Just a year ago, Marty Bursky never had conversations with his clients about which type of energy-efficient fixture, if any, they should use in their exterior lighting. "Up until very recently," says the president of Cleveland Lighting One, a lighting showroom, dealer, and installer in the Cleveland area, "99 percent of consumers didn't pay attention. They didn't care."

Now the mind-set is different. "Today, everyone's cognizant of it," he says.

Energy efficiency is taking center stage in a product category—architectural and landscape lighting—that manufacturers say is becoming increasingly popular. "We're seeing a lot more people doing landscape lighting in general," says Jason Bartlett, who runs the Winscape product division for Winona Lighting.

Bursky says the exterior lighting trend has been boosted by homeowners' increasing interest in outdoor living spaces. "Part of it is the idea of using your yard for more than just a couple months," he says. "People are enhancing their yards and spending more time outdoors."

Optical options

But with more fixtures brightening neighborhoods across the country, there is concern about the energy used to power those lights. "As we move into a more energy-efficient world, people are asking, 'Why shouldn't I use more energy-efficient lighting on the exterior?'" says Jeffrey Dross, senior product manager for Kichler.

While incandescent and halogen bulbs are still the most popular for outdoor lighting, manufacturers are seeing increasing interest in compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) fixtures, which last longer and use less energy than incandescents and halogens as well as the fluorescent fixtures of 10 years ago. "They last 10,000 hours as opposed to 1,000 hours for incandescent lamps and 2,000 hours for halogen lamps," and require less energy to operate, says Craig Wright, product manager for Progress Lighting.

Technological developments also allow modern CFLs to perform better than early versions in color quality and luminance levels, he says, "advancing so much that certain colors meet or exceed the quality of light and luminance levels of top incandescents and halogens." Plus, CFL fixtures usually don't cost much more than incandescents or halogens, and the difference is often because a compact fluorescent bulb is included.

Both pros and manufacturers warn of compact fluorescents' challenges, however. In colder climates, some CFLs don't start or operate as well, points out Winona's Bartlett. Problems don't usually start until the temperature dips below 0 degrees F, says Dross, but the issue could present a problem in regions like Minnesota and Canada. And because they contain mercury, improper disposal of the bulbs may create an environmental hazard. Dross says that CFLs contain "a very miniscule amount of mercury," but that oversight agencies and lighting fixture manufacturers will have to address the problem of disposal, perhaps by giving consumers a bag in which they can mail their used CFL.

Screw-thread CFLs can be used in any incandescent fixture large enough to hold the bulb, while pin-based CFLs can be used only in pin-based fixtures.

Metal halide, which uses a bulb that is a different size and thus incompatible with other light source fixtures, is emerging as an alternative energy-efficient technology, says Jeff Wilson, owner of Phos Lighting, a full-service lighting design, installation, and services company in Tulsa, Okla. The technology is appropriate mostly for commercial and large-scale landscape lighting because of its high light output. In lamps with equal wattages, metal halide can be three to 10 times more efficient than halogens in lumens per watt, and it has a life expectancy of 3,000 to 12,000 hours, versus 1,000 to 3,000 for halogen.

"It's definitely longer lasting, and the energy efficiency is slightly better," Wilson says, adding that he uses it as a replacement for tree lighting, in combination with low-voltage lighting. "It's very warm, and the color rendition is very good. That's why we like it for tree lighting and lighting houses." Some manufacturers are coming out with lower-wattage, smaller-size metal halide fixtures, such as a 20-watt MR-16, but "they're a little slow in coming," Bartlett says.

LED time

Because metal halide is mostly for commercial applications and CFL technologies face drawbacks, the future of energy-saving exterior lighting may lie with LEDs, or "light-emitting diodes." "Lately we're seeing more and more LED fixtures going into residential applications," says Winona's Bartlett. They remain a low percentage of overall lighting sales, and are used mainly in high-end projects where a lighting or landscape designer is involved, he says, but their benefits are hard to ignore.

LEDs generally require little maintenance over the life of the fixture because no relamping is required—various manufacturers claim their LED lamps can last from 10,000 to 50,000 hours (1.1 to 5.7 years of continuous operation, or more than 27.4 years if used for 1 hour per day), at which point they will dim, but not die completely. They use two to five times less power than a typical incandescent bulb, which wastes 90 percent or more of its energy as heat, manufacturers say. The LEDs are extremely small, and their power drivers have gotten tinier in recent years, so the fixtures themselves can be similar in size to a low-voltage halogen.

On the flip side, pros are quick to add that the technology faces its own challenges. While the lights save energy and last longer, their initial pricetag is up to two-and-a-half times higher than standard low-voltage fixtures. Some manufacturers believe the price will come down eventually, though not to the level of halogen or metal halide. Also, while LED light bulbs that fit into incandescent fixtures exist, most are not as efficient as LED fixtures designed to incorporate the LED light source, Dross says.

Additionally, the color of the light keeps Bursky's customers away. "Generally speaking, most manufacturers have not at all gotten the color mix right," he says. With low-end LEDs, "the color is still very blue, and most consumers won't go near it." Manufacturers, however, say that warm lights with the right color temperature are available—they're just more expensive. And while manufacturers say that well-designed fixtures that are cared for and serviced can go the distance, Wilson says he hasn't yet seen an LED fixture that would live up to manufacturers' high standards for lamp life.

"We're kind of waiting on LED," he says. "If they can get the color right and get good fixtures out, it would be easier to sell."

Indeed, time will tell how the lighting options shake out. But as manufacturers continue to refine lamp and fixture design, pros and consumers can expect a growing number of energy-efficient solutions to brighten up the home exterior.

Lighting Lowdown

A quick look at the most stylish trends in exterior lighting design:

  • Utilize fixture families. With more opportunities for architectural and landscape lighting—around the entry door and garage door, next to the deck, post lights and path lights, and more—consumers are looking for families of fixtures that will provide a cohesive look around the house, says Kichler's Jeffrey Dross.
  • Think big. As interior ceiling heights grow to 9 to 12 feet, the exterior of the home is growing, too, and that 8-inch coach light isn't going to cut it anymore, Dross says. "You need taller fixtures to fill that vertical space."
  • Try earth tones. Warm brown, bronze, and earth colors are all the rage in exterior fixtures, pros say. Black, followed by pewter and brushed nickel, are the next most requested.
  • Keep it down. Originally started by astronomers, the Dark Sky movement advocates that more light is not better; better light is better. Make sure your clients' lights aren't shining into the night sky (or a neighbor's window), and use timer or motion-sensor devices so the light is only on when it's needed.