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By Beth Botts

RISMEDIA, August 4, 2008-(MCT)-A dark path at night invites tripping. But all across America, evening brings little blue pinpricks of light in haphazard rows that aren’t bright enough to light the way. Better path lighting is easy with low-voltage kits that plug into an outdoor outlet. We recently tried out several kinds of path lights from Malibu Lighting in Spring Grove, Ill. Here’s what we learned. See malibulights.com for step-by-step instructions and a video.

1. Solar or low-voltage? Solar path light kits are simple, need no outlet and can be cheap (sometimes less than $30 for a set of 10 or 12 plastic ones). But they don’t work in shade or cloudy weather and, although technology is improving, today’s solar path fixtures don’t cast a lot of light. Use them for accents or to mark the edge of a driveway or path but don’t expect them to illuminate its surface.

2. String along. Low-voltage landscape lighting consists of a transformer (sometimes called a power pack) to reduce house current to a safe 12 volts and control the lights; a cable; and light fixtures, usually staked in the ground, that attach to the cable with a clamp that makes the electrical connection. Kits with 50 feet of cable and six metal fixtures-enough for about 40 feet of path-run $120 to $200. Expect good-quality metal lights to last several years.

3. Be safe. To install a low-voltage light kit, you will need an outdoor ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet, one that automatically cuts off if there is any anomaly in the electrical flow. If necessary, get an electrician to install one. Do not run low-voltage lights from an extension cord and, of course, do not plan to run a cable across a path to be tripped over. And don’t overload the outlet.

4. Plan ahead. Installing our first path light kit took about 90 minutes, mostly unpacking, instructions-deciphering, measuring and arithmetic. A second kit took about half an hour. Next time, we would skip the kit and buy individual components; lighting stores, home centers and websites carry many different fixtures. Lights-on-a-stick styles cast a wide circle of light; floodlights can be aimed just at the surface of the path. Tip: On a dark night, use several flashlights to work out a plan before shopping. Make sure your transformer and cable have enough capacity for all the fixtures you buy.

5. Lay out the cable first. The first fixture must be 10 feet from the transformer and you must allow a foot of cable at the end. So install the transformer and lay out the cable on the ground before marking the positions of the fixtures along the length that is available. Measure; don’t eyeball it. Lights look much better at night if they are spaced evenly and poles are vertical. Once you are thoroughly satisfied, connect the lights to the cable and cover the cable with mulch.

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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