Upper Arlington homeowners Lisa and Matt Austin hesitated before undertaking the outdoor lighting project at their home. It was the first house they had owned together and it was their first foray into a major exterior project.

When they bought their stone Cape Cod-style home four years ago, a concrete walkway extended from the front door to the "No Parking" sign in front of the house. The Austins not only disliked that path, they wanted to add visual dimension to their property. The double lot surrounding their house features mature trees, but the couple agreed that their landscaping was dull. And their yard was too dark at night.

As part of the project, uplights were added to illuminate trees planted along a new path. "We added a meandering paver from the front door to the driveway," Lisa explains. "I wanted the walkway to make the walk an experience so you notice the color of the leaves and the dimensions on the tree bark."

While the home's front and side yards are warmed by well-placed lights highlighting architectural details such as the chimney's masonry, for example, it is in the backyard where the subtleties of the outdoor lighting shine. Again, nature takes over. As Lisa ascends the stairway before going to bed, she passes a large window and marvels at the remarkable imagery of three mid-size birch trees at the rear of the property.

"I've seen snow on the branches ofthe birch trees at night," she says. Meanwhile, her husband has noticed a prism effect caused by light reflecting through ice on the tree branches. The lights "let us experience every season in detail," Lisa says.

Consider project design

For the Austins and others in Central Ohio, an aesthetically pleasing landscape lighting project requires more than merely plopping a few solar lights into the ground at various intervals, warn local experts. "There is a lot to the design of a project," says J.K. Smith, the central Ohio franchisee of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives.

"Bottom line, a box of lights from Home Depot and a shovel will be inexpensive but will look like it," Smith says. Working with an experienced company increases the likelihood that lighting fixtures installed on a property are backed with "good warranties," he adds.

As is the case with interior lighting, an emerging trend in outdoor lighting projects is the use of LED filaments. During the past decade, quartz-halogen lights became a favored, albeit more expensive, option to incandescent bulbs. But in the past year or two, LED lights are the bulb of choice. Even though they are more expensive, they last longer and use less energy.

The life of the average quartz-halogen light is 4,000 to 5,000 hours, but some LEDs can last 50,000 hours. Certainly, the longer lasting LED is more costly than a quartz-halogen bulb. According to Smith, a $5,000 outdoor illumination project using quartz-halogen bulbs would cost nearly 35 percent more if LED filaments are used.

"It's a green product," agrees David Peabody, president of Peabody Landscape Group, regarding LED options. But outdoor illumination projects involve other considerations, too, he says. For example, homeowners should look at outdoor lighting designs they like to help them determine what they might want for their yard. Using the correct wattage or amps will help eliminate hot spots. Peabody also stresses the importance of properly spacing lights to achieve the desired effect and to avoid flooding an area with light.

Pergola lighting

Certainly there are various ways to install outdoor lighting that work well for the space. In Dublin, Sherry and Chris Fleury agreed that they wanted to add an outdoor entertainment space to their home, purchased new in 2003, but they could not agree on what to build. Sherry, an attorney in private practice, favored a sunroom, while her husband, an engineer at Honda, imagined a patio. After much discussion and compromise, the pair settled on a backyard pergola and nearby fire pit.

The 14-foot square pergola with its covered roof provides a cozy spot for outdoor meals or catching the Buckeyes on the flat panel TV. The Fleurys installed accent lighting in the pergola's eaves that can be dimmed to accommodate the mood. Meanwhile, a large ceiling fan with soft lighting was situated at the pergola's center. The fire pit, on the other hand, did not require any additional lighting other than the natural fire that illuminates the area at times.

Bexley homeowners Ron Negron and Mike Gritzmacher turned their attention to the grounds of their impressive 6,300-square-foot home once their interior renovation was complete. The couple had redone the lawn of their former home, across the street, so they were starting with some experience. In a massive effort with Peabody Landscaping Group, they coordinated the installation of more than 100 arborvitae trees, a complex water sprinkling system, an expansive swimming pool, a large patio and harmonious interplay of outdoor lighting fixtures.

"Our neighbors have been extremely complimentary," Negron says. The two often hear that their yard looks much larger with its additional lighting, adds Gritzmacher, a communications specialist for Abercrombie & Fitch. The lawn now involves nearly 50 lights, including 19 illuminating the pathway to a three-tiered fountain and 24 can lights focusing on various shrubs and trees.

"We like how the lights highlight the architectural fine points of the home," Negron says. "The lights also focus on the landscaping and the outdoor structures. We wanted to create focal points."

Look before you light

Despite using outdoor lighting in different ways, all three suburban families agree on one thing: Research the project well before embarking on it. That includes determining the costs not only of the project itself, but the time, energy and money that will be required to maintain the lights and whatever is being illuminated.

Lisa Austin says it was helpful to solicit estimates for the lighting project before hiring the right contractor. And she suggests finding a vendor who will do a free mock set-up of the area, if that is possible.

Negron advises homeowners to carefully consider how they intend on using the newly lit areas. "That will impact how many lights you want, what type of lighting you get and the focal points you want to highlight," he says.

"It's not about flooding the space with light," cautions Gritzmacher, who advises that less is more when installing lights. Energy efficiency should also be a consideration, he says. That's one reason why the outdoor lights at his home are set on adjustable timers.

"Timers are important because when you come home [at night], it's a dark space," Negron says. "The lights are more welcoming." n

Tami Kamin-Meyer is a freelance writer.