Advantages of Being All Phases Landscape Design/Build vs. Just Lighting

Discussion in 'Landscape Lighting' started by JimLewis, Dec 28, 2013.

  1. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,876

    I have often said that if I could have a company that just focused on one particular part of our industry, I would have a lighting-only company. I love the lighting part of our industry. It offers something uniquely artistic, more profitable and the WOW factor is better. Not to mention fewer callbacks and happier customers than other aspect of our industry.

    But alas, we are not a lighting-only company. And I don't plan to change that any time soon.

    I have realized some nice benefits though from not being a lighting-only company.

    1) We have the ability to design the lighting right INTO the landscape and hardscape, as it is being built. So many advantages to this vs. coming in and doing lighting later. I can incorporate lights into walls or wall caps as they're being built, I can run wires under or through parts of the landscape/hardscape easily as we're building it, and I can design a landscape with lighting in mind AS we're designing it, which sometimes changes how you'd design the landscape & hardscape.

    2) We have the opportunity to bid on and do a LOT more lighting jobs. We still do a fair amount of lighting-only jobs. People who already have a full landscape and just want lighting now. But that's only 25% of our lighting work. 75% of the lighting work we get to do comes from the fact that we're the ones already building the landscape and lighting is one of the facets the customer wants as part of the full install.

    3) We have more opportunity to set customers up for future lighting. A lot of times when we're installing a new landscape or hardscape, our customer may WANT lighting, but cannot afford to spring for that too. So we'll talk them into installing just the wiring and some hubs for future use. At least 50% of the time, they call us back later to install lighting, which is much easier now because 90% of the wiring is already there and buried.

    4) When we do get lighting-only jobs, we have the opportunity to earn a lot more of their business. I've set up our advertising such that some people who call us for lighting think that lighting is all we do. The web links and other advertising we do send people not to our company home page but to our outdoor lighting page, which looks sort of like a home page. Some people never go any further into our website and think that's all we do. I had a nice little $5k job we got 2 weeks ago that came from this. Once we got to talking, he asked me if we also did landscape/hardscape work. I brought out our portfolio book and he was amazed. Turns out he's also in the market for a big outdoor living area with a patio, seat walls, outdoor fireplace, planting, steps, and even more lighting. It will be about a $50k job. We're in the process of designing this right now. A nice job for the middle of the winter that we wouldn't have had, if we hadn't been in the lighting market.

    The disadvantages to being an all-phases company are fairly obvious. We do struggle with trying to convince people we're just as talented at lighting as a lighting-only company would be. That's often one of our biggest hurdles. But we've done some things to help overcome that. There are other disadvantages too. But I just wanted to point out some of the advantages I've seen. Things maybe some people reading the forum hadn't considered.

    For landscape/hardscape contractors who are considering adding on lighting services but are worried they won't be able to really do well or compete, I wanted to give some encouragement. You can do really well in the lighting industry, even if you aren't a lighting-only company. From talking with my distributors, I think I can safely say we install more outdoor lighting than most every other company in our area, even the lighting only companies. Not that it's all about volume. It's not. My only point is: we've done well with lighting, even though we didn't have the advantages that being a lighting-only company provides. A lot of that is because there are lots of other advantages that we DO have that we've capitalized on.
  2. blakescape

    blakescape LawnSite Member
    Messages: 108

    Do you hardwire your lighting into the house or do you use the plug and play exterior transformers? And if you hardwire it, do you subcontract to an electrician or do it yourself? I have talked to some of my clients about lighting and they want something permanent and not a plug and play system that the manufacturers push to sell.

    My father has taught me a little about electrical work since I have helped him wire in grinder pumps for sanity sewer lines at new homes. It's easy to work on new homes since no one is living in them yet and they arent completely furnished so running the wires isnt bad. I'm a little cautious about working on existing homes for various reasons. What's your opinion?
  3. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,876

    Well, if I understand your question correctly, by "hardwiring" you are asking if we install 120v line-voltage lighting? Not really. Hardly anyone in the outdoor lighting industry does that. If you're getting that feedback from your customers, you aren't asking enough customers. I've had a couple people ask me that over the years, but very few. You just have to take time to educate them why they wouldn't want a system like that.

    The reasons a residential customer wouldn't want a line-voltage lighting system are

    1. It is not as energy efficient.
    2. It is more dangerous - High voltage wires being out in the landscape for someone to dig up later.
    3. It is usually WAY more expensive.
    4. Fixtures made for the low-voltage outdoor lighting industry have beam spreads that are specifically for outdoor/landscape lighting effects. Unlike "light bulbs" that most line-voltage fixtures use, that just throw light in all directions.
    5. You usually need a licensed electrician to install or service them.
    6. Fixtures usually cost a lot more.
    I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons. Others here in the forum will probably expound upon that.

    Do we sometimes install lighting outdoors that IS line-voltage? Yes. Like with this project here. The lighting INSIDE the pavilion we built really needed to be line-voltage because it was more of an outdoor kitchen/living room. So we hired an electrician to help us with that. But the rest of the outdoor lighting we did on that project (everything except the inside of that pavilion) was done all with low-voltage lighting wire and fixtures, all attached to a low-voltage transformer.

    There is usually no good reason why a client would need or want to go with a line voltage system. What the client wants is great illumination. And these days, the best and easiest way to get there is through a low-voltage (LV) system, plugged into a LV transformer. There's nothing un-professional or less sturdy about a low-voltage system. Well, maybe there is with your Home Depot Malibu crap or the crappy box set they sell at Costco or Sam's club. That may be the reason you are getting this kind of feedback from your customers. You may have to ask. And then explain to them that the low-voltage outdoor lighting you install is NOTHING LIKE THAT CHEAP BOX STORE CRAP.

    Having some great photos really helps. But even if you don't have great photos of your work, that's fine. Just get your hands on some of the great literature provided by the LV companies in our industry. Kichler, FXL, Unique, Cast, and most of the others in our industry have really nice magazine-style hand-outs that show not only the fixtures but how the effect looks on nice residential properties. Once people see some examples, they'll be like, "Oh. Wow! That's what I'm looking for, yes." Then you go on to design and price out the system for them.

    I don't get this a lot though. I think if you branch out a little and talk to more customers about this, you won't find too many people that have an objection to LV lighting. It's pretty standard stuff. Most people don't even ask me or just assume it's a LV system. They're more interested in the effect anyway, not how I do it. I usually don't even discuss it much. We're usually talking about effects, going over photos, showing them how I can create this effect in this photo over on this corner of their house or this tree, etc.

    The good news is that by installing LV lighting systems, you don't have to be a licensed electrician (at least in most states). Landscapers can install them with only a little bit of special training.

    Go take some classes this winter at your local irrigation/landscape supply store. Most of them offer training classes for lighting. If you can't find any, get a hold of your local area rep. for one of the good lighting companies in your area. There are several customer service reps who cover your area for different brands, you just don't realize it. Do some research on the different brands available by reading this forum, find one or two you like and then contact that company and ask who your local area rep. is. Tell them you want to get into the industry. He can get you in touch with the training, sales tools, etc. you need. He can even help you design and put together your first few systems.

    Once you've done a few, if they were designed well and you can get some good night time pics of them (which is a challenge in and of itself) then you will start to find it a little easier to sell them to your clients.
  4. GreenLight

    GreenLight LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 526


    I agree with most of your points about benefiting from being a full service landscape company that offers lighting. To expound on a couple of points that you make I will add a few.

    1) You have the experience to know how the landscape will grow and how this will affect your fixtures relative to placement and other things. Also, as you said, you are there to sell the product as the landscape/hardscape is being installed.

    2) One thing that always troubles me about lighting. My fixtures are always at the mercy of the customers lawn maintenance company. Uplights have a tendency to hide behind foundation plants in order to accentuate the architecture. The problem here is you have to rely on two things. The maintenance company will need to keep a breathing room gap between the house and the growing plant life in order for your fixtures to perform properly for the long haul. Secondly, you are at the mercy of the maintenance company pruning around, kicking and tripping over the fixtures.

    3) I try to be the "go to" for a few local landscape companies on lighting. I tell them not to worry about opening another division, just let me handle it at a sub rate and I can make them a healthy enough percentage and do it right. Like you, I want to be there as the hardscape and landscape are being installed. I can address the sleeves and pre wiring necessary. I would love to gain more landscape companies business, but these guys are wising up to the fact that LED is not nearly as demanding or intimidating from a schematic point. That said, I try to make it worth their while and do it right the first time.


    I would strongly encourage you to never put your hands on 110 (line voltage) from a customers home if you are not a licensed electrician. Even if an electrician makes the connection internally and then gives a jumper lead to work from, you still shouldn't be putting any 110 fixtures anywhere in the yard without proper licensing. That can be a major insurance catastrophe or lawsuit if something goes wrong and you can bet if you do it enough, something will go wrong.
  5. blakescape

    blakescape LawnSite Member
    Messages: 108

    I guess my question is; can you make the LV transformer a more permanent solution such as installing it inside a garage rather than outside as the manufacturer suggests? And if the homeowner wanted, could you pay an electrician to wire in the 120 plug rather than just plug it in or would that void the warranty of the system and defeat the purpose being able to install the system without an electrian?

    I have fairly large textbook on landscape lighting specifically on low voltage, and installing the system seems to be the easy part. The hard part for me seems to be knowing where to strategically place the lights, at a certain angle with a certain type of light to acheive the desired effect.

    On a side note, a friend of mine who manages the landscape installation jobs of a large design/build company, and runs my install jobs on the weekends was telling me that their company installs conduit pipe under new patios and walkways even if the client doesnt want a lv lighting system at the time of the patio/walk install. Then if they change their mind in the future they don't have to tear up or bore under their new walkway especially if was wet laid slate.

    There are so many trades involved in design/build landscaping, I wish I had a specialty contractor like greenlight to sub to. Less headache for me and less time for me to be in the field.
  6. GreenLight

    GreenLight LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 526

    There are many commercial transformers that are rated for indoor or outdoor usage. Yes, there are some that specifically state "Outdoor use only", but with a little research you can find what you need to put in a garage or utility closet.

    In my experience, hardwiring lighting transformers (to bypass an outlet) is not recommended and likely some type of violation. Almost every lighting transformer I come across has literature stating that any modification of the plug will violate UL listing. I do find this a bit odd myself, considering most outdoor irrigation controllers with internal transformers have loose leads for hardwiring or pigtailing.

    As for your statement about the actual installation of the system being easier than the design and layout, I would basically agree. I would encourage you to take a few 4 hour classes on general layout and fixture aiming. Most of the manufacturers offer these through Ewing, Deere, Etc, a few times a year. They will generally have a schedule for this and often times it's in winter months which would be good timing for you. It's not going to make you an expert, but it will put you light years ahead of where you are now if layout is your biggest concern. Once you get a few years experience under your belt, you will generally find that most homes on the front architecture and front yard as a whole are pretty cookie cutter type. There are exceptions to this rule, but In my experience, your most creative lighting generally occurs more in backyards, natural areas, water features, sitting areas. It's more challenging but much more unique and satisfying for me in the end. Front architecture is great money and will almost always be your bread and butter, but it can be fairly redundant.. (IMO).

    As for sleeves being put in by contractors as the landscape is installed. It's common, but certainly not guaranteed. 90 percent of the time a non used sleeve will vanish or the only person that knows where it is would be the original contractor. Homeowners often times stare at you blankly if you ask "do you know if there are any sleeves here". Educated guesses will point you in the right direction sometimes and often times full length cracks in the driveway or sidewalk are a dead giveaway as well. Sleeves that are actually in use are the easiest to find. I usually hook my wire locator up to the common of the irrigation controller and simply follow it around the entire property and flag where it goes under and exits hardscapes. This will usually put you right on top of the sleeve if it exists and often times there will be breathing room for your wire next to the irrigation pipe and wire or there will be a secondary sleeve next to the irrigation sleeve. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of cases where guys just laid their irrigation pipe & wire down, dumped some 3/4 inch gravel over it and then poured concrete directly over the top...
  7. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,876

    Yes, to both of those questions. You can install the transformer inside the garage, if you want. I've had a few homeowners ask me to do that. I don't like doing it that way. It's a little more of a pain. Because you have to go through the garage wall then, install a conduit, seal it up, etc. Plus if you ever have to trouble-shoot the system, now you need access to the garage. But yah, you could do it. Just not common practice. And I've only had maybe 5% or less of our lighting customers ask for that or want it. I think you're getting hung up on silly things. This isn't really a big issue for most homeowners, in my experience. But sure. You could do that.

    And yes, you could have an electrician hard-wire the transformer in too. Not sure why that would be important, but knock yourself out if you feel that's a big deal. Again, just not common practice.

    That's a good start. There are plenty of places to learn technique. Here are a few I'd recommend:

    1. Book: Trade Secrets of Professional Landscape Lighting by Nate Mullen. Fantastic book to learn the basic technique and thought process behind outdoor lighting.
    2. Book: Advanced Trade Secrets of Professional Landscape Lighting by Nate Mullen. A follow up of the previous book.
    3. Book: The Landscape Lighting Book by Janet Lennox Moyer. This is one of the best books in our industry. A must-have.
    4. Classes at local distributors. Whoever sells landscape lighting in your area (which will generally be any landscape/irrigation supply distributor) will have classes ocassionally. These classes are cheap or free and usually put on by one of the lighting manufacturer's reps who knows a LOT about technique. Get to know them! Attend these classes! They are more than willing to teach you and even meet with you alone after the classes to teach you more.
    5. Your local rep. Find a brand or two available locally that you like. Learn who the rep. for that company is and meet with him. He will HELP YOU. Help you design your first few systems. Help you bid out your jobs. Help you do night time demos. He wants to help you learn the industry so he can sell you more lights. Take advantage of that!
    6. This forum. You can learn a ton from the guys in this forum. Serious experts here. And this is the nicest forum on all of Lawnsite. You'll find people more than willing to help you here.

    Yah, that's a good idea. If there isn't an easy way to go AROUND the patio, then I'd say this is a good practice.

    No, no, no. Bad idea. Trust me, you're going to like lighting if you take the time to get to be good at it. There's a learning curve, for sure. But the profit involved in doing lighting is much better than you can make with planting, hardscaping, lawn installs, maintenance, etc. And it's also more rewarding. People absolutely LOVE it, if you do it right. Even more than they love a great hardscape job. There are very few call-backs. There is little competition (because so many LCOs and landscapers are scared of it or really suck at it). There is huge profit. It's honestly one of the best parts of our industry. Don't give it away to someone else. You can make some seriously good money and really get into something that could drive a lot of revenue to your company if you spend time learning how to do it well.

    It's also one of the more rewarding aspects of our industry as well, in terms of rewards. Several companies, like FXL and Kichler have really nice rewards programs. FXL points go together with Hunter and they have a great rewards program. Kichler has an even better one, IMO. For instance, it took us 3 years to get enough Kichler points to qualify. But now they're taking me and my wife to an all-expense paid trip to Turks & Caicos. At a Beaches resort, no less! All food, excursions, drinks, equipment, rentals, airfare, etc. all paid for. Friggin' sweet trip. The only other place in our industry where you can even come close to getting free trips like that is via Rain Bird, in the irrigation portion of our industry. And I go on their trips too. We're leaving for one of them in 5 days to Cabo. But the Kichler trips are 2x as nice! The point is, there are some other very nice aspects of the lighting industry that are just the icing on the cake! Why give that to someone else?!
  8. INTEGRA Bespoke Lighting

    INTEGRA Bespoke Lighting LawnSite Platinum Member
    Messages: 4,102

    Hey Jim, when you are in Cabo with Rainbird, be sure to say hi to my Brother In Law. His Name is Steve M. And he is a Rainbird Contractor Support Specialist. Great guy who knows the water and light biz inside and out.
  9. blakescape

    blakescape LawnSite Member
    Messages: 108

    Thanks for the info, Jim. I will definitely have to read some of those books.
    The first time I heard about the low voltage lighting systems was at the techo-bloc show last year and I always thought "there's no way you can install a professional lighting system without an electrician." You guys brought up some good points and changed my mind on that. Your right about not many companies offering lighting services, the only companies in my area that offer lighting services are irrigation companies, 7 figure and a few 6 figure landscaping companies.
    I definitely do my research before jumping into a new field. I spent a year preparing before I got into hardscaping, took the ncma and icpi classes, etc. Even then I had the friend I was talking about take the lead on the first retaining wall job. We'll see about the lighting, definitely looks good when done correctly.
  10. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,876

    Nice. What territory does he handle?

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