If your customers
simply want to be
able to find the water
once the sun goes down,
you already know all you
need to know about lighting. Throw up a few 150watt floods, and they
won't be able to miss it.
But where there exists
an eye (and a budget) for
beauty, a poolscape builder has an opportunity to create
art. A few well-placed strokes of radiant gold and alabaster, and the black canvas of night comes alive with
The artists who mix the pigments and wield the paintbrush of light by profession are a small but growing
force in the backyard enjoyment industry. As ever-more-elaborate poolscapes
are constructed, lighting experts have honed
techniques that turn
ordinary water into
or studies of quiet
They can make water
get up and dance —
from a reflecting-pool
minuet to a waterfall Watusi. It's worth taking a moment
to listen to what they have to say.
Follow The Rules:
1. Everything needs to work together
One hallmark of great lighting design is the arrangement
of light in the entire space. All of the elements in a lighting
scheme have to work together. Even a
beautiful piece of water sculpture,
gorgeously lit, loses something of its
luster if not integrated into, and supported by, its surroundings.
"One of the things that's most important for all of us that work with
the outdoor environment," says Janet
Lennox Moyer, principal, MSH Visual Planners, Brunswick, N.Y., "is to
look at the whole space, not just a
portion of it. To see it as an overall
That means that your glowing statuary fountain must not be left, lonely
and forlorn, at the far shore of a formidable gulf of blackness. And your
delicate fiber-optic-lit waterfall must
not be blasted into oblivion by a 300watt pool light.
2. Easy does it
Bear in mind the goal is not just to
make water features visible at night,
but to evoke entirely new visual qualities in them as ambient light fades
to dusk and darkness.
In most cases, this requires restraint. Most ham-handed lighting
blunders are the result of the old
adage that if a little is good, a lot
must be great.
"One of my basic rules of lighting
is to use more fixtures and less
wattage," Moyer says. "If you use
more fixtures you get better distribution and you can show the three-dimensional characteristics of whatever you're lighting — the shape of it."
In other words, the night is not
the enemy, it's a friend. Work with
it. "We use 20 watts, 35 watts. If we
get really extravagant, we go all the
way up to 50 watts. Using less
wattage, we retain the feeling of
night," Moyer adds.
"And kill those 150-watt floods
from the corner of the house," says
Peter Hedrick, owner of Envision
Waterfalls, New Boston, N.H. "Those really look awful. When people have floodlights on their house
that carry to their water feature, I
encourage them to disconnect them
or take the bulbs out, whatever they
have to do."
Hedrick cautions against the urge
to install "Disney-type" lighting on a
feature of natural beauty. "It should
be like candlelight; a subtle light to
accent the features. We're just catching the flicker of light off the
Light On Falling Water
With the night now fully complicit
in the scheme, the stage is set for
wondrous waterborne performance. Perhaps the most exciting of these
is the playful dance of light across
the surface of a tumbling, splashing
waterfall, and it's twinkling reflection on surrounding features.
Here creative opportunities
abound. And every designer's voice
rises when describing the effects
that are possible when the reflective surface of water becomes a cascade, sending radiant beams in all
"You've got to capture that motion in light," says Mark Oxley, Outdoor Illumination, Washington,
D.C. "That's where the drama is."
He prefers downlighting waterfalls with fixtures on either side of
the principal viewing point — cross
lighting it — rather than washing
the pond with light from the opposite side of the waterfall, as is common. That way, he says, "The water
will dance a lot more; you'll see a lot
more of its motion. And it's a more
natural look than uplighting from
below — because natural light, from
the sun or moon, comes from above."
Many times Oxley has seen light
fixtures placed too low and close to
the side of the waterfall's basin. This
produces a bright hot spot on the
rocks adjacent to the light, distracting
the eye from the water. Elevating the
lights on either side remedies this
Hedrick downlights his waterfalls
also, and likes to add a spotlight on
the surface of the pool below the waterfall. "That pool has little waves
running across it from the splash of
the waterfall, and these shimmer like
you would typically see on the landscape or house around a swimming
pool that is lit up at night. It looks really cool."
If he were building large features,
Hedrick would employ more bulbs
and fixtures along the course of the stream, but because his waterfalls
are small, the low levels of light
from a fiber-optic cable are ideal.
"In the realm I work in, the waterfall steps are only 1 foot by 1 foot,
and they're emptying into a pool
that's only 2 feet by 1 foot. Fiber
optics allow me to light up each individual pool."
Some Great FX
There are as many masterful waterlighting designs as there are masterpieces in the Louvre. The artists have
their favorites, of course, many that
suggest possibilities for your own installations. Here are four illumination schemes that are guaranteed to
dazzle a customer:
1. Lion around the pool
One that Oxley loves is the statuary
lion mounted on a wall over a pool,
with a tight, cohesive cord of water
arcing out of the beast's mouth.
"It's a fabulous effect," he says. "You put a submersible fixture in
the pond, where the water lands,
angled toward the wall at about 60
degrees. What you get is all this
shimmering light reflected on the
wall and the lion's face. It looks really cool."
Moving the submersible light creates a multitude of different impressions and nuances. "The beauty of
having submersible fixtures," he
says, "is that you can move them
around and create different results,
and it's something that you can just
do for yourself rather than a fixture
that is in mortar or something."
2. Tacoma's wall of water
Moyer, whose resume includes a
number of major commercial lighting projects, used fiber optics to light
a 200-foot-long waterwall in downtown Tacoma, Wash.
At the light source, the point
where all the fiber-optic cables come
together, is a wheel with a random
pattern of holes cut into a black disc. The disc turns before the fiber-optic
cables, randomly blocking and allowing light through, so it appears that
the water is moving and sparkling in
a rhythmic pattern.
Also, the ends of the fiber-optic cables are not set into the hardscape
material; they extend into the water beyond it, so they sway gently as the
water passes over them.
3. Hedrick's cave
Hedrick likes to put a small cave
along the shore of his waterfall
basins, in the deeper section of the
pond, partly for the effect, and partly
out of concern for the fish. "They feel
safer when they have a hiding place,"
By lighting the cave from underneath with a submersible, the glow
seems to emanate from nowhere, and
the fish in the cave are plainly visible
from the far side of the pond.
This is primarily due to Hedrick's
use of an ozone system on his water
features, which oxidizes particles in
the water. "The clarity you get with
ozone is unbelievable. It's swimming-pool clean. The light travels much
further in the water when there's very
little particulate matter. It makes a
big difference on your water feature.
"When you have a crystal-clear
pond and the fish swim by the light
and their colors are shimmering and
the lily pads are lit from underneath
with a reverse shadow on top with
their veins glowing through, it's just
4. Splitting strands
Hedrick says he also gets some nice
effects from splitting the fiber-optic
cable casing open, revealing the bundle of individual strands, like glowing
fishing line, within. The strands
themselves glow, and the end of the
line provides a pinpoint of light.
Working with Larry Womack of
Nevada Water Gardens in Las Vegas,
Hedrick built some unusual steps
into a pond.
They poured concrete over fiberoptic cable in tubes to create pillars,
and used them to support flagstone
steps at the pond surface. The concrete pillars were painted black to
make them invisible at night.
"The fiber-optic cable was set in
concrete and came out the top," he
says. "We laid the fiber-optic strands
out, cut them off at the edge of the
flagstone, and epoxied them to the
"Each 2-by-3 flagstone had 50 fiberoptic strands sticking out from underneath. So when it was lit up at night,
the whole rock glowed. Because the
light was pointing away from the
black column, you could not see it,
and it appeared that the step was floating in the water."
If you can pour concrete over fiberoptic cable and use it to make glowing,
floating steps, you can do just about
anything. The possibilities are endless
and rewarding, both artistically and financially, as the market for fine waterscape lighting grows ever larger.
Just as the experience of swimming
in a neighbor's backyard drives pool
sales, an encounter with an enchanting
waterfall after dark spurs sales of larger, even more enchanting waterfalls.
"It's an emerging industry, and
there are companies that are becoming landscape lighting experts," says
Oxley. As demand grows, construction companies are faced with the
choice of trying to grow lighting
skills in-house, or outsourcing to a
Oxley is of two minds on the topic. Some companies decide, he says,
"'I'll just do this myself.' And it's
true, you can get into just about anything. But at the end of the day, it's
sometimes better to just subcontract
the job to someone who knows the art
form exclusively. You get a better result and happier clients.
"On the other hand, if you can get
good at it, and you're willing to invest
the time and go out at night and really look at it, it could be a good business for you."
A Few Don'ts
Great things tend to happen all by themselves with gentle lighting on the naturally
enthralling surface of water, but watch out for a few common mistakes.
Every light needs a job. Lighting installed with no apparent
purpose is a common
error, according to Oxley, particularly when it comes to submersibles.
"A lot of people just stick them in the water like a pool light, and it
Get a high-quality submersible with a base so the beam spread can be controlled
and directed to a specific area of interest, he says.
"You want to take those submersibles and put them underneath the motion of the
water at about a 60-degree angle. That way, you capture the water moving, and make it a
more compelling element rather than having just a glowing orb sitting down in the water."
Response to change
Not only does the ambient light change during the evening hours, but so does the
ability of humans to perceive light. Moyer points out that when a person goes from
the high lighting levels indoors to the low lighting levels outdoors, it takes about 20
minutes for the eyes to fully adjust.
She suggests dimmer switches as an easy solution to adjust lighting in parallel with
Over broader stretches of time in the backyard environment, she adds, "Lighting
has to keep responding to the changes. Of course that's not true with paths, pools,
and hardscape elements, but everything else is always changing and the lighting
has to change, too."
Many lighting novices fail to understand the amount of
maintenance that accompanies the installation. Lighting must keep up
with changes in its subject, and lighting
equipment, particularly submersibles, need periodic attention.
Hedrick does spring cleaning of installations, taking apart the
submersibles, rewaterproofing the interiors, and putting them back.
"The companies say they're
waterproof, but a lot of times they simply are not," he says.
With the submersibles disassembled, he puts Vaseline on the gaskets
where the wire comes into the housing. Then he puts them back together
and reinstalls them. Hedrick even goes through this process with new
lights, heading off
failures due to leaking seals. The effort is well worth it, he says.
A bit more money up front, says Oxley, can also save a lot of headaches due to
leaky-light failure. "Go with a quality fixture, not some cheap fixture," he says,
"because all submersibles, sooner or later, are going to leak and get water in them. But the better ones, the solid-brass ones, are much better at keeping water out."
As with all electrical work, wiring is a major issue. Give yourself a goodly amount of
slack as you piece things together, Oxley urges, and never make your connections
underwater. "That's ultimately a formula for failure."
Make your field connections outside the water in the ground, he
says, even if it
means custom-ordering a fixture with a longer wire length. "Most of the
leading fixtures will come with a 15-foot length, but sometimes that's
not even enough."
Moyer's and Oxley's clients include
builders of large public works and resorts, where the size of the project
makes commensurate demands on the
power source. But on Hedrick's jobs, materials and labor typically have to fit in a
$7,000 to $20,000 budget. His compositions require the careful calculation of
effect versus such factors as cost, time,
effort, safety and convenience of maintenance. For him, low-voltage lighting is
the right power medium.
In a low-voltage setup, the power
comes from an outdoor receptacle and
then through a transformer that changes
it from AC to DC. It's safer and far less
expensive. "It won't electrocute anybody," he says, "and you don't fall under
the electrical codes that you do for AC,
which would require you to put everything 18 inches in the ground, water
tight, with junction boxes everywhere."
Where possible, Hedrick uses inexpensive, mass-produced equipment,
such as the 50-watt spotlights on the
Some inherent difficulties accompany a low-voltage DC system, however. DC wiring loses current as it flows —
the further you go from the transformer, the less power you have. Hedrick notes that a 50-watt fixture at
the end of a long run of wire may drop
to half that power.
"And the smaller the wire, the more
resistance and the more power loss you
have," he adds. "The larger the wire,
the better it carries the current. We
use 12-gauge wire, which is fairly thick,
and more expensive, but delivers power
When changes in the surroundings
necessitate changes in lighting,
Hedrick's low-voltage DC lights make
adjustment simple. DC wires can be cut
and extended very easily, as opposed
to hardwired AC cable that must be
ripped out of the ground.
"When we're building the feature,"
says Hedrick, "we just leave the wire
on the bare ground. Then, when we're
finishing up, we just mulch right over it. If you want to put something else there
later, you just pull it up and move it."
Scott Webb has been with AQUA magazine in one capacity or another since April 2001; he now serves as executive editor. Scott has a degree from University of Cincinnati in Aerospace Engineering and lives in Madison, Wisc.