Monday, June 22, 2015

Low Voltage Outdoor Lighting Project

As part of my Landscaping Project I decided to re-do the low voltage outdoor landscape lighting at my home.  The house already had a nice system installed when my wife and I purchased the home but a dozen years ago.  After so many years of being out in the weather, most of the fixtures no longer worked.  After pricing individual replacement fixtures I decided to purchase a complete kit.  The kit came with 10 fixtures, 10 bulbs, 75' of wire and a 150 watt transformer.  I only needed 8 of the fixtures but having the extra 2 fixtures could be beneficial since items are sometimes discontinued.  If one breaks I'll have a replacement.

Malibu 10 pack light kit

Malibu 10-Light Outdoor Aged Brass Pro-Style Light Kit description from the Home Depot website:
    The Malibu 10-Light Outdoor Aged Brass Pro-Style Light Kit is an easy way to improve the look of your home's exterior. The kit includes everything you need to add attractive exterior lighting to a garden, path or patio: 6 path lights, 4 flood lights, a transformer and low-voltage cable. The kit's lights are made of corrosion-resistant metal and feature clear lenses.
    Durable metal construction is ideal for outdoor use
    Clear glass lenses deliver unfiltered illumination
    Lights install in the ground to deliver targeted spot and walkway lighting
    Waterproof and corrosion resistant for durability
    Brightness - 25 Lumens (pathlight)
    Brightness - 176 Lumens (spot light)
    CSA listed
    Walk lights use amber, 10 watt halogen bi-pin bulbs and flood lights use warm white, 20 watt halogen MR11 bulbs (included)
    Includes six 10 watt walk lights, four 20 watt flood lights, a 150 watt transformer and 75 ft. of 14-Gauge landscape cable.
I was already using 2 Malibu spotlights which matched those in the kit.  One of those wasn't working due to a cable cut.  The other was working fine.  All 3 of the old pathlights were broken.  The only other lights I kept from the original system were 2 floodlights.

Existing floodlights which I reused
I also kept the old transformer.

Pre-existing 250 watt Nightscaping outdoor lighting transformer

The primary issue I've found with these lights is the connection from the fixture to the main low voltage cable.  Most, if not all of these systems come with some sort of vampire connector.  Sharp metal prongs on the connector are intended to pierce the cable's insulation to make contact with the wire inside to provide 12VDC to the fixture.  They never worked well for me.  I watched a YouTube video which highlighted several different types of low voltage connections for outdoor lighting.   Twisted wire wrapped in electrical tape was included in the list.  I decided on my own slightly modified version of that method.  I laid out the supply line where I wanted it to be in my landscape.  I cut the cable at each point where I wanted a light.  I then cut off and threw away all of the pre-installed connectors on each fixture.  I used wire-nuts to make the connections.  Then I waterproofed the connections by filling the wire-nuts with silicon caulk.  I spray painted the red wire-nuts and silicon in flat black to camouflage the connections.

Old style connector which I removed

New style Malibu connectors which I also removed

Of course, I broke 2 bulbs while installing the new fixtures.  Fortunately, I thought ahead and bought 2 new replacement bulbs when I bought the kit.  Unfortunately, I left the small packet of bulbs at the checkout register when I left the store.  My attention had shifted from purchasing the lights to getting the box into the car before Susan realized how much I had spent.  The kit was only $190.   I figured I was well ahead of the game after I added up the cost for each fixture individually.  Individually they were $22.97 for each pathlight and $23.97 for each spotlight.  That's $233.70 for just the lights.  The transformer and cable was an added bonus even if I didn't need them.  I used the existing and more heavy-duty transformer.


Silicon caulk seals the wire-nuts from moisture.  It's a messy process and the silicon doesn't clean up with soap and water so be careful.

A painted and silicon filled wire-nut connection

The end result

The end result with floodlights
A weekend of trips to the home improvement store, assembling lights, stripping wires, caulking, and painting and my project is done, except for burying the cables.  A light dusting of mulch should do the trick to hide the cables from sight and complete the project.

Why are these projects important?  Because I can't do Ironman Chattanooga in 2016 unless my chores are done.

Thanks for reading.

Update (10/9/15): Knowing full well that the bulbs provided with the set wouldn't last forever I purchased some replacement from back in June.  Well, I was right.  Today I replaced one in each of the lights.  For the spotlights I chose an MR11 LED Bulb.  For the pathlights I chose Mudder G4 24-LED 2-Watt Bulbs.  I noticed right away is that the new bulbs are both significantly brighter than the original bulbs.  I hope they last.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Home Landscaping Project

Back in late March of this year Susan and I decided that we needed to improve the curb appeal of our home.  The existing landscape had long since outgrown whatever original plan was conceived sometime back around 1991 when our house was built.  That was a dozen years before we purchased the home.  We had heard that the landscape was once full of bulbs and other plants.  Some of them are still there but most had either died, moved through natural processes or were overgrown.

A before picture of our landscaping
To get our project started I cut down a few shrubs located near the house.  That led to the removal of move shrubs until eventually all but three lone Japanese Holly bushes were gone.  To remove the shrubs I cut the tops off with my chainsaw.  That was followed by the removal of any pinestraw we had used as a ground cover.  Then, using a maul, I removed the root balls from the ground.  I prepared the soil for planting new shrubs by adding 10 bags of organic topsoil amendments. I tilled it in using my new Troy-Bilt Colt front tine tiller.  We've wanted to buy a tiller for years so this was our opportunity to finally get one.  Susan has had a small vegetable and herb garden in the backyard for 10 years.  Every spring we've borrowed a tiller to prepare the soil (or not).

Anyone will tell you that using a front tine can be tough.  My ordeal was no different.  Even though I had removed the root ball for approximately thirty, twenty-five year old shrubs the red Georgia clay soil was still compacted and full of smaller roots.  Eventually, over a week or so and between torrential thunderstorms, I was able to get the soil just the way I wanted it.

With the soil ready to receive new plants Susan and I just needed to know what to plant.  We went to our local plant nursery where we bought three shrubs.  The nursery is less than 3 miles from my house so Susan asked if someone could come by and recommend which plants might do best for our situation.  The plants would have to tolerate full sun.  They said they'd be happy to drop by but they never did.  She called twice.  Both times they said they'd be there.  They never came.  Moving on , Susan called a landscape designer with more than 20 years of experience, but no references.  We passed!  Lastly, Susan searched the Internet for someone to help us with a landscape plan.  We planned to do the work ourselves, we just wanted a list of plants and some advice as to spacing, etc.

We drove the short distance to Wilson Bros. Nursery just east of McDonough one Saturday morning.  The place was abuzz with customers and salespeople.  They had a large selection of plants and Susan took notes as she saw ones she liked.  Eventually, she met and picked up the business card for Zachary M. Davis, owner of ZMD Landscaping (tel.: (706) 982-4185).  Zac asked her to call for an appointment and he'd come on by and workout a plan for us.  When Zac arrived I'd already taken measurements and printed a drawing I'd created using Microsoft Publisher.  It was basically a landscape plan without the plants.  It was the third plan I'd created for the front yard in 10 years however, the first two plans were never acted upon.  We also gave Zac several 8.5" x 11" color pictures of the area we wanted to landscape.  We were very happy with his plant selections.  

The third time's a charm!  In about a week Zac had taken my outline and, on a 11" x 17" sheet of paper, filed in the space where we'd removed the old plants with new and interesting plants.  The plan called for Degroot's Spire Arborvitae(1), Sky Pencil Holly(3), Acoma Crape Myrtle(2), Blue Juncas Grass(1), Japanese Maple(1) - not shown in plan drawing, Popcorn Drift Rose(3), Purple Pixie Loropetalum(2), Creeping Jenny(12), Day Lilies (3 bunches), Blue Rug Juniper (10), Weeping Crape Myrtle (2), Rose Creek Abelia(6), Adagio Maiden Grass(1), Homestead Purple Verbena(12), Harbour Dwarf Nandina(6), Fire Witch Dianthus(14), Snow White Indian Hawthorn(2), Kaleidoscope Abelia(2), and Twist of Lime Abelia(1).   The plan cost us $200.  Susan and I met Zac Davis at the nursery the following week.  He helped us choose each plant.  My truck bed was filled to the brim with greenery.

Landscape plan - left side

Landscape plan - right side

Degroot's Spire Arborvitae

Sky Pencil Holly

Acoma Crape Myrtle

Blue Juncas Grass

Japanese Maple

Popcorn Drift Rose

Purple Pixie Loropetalum

Creeping Jenny

Day Lilies

Blue Rug Juniper

Rose Creek Abelia

Adagio Maiden Grass

Homestead Purple Verbena 

Harbour Dwarf Nandina

Fire Star Dianthus

Snow White Indian Hawthorn

Kaleidoscope Abelia 

Twist of Lime Abelia

Many of the plants we bought were on sale, 20% off.  Zac took an additional 10% off the whole lot of them.  We left the nursery about $860 lighter but overall we both felt like we got a great deal.  I'd also have to relocate three clusters of day-lilies and plant a weeping Japanese Maple tree we bought on a whim at Costco before we started the project.

In addition to the plants, we'd bought to large boulders, and smaller stones.  They would be the first to go in, before the plants.  We found the boulders and stones at American Stone Company in Stockbridge, Georgia.

American Stone Company

Boulders and stones up front, mulch in the back
The boulders were approximately 3300 lbs for the large one and 1800 lbs for the smaller one.  The boulders were $160 per ton.  Having the two boulders delivered (and placed) was an additional $90.   All told the boulders cost $541 including tax.  The stones were $200 per ton.  The folks at American Stone Company put the pallet in my truck.  I'd have to unload and place them individually myself.   The cost for 1700 lbs of stones was $183 including tax.  All told the stones cost $724.  I thought they'd be much more expensive.  I think they were a good investment and really add a nice element to the landscape.  Susan thinks they're too big.  She might be right.  The larger boulder looks like an Inca Alter stone for human sacrifices.    

Stone and plants in place
Once the boulders and plants were in place we added four yards of dyed brown wood mulch.  The mulch cost $30 per yard.  My standard bed pickup truck just held two yards.  It took two trips to get the four yards of mulch.  All told the mulch cost about $130 including tax.

The finished project

Plants and mulch in place

More plants and mulch

Another view of the finished project

A final view showing stones in the back leading to the gas meter and sprinkler box

Tiller $400
Plan $200
Soil Amendments $40
Boulders and Stones $724
Plants (and more amendments) $860
Weeping Japanese Maple tree $130
Mulch $130

Overall, I think the project tuned out well.  We tackled this project a bit late in the year just as the heat of summer is setting in.  Some of the pictures show the stress that the new plants are under.   We're hopeful that most of the plants will survive.  Daily watering is definitely in order.

The total cost of the project was about $2484 (and many hours of hard work and a tiller, of course).

The cost of not having to trim shrubs - priceless!

I still need to repair the outdoor lighting system and plant the three shrubs we bought at the local nursery.  After that, our next project will be to reclaim some of the natural area in the front yard with new Zoysia grass sod.

Thanks for reading.