How to Install Low-Voltage Landscape Lights

Installing low-voltage landscape lights has been on my “Want To Do” list for years now. I even bought some lights on clearance three years ago! Now that they are installed I’m kicking myself for waiting so long. They look so inviting.

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  • Hammer
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Pliers
  • Wire strippers and cutter
  • 3M Heavy Duty all-weather duct tape
  • Landscape lights (it might be wise to purchase one extra, you’ll see why later)
  • Transformer for Outdoor Lighting
  • Low voltage landscape wiring (I used 100 feet of 14 gauge, but check the directions for your lights)

In order to figure out what size transformer you need, you should add up all the wattage on the bulbs your lights use. This is a simple equation, for example, if your lights use 9 watt bulbs, then multiply 9 time the number of light fixtures you have. I ended up buying a Portfolio Outdoor 200W Magnetic Transformer for Outdoor Lighting. The transformer senses darkness and turns on the lights at dusk. I prefer this instead of a timer, especially because it will not need to be reprogrammed as the days vary in length throughout the year. The only downside is that they will come on during hurricanes, tornados and big bad dark thunderstorms. Then again, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Matchy-Matchy. How to unify two colored lights:

Well, of course once I got ready to install our lights, I realized I needed more. Because the lights I bought were on clearance, they were no longer available in the stores. So, what’s a girl to do? I got eBaying and creative!

I was able to buy similar lights from an eBay seller. The fact that they were a different color was not going to dissuade me! Not when I have a can of spray paint in my arsenal. That and a can of automotive primer was all it took to turn those brown lights black (well, Oil Rubbed Bronze to be exact.)

After the paint dried, I began laying out my lights along the front path.

I decided to stagger them for maximum illumination along the path and to avoid creating an airport runway look (aka symmetrical.) I don’t know if you believe in UFOs, but I’m not taking any chances.

Installing the transformer:

*Be sure to read all the directions that come with your transformer. The following tutorial is based on the Portfolio transformer I purchased. Your directions may vary.

You will need to locate your transformer near an outdoor GFCI outlet. Luckily I had my electrician install an outlet last year. (Yes, there are some things that I will leave to a professional. Adding new wiring is one of them.)

Measure up 18″ from the ground (or the height recommended in your directions) and use the template that came with your transformer to drill two pilot holes for the mounting screws. Insert the anchors and tap them gently into the pilot holes.

Screw the mounting screws in, leave them extended partially to accept the holes on the back of the transformer.

Split the end of your low voltage wire. Then strip a small amount off the ends using your wire cutters. Slip the wires through the holes on the transformer and tighten the screws over the wire.

Play with the amount the screws extend until the transformer fits flush against the wall. Leave the transformer unplugged.

Installing the lights:

*Be sure to read all the directions that come with your low voltage lighting. The following tutorial is based on the Malibu lights I purchased. Your directions may vary.

Dig a narrow trench along the path to the location of each light. Aim for 8 – 12″ deep, the deeper the better so you don’t accidentally chop your wire while digging or planting.

Because the wires are low voltage you won’t be harmed. However, if you accidentally cut your wire, you will have to re-install your lights all over again! NOT COOL!

Run the wire into the trench until you reach  your first light. The directions that came with the transformer explain that you want your first light to be at or further than 10′ from the transformer. You can cheat this by making your wire loop or arc to take up more length on the wire before your first light. But, make sure your light isn’t so close to the transformer that it would be read by the photo sensor (the same holds true for having your transformer too close to your house lights.) Make a loop around your light. This protects the wire from being too taut and will hopefully prevent all your lights from being uprooted should someone accidentally (or intentionally) play soccer with one them. I can’t imagine that happening in our yard!

Open the connector on your light.

Insert the wire into the connector. Then press the connector back together firmly.

Unless you have super human hand strength, you may wish to use pliers (I used my Irwin Groove Lock Pliers) to press them together. You need to insure that the metal prongs pierce through the wire insulation and make contact with the wire inside. Later, if one of your lights doesn’t work, you’ll know that it could be that the connection isn’t tight enough.

Insert the stake of your light into the ground. Don’t fully bury it yet. Trust me on this one. It’ll save you from re-enacting The Diggingest Dog should your lights fail to work properly!

Repeat for the remaining lights.  When you reach the end, you may wish to “cap” off the end of the wire with duct tape. This is not required, but I decided it was best to protect the wire from any source that might short it out.

Plug in your transformer and adjust the settings to turn your lights on. Do they work? Then clap yourself on the back! If not, you need to go back and check all those connections. Good think you listened to me and didn’t bury them, right?!

Let me tell you a little antidote about a girl, let’s call her “Whitney”, who buried all the connections, turned on the transformer and got all excited because the lights worked. Only to come back 30 minutes later to an error message on the transformer and no working lights. Needless to say, she had to dig up every single light and press all the connections tight again. Then she tested the lights only to be disappointed yet again. She was so frustrated, that she went inside and went directly to bed. The next day she spent too much time on hold with the customer service numbers for the transformer and the light manufacturer. They weren’t much help. “Yes, I read the directions. Yes, I checked the connections. Yes, yes. YES!… Okay thanks (or no thanks!)” But, she knew she was smarter than the average bear, so she systematically removed one light at a time and then turned on the transformer. Finally upon removing the last light and plugging in the transformer she found that they suddenly worked. I’m not sure why (errr, I mean she wasn’t sure why that last light caused the problem), so she decided to discard the last light.

For good measure once all the lights are working, wrap the connectors in Scotch Heavy Duty All-Weather duct tape to keep them sealed and connected. Call it overkill, but I didn’t want to end up like Whitney.

It doesn’t have to be pretty to be function. Just ask Pretty Handsome Guy, since this does remind me a LOT of that post he wrote for me.

NOW, you can bury the light stakes, check that they are level and then fill the holes with dirt and pack it down.

And that is it! This is a relatively easy install. It may require a little bit of patience if the lights don’t work at first (or second.) But, if all goes perfectly, this is a half a day project.

Landscape lighting can improve your curb appeal, and also the value of your home. They are also great for deterring thieves. But, I like them because they light up my beautiful plants. And, because, it is very relaxing sitting outside after dark in the glow of the lights with a drink in hand. What more reason could you need for installing landscape lights?

What do you think? Do you like? Is this a project you think you could attempt yourself? I bet you could.



Disclaimer: I was not paid by Portfolio or Malibu to write this post. Those are the brands I purchased with my own money. The 3M All Weather Duct Tape was sent to me by 3M to use. As were the Irwin Groove Lock Pliers. I was not compensated in any way by them. Nor was I swayed to write positive things about their products. There, I think that covers everything.


47 replies
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  1. Kin
    Kin says:

    Thanks Bob ! good idea.
    Here is my 2 cents. I did my 10 years ago. It worked fine about five years and start short out the lights. I pull out all the 12v dc wire and redo the system with 1/2″ white pvc pipe, use #16 g blue and white wire, wire nuts, electric black tape. Also I replace all the 7 watts light bulbs with 1 watt led light bulb (T5 Wedge-Bulb White LED For Malibu 12V AC/DC Landscape Lights 6000K US Features. E-bay)…..It still work every night.

  2. Jaimie Nestor
    Jaimie Nestor says:

    I was trimming some of our bushes and accidentally cut the main cord that powers all the lights, not the power cord to the transformer. Do you know of any way to fix this or is it time to redo the whole process?

  3. Tim
    Tim says:

    Any reason why my transformer would work some days then not work others ? one day it works fine, then another day it doesnt…. I would have to go outside, turn on mannually then back to the hourly function

  4. sylvanfairy
    sylvanfairy says:

    I’m so glad you posted this. My directions have NO details about the exposed end of the wire. I like your idea for duct tape so I’m going to run with it.

  5. Katy
    Katy says:

    Our house already had this lighting when we moved in. After 14 months, the lights have randomly started turning on in the middle of the day. Not just an overcast day- I’m talking bright, noon sunlight and the lights turn on. Has anyone else experienced this?

    • Brittany Bailey
      Brittany Bailey says:

      Have you checked the transformer? There should be several settings that you can cycle through. Our’s is set to “A” for auto on at dark and off at light. But, there are other settings with a number that tells the transformer to turn on at a specific time and stay on for that many hours.

  6. Bob
    Bob says:

    Just happened to come across this article while looking for some other information of landscape lighting and was drawn in by the clever website name (always good to be handy!) but wanted to point out a couple of small changes that can make a HUGE difference in how long your install will continue to work perfectly, or work at all.

    -On the transformer, you want to add up the total wattage like you said, but leave a little room there, usually 80% is the general rule of thumb, this a 100 watt transformer should power no more than 80 watts of lights total, 200w=160w of lights and so on.

    -Those connectors that come with the Malibu and other lower priced brands that make their connection by piercing the insulation on the power line you’re running to power them are JUNK! Since the connection is exposed to the elements, mainly moisture, whether its buried in the ground or just run under several inches of mulch or even just laying right out in the open for really lazy folks, it WILL eventually degrade and often eventually shorts out, etc. Simply cut them off with a wire cutter/stripper (well under $20 at any HD, Lowes, Ace, etc) and strip a 1/2″ or so of bare wire at the end of each wire and connect them to your power cable with some “direct burial connectors” which can be like large wire nuts filled with a silicone and not exposed to elements (also at any HD, etc and means you’ll also cut your power wire at each connection and simply twist the 3 wires together-once you get hang of it, it will take same amount of time as using those dumb insulation piercing connectors)

    -Last, wrapping connections in tape is a good idea (kind of trying to do what the direct burial connectors do-protect from elements) but NEVER USE ANY DUCT TAPE TO WRAP ANY ELECTRICAL CONNECTION, USE ELECTRICAL TAPE!!!! Duct tape often has metal fibers in it to make it stronger and make it so useful for so many things, but NEVER use it for any electrical connection, other than I suppose if you thoroughly wrap first with electrical tape, if you want to then wrap with duct tape for super strength, that’s fine!

  7. Chris
    Chris says:

    I’m tired of the solar lights having to be replaced and I’ve often considered the hard-wired option. Problem is, the sun bakes everything here in the Desert Southwest and I don’t know how often I’ll have to replace the hard-wired fixtures. My other big challenge is going to be digging into the VERY dry and compact desert terrain. Suppose I’m going to have to put pen to paper and figure out which direction is really worth my time, effort and money. Thanks for the great tutorial should I decide to move to hard-wire.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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