Alfresco lighting tips

With the end of the winter season in sight, it’s time to look forward to warm summer nights entertaining family and friends in your alfresco. To create that fun, warm and cozy atmosphere that makes the experience truly memorable, you need to pay attention to how you set up your alfresco lighting.

Unfortunately, lighting design is a feature that is often overlooked by homemakers as they build their outdoor structures and is usually an afterthought once the alfresco, deck or patio has been completed.

Beyond simply providing illumination, lighting sets the mood and contributes to the quality of the experience.

The Basics: Layers of Light

You may think that lighting is all about throwing in a lamp here or setting up a chandelier there. But good and proper lighting involves balancing three distinct layers of light sources.

Ambient Lighting

This is light that provides overall illumination within an area. It usually radiates from an overhead source -- such as a mounted fixture or chandelier -- and bounces off surrounding reflective surfaces to create an even level of brightness that lets you move about safely. It is essential that the alfresco have a central source of ambient light.

Task Lighting

This is light that helps you perform specific tasks such as preparing food, dining and reading. As such, task lights are normally positioned beside the areas and surfaces where these activities take place.

Accent Lighting

While ambient and task lighting layers are often “must-haves,” accent lighting is considered “nice to have.” Accent lights highlight points of interest such as artwork, and create mood and drama.

Types of Bulbs

Now that you are aware of what lights should do, let’s take a look at some of the popular types of bulbs available in the market.

Incandescent Bulbs

These are often the light bulbs that come to mind when you say “light bulb,” and those that flash above the head of a person having a brilliant idea. They produce high levels of light, are relatively inexpensive and sold almost everywhere there is a home builders section. However, they are not too energy efficient and so should be considered as task lights for short-term tasks that require high levels of brightness.

Fluorescent Bulbs

They require less energy than incandescent bulbs to produce roughly equivalent levels of brightness, and last much, much longer. However, they do contain mercury and must be disposed of properly.

High Intensity Discharge (HID) Bulbs

These bulbs are even more energy efficient than fluorescents and are very durable. But they produce light that is harsh and unpleasant. HIDs are often used to illuminate outdoor areas.

Light Emitting Diodes (LED)

LEDs are more efficient and last longer than the other light sources, but these bulbs are small and may require several to produce a single light bulb.

Fixture Types

Light bulbs are not commonly plugged in directly to a bare socket on the ceiling or a wall (although it is possible to do so). Lighting fixtures provide design and aesthetic elements that help enhance the appearance of your alfresco. Here is a list of the popular fixture types.

  • Ceiling
  • Chandeliers
  • Fans
  • Pendants
  • Recessed Lighting
  • Utility Lighting
  • Wall Lighting

Mind the Rules

Another aspect that often gets overlooked is the building code and local building regulations. The Building Code of Australia (BCA) explicitly limits the amount of energy you can use to light up your home (and the corresponding extensions). In addition, your local Council may impose certain restrictions and requirements.

Make sure you are compliant with these requirements and guidelines. (Note: Patio Living has been working with Councils for nearly two decades now, and besides cultivating healthy, respectful relations with Council staff and officials, we have come to know these requirements and regulations by heart.)

Lighting Design: Putting It All Together

Start with ambient lighting. Make sure you have enough light to illuminate entrances, walkways and changes in elevation that can trip people up.

Identify the important areas where activities will take place. Make plans to provide task lighting in these areas. In some cases you may need to check and make sure that your lighting does not cast any unwanted shadows. For example, if you have a barbecue grill, you may need to install a task light on either side of the grill so that the work area is evenly illuminated.

Consider what aesthetic features of the alfresco you want to highlight, then consider installing accent lights to focus on these features.
Also realise that not all these lights need to be on at the same time. Think about installing lighting controls, dimmers and perhaps even remote lighting control so that you can switch on lights you are using and switch off those that you do not need. This also gives you the ability to create dramatic lighting effects and ambience, if you want.