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Step Into the Spotlight: Be a Landscape Lighting Star

REBECCA PETERSON | Landscape Lighting
It’s important to know how to take advantage of a good thing. When Scott Driscoll of Driscoll’s Landscaping, Mullica Hill, New Jersey, noticed the amount of development in the Mullica Hill area, he moved his entire business there – not to mention his entire family. “It looked like a good thing,” he says. “I wanted to follow the work.”

It was a wise decision. So far this year, he’s done more than 13 lighting installations, mostly for high-end homes. While he previously focused on hardscaping and pavers, about five years ago he found that more and more homes wanted landscape lighting. “People were spending $20,000 to $30,000 on their landscapes, but then couldn’t see them at night,” he says. “When you’ve already put that kind of money into an area, a $10,000 lighting plan is an easy sell.”

The last two years in particular have brought Driscoll a huge boom in his business. He finds himself doing one house in a neighborhood, and then getting calls from many of the neighbors, to have him light their landscapes, too. “One guy didn’t even want an estimate,” Driscoll says. “He’d seen my work elsewhere, called me up and said, ‘Pretend it’s your house. Do whatever it takes to make the lighting look good. Just give me the bill at the end.’”

Uplighting is used to accent a tree after dark. Photo courtesy: Scott Driscoll

Illuminating Profit Potential
Driscoll has obviously had a great deal of success with landscape lighting. But amazingly, his results aren’t that unusual.

“You can make up to twice as much installing landscape lighting as you can installing irrigation systems,” says Lew Waltz, vice president of the landscape division for Hadco, based in Littlestown, Pennsylvania. “It requires very little financial investment; you’re not adding a lot of overhead – just profit.”

It won’t force your crew to spend that much longer at the jobsite, either. “The average job involves installing 20 to 30 fixtures,” says Steve Parrott, marketing director for Cast Lighting, Hawthorne, New Jersey. “With a crew of two or three, you can complete a job in two days.”

Plus, you don’t need to buy a bunch of expensive additional equipment. “You already own 90% of the equipment you need,” estimates Cruz Perez, vice president of marketing for Vista Professional Lighting, Simi Valley, California. You won’t even have to spend a bunch of extra money on marketing – you can use your existing customer base to get started immediately.

Of course, since landscape lighting is so visible, your best advertisement is your own work. Steve Middleton of Treasure Cove Landscape Lighting, Hobe Sound, Florida, has been in business for only three years, but says he hardly ever spends money on advertising anymore. “Almost all of my business comes from word-of-mouth referrals,” he says.

Middleton adds that deciding whether or not to add a lighting service to your business is “an absolute no-brainer.” The demand right now is huge. “Some contractors always include lighting in their initial bids, whether a customer asks for it or not,” says Perez. “Then they’ll set up a lighting demo kit at the customer’s house, and once the customer sees how great their landscape could look at night with the right lighting, they often buy it.”

Lighting is not only aesthetic, but can also make a landscape safer. Photo courtesy: Steve Middleton

Add-on services such as lighting are also a great way to differentiate yourself from your competition. Having a company that’s able to provide a variety of services makes you more attractive to customers.

You’ll also find that you can command higher prices with lighting installation than with some of your other services. “You’re not just installing something functional,” Parrott says. “You’re installing something that has to look good. You’re selling artistic value. People are willing to pay a little more for artistic value.”

What a Customer Wants
There are a few common reasons a customer wants to light their landscape. The most common, as Driscoll discovered, is that they want to keep enjoying the beauty of their yard after sundown. A yard with night lighting also raises the property’s value.
Clients may also want their landscape lit for safety reasons. “It’s dangerous to go stumbling around decks, pools, and steps at night without adequate lighting,” says Brandon Stephens, director of marketing for The Decor Group, Inc., Lubbock, Texas.

Security is another common concern. Criminals are less likely to attempt break-ins at well-lit houses and businesses. “If you’re lighting for security,” says Stephens, “don’t forget to light side yards as well as the front and back. You can also use lighting to draw attention to security cameras – be they real or not – and signs that warn that a home is protected by a security system.”

Bright Ideas
“The design aspect involved in landscape lighting scares some people,” says Perez. “They think, ‘Oh, I’m not artsy, I can’t do that.’” Don’t let those kinds of thoughts intimidate you. There are less than twenty design techniques, and of those, Perez says, only about three or four are really common. You can create beautiful designs using only a few, and then add new techniques as you feel more comfortable.

A common temptation for beginning lighting designers is to over-light the landscape. “Subtle generally looks better than dramatic,” Parrott cautions. While it’s acceptable to highlight a few features, a low level of illumination over a wide area is generally ideal. A lighting design should make your eyes travel around the property, not get stuck on one highlighted area. People should notice the beauty of the property, not the lighting.

Grazing Light over the trunk of a tree enhances the texture of the bark. Photo courtesy: Steve Middleton

Middleton admits that when he first started installing lighting, he tended to over-light. “As I grew more confident, I was able to understand that less is sometimes more. Customers don’t want their yards lit to look like a parking lot.”

Eric Borden, vice president of Ambient Lighting Systems at Sea Gull Lighting Products, Inc., Riverside, New Jersey, agrees with a laugh. “You need enough light to accent the landscape, not do brain surgery.” Waltz warns against the temptation to use not just too many lamps, but also too much wattage.

“Because a 50 watt bulb is the same price as a 20-watt bulb, the instinct is to go for the 50-watt bulb – more is better, right? Wrong. In landscape lighting, 10- to 20-watt bulbs are more than adequate. Higher wattage bulbs produce too much glare and wash out the landscape, making it hard to see.”

Shockingly Simple
To install landscape lighting, you’ll need a grasp of basic electrical theory. But don’t be put-off by this, either. Landscape lighting uses a low voltage system, making it easier and less dangerous to install. You can do a better job of installing landscape lighting than an electrical contractor – no one knows the landscape better than you do.

Additionally, most manufacturers offer training programs to teach the basics; some of these programs are even free. Most include not only a classroom segment, but also a hands-on segment, allowing you to try out your new knowledge in the field. “You’ll learn about the basics, like wiring, transformers, and voltage drop,” says Stephens. “These are all fairly simple to learn, and most landscapers pick them up quickly.”

To make it easier to receive the training you need, Hadco has put training modules online on their website. The seven modules each take about 20 to 30 minutes to complete, and are bite-sized segments of the eight-hour training class Hadco offers in Texas. The website keeps track of which modules you’ve completed, and when you’ve completed them all, Hadco will send you a certificate of completion in the mail.

Lighting illuminates and identifies ponds and water features. Photo courtesy: Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting

Middleton emphasizes that as easy as many of the basic concepts are, you shouldn’t try to start installing lighting without some kind of training behind you. “The system will fail,” he warns. “Not only will you get called back to fix it, it’ll cost you some referrals.”

From Bright to Brilliant
While adding landscape lighting to your business is a great way to differentiate yourself from the competition, you should also do everything you can to differentiate yourself from other lighting installers. “A lot of people can do a good job,” says Waltz. “You want to do a fantastic job.”

The first, and possibly most important, thing to remember is to always buy quality materials. You have to consider what the real cost of an inexpensive fixture is – callbacks and lost referrals. “From the transformers, to the wires, to the fixtures, you want to make sure everything is high quality,” Stephens says. “No matter how good your design is, if your materials start rusting out, it’s all for naught.”

“Fixtures need to be rugged,” agrees Parrott. “They get a lot of abuse. Salt air can corrode them, five feet of snow can get piled on them, a lawn mower can run into them. They need to be able to take it.” Parrott has seen some residential applications in Florida where the entire house has been demolished by a hurricane, but the fixtures out front are still standing. Now that’s durable.

You shouldn’t let the slight increase in price stop you, either. “Selling quality is easy,” Driscoll says. Homeowners won’t mind spending an extra dollar or two on a fixture that’s going to last. The fact that you install only the best can even become a selling point for your business.

Waltz emphasizes not just the importance of quality, but the importance of details. For example, different types of plant material absorb light differently. A good designer might light all plants and trees the same, but a great designer will know the correct type of light to make each plant look its best.

“For example, conifers always have a few yellow needles,” says Waltz. “When you take a halogen light source like an MR16 lamp, you’ll find that the light it puts out is reddish or yellowish in color. That light will accent all the yellow needles on the tree, and make the tree look washed out and sickly. However, if you put an ice-blue lens over the lamp, it will produce light in the cooler side of the color spectrum. That will bring out the green needles, and the tree will look more lush and alive at night than in the day.”

Walkway lighting creates symmetrical patterns of light to navigate more safely. Photo courtesy: Cast Lighting

Another expert tip is to use louvers. A louver looks almost like a honeycomb, and when placed over the lens of a light, it cuts the glare and prevents people from seeing into the lamp when they walk by.

Driscoll emphasizes a point that may seem obvious, but is easy to overlook. “You have to make sure the system looks good at night and in the day,” he says. “You don’t want to put 15 shiny black lights along a path or surrounding a tree if they look hideous in daylight.” Try to camouflage fixtures into the landscape and check out the landscape both at night and during the day to make any necessary adjustments.

One of the benefits of landscape lighting is that while landscaping can take a year or two to grow in and look its best, lighting looks great right away. “You just turn it on and you can see the difference,” Driscoll says. Adding landscape lighting to your business may help you light up your profits,
 
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