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Beyond Design Basics:
Low Voltage Lighting: High Voltage Impact

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

The next time you visit a museum or gallery, take a close look at the lighting.  It is often very dramatic and usually only lights the art they want you to see.  Chances are good that they are using low-voltage lighting.  If you have an Italian-style desk lamp, it’s possible that it might be low-voltage lighting.  Low-voltage lighting may also be lighting the path to your front door at night.  What is low-voltage lighting?  How and why should we use it?

We typically use 120 volt lines in our homes or for some appliances it might be 220 volts.   We know that if we touch that voltage we’ll get a shock.  Low-voltage is typically 12 volts for architectural use and we can touch it because our skin is resistant to it.   

The biggest advantage of using low-voltage lighting is its precise light control.  Instead of the usual gradual fading out of light emitted from a standard incandescent fixture, the light is concentrated around the object being lit.  Due to a narrower ‘beam spread’, it is also important to locate the fixture far enough away from the object to avoid a “hot spot” or a small area of light that is too bright.  There are several kinds of lamps (or bulbs) used for low-voltage lighting.  Some lamps have longer lamp life and better performance.  Low-voltage lighting also uses energy more efficiently and generally has better color rendition from the types of lamps the fixtures use.  The lamps can be quite small and less noticeable. It’s also possible to use color filters with the fixtures to create special effects indoors or outdoors.

Uses for low-voltage lighting include task lighting (desk lamps), ambient lighting (general lighting) and accent lighting (for art or other display items).  Low-voltage lighting is also commonly used outdoors for lighting plantings, paths, and architecture. 

Because even my techno-husband rolled his eyes when I mentioned some of the technical issues related to low-voltage lighting, I won’t go there.  Suffice it to say that there are enough issues related to installing low-voltage lighting systems (indoors or out), that in my opinion you should research and compare fixtures, purchase the best you can afford and have an electrician install the system. 

What you may want to tell your designer or electrician is some of your concerns.  Those concerns might include:

  • How can my system and installation costs be kept lower?

  • How will I maintain the system?

  • Will the system be designed in a way that if the light fixture at the end of a run of lights (if this is part of the design at all) is supposed to be as bright as the first one, it will be?

  • How can we use the fewest number of fixtures and get the maximum bang for my buck? (This is one of low-voltage’s biggest advantages: drama.)

  • How can the wiring be kept hidden so we don’t see it?  (Easier than standard voltage in the garden because it doesn’t require conduit.)

  • If you are installing exterior lighting, ask about manufacturer’s guarantees regarding waterproofing of fixtures.

  • Decide if you want your interior lighting system on a dimmer.  If the system components are not compatible you may experience a dimmer buzz, transformer buzz, lamp flickering and radio frequency interference.

Some important design considerations are:

  • Locating a remote transformer; example: use an adjacent closet or if you don’t have a convenient place to locate an unsightly remote transformer (needed to step down the voltage), then you may prefer to use fixtures where the transformer is part of the fixture.

  • Locating each light fixture; example: unless you are planning on landing a small aircraft on your driveway, stay away from the “runway” look in your garden.  That is to say, don’t line up your fixtures every couple of feet along the edges of a driveway or path.  Other more interesting and dramatic ways to light those areas would be up-lighting an adjacent tree (the reflected light will help guide the way) or use a large overhead tree branch to down-light a portion of the path. 

  • Hiding the wiring (a bigger concern for an exterior system);  example: when locating low-voltage lights in a patio cover, route out a vertical portion of the wood column supports to create a space for the wire, then fill in the gap with a strip of wood to match the column.

If you want to set the stage and create more drama in your home or garden, spice it up with low-voltage lighting.  It might be an illuminating experience.


Low Voltage-1This example shows standard lighting. Note how the light spreads out far from its focal point.






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Low Voltage-2examples of outdoor low-voltage lighting. Light is more controlled and focused on what the fixture is lighting.


Low Voltage-3