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Smart Home

Upgrade your yard lighting to LED the smart way

Keep your current garden lights, just change the bulbs.

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Brian Cooley/CNET

One of the last dumb things in your smart home might be your outdoor lighting. If you want a smart outdoor lighting system for your garden, you could cobble together an array of smart home lighting products from various makers or use products from one brand, such as the Philips Hue outdoor line. But I recommend a different route: Upgrade the bulbs in your current outdoor fixtures to LED and use an outdoor plug adapter to make your garden lights part of your home control tech. You won't get all the bells and whistles possible, but if you can live without nightclub color scenes or speakers built into lights, you'll like the results of my cheap and straightforward upgrade.

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The benefits of LED conversion

Retrofitting your existing garden lights with LED bulbs will deliver four wins:

  • Power efficiency: LED bulbs use a lot less power, meaning you can run many more lights with your existing transformer or get more light from the current number. I know few homeowners who don't wish their garden lights were brighter. 
  • Durability: LED bulbs are known for their robustness and it may be years before you have to hunker down in the dirt again to replace a garden bulb.
  • Ease of installation: Even though low voltage landscape light fixtures are pretty easy to replace, you won't need to when upgrading your existing ones to LED bulbs.
  • Low cost: LED bulb upgrades are a lot cheaper than buying all new garden light fixtures.

You need to know a few things about LED bulbs before you start this upgrade. 

Bulb type

The first thing to determine is what kind of LED bulbs will fit the sockets in your fixtures. Remove your current bulbs and inspect the base: It will most likely be a bayonet, bipin or wedge.

bulb-types

Three common types of low voltage garden lighting bulbs.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Bipin bulbs are particularly common and come in a wide variety of sizes that look almost identical. The key differentiator is the spacing between the pins. A G4 bipin has 4mm spacing, a G5.3 has 5.3mm spacing, and so on.

bi-pin-types

You'll encounter a lot of bipin bulbs. They are often known by their "G" number, which reflects the spacing of the pins, measured in millimeters. Shown are G4, G5.3, G6 and G8 bulbs in both LED (left) and halogen (right) technologies.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Bulb brightness

We're all used to expressing bulb brightness by wattage, but that's merely a misnomer baked in tradition. Wattage tells you how much power a bulb uses, not how much light it puts out, though the two are at least directionally related. 

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We're accustomed to gauging bulb brightness by wattage rating, but that's an historic misnomer. LED bulbs provide as much or more light while consuming far less wattage.

Brian Cooley/CNET

As you pull each incandescent bulb from your garden lights, try to read the wattage rating printed on it. Then shop for LED bulbs whose wattage is promised as equivalent. For example, you may find that a 1.5-watt LED bulb promises to replace an 11-watt incandescent bulb while delivering as much or more light, so much greater is LED's efficiency. 

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There is no simple rule of thumb for converting incandescent wattage or LED wattage. You'll have to trust the manufacturer's claims of watt equivalence or go by the more accurate lumens measurement of light output.

Amazon

That huge efficiency difference is why you can add more lights to your system without running into limits of transformer output or wire run length when you convert your bulbs to LED.

Bulb color

The color temperature of a bulb, expressed in degrees Kelvin (K), tells you if the bulb emits warm or cool white light. Generally anything below 4,000K is a warm bulb, while anything above 4,000K is a cool or bluish white. Which you choose is a matter of taste but wood, plants and soil typically look best under warm light while cement, stucco or blue water areas may present better under cool white illumination.

Make it 'smart'

To make your current garden lighting system smart, which usually just means controlled by voice or an app, remove all programming from your power transformer, switch it to the "on" position manually and leave it that way. Then switch the power to it off and on with a wireless outdoor outlet adapter supported by your smart home system, be it SmartThings, Apple, Alexa or Google.

Pro tips while you're out there 

  • Whenever you can, mount lights so they shine down, not up, for dark sky preservation and to limit bleed into neighbors' line of sight. 
  • Avoid using LED lighting in an area a pet is constantly exposed to. Cats, dogs and many other animals detect light flicker that humans can't detect. Use incandescent in those cases; see my video above for a way to that with 12 volts. 
  • Use 14 gauge wire in your low voltage system rather than the cheaper, thinner 16 gauge, which introduces more power loss on long cable runs.
  • Splice low voltage landscape wiring with weather-proof wire nuts that have a moisture-proof grease inside them to prevent splice corrosion in damp conditions. Bonus points for using weather-proof crimp connectors that are finished off with a heat gun.
  • Don't confuse this project with installing those cheap solar LED garden lights. They generally have poor light output due to battery limitations and must be discarded if any part fails. They're very inexpensive, but you'll learn why the first night.