In the spotlight | March 8, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - March 8, 2013

In the spotlight

Making homes brighter and safer with landscape lighting

by Ranjini Raghunath

Cathy Fitzgerald wanted her yard to look pretty at night, to have the right ambiance for a romantic dinner or for entertaining guests.

When she had the deck in her 106-year-old Palo Alto home rebuilt, she decided to get landscape lights installed both in the front and the back yards, and hired CNH Landscape Services, a family-owned and operated company based out of Half Moon Bay.

"I wanted something soft and subtle, nothing too harsh," she said.

Ambiance is one reason why homeowners like to have landscape lights installed; safety is another — to light up "creepy corners" around the house and to prevent people from tripping on walkways, according to Jim Calhoun, owner of home-based landscape lighting company, Northern Lights, in Mountain View.

Calhoun, who has worked in the Bay Area for the past 10 years, said that landscape lights make homes appear more "welcoming" when homeowners pull into the driveway after a long day at work, "like giving them a warm hug."

"Sometimes, they just want enough light in their yard to smoke a cigar or have a quiet dinner. Nobody likes to have their yards lit up like Disneyland," he said.

Many, such as Barbara Spreng, another resident of Crescent Park, prefer lighting that combines both security and aesthetics.

Fifteen years after her home was built, she decided to upgrade the soft, subtle mood lighting in her yard.

"It was very hard to maintain the amount of light with trees growing around. ... (It) made it look too dark and uncomfortable," she said.

Calhoun set up a demonstration for her one night — an "interactive night-time design session," he called it — to show her what the final layout would look like, so that he could tweak it as she liked, before installing it completely. Apart from offering such demonstrations, he also offers follow-up service and maintenance, he said.

"I like to ask my customers specific questions about their needs, such as 'How do you use your yard after dark?' and open up their minds to different design possibilities," he added.

Before getting started on a landscape lighting project, it would help if people worked out their specific needs, budget and brand and type of fixtures they prefer, according to Jim Redman, of Elements Landscape, a Menlo Park-based company.

Depending on the purpose and homeowners' needs, lamps can light up the sides of a walkway, shine up on trees or walls (uplighting), light up a fountain or any other water feature (accent lighting) or beam down over a wide area from high up on trees or arbors (downlighting).

Downlighting is commonly installed in many homes as it strikes a balance between ambiance and security.

Landscape lights can be installed either separately, after the home is built, usually by a C7 state-licensed low-voltage systems contractor or when laying out the landscape during construction, by a C27 state-licensed landscaping contractor.

"I mostly insist on including lighting along with the rest of the layout as it is important to people's enjoyment of the landscape," Redman, a landscape architect and contractor since 1991, said.

While incandescent or halogen bulbs were the norm earlier, in recent years the industry has slowly been transitioning to LED bulbs that are more energy-efficient, last longer and require less infrastructure to install and maintain.

"They are also easy to handle if you want to expand the lighting system later on," Redman said.

Although they are twice as expensive as regular low-voltage bulbs, for extensive projects, "energy efficiency pays off for the extra cost," Calhoun said.

Depending on the size of the project and land area, the entire process of designing the layout, installing the wiring, power supply and fixtures, can take from a day to a whole week. A 10-12 light system can be installed in a day, Redman said.

Depending on the extent of lighting, costs also vary: Contractors may charge between $100 and $300 per fixture.

"I've worked on projects with total costs ranging from $2,000 to $70,000," Redman said.

Despite the expense, many homeowners consider landscape lights an essential part of their home and are willing to hire experienced contractors to get the job done, as "lighting can make or break a space," Fitzgerald said.

"My client base has evolved over time; nowadays, people are putting more value into the design process," Calhoun said.


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Editorial Intern Ranjini Raghunath can be emailed at


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