Ron Spillers, co-owner of West Coast Decks in Issaquah, Wash., remembers the old days of deck lighting. “There were bulbs, and the bulbs would burn out,” he says. “Critters would chew through the wires. And you would lose your lighting.” The wiring required an electrician, and the fixtures were big enough to trip the careless walking up or down the stairs. And they were bright—extremely bright.
This was 25 or 30 years back when Spillers and a partner were growing their deck company. The contractor built a “massive” model deck on the back of his own house, both to relax and to show prospects what a great outdoor space could feel like.
He set it up with the lighting available at the time, and “it looked like I was landing helicopters back there,” Spillers says. For homeowners who didn’t need to park a chopper, the alternative was a tiki torch or a flashlight to help find your way back in the house.
Creating A Visual Destination
Today’s deck lighting is a whole other world. Things started to change when Trex and other manufacturers introduced composite decking, followed by their own rail systems, and just kept accessorizing their way to lighting. If you’re going to make rail systems, why not design a way to light them at night?
Deck manufacturers today, according to Taneytown, Md., contractor Matt LeFaivre, are “trying to market the whole experience.” And for most deck contractors and even some homeowners thinking about a new deck, lighting is “almost assumed.”
Gone are those clunky fixtures bleeding power at the meter. In their place are subtle LED riser lights to illuminate stairs and cap lights that “shine down around the post,” says Phil Brown, owner of Archadeck of Central Connecticut. Being LED, they consume a fraction of what the old lighting fixtures would have, allowing you to have more of them.
For instance, a recent project by Brown’s company involved 29 post lights and 23 riser lights. “The cap lights were 1.3 watts, and the riser lights were 2.2 watts, so it’s only 80-some watts,” Brown says. The products are efficient, unobtrusive, and far easier to install, especially while the deck is under construction (rather than after the fact).
But the intent remains: to illuminate that deck, at night or twilight, and to enable homeowners to navigate on or around it. “The whole point to outdoor living space is to make it feel like part of the house,” says Gary Marsh, California designer, contractor, and artist whose sought-after decks have graced houses in the San Francisco Bay Area and north of it for 40 years.
“The beauty of outdoor lighting is that it just keeps pushing that forward," Marsh says. "It does a wonderful job of making that dead, dark space outside suddenly feel welcome. Even if you don’t go out outside in the evening, it's an inviting look, a visual destination.”
More Than A Mood Enhancer
Besides showing off the beauty of that deck and creating a moonlit mood without the assistance of a planetary body, lighting still has its original (and more practical) intent: safety. “For safety and security, you should have basic lighting,” says Matt Breyer, owner of Breyer Contruction in Reading, Pa., who includes a lighting package with every proposal.
Dark stairs and unlighted landings invite accidents, and accidents invite lawsuits. So in explaining the point of lighting and a lighting system, Breyer asks homeowners if they would like to “illuminate the places or areas which are of greatest safety concern.”
Bryan Miller, president of Outback Deck in Atlanta, notes that lighting for safety is incorporated into all his company’s designs “based on code and the deck prescriptive” (i.e., the Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide). The prescriptive states that stairways should have a light source at the top of the landing that illuminates all stairs and landings, and that the light switch should be operated from inside the house, although motion-detected or timed switches are also acceptable. Once code requirements are satisfied, Miller says, “we will try to offer additional options to illuminate the rest of the deck.”
In the old days, contractors often subcontracted the lighting setup to an electrician: Marsh estimates he now uses an electrician on 25% of his jobs, but only for the most complex projects, where, for instance, serious task lighting requires wiring.
“It depends on what you’re using it for,” Spillers says. “If you’re out there having wine after dinner, or enjoying the stars, LED is plenty. If you have a cooking area and you’re using it after dark, you want line voltage lighting. LED’s not going to do it.”
Most LED systems aren't complicated, Marsh says, if you have training in low voltage lighting. LeFaivre, for instance, buys most of his online.
But an abundance of products lays the groundwork for indecision. Miller says when he’s using a particular manufacturer’s rail system—Fortress, say—he tends to use the corresponding lighting system as well. That simplifies matters.
But as Breyer points out, the market has matured, especially in the last five years. Now lighting options are so plentiful that you might think of lighting the deck the same way you’d think of lighting a kitchen: Task lights are placed for food preparation, floodlights open up the surrounding yard, accent lighting “illuminates the perimeter to let you know how much space is available” by defining the boundaries of same. Locating those lights, especially on a larger project, is “an art and a science," Breyer says. "You could get crazy.”
Blinded By The Light
Of course, there are homeowners who feel their deck needs no lighting, as well as the crazies who want to light it up like Las Vegas. With so many products readily accessible online, the homeowner entertaining the idea of building a deck could easily be overwhelmed.
This is why LeFaivre limits what he presents to three styles “based on the railings we’re going with.” Lighting can add anywhere from $600 to $3,000 to his deck jobs, depending on deck size.
For Brown, “it’s going to be $1,800 to $3,500, depending on scope.” In presenting a proposal, he suggests what lighting can do and asks homeowners to circle areas on the design plan where they might like lighting. He also urges restraint: “I recommend that you don’t put lights on every post.” Too many, he says, are a distraction.
Today, when Spillers brings prospects to his model deck, he shows them examples of lighting in action. “I can show them a riser light and a cap light," he says. "I tell them, 'When I built this, in the days of cedar, you would walk out here and shield your eyes.'”
The point being, he says, that when it comes to deck lighting, less is more. "You don’t want a riser light on every riser—you’ll trip," he says. "If you have a lot of stairs, you want maybe two lights in every other riser.”
For Marsh, discussion of lighting focuses on its purpose in the context of the look and feel of the deck as a whole. He asks clients after the first meeting to write a list “summarizing all the components we’ve discussed and what they want me to design for.” Lighting then “depends on the scope and what they’re trying to accomplish.” It could add another 10% to the cost of the project, but “once they see the design and realize they really want to be out there, they don’t balk.”