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b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200908Gambino_200908MG0.jpgBy Mike Gambino

I’m always surprised when I run into clients or prospects who don’t appreciate or fully accept the fact that landscape-lighting systems require routine maintenance.  These are people who easily recognize the need for upkeep when it comes to their swimming pools or landscapes, but this perception simply doesn’t extend to the lighting systems that frequently go along with them.

I suspect this is so because dealing with lighting inside a home is so simple – basically just a matter of changing burned out bulbs as the need arises.  Some also believe that landscape light bulbs should and will last forever, which is unfortunate, because lighting fixtures in the landscape are much more exposed than indoor fixtures and face a variety of conditions that can render them less effective in fairly rapid order.

Light bulbs used outside, for example, are exposed to extremes in temperature, degradation of their reflectors from ultraviolet rays and shock (as when fixtures are kicked by gardeners).  There’s also the fact with halogen bulbs that, even if they are still lighting, they should generally be replaced after two years or so because they lose a good measure of their efficiency and light output while still consuming as much energy as a fresh bulb.

This is why I always make the case for regular maintenance in discussions with my clients – before, during and after installation – and for using my firm to do the work.  I see this as a major win/win scenario:  Not only do my clients protect their investments (which can be considerable on large projects), but it also enables me to reconnect with them periodically, gauge the performance of installed systems and make adjustments that keep the lights doing their job of enhancing these landscapes after the sun goes down.

WEAR AND GLARE

My maintenance-related discussions with clients are usually uncomplicated, as I’ve found that it doesn’t take much to convince most homeowners of the wisdom of routine service.

First, although maintenance is critical to the welfare of any landscape-lighting system, it’s not an intensive or expensive proposition.  In fact, where a pool or a landscape might require weekly service, a lighting system can get by with visits at intervals of every four to six months or so.  And during those visits, the tasks involved in keeping things going are rarely complex or time-consuming.

By contrast, lighting systems left unattended for years at a time in the rigors of an outdoor environment can be rendered either ineffective or even inoperable.  I’ve found that it’s fairly easy to get this point across:  Indeed, all it takes is a little explaining of the whys and wherefores of the situation to get homeowners to understand the need and come aboard with service plans.

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Routine maintenance is important with halogen bulbs in particular, because their performance declines in time despite the fact they keep on consuming as much energy as ever.  We recommend swapping old lamps for new ones every two years.

Although (of course) the specifics will vary from client to client and setting to setting, I generally start these discussions by getting homeowners to consider the fact that landscape- lighting fixtures are inevitably exposed to water in the forms of both irrigation, rainfall and, in colder climates, snow.  Yes, the fixtures are designed to withstand moisture, but this resistance doesn’t mean that calcium deposits won’t start forming on lenses and dramatically diminish light output.

Then there’s the fact that, by definition, landscape lighting exists in the presence of plant materials that will grow and eventually interfere with fixtures’ outputs.  The plants will also drop material onto the fixtures (or will serve as perches for birds that leave behind a different sort of mess).  And when fixtures are mounted on trees or other substantial plants, growth will have an effect on their angles and placements – and on their mounting hardware as well.

Finally, there’s the human element.  Through the years, I’ve found that gardeners and homeowners who work in these spaces pose what is possibly the greatest peril to lighting fixtures.  They’ll accidentally knock them out of place with rakes, hoes or shovels; bury them with mulch and debris deposited by their blowers; and seem to have a wonderful knack for adding new plants that completely block the light.  

I also encounter do-it-yourselfers who try to save money by undertaking their own maintenance programs:  Quite often, they’ll change lamps with models of lesser quality or different wattages and beam spreads.  (In my experience, rare are the clients who do accurate, adequate and effective jobs of taking care of their own systems!)

A BASIC REGIMEN

Clearly, all of these issues disappear with regular service – a routine consisting of a few simple steps that can make the difference between a system that performs as designed and one that becomes both inefficient and ineffective.

[ ]  Cleaning:  As is the case with most electrical devices, lights work better and last longer when they’re clean.  With fixtures, this is a simple matter of clearing away debris in the form of leaves, mulch or soil that accumulates on their shields or baffles.  (Not only does this accumulation disrupt light output and sap the useful life of the fixture, but it can also pose fire hazards in some cases.)

We’ll also clean the housings and remove deposits from lenses by carefully scraping them with razor blades.  Lenses are always made of tempered glass, so they aren’t damaged by this type of cleaning.  Better yet, a good lens cleaning can make a real difference in light output – upwards of 30 or 40 percent in many cases!

[ ]  Pruning and trimming:  This might seem an obvious point, but when plants grow, they often block out the light or create hot spots in the landscape.  Indeed, it’s not unusual for us to come back to a recently planted area six months after the fact and find that nearly all of the lights have been compromised to one extent or another.
With that in mind, we judiciously prune plants around fixtures – especially with young landscapes in which plants are striving toward mature size.  

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Routine cleaning of landscape fixtures isn’t complicated – all it takes is some careful scraping and a bit of elbow grease to restore them to optimal appearance and performance.

In all situations, we pay special attention to lights mounted on trees:  The growth in girth of branches or trunks often requires us to adjust mounting hardware – which is not only important for the lighting scheme, but also prevents the hardware from damaging trees as they grow.

[ ]  Adjusting and retesting:  As landscapes mature, we frequently find it necessary to fine-tune the aesthetics of our lighting systems by adjusting beam angles or repositioning fixtures during daylight hours.  This is actually fun, as it gives us opportunities to tinker and enhance our clients’ enjoyment of their outdoor spaces.

Along more technical lines, we also check amperages on all cables at their transformers.  I recently returned to a project, for example, where half the lights were out in one area of the yard.  That seemed odd, because it rarely happens that all lamps on the same circuit will burn out at the same time.  As it turned out, the circuit read at more than 28 amps, tripping the circuit breaker inside the transformer.  This led me to suspect that the client had been doing some maintenance on his own, and in fact he had replaced a line of 20-watt and 35-watt lamps with 50-watt versions that overloaded his system.

The fix was simple:  We replaced the lamps with ones with proper wattages and reset the breaker, at which point the system came back to life.  As so often happens when homeowners try to save money by doing things themselves, he ended up incurring substantial (and needless) expense in tackling the job on his own.

[ ] Repair and replacement:  Fixtures are exposed to the elements, gardeners and the occasional aggressive pet or child, so sometimes they suffer damage that will require replacement.  (Stray swipes of a powered hedge trimmer or shovel are often the culprits on occasions when significant work has been done to the landscape, and it never ceases to amaze me how much damage a determined pooch or spirited child can do.)   

It rarely takes much figuring to determine the source of the damage, which is usually obvious with a quick visual inspection.  The interesting thing is that the problem only rarely has to do with the wiring, even if it’s just direct-burial cable rather than conduit.  (And even if a cable is damaged, that, too, is usually only a mild challenge because we design systems with simple troubleshooting and repair in mind.)  Whatever the issue, we simply deal with it and restore systems to full function.

As you can see, none of this is a very big deal at all if clients have decided to go with regular service visits.

WORK REVISITED

I’ve emphasized over and over again that lighting service is about as straightforward and simple as can be, but I haven’t gotten to the best part of the arrangement, which has to do with the special benefits that flow from setting up these programs.

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The output of lighting fixtures is often obscured by the growth of surrounding plants – an issue we take care of quickly with some judicious pruning.

First, routine maintenance means that systems will perform correctly and as expected.  These clients’ landscapes will be both visible and enjoyable at night, and their investments in beautifying their homes will not be wasted.  If clients are happy, I’ve done my job and the systems we’ve installed and continue to maintain will serve to improve the quality of their lives.  In other words, properly maintained systems represent us well.

As I see it, maintenance visits also give me opportunities to reconnect with my clients – a simple form of contact that often leads to system expansions or adjustments aimed at improving performance and appearance.  Not only that, but these ongoing contacts help my referral-based business keep rolling along:  Our best calling card is the work itself, and when our projects look good and perform as desired, our clients are happy – and so are their friends and relations who might want similar installations for their homes.  

What I’ve found is that service calls also trigger homeowners’ recollection of the fact that someone they know has expressed interest.

In the Pipe

For the majority of my career in designing and installing landscape-lighting systems, I used direct burial cable – and seldom have I run into problems with lines being cut.  That’s due in large part to the fact that I take simple protective measures, such as installing lines next to the edges of hardscape, where they’re less likely to be disturbed or damaged.

Recently, however, I’ve made a significant switch and now install wiring only in conduit.  

Here’s why:  First, with conduit, what little chance there is of damage dwindles almost to zero.  Second and more important, using conduit dramatically eases the process of eventually expanding lighting systems.

After clients have lived with their systems for a while, it’s not uncommon for them to call and ask me to add more fixtures to enhance their nighttime pleasure.  If lines are buried directly in the soil, such an expansion means re-digging runs and adding new lines, which can be a problem in mature landscapes:  Disrupting the scene means compromising enjoyment for a time.

With conduit, by contrast, we can often install new runs by pulling new lines through existing pipes, which takes a small fraction of the time and offers little of the mess involved in retrenching.  This is why it is now my practice to upsize conduit sizes, the idea being that I might need the extra space later on.

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I’ll go so far to say, in fact, that this strategy of revisiting past projects is a great way to keep business hopping, even in tough times.  The service in and of itself is not a big moneymaker for us, but the opportunity these calls give us to update and expand systems as well as pick up the occasional referral is worthwhile and provides us with a steady flow of work.  Furthermore, it’s a service our clients need.

(I also see this “reconnecting strategy” as something that would work for watershapers and landscape professionals who might be struggling for new work but have long lists of past clients who might want system enhancements or upgrades or be interested in pursuing additional improvements for their properties.  It makes sense that installers who are also involved in service have a major step up on those who finish their work and then never see their clients again!)

One more thing:  I see making routine maintenance calls as an opportunity to learn.  Through the years, for example, I’ve been able to determine which suppliers’ products perform best over time, which in turn informs my equipment recommendations.  This sort of information also makes me much more persuasive in working with clients who want to compromise on quality and helps me steer them in better directions.

On top of that, revisiting projects has helped me refine my design skills by enabling me to see at first hand which effects stand up as landscapes mature and clients’ tastes and desires evolve with ownership and they develop new ideas and wish lists of their own.  Perhaps most important, I get to watch plants grow and thereby develop an understanding of the effects these changes have on my work – an invaluable edge because it helps me “see” landscapes as they will look in the future.

Finally, on a personal level it gives me great satisfaction to visit clients and ensure that they are experiencing my lighting systems as they are intended to be – at peak levels of performance and efficiency.  

OPEN DIALOGUE

That last point is, I think, critical:  The fact is, everyone’s landscape-lit yard looks good on completion day, but the key is anticipating how it will look six months or six years down the road.  Unless you remain involved with settings you’ve designed, you’ll never know how things unfold.

By providing reliable service, you not only guarantee your clients and yourself that the system will continue to perform as it did when first installed, but in many situations can also be made even more beautiful and interesting.

The key, I think, is speaking with clients about the importance of regular maintenance, early and often.  That way, they won’t be surprised when something happens:  They’ll simply know to give you a call – and they’ll be far less likely to do it themselves or have their gardeners take up the task.  You’re part of the picture into the future and a resource they’ll rely on as needed.

Nobody expects to drive a car without having to maintain it or use a swimming pool without regular service.  Landscape lighting is no different:  Routine maintenance should be a no-brainer, because both you and your clients have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

 

Mike Gambino owns and operates Gambino Landscape Lighting of Simi Valley, Calif.  A licensed lighting contractor since 1990, he has specialized since 1995 on high-performance low-voltage systems.  He may be reached via his Web site:  www.gambinolighting.com.

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