How many times have you stumbled while carrying groceries from your car to your door because it was too dark to see? Or, have you ever entertained family and friends in your backyard, only to have to squeeze everyone inside once it got dark? Solving these, and other outdoor lighting problems on your own is possible, regardless of your level of home repair experience.
The easiest way to bring lights outdoors is with low-voltage lighting. Kits are available which supply everything you need to complete the job: a weatherproof transformer (to drop your household current from 120 volts to 12 volts), lights with mounting posts, connectors and power cable. You only need to supply a screwdriver, wire stripper, wire nuts, spade, silicone sealant and a weatherproof outlet cover if one isn't already installed.
If you already have an outside outlet located where you want to install your new lighting system, your installation will be quick and easy. This outlet should be weatherproof and protected by a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlet. The GFCI outlet protects you from a short circuit in damp locations. In addition to outdoors, these outlets should be used to protect your family in bathrooms, kitchens, basements and garages: anyplace there might be a danger from moisture related electrical shock. If your outlet is not GFCI protected, the steps to install a GFCI outlet are included.
With the transformer unplugged, mount it on an outside wall near the outlet. Attach the supplied cable to the transformer and lay the cable on the ground, along the area you want to light. Once you have the cable laid out, begin connecting the lights to the cable. Follow the manufacturer's instructions, since there are as many ways to connect the lights as there are manufacturers. When you connect the lights, leave extra cable between each light so you can reposition them if they don't look right the first time. When you have all the lights connected, position the lights and push the mounting posts into the ground.
For a neater, safer installation, bury the cable between the lights by opening up a slit in the ground with a spade. Just push the spade about 12 inches into the ground and rock it back and forth to open a gap. Continue untill
you have a small trench between each light. Place the cable into the trench and press the trench closed with your hands. Once you have the cable buried, all that's left is to plug in the transformer and check to see that all the lights work.
If the instructions call for wire nuts to make the connections, unplug the transformer so you can go back and squirt a dab of silicone sealant into each wire nut. This will help keep moisture from shorting out the connection.
Installing a GFCI Outlet
This job is for the homeowner who has a bit more experience in home repair, but it is still easily done if you follow a few simple safety tips. In addition to te tools and materials already listed, you will also need a neon voltage tester, and electrical tape. If you feel your not ready to work with live electricity, have the job done by a professional electrician. It's also a good idea to pick up an electrical improvement book from the library, since pictures are always helpful.
Begin by turning the power to the outlet off. A radio plugged into the outlet will help you to find the right breaker or fuse in you fusebox. . . when the radio quits playing, you have found the right circuit. Once you have the power off, remove the outlet cover and the two outlet screws located above and below the outlet. Carefully pull the outlet out of the box and use the neon voltage tester to be sure the power is off. There should be three wires running to the outlet, a green (or bare) ground wire, a white neutral wire and a black hot wire. Touch one probe to the hot wire and one to the ground wire. If the tester does not light, the power is off. You should always double check your circuits before you begin working, since the radio station might have gone off the air or someone may have turned the radio off, giving you the false impression you turned off the right circuit.
Once you determine the power is off, check the color of your wires. You should have a white, black and a green (or bare) wire. The black is the hot wire, white is neutral and green, or bare, is the ground. GFCI outlets come prewired with two sets of wires marked "LOAD" and "LINE". There will also be a green ground wire or a ground screw. Locate the pair of wires marked "LINE" and connect the two black wires together and the two white wires together. Then connect the ground wire. The pair of wires marked "LOAD" should each get a wire nut on the end and all wire nuts should be wrapped with electrical tape to protect the connections.
You may find that there are two pairs of wires connected to your original outlet. The second pair of wires feed other outlets along the circuit. You will need to find out which pair of wires feed the outlet you are working on. With the wires removed from the old outlet and the ends of the wires as far apart as you can get them, have someone turn the power to the circuit back on. CAREFULLY touch one probe of the tester to the ground wire and the other to each of the hot wires. The wire that caused the tester to light is the live wire. Remember which wire is live and have your helper turn the power back off, checking with the tester to be sure. The pair of wires which are live will be connected to the "LINE" pair of wires on the GFCI outlet and the other pair of wires will be connected to the "LOAD" pair on the GFCI outlet. Don't forget black to black, white to white. And, don't forget to connect the ground wire.
All there is left to do is to replace your new GFCI outlet back into the box, carefully folding the wires back inside as you go. Replace the holding screws, install a weatherproof cover and turn the power back on. You now have outdoor lighting, making your yard safe to walk through at night. You will also be able to invite family and friends over for an outdoor party and provide added security to your home. So, go ahead. Lighten up...it's easy.
About the Author John Pascarella is a freelance writer living in Eastern Iowa, along the Mississippi River. He enjoys gardening and working on his turn of the century home. He writes the column 'Homeworks' for Suite101.com.