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b_400_400_16777215_00_images_archart_200911Gambino_200911MG0.jpgBy Mike Gambino

If there’s ever been such a thing as a match made in heaven, swimming pools and landscape lighting lay a strong claim to that perfection.  Separately, they take little-used spaces and transform them to all-day hubs of activity and sources of constant beauty.  Together, however, the magic starts, with pools and landscape lighting systems accentuating each other’s virtues in ways that are tough to quantify or adequately describe.

To landscape lighting designers and installers, pools offer a wonderful set of aesthetic opportunities along with a few challenges, safety issues and potential pitfalls.  For watershapers, landscape lighting offers a means of infusing projects with entirely different dimensionality and expressiveness at night.  

When it all comes together as well as it can and should, these illuminated poolscapes can be among most striking of all exterior settings.  When it doesn’t, the problems can range from simple unsightliness to significant safety hazards.  My intention in this column is to help steer you toward the former and to enable you to avoid the latter.


In my experience with lighting exterior spaces, I’ve found that pools and the elements that surround them are among those my clients are most interested in seeing at night.  This might be because these watershapes represent substantial investments and they want to see the tangible results as much as possible, but I prefer to think it’s because poolscapes can be beautiful living spaces that are just as enjoyable (if not more so) once the sun goes down.   

I’ll discuss the aesthetic issues below, but there are some other points to cover before we get there.  First is the fact that this discussion is about lighting around pools and spas rather than lighting within them.  I am a landscape lighting designer and contractor who works with low-voltage systems, and I don’t get involved with fixtures below the water’s surface.

Next, if you ever consider placing electrical devices in close proximity to water, your first and foremost consideration must be safety – which in the case of lighting systems means you need to have a complete understanding of applicable sections of the National Electric Code (NEC) as well as any local codes or restrictions that may apply.  

The vast majority of systems around water will deploy low-voltage fixtures and lamps.  (In fact, that’s all I ever use around water.)  Although these systems are perceived as being inherently safe in such applications, it’s important to remember that the 120-volt transformer itself is a grounded appliance – but that the 12-volt fixtures and cable are not and should never be used in water that comes into contact with people.

A worst-case scenario is where a transformer leaks 120-volt power through 12-volt cable.  Most transformers have internal devices that prevent this from happening, but residual concern about the possibility explains why safety codes are very specific about the importance of thorough, capable precision in the grounding and bonding of these transformers.  (If there’s ever a doubt, get a transformer listed for pool and spa use.)

There’s also some concern about how close to water transformers can be installed.  NEC requires their placement at a distance of at least ten feet away and also says that no low-voltage fixtures (for which there are no grounding requirements) may be installed within a body of water with which people will come in contact.  (Local codes related to fixtures vary in their pronouncements, so you need to keep up to date on what’s allowable and what isn’t.)

In practical terms, these requirements are not particularly difficult to satisfy – but they can limit or even eliminate certain types of effects you might have in mind.  In other words, you have to be ready, willing and able to design around these restrictions while fully complying with the codes.

Once these key concerns are accommodated, it’s time to think about aesthetics and the effects you want to achieve.


In many respects, lighting around swimming pools is much the same as lighting any well-designed landscape:  You enter the process looking for elements to light as primary objects and for those that will play supporting roles – and then find ways to use silhouetting and up-, cross-, down-, moon-, fill- and path-lighting to bring attention to worthy plants, rocks, architectural features, waterfalls or art works in one way or another.

It may seem self-evident, but most of the lighting challenges you’ll face around pools have to do with the fact that, within some proximity to these illumination-worthy elements, you have a large body of water that limits where you can position your fixtures.  

If the trees, walls, columns or sculptures are removed by several feet from the pool, there are no more limitations than you’d find in any other landscape.  But if those objects are right at the water’s edge, you’ll need to be creative in deciding which fixtures to use and how and where to place them.  


If you want to light large structures, sculptures or rock formations at the water’s edge, you need to place light sources on the opposite side of the watershape.  In such situations, you need to be careful about glare and hide the light sources as best you can to produce results that show these large features off in the best way possible.


What this means in specific terms is that objects at the water’s edge can only be lit from across the water, using spotlights.  Those lights can be located on structures, in trees or in any other place from which you can direct a beam in such a way that it doesn’t face the primary viewing area.  It’s also important to be able to conceal the fixtures as best you can.

In weighing these issues, consider the object’s type.  If, for example, you’re lighting a single piece of sculpture, one tightly focused beam may well be all you’ll need.  In such a case, you’ll want to make sure the fixture is shielded so the beam falls on the subject and little else, thus highlighting the object in its space while reducing glare in peripheral locations.

Of course, landscapes and poolscapes being what they are, things can become more complicated – if, for example, you’re trying to light a large artificial-rock formation and waterfalls at the water’s edge.  Here, you might want to use multiple spotlights to bathe the faces of the rocks in light and create wonderful light-and-shadow effects.  This will almost always mean using diffusers and low-powered lamps in order to create an even distribution of light over a broad area.    

As suggested above, glare is an issue – and it only gets more interesting (and troublesome) when it bounces off the water’s surface and opens on the primary viewing area.  This is probably the biggest pitfall associated with lighting around pools and the source of many common mistakes.  Fortunately, it’s also simple to avoid simply by taking care, when shining light across a body of water, to watch for stray beams reflecting off the surface of water and ending up in undesired places.

The key here is making certain that lights mounted on the far side of the pool (from the primary viewing area, that is) should always be pointed away from that spot.  This is especially true of down-lighting of any kind:  Depending on how high the fixtures are mounted and their angle on and proximity to the water, you even run the double risk of reflecting the light source itself on the water.  Frankly, there’s nothing worse for a setting’s aesthetic appeal than naked glare bouncing off the water and into a viewer’s eyes.


While reflection creates the biggest potential problem in lighting around pools, it also offers the greatest of all opportunities.  Without question, in fact, the most stunning effects are those achieved by capturing lit objects on the reflective surface of the water and exploiting the near-magic of the “mirror image.”

When a pool’s lights are off, the landscape lighting is on and the water is still, it’s easy to capture the reflected images of trees, statuary, rockwork and architectural features in ways that often stun viewers with the mesmerizing beauty of a scene.  It’s fair to say, in fact, that mirror images offer the landscape lighting designer an entirely separate dimension in which to work.

Better still, it’s easy to make it work:  You simply walk into the space during the day and stand at the primary viewing points.  Anything you can see reflected in the water during the day can be used in creating mirror images at night.   

By lighting features that are visible in daytime surface reflections, you can use your bag of tricks to create unbelievable drama.  If, for example, you use silhouette lighting to wash a wall behind a tree or statue with light to create a shadow image of the object, it will be brilliantly reflected in the water while the original image still looks glorious above the surface.

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The presence of a watershape puts certain limits on where you can safely and effectively place lighting fixtures, but when you solve the riddle and figure out ways to light objects around the water, the resulting mirror reflections can be a spectacular source of enjoyment after sunset.


In essence, what you’re doing is taking the drama you can create with landscape lighting and multiplying it by two:  Almost invariably, these views become my clients’ favorites.

These opportunities are available in almost every “designed” landscape surrounding a swimming pool, whether planned from the first or not.  But I must say that things get even more fun and interesting when the designer thinks about reflections ahead of time.  

This is an area in which my collaborations with projects’ other designers have become particularly productive.  If, for example, a landscape architect places trees with reflection in mind relative to the primary viewing points, we can work together to create incredible vignettes.  This is happening more and more frequently, and I’m delighted to work with designers in strategically placing trees, smaller plantings and art work for this purpose.  

It bears mentioning that, at night with the pool lights off, the interior surface of a pool doesn’t matter at all.  Daytime reflections are enhanced by dark interior finishes, but unlit at night, even a white plaster pool offers a glorious reflective surface.   

The key to the mirror effect comes in managing surface waves and turbulence on the water’s surface.  If capturing reflections is a priority, then the water should be as still as possible and big waterfalls or streams entering a pool are not desirable.  In fact, I even suggest paying attention to the slight movements that can come from poorly placed return lines or other hydraulic fixtures.


Swimming pools are indeed fascinating design elements in well-appointed landscapes – and have major roles to play in overall lighting schemes.  Certainly, they set limits on some possibilities, but most of the time they offer substantial advantages if you’re creative and keep safety uppermost in mind. 

Privacy Preserved

Quite often, my clients ask me to light the spillways of their spa as the water flows into attached swimming pools.  This makes sense, given that these are significant visual transitions and highlight key pool and spa details as well as the beauty of water in transit.  In most cases, the most effective approach here will involve aiming a spotlight at the spillway from a distant location.  

In planning for such things, I’ve found that it’s always a good idea to place these lights on separate switches, for two primary reasons:  First, when someone is relaxing in the spa at night, they won’t want to have the spotlight shining in their eyes.  (It’s generally impossible to shield the light source so that it hits the spillway but not the eyes of someone sitting in the spa.)  Second, the delicate fact is that people in spas often want a greater level of privacy than they might in other settings within the landscape.  Having a spotlight aimed in their direction runs counter to the human sense for discretion.      

Placing that separate switch somewhere near the spa is simple to do, and it’s a touch that can make a big difference for those taking a warm dip after dark.


Safety is indeed an overriding issue, and it doesn’t just have to do with codes.  Bear in mind that lights inside swimming pools are often only lit when the pool is in use, so it is left to lighting outside the pool to make traversing these spaces both safe and easy.  Homeowners and their guests need to be able to see where the deck ends and the water begins, for example, or where landscapes areas near the water flow onto decks, or where steps are located or where pathways start and finish. 

It’s no secret that adults sometimes consume alcohol around their pools at night – or that children playing in or around the water may not pay close attention to where they’re going.  For these reasons in addition to basic concerns over comfort and ease of movement, landscape lighting around pools plays a significant role in making these areas safe at night.

In setting up lighting systems, it’s always important to avoid directly shining lights into viewers’ eyes:  This is annoying at best and can temporarily blind them at worst – and it’s especially hazardous when point sources are reflected off the water’s surface and catch people off guard so close to the water’s edge.

If you pay attention and do things right, the lighting around a pool or spa can utterly transform a space that is, by day, filled with energy and visual excitement and make it, after dark, a space of serene beauty and shimmering tranquility.  It’s the kind of thing that leaves clients feeling great about their decision to bring water into their lives.


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:

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