin

Best Patio Light: Shine Hai Dusk to Dawn Sensor

Wattage: 100W

Lifespan: Four years

Power Source: Corded electric

This patio lighting has a built-in sensor that automatically detects the brightness of its surroundings. High quality, rugged aluminum and clear glass panels make this fixture extremely weather-resistant. It will not rust or corrode with changes in the weather or temperature. 

Pros:

  • Snowproof
  • Glass is sturdy and clear
  • Easy to install
  • Waterproof and weatherproof

Cons:

  • Requires electrician to install wiring
  • Bit small

Best Outdoor Chandelier: GiveU 3 in 1 lighting Chandelier

Power Source: 2 C batteries

This chandelier contains flameless candles and can operate on a timer. It has three unique applications as you can use it as a candle chandelier, wall sconce, and centerpiece for a table.

Pros:

  • Great timer function
  • Elegant design
  • Sturdy

Cons:

  • Candles aren’t very bright
  • Not easy to install

Best Landscape Light: Hykolty Low Voltage LED Landscape Spotlight

Wattage: 10W

Lifespan: 50,000 hours

Waterproof IP: IP65

Power Source: Corded electric

These LED landscape lights save up to 80% on your energy bill. The lights have a low 10W LED and a 70° angle. The timespan on these lights is incredible. They will last 23 years when running six hours per day. Plus, the durable cast aluminum housing easily stands up to snow and rain. 

Pros:

  • 10-year warranty
  • Easy and quick installation
  • Waterproof and dustproof

Cons:

  • Spotlights may hold water at top of the lens

When choosing the perfect outdoor lighting, make sure that the lights are weatherproof and can withstand high and low temperatures according to your geographic location. A good light should stand up to the weather and still provide illumination. 

In terms of power source for exterior lighting, it depends on the individual. Many people prefer solar-powered as it is more efficient and convenient, especially for path lighting, and it doesn’t require an electrician to install. If you’re using solar panels, some may not recharge effectively in the winter months or on overcast days, which is when people need them the most.

When it comes to placement and selecting lights, always consider safety as well as appearance. It is nice to have outdoor lighting that looks spectacular when you pull into the driveway, but you really need to be able to see where you’re going! 

Remember, outdoor lighting design should be about more than accent lights. It should have a security purpose as well. It needs to be bright enough that you can locate your keys and enter the house, yet also illuminate all areas in high traffic areas to prevent intruders from breaking in. 

Whatever you choose, both functions should marry well. Your outdoor light needs to provide adequate lighting plus curb appeal if you ever choose to sell your house. The rest is a matter of personal taste and the style of the house. 

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