Ask most landscape lighting contractors about low voltage and you’re likely to get a shrug—unless you talk to the growing number of low-voltage specialists who are learning just how lucrative the jobs are. Bill Locklin, president of Netscaping, a manufacturer in Redlands, Calif., said this work is hands-down the most profitable.
Locklin, who could be considered the father of low voltage lighting and has been in this field for 40 years, has watched the industry change and upgrade. He commented, “Ten years ago, who ever heard of solid-brass fixtures [or any of the 100-plus lamps that fit 12 volts]?” General Electric is at work on light sources that move away from traditional incandescents into other sources.
Locklin was part of the birth of low-voltage lighting when he took on a job in the 1950s to illuminate a public address space for then-president Dwight Eisenhower. Locklin used tin cans, jars, and other scavenged items for special lightscaping effects. For safety, he turned to low-voltage products. Since then, low-voltage lighting has become an increasing presence in residential and commercial outdoor lighting.
What keeps the average contractor away from low-voltage jobs? The answer may be image. When some people think of low voltage, they think of toy lighting that’s not serious work or serious money. After all, The Home Depot offers kits that make it easy enough for homeowners to string their own lighting.
But that’s a far cry from the sophisticated consumers who are demanding creativity, aesthetics, and energy savings. Low voltage is not only lucrative, since there’s so little competition, but the training to install it is readily available.
For those interested in this growing area, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Regulatory codes are making it easier to map out how you set up low-voltage lighting. The National Electrical Code’s (NEC’s) Article 411 deals with low-voltage systems and provides contractors with direction to ensure that what they set up is Code-compliant.
The article, which originated in 1996, provides the installation requirements for low-voltage lighting listed as a complete system. Article 411 covers any power supply that operates at 30 volts or less with a maximum peak available voltage under any load condition of 42.4 volts. The power source can consist of one or more secondary circuits, but each circuit can not exceed 25 amperes.
An isolating transformer must be used for secondary circuits to insulate them from the primary of the power supply (branch circuit). A branch circuit larger than 20 amperes cannot supply the primary of the isolation transformer. When using a 120-volt primary with a 30-volt secondary, the ratio of the transformer would be 4:1.
Each secondary circuit cannot exceed 25 amperes, so additional secondary protection must be installed. This is versatile stuff. Three 20-ampere circuits, four 15-ampere circuits, or any other combination could be used as secondary circuits to supply low-voltage lighting fixtures.
Other specifications need to be considered, too. Most still don’t think of burial depth with respect to regulations and low voltage. In fact “scratching away with your foot,” as a Code expert pointed out, is not good enough when planning the burial of low-voltage lines. But the requirements are spelled out clearly if you look in the right place. Column Five of Table 300 deals specifically with requirements that can go to 24 inches of depth for alleys, driveways, and parking lots, while other residential sites can be 18 or as little as 6 inches, unless under a building.
Voltage drop on a low-voltage system is critical in permitting the lighting system to operate properly. Therefore, conductor size plays an important role.
The total area to be covered and the size and number of lights on the low-voltage system may require a larger system than permitted for the low-voltage lighting systems covered by Article 411. Individually Listed low-voltage components could still be assembled to cover a large low-voltage lighting system, but would not be covered by Article 411.
Energy saving is one of the most desirable benefits of low-voltage lighting. Compact fluorescent products require less power than incandescent ones. For commercial work, electronic ballasts are a good option in linear or compact fluorescent lamp units. The most energy-efficient light sources available so far are still high-pressure sodium (HPS) or metal halide products. Electronic ballasts have a much lower noise level and there is no visible lamp flicker.
Low-voltage lighting offers a wide variety of beam spreads and easy control over the shape of the light pattern.
For these energy savings and aesthetic options, customers are likely to continue seeking more low voltage as opposed to line voltage and the low-voltage experts are poised to reap the benefits.
SWEDBERG is a freelance writer, based in Somerset, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.