Authors Note: These articles
are intended as general reference only. The information presented
represents my perspective gained from experience as a water gardener
and as a business owner. The views expressed here are also influenced
by the conditions found in the Midwest and may not be as applicable
in other geographic regions.
Water Garden and Pond
by Joel Police
New Haven, Indiana USA
Photos by Lincoln Soule, Florida USA
Click to enlarge
Often overlooked in the design phase, lighting adds beauty,
enjoyment and functionality to your pond. While many beginners
omit lighting, it does help to think about lighting that could
be added later if not included initially. At least design the
infrastructure for future lighting.
Before discussing the specifics of lighting, let's start with
a few helpful pointers. First, learn from a nighttime visit with
friends or family members to see their illuminated water garden
or water feature. You may want to plan a more comprehensive landscape
lighting plan of which pond lighting will be one part. If you
already have a landscape lighting system, consider similar fixtures
and light types for your new water feature to seamlessly integrate
the entire landscape. On the other hand, if no lighting currently
exists, will your pond stick out being the only illuminated portion
of the landscape?
Even if you never plan to spend time outside at night enjoying
your pond, the views from inside your house often justify adding
lighting. If your installation is visible from the street or
other well-trafficked areas, consider lighting to draw attention
to your creation.
Finally, consult a professional electrician about mixing water
and electricity. Verify that your existing circuitry and outlets
are approved for both above ground and underwater lighting. Tell
the electrician of your plans for lighting even if it will be
added in the future. Then circuits can be designed for all possible
needs instead of having to rework them later.
Now let's consider the types of uses decorative lighting offers.
In the outdoor environment, decorative lighting (landscape lighting)
breaks down into two categories: landscape (dry or wet) and underwater
(submerged) lighting. Our focus is landscape lighting for wet
locations and underwater lighting.
A lighting fixture (housing that includes the electrical structure
that holds the bulb) approved for wet locations is sometimes
referred to as "water safe". Water safe fixtures resist
rain, mist, splashing, irrigation or other sources of water exposure
but are not approved for use underwater. "Waterproof"
fixtures have sealed construction that prevents water from entering
them. This makes them safe for underwater use, but their heat
precludes them from use out of water because of fire risk. Always
verify that your lights meet all applicable codes, regulations
and proper installation procedures.
Next, let's break decorative lighting into categories depending
on the amount of power the lights need. The two basic categories
for the decorative lighting market are line voltage (120 volts
or higher) and low voltage (15 volts or lower). The low voltage
category divides into subcategories including incandescent, LED,
fiber optic and solar.
For our conversation, use line voltage lighting as landscape
lighting in wet locations or underwater lighting. However, due
to safety concerns, underwater line voltage lighting involves
the use of transformers to lower them to12 volts. Therefore,
let's just address line voltage in regards to wet locations.
Once the predominant type of decorative lighting, line voltage
lighting most often occurs when illuminating large areas or when
great distances exist between the fixture and the object being
lit. Because of the higher voltage, the lights use a higher wattage
than low voltage lights. Large floodlights and spotlights are
good examples of line voltage lighting; anyone who has witnessed
Niagara Falls illuminated at night has experienced a prime display
of line voltage lighting.
Given its performance advantages for large jobs, what makes
line voltage lighting a good choice for smaller applications?
First, convenience makes it a likely choice. If you already have
an electrician on site running a service for your water feature,
it may be very cost effective to add service for lighting at
the same time. In wet locations, this ensures all wiring is enclosed
in conduit to add an extra safety layer from both water and accidental
damage with a shovel, spade, etc.
Another reason to choose line voltage lighting is cost. Line
voltage fixtures tend to be less expensive than low voltage fixtures.
Their standard incandescent bulbs are readily available at hardware
or big box stores. Because line voltage fixtures typically produce
more light, it takes fewer fixtures to handle the job, helping
to drive down the initial cost. Since seasonal accent lighting
can be added simply by changing the color of the bulbs, line
voltage fixtures serve multiple functions, eliminating the need
to use special holiday fixtures.
As lighting technology evolves, line voltage is falling out
of favor for most homeowner applications. Line voltage installations
usually require a licensed electrician. With higher wattage bulbs,
line voltage lights consume more power than their low voltage
counterparts do. Finally, line voltage fixtures suffer from being
bulky in order to house large bulbs. Their large size makes hiding
or integrating the fixtures into the landscape more difficult.
Low Voltage Incandescent
While very similar in nature to line voltage lighting, low
voltage incandescent lighting differs in both the amount of power
used and how that power is generated. A low voltage incandescent
system consists of a transformer drawing power from a GFCI (ground-fault
circuit interrupter) outlet, fixtures fitted with an incandescent
bulb and wire connecting the fixtures to the transformer. Drawing
15 volts or less, they consume significantly less power and provide
extra safety compared to line voltage lighting. While any electrical
current can be dangerous in wet or underwater applications, low
voltage systems minimize the risk and have become the industry
standard for underwater installations.
Another obvious difference between line voltage and low voltage
incandescent systems is the fixtures and bulbs themselves. Low
voltage fixtures feature small bulbs permitting much smaller
fixtures. This smaller size allows for much more decorative and
artistic looking fixtures easily incorporated into the landscaping.
Small underwater fixtures also make dramatic lighting effects
without detracting from the pond or water feature beauty during
Low voltage incandescent fixtures approved for underwater
use have been available for decades. Typically they utilize a
gasket or seal in conjunction with a glass lenses and a screw-on
cover. The waterproof power wire and properly installed cover
make the entire unit safe for immersion. Remember however that
the junction between the wiring for the underwater fixture and
the supply wire from the transformer must be above ground and
away from the pond.
Bulb choices for low voltage incandescent fixtures include
halogen, xenon and metal halide, each offering its own mix of
color and intensity. Any type bulb does the job, but it is important
to select the right wattage and spacing for the fixtures to ensure
an aesthetically pleasing effect. Bulb wattage and number of
fixtures in the lighting plan determine the next component of
The heart of any low voltage system, the transformer converts
household 110 volts into low voltage current for wet or underwater
rated fixture. Always verify that your transformer is approved
for wet and/or underwater applications. Most transformers are
only approved for dry location use. If the store or supplier
cannot properly document a transformer's approved uses, shop
Transformers come in a dizzying range of sizes, wattages,
coil types, case constructions and available options. Focus on
the wattage and options needed. Purchase the best quality transformer
your budget allows, which pays for itself with a longer life
and more efficient operation. Again, make sure you pick a transformer
approved for wet and/or underwater light fixtures.
A transformer is measured in watts; a small transformer for
a few fixtures may be in the 100-watt range. High-end professional
models routinely run 600 watts or more. Your lighting plan should
determine how many fixtures to use and the wattage for each bulb.
Add the wattage of all your bulbs and multiply that number by
115% to find your total lighting load (# of bulbs x wattage of
each bulb x 1.15 = wattage of transformer). The additional 15%
wattage factored in by this formula accounts for the voltage
consumed to send power over the length of the wires connecting
the fixtures to the transformer.
If you might add more lights later, consider a transformer that
can handle future needs also. It is cost effective to buy one
transformer to run your entire system, both present and future,
than to buy more transformers as you add lights. Alternatively,
purchase one transformer specifically rated for your pond lights
and then add a second transformer for all other dry location
low voltage lighting.
Finally, choose between transformers that use timers or photocells
to turn the lights on and off. Most better-quality units have
programmable digital timers far better than the old "wheel
and peg" timer systems on budget models. Photocell systems
are a nice choice for those who don't like to change timers as
seasons change. One downside of photocell units is that they
run from sundown to sunrise, depending on darkness to turn them
on and light to turn them off. Alternately, opt for a combination
of a timer and a photocell if you want to shut off the system
at a predetermined time.
One mistake to avoid during the installation phase of underwater
incandescent fixtures is improper placement. Far too often installers
place fixtures under a pile of rocks on the pond bottom with
no slack in the wire, requiring the pond be drained or the rockwork
be torn up when bulbs need changing. Avoid this by leaving wire
equal to the pond depth where each fixture is located. Coil the
extra cable and place a rock on top of it. When bulbs need replacing,
lift the rock and bring the fixture to the surface so you can
open it out of the water. Nothing is more frustrating than a
lighting system rendered useless by burned out bulbs that cannot
be replaced without a major disruption to the entire pond or
Compared to incandescent line voltage systems, low voltage
incandescent lights offer many advantages -- lower initial cost,
lower energy consumption, easier installation, greater variety
of fixtures and safer applications. However, some drawbacks exist.
Because they put out less light than line voltage bulbs, more
fixtures are needed to supply the same amount of light. The transformer
also adds cost and maintenance over line voltage systems (underwater
systems not withstanding). Finally, as low cost suppliers flood
the market with low voltage incandescent fixtures, quality has
become a major issue. Cheap plastic fixtures damage easily and
fail to handle the more stressful conditions in the pond environment.
If you use incandescent low voltage fixtures, seek out a quality
brand and avoid plastic units. Brass or stainless underwater
fixtures are superior to plastic units but also cost much more.
While some quality units with plastic housings are available,
most of the early designs leak over time, which ends up burning
out the bulb and even damaging the bulb socket. I suggest avoiding
underwater fixtures if you cannot budget for better quality units.
Why waste money on a product that only lasts a short time before
failing? My experiences with underwater incandescent units included
in kits and entry-level installations usually involve their removal
and/or replacement with better quality units.
Low Voltage LED
While incandescent bulbs represent the tried and true in low
voltage lighting, LED (Light Emitting Diodes) systems signify
a changing of the guard. LED technology involves the use of tiny
diodes that require very small amounts of energy to produce light.
Since they use no filament, almost all energy consumed goes toward
producing light instead of heat. In contrast, most incandescent
bulbs use 80% or more of the consumed energy to produce heat
and the remaining amount actually provides light.
For a long time LEDs suffered from reliability issues and
the stigma of the bluish light they produced. Today's LED units
produce light almost imperceptible from an incandescent bulb
and are extremely long lasting. Many of the newer LED units come
with life spans of up to 50,000 hours (13 ½ years of use
if operated 10 hours a day) with no bulbs ever to change. Yet
the best feature of LED lights is the extremely low amount of
power they use.
According to Kichler Lighting, LED lights consume approximately
75% less power than incandescent units for the same amount of
light output. Even if you only have a few lights in your system,
this amounts to a sizeable savings over their life span. Moreover,
LED systems use a smaller wattage transformer. To illustrate
the difference between the two light types, consider that typical
underwater LED fixtures use about 4 watts of power while standard
incandescent bulbs consume 20 watts.
Besides the power savings benefit, the nature of LED construction
makes them well suited for wet and underwater uses. With are
no bulbs to change, LED fixtures typically come in a permanently
sealed housing. This makes them ideal for wet and underwater
locations (always check for approval for use in wet and/or underwater
locations with the proper transformer). Sealed construction means
you can install underwater lights in a permanent location with
no worries about leaving extra cable or making provisions to
change bulbs. However, make them accessible in order to clean
the lenses when you do your regular pond maintenance.
As amazing as LED units are, the big knock against them is
price and selection. The number of fixtures available is limited
as lighting manufacturers begin to switch over from incandescent
to LED production. Typically LED lights cost from 25% to 50%
more than incandescent units, but you must look at the cost over
the life of the system to see a true picture of what it will
cost. When selecting LED lights, go with a trusted manufacturer.
Since LED lights are relatively new and consumers may be unfamiliar
with them, low quality products may be hard to distinguish from
higher quality units. Big box store stress low price systems.
Professional grade products reduce your chances of disappointment.
Another emerging trend in pond lighting is fiber optic lighting.
Known best for phone and cable transmission, fiber optic technology
is making inroads into the home landscaping market. Only a few
manufacturers produce off-the-shelf and customized fiber optic
systems for all types outdoor home lighting, so the selection
is limited. However, because the products are so adaptable to
a wide array of applications, fiber optic lighting deserves serious
consideration for your project.
Fiber optic systems for ponds and water features work on a
very simple principle. An illuminator houses one light bulb as
the light source for a number of attached cables. The end of
each cable projects the light, allowing it to be placed almost
anywhere given the small cable size. Recent cable design improvements
increase the light intensity and spread, bringing fiber optic
lights into the same performance range as incandescent and LED
units. Installation is a breeze. They need no wiring or connections
other than plugging in one cable harness into the illuminator.
The major advantage of a fiber optic system stems from having
no electrical components in or under water. The illuminator,
its only electrical component, rests a safe distance from wet
and underwater locations. Another benefit includes the ability
to introduce color via a color wheel. Most systems include a
means of fixing one color or changing colors by a controller.
Add in a remote control and the setup gives you unique flexibility.
Moreover, with only one bulb in the entire system, energy consumption
is extremely low and you only have to worry about changing one
bulb every few years.
Because fiber optic technology is still evolving, the cost
is higher than other lighting choices. Again, however, consider
cost as a function over the system's lifetime. When looking at
the initial investment, budget more for fiber optic lights than
other systems. Currently the systems are best suited for underwater
applications, but standard wet and dry landscape fixtures are
starting to appear. However, other types of low voltage lighting
might better handle spot and flood lighting.
The final type of lighting worth mentioning is solar powered
lighting. Since pond owners tend to be very environmentally conscious,
solar lighting is always a welcome addition to the pond environment.
Often used as a means to power low voltage and LED fixtures,
solar power is gaining traction in the lighting world. Primarily
functioning in wet locations, solar powered lighting offers homeowners
a free source of renewable energy that obviously makes solar
the clear expense-of-operation winner compared to other systems.
Along with an extremely low operating cost, solar lights for
wet locations are simple to install. No wiring is involved! Each
light is a self-contained unit with its own power source. This
gives great flexibility when placing the lights in the landscape.
The low operating voltage also makes them a safe alternative
around wet areas like ponds and water features.
However, solar today has more negatives than its positives
can offset. Besides a limited selection of fixtures and lighting
units, solar lights depend on steady sun exposure to deliver
a dependable light source each night. The efficiency of the solar
cells and the storage bank greatly affect how bright and how
long the light lasts each night. Location can also be a challenge
for solar units; shaded areas reduce the amount of light the
Like fiber optic lights, solar lighting is not the first option
for flood or spot lighting since the wattage of solar powered
lights is frequently very low. Few underwater solar lights are
available today due to the challenge of connecting a wire from
a solar collector panel to the underwater fixture. Pond owners
then have to find a way to incorporate or "hide" these
small solar panels in the landscape. Finally, solar fixtures
tend to be larger than other low voltage fixtures since they
must include a fair amount of surface area for the solar collector
Despite the obstacles solar lighting currently faces, it clearly
represents a long-term solution for the future. Most likely we
will see a combination of solar power with LED or fiber optic
fixtures to bundle the best of both. Regardless of how solar,
LED and fiber optic technology advance, it has become clear that
incandescent lighting is on the way out. While some countries
like Canada already regulate the use of incandescent bulbs (Christmas
lighting is primarily LED based), it appears to be just a matter
of time before landscape lighting goes completely green and incandescent
bulbs fade from the market.
to this multi-part series
In summary, plan ahead by contemplating present and future lighting
needs. A well-planned lighting design will save time and money
when turning your pond or water feature into a sparkling jewel
at night. While the technical aspects of lighting may be confusing,
you can always turn to a trusted pond or water garden contractor
or electrician for advice. In the end, preparing for all possibilities
(even if you forgo lighting at first) will make for a much more
enjoyable installation instead of scrambling to add lights later
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