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A subject that is often discussed in our trade forums is the difference between artisans of our craft and others who think landscape lighting is just another way to make money.

Granted it can be a great addition to a landscape company’s services along with pavers, concrete, trees, shrubs, irrigation, drainage, etc.

Here is the main difference: ART. If you spent a considerable amount of money on any project, like your kitchen for example, who handles the granite countertop? Or you want that beautiful polished limestone, or another stone finish, are you going to ask your handyman for that? I doubt it.

Landscape lighting is very much the same way. There are many people who can connect some lights to a black home cheapo transformer and you now have lights!

For the clients that seek us out, that is not what they are looking for. Our clients want the ART of great lighting. We have hundreds of homes and garden spaces beautifully illuminated under our belt. It is a skill set I have honed over 35 years, and passed on to the men and women who work for me.

Yes, I am a landscape contractor as well. That means I know the plant material by name, the growth cycles, what is reflective or absorbs light, and much more. I am also an artist. My wife and I blow glass, sculpt, photograph landscapes, and much more. This is my favorite medium: LIGHT.

My wife and friends say to me frequently when they see our work, ‘How do you get it right in the daytime, to make it almost perfect at night?’ My answer is always, ‘This is what I was meant to do.’ I believe that.

If you have that project that needs the extra touch of class and refinement, take the time and hire a craftsman who is an artist as well. You won’t be disappointed.

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The following is a true story, recounting the real life home improvement experiences of a Sacramento homeowner.
I am a Home Depot phobe. I only go there under duress. And if I go once, I will certainly make four or five other trips because I got the wrong material (and too much of it), too little of the right material, or the right material but not the tools. When I learn that a friend took a Saturday to repaint a room, I shake my head in disbelief. I can’t even paint my nails and stay inside the lines. So when I started planning a garden renovation, I pulled out the yellow pages. And when questions arose about landscape lighting, I had to confess that I even needed a contractor to screw in my light bulbs.
Usually I am embarrassed to be a DIY moron, but I was actually grateful for my inadequacies the day I met with The Lighting Geek, a landscape lighting specialist for a quote. Lighting was on my “nice to have” list, and I had picked out a couple of walkway lighting kits I found attractive. I had no idea how much more there was to landscape lighting than eight fixtures on a wire. To begin with, I could not have known without expert help that outdoor lighting usually requires a dedicated circuit, particularly if I meant to have light without interruption from my dishwasher. I learned that there was a real science to wiring. There are considerations well beyond how many lights I need to get from one end of a walk to another, like voltage drop and amp load-two technical terms that, when properly handled, translate into a finished run of lights that burn with the same intensity. There are also techniques which use no path lights and leave me with nicely lit walkway. I also learned that, in terms of design, performance, and longevity, there was vastly superior quality available than the typical lighting kit in a box.
While lighting the space in my garden was my original goal, I got excited about what else landscape lighting could do for me. Lighting would help define my space, which means that instead of just boxing out an area with light, my whole garden could be incorporated into its livable space. The trees and plantings, rather than the edge of my hardscape, would become the walls of my ‘room’, and the canopy would become the ceiling. And, in effect, I could put paintings on my ‘walls’ by highlighting particular plantings and features. The most exciting thing is that, by integrating a variety of lighting techniques, I could create ambience-from a casual conversation setting to a show-stopping dramatic scene.
The garden renovation is now complete, and I have to say that my favorite time to sit in it is at night. What my landscape lighting designer achieved for me far surpasses my original imaginings. And if a friend asks how I got my garden to look so warm and inviting after dark, I tell her that you start by hiring The lighting Geek to screw in your light bulbs.IMG_3081

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I exhibit in 20 home shows a year, see 1000’s of landscapes each year, because I love meeting people, talking about their projects, plans, etc.

One common thread I see is a lack of clear understanding on how to choose a contractor, especially a Landscape Lighting Contractor. Here is a helpful checklist:

-Make sure they are licensed for their category. For landscape lighting a C27, C7, C10 are the only California Contractors Licenses that qualify. We currently have a C27 (Landscape Contractor) and soon we will also have C10 (Electrical Contractor)

-Make to check with the Better Business Bureau for any complaints or license issues.

-Check with CSLB.CA.GOV for current license status and bonding.

-Ask for proof of workman Comp and liability insurance.

-They should have good working knowledge of general landscaping, plant material, hard-scapes, structures, etc. I also say, ‘If you can’t name the plant material, you probably shouldn’t be lighting it!’

-Find out how much landscape lighting they have done and ask for projects to look at, pictures, and check for customer testimonials.

-They should be a member in good standing with Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals (AOLPonline.org)

-Are they up to date on current technologies? LED? Controls? Electrical code?

-Most of all, are they listening to you? are they asking you questions? Or are they just telling you how it’s going to be, and not listening to you?

-Are they timely in getting you a written estimate? Is everything clearly stated with timelines and payment schedules? It’s required by state law It protects you!

-Never pay more than 10% or $1000.00, or whichever is lower, for a deposit. It’s California Law.

-Your payments should never exceed the amount of work completed. Keep a substantial amount until completion so you have some leverage. NEVER pay for work not done, EVER. Many unscrupulous contractors will try to push you for early payment, and you will never get them back to your job.

I hope this helps, but should you ever have any questions, we only a phone call away!

Tommy

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The more subtle you want the lighting, the more fixtures it takes.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? But it is true.

Fewer brighter fixtures may get the job done according to the DIY’er, but it will have glare, hotspots, and not leave you with a cozy ambiance you desire.  Using brighter fixtures is not the answer either. There needs to be balance between the different levels of light within your space. More softer light sources will give me more control over the result, allowing me to leave a fountain or a focal point a tad brighter, thereby allowing it to stand out. Unfortunately too many people feel that more fixtures is brighter, when properly done, more is less.

When a customer hears I want to use more fixtures than they had anticipated, they think it will be too bright, more like a K-Mart parking lot. This is definitely not true. The most common comment I get after we are done installing the lighting is, ‘Wow, this is much more subtle than I expected!’

Landscape lighting is a true art form. Interplay of light and shadow, allowing you and your guests to really enjoy your space is my main goal.

 

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I have thought about what would be an appropriate first blog for some time now. Currently I am in the spring home show season and I have been watching a common thread amongst people searching for contractors and ideas at these shows.

I witness many people beginning their journey to improve their outdoor space with a plan in their mind, but not a well thought out written plan. Why am I blogging about this instead of lighting you ask? Because they are connected, I have 35+ years of landscape experience, and I belief I can help.

When we sit down together with all the contractors to work out a plan for a Yard Crashers episode, it culminates into a written plan. You would think that the group of very talented professionals, at times adding up to over a hundred years combined experience, that we can do it without a written plan. NO WAY!

Too many details, too many sequence of events to be worked out, materials, who’s first, second, and so on. We live and breath our trades, we know about other trades and what comes in what order.

How can a homeowner with some gardening experience, weekends at Home Depot, and a few hours searching online, do it as well or better than the professionals without a written plan? The reality is most of the time they can’t and usually spend more than planned on redoing, changing, redesigning parts if not the entire project.

If you are looking into a project, inside or out, find a great designer and work it out on paper, IT WILL SAVE You more than the cost of the designer every time.

I recommend using an independent designer verses an in house designer from a contractor. The reason is the independent design doesn’t have a horse in the race and will give you an unbiased plan.

Most but not all in house designers favor certain materials and practices. Concrete verses pavers, artificial turf verses real, and so on. They can make things confusing since the homeowner doesn’t always understand the difference. A good independent designer will help you stay on budget, usually shows you ALL your options, and most of all, keep you out of trouble.

Now that you have a plan with your choices documented, you can go out to bid and get fair comparisons of price and quality. You will get details and suggestions from each contractor, and details may change, but not the plan.

I don’t draw up plans for lighting. Most landscape designers know me and generally work with me for budget numbers and leave the lighting part up to me. But the overall design isn’t changed by me or any contractor involved.

Make sure to have at least one meeting with all the trades involved and your designer before commencement of any work. We can all work out planning with you and make the process smooth and painless.

Now your job is go enjoy your new space.