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Contractor Coordination
Installing Lighting While the Landscape is Installed



McKay Landscape Lighting, a contractor in Omaha, Nebraska, installed a series of low voltage LEDs at this residence. What made this project unique for McKay was the duration: instead of lighting as an afterthought, which is something they encounter regularly, they were able to work with the landscape and hardscape contractors during the three-month landscape installation to complete the lighting. In addition to the LEDs, three citronella-powered tiki torch lights (inset) were installed behind the deck chairs. Lighting designer A.J. Coleman described them as "a large path light" with a reservoir for the citronella.

In the early 2000s, the owner of a Nebraska residence hired McKay Landscape Lighting to illuminate the front of their home. In the winter of 2015, that same homeowner contacted McKay to design and install the lighting for their backyard while their new outdoor living space was being built.

"They contacted us about a backyard project they were doing. It started with a pool and it went from there," said A.J. Coleman, lighting designer for McKay. "We collaborated with the landscape contractor on this one." Coleman noted that the landscape and hardscape contractors were ones they had worked with before on multiple projects.

"In our experience, over 25 years of business, we're typically an afterthought," Coleman said. "But in this one, since we knew the landscaper and hardscape contractor really well, they were always forward thinking for us."


Two Auroralight WL16 copper well lights are mounted on the fireplace. These, in addition to the downlights installed on the arbor and pergola, were wired so that they could be turned off when the fireplace is running and vice versa.


The LEDs installed by the McKay team weren't the only light source for the backyard: a fireplace and fire bowls help illuminate the space. However, the presence of fire did not impact the lights selected, according to Coleman. The fixtures are all far enough away from the flames that the integrity of the light is not compromised.

Working With the Landscape
The installation took three months, in contrast to the lighting of most new landscape installations where it's one day and done. The length of the project is one aspect that made it difficult, while coordinating with the contractors was the other.

The solution was communication, though that at times was difficult as well.

"We had a pool contractor that had his own set of contractors and schedule, we had a landscaper we had to work with, we had a hardscape contractor we had to work with," said Coleman. "Coordinating all those things together and communicating that with the customer was a challenge."

Coleman explained that sometimes messages wouldn't get relayed through the customer to the appropriate contractor, or through the appropriate contractor to the customer.

"It can be tricky, but overall, on this project, it went well," said Coleman. "We had a few meetings ahead of construction to answer questions we had for each other and lay out a tentative schedule to follow." Having a project manager also helped the process run more smoothly.

While each contractor was there to get their own job done, they all tried to think of the others and communicate to make it easier on all parties involved.

"The main key is communication and pre-planning," he continued. "The hardscape contractor on this project was great about calling us a few days ahead of when he needed us there to sleeve and pre-wire areas so he could keep working. We never want to get the last minute call, but it happens all the time, causing delays and costing homeowners money."


All in all, 32 Hadco Linelyte copper seatwall lights were used to illuminate the steps as well as the columns on which the fire bowls sit. Though it's not necessary, when the homeowner winterizes the pool, he unplugs everything, including the transformers for the lights. The McKay team takes that opportunity to clean the lenses and take care of any other needed maintenance.


Coleman recommends using drop-in LEDs where possible instead of an integrated fixture. "If the LED fails, we can just replace that and not the entire fixture," he explained. "We are big proponents of that." Coleman also pointed out that the fixtures can be re-lamped after the warranty is up as well.

The Customer is Always Right
Communicating with other contractors involved is equally as important as communicating with the customer, from first contact to beyond the final day of installation.

When first designing a lighting job, Coleman recommends having photos or other examples of how the final project might look. "It's hard for people to visualize, but you try to give them a good idea of what it's ultimately going to look like," he said.

"Continue to communicate what the customer is wanting or what you think they need," he advised. "Be upfront with them."

If the customer wants to change something that impacts the overall budget, they need to be told right away. "Don't try to have a bunch of change orders at the end then get them for a bunch of money they're not expecting," warns Coleman. "That doesn't end well for either side."

When it comes to customer communication after the job is finished, there must be a balance.

"Ultimately we want a relationship with the customer, but we don't want them calling all the time," said Coleman. "When we don't hear from them, that's a good sign that things are working the way they are and they're enjoying it."

"Obviously we have a dedicated team in place to handle any service issues, but we don't want to go back on a regular basis if we don't have to, other than for routine maintenance," he added

In the end, if the customer is happy, then the McKay team is happy.

"This was a fun project that grew as we went along," said Coleman. "The customer really enjoyed it."


Keeping it to Code
One of the unique aspects of this residence is the colored lights in and around the pool area. But, although the homeowner requested McKay Landscape Lighting's help with that, they were unable to install the fixtures due to the electrical code. "It's a safety issue," explained A.J. Coleman. "The national electrical code states low-voltage wires cannot be within five feet of water's edge. Any electrical wires or fixtures that are within that range have to be bonded and grounded to the pool's electrical system." The McKay team tried their best to help with the design, but ultimately the pool contractor installed all of the colored lights and the lights within the water. "We did install some lights outside the boulders and around the slide, though," said Coleman. Contractors can get a copy of the National Electrical Code at


Security Lighting
McKay Landscape Lighting was first hired by this homeowner in the early 2000s to light the front of the house. While the backyard was being transformed into an oasis, the lights to the front of the house were upgraded to LEDs for both aesthetics and security.

"We always try to highlight dark areas," said A.J. Coleman. "We don't want any near windows that intruders could bust out and hop in."

Coleman also advises highlighting the front entry so that everyone knows where the front door is and so that the homeowner can see out.

"We're very conscious that when we do lights right next to the house, they shine straight up," he added. "That way we're not pointing at any window inside the house, causing any light pollution, or shooting any light back towards the street or into someone else's house."

For homes that have trees near the entry, Coleman recommends adding downlights to illuminate the surrounding areas.

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, November 2017.

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September 20, 2019, 3:52 am PDT

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