When he started in the field of lighting design two decades ago, Gary Novasel, who teaches Landscape Lighting at the New York Botanical Garden and has taught Architectural Lighting at Parsons the New School for Design and the University of Bridgeport, likes to say his biggest competition was ignorance. “In the past, not so many fixtures were available and outdoor lighting was really the bailiwick of the electrician,” he says. “The premise was that if you have a yard that’s dark, it looks better lit and so an electrician could light it up. Since then,” continues the lighting designer, “the industry has matured—overall quality has improved, more design professionals have entered the field, and consumers are more worldly and aware of their options.”
Today, says Novasel, who has a BS in Industrial Design as well as an MBA, “landscape lighting is all about LED—it’s revolutionizing the entire lighting industry.” LED, or light emitting diode, he explains, is a new way of making light; past lighting sources consisted primarily of incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent. “LED started to come to prominence in 2000, took time to develop into mature products, and only really has come into its own in the last few years,” he says. In the past, there were very few fixtures available that used the technology, but now every manufacturer has committed to LED and any kind of outdoor lighting fixture is available, he adds, including well lights or in-ground lights; bullets, which mount on top of the ground or in a tree shining down; and path lighting. And because LEDs are so tiny, they’ve even created a new form of outdoor lighting—a tape, like a piece of masking tape, that can be placed under the toe kick or underneath a step to emit a thin strip of light.
The benefits of LEDs are significant, Novasel says. Whereas halogen bulbs will last up to 5,000 hours (and incandescents even less), LEDs are good for 50,000 hours of continuous use. One of the biggest hassles in landscape lighting is having to change bulbs when they burn out, so, with LEDs, the need to do so is much less frequent. Another important benefit is that LEDs are available in a variety of shades of white. “Different types of plants will look better under warm lights or cool,” says Novasel. “For instance, an evergreen tree will look better under a cool white and a tree like a Japanese red leaf maple would look better under a warm light.” LED permits those kinds of selections. And finally, and perhaps most important, LEDs use less energy. “You save approximately 70 percent on energy consumption with LEDs,” says Novasel.
One way to take advantage of LED technology, adds the lighting designer, is to retrofit your existing incandescent or halogen fixtures with LED bulbs that have the same forms or shapes of the traditional bulbs they are replacing. Just be certain to do your homework and make sure the bulb you are buying satisfies the requirements of your fixture, cautions Novasel, because not every LED bulb is rated to be in a fully enclosed fixture, exposed to the weather, or be dimmable. And buyer beware: You get what you pay for, he says.
What’s the next big thing in outdoor lighting? Because some LEDs have the ability to change colors, a lighting app on your iPhone allows you to do so at the touch of screen. So in winter you might use an icy blue-white and in spring a pale yellow to bring out the lime green of the buds. Or if your teenager is having a summer pool party, the lights surrounding that area can be programmed to flash bright colors.
Bright Idea: Always check the LED bulb package for the federal-government-suggested information box regarding intensity, length of life, color, etc. It’s voluntary, not mandatory, but if you don’t see it, stay away from the product, Novasel advises.