Whether it’s a softly lit path on a summer evening or the safety and welcoming glow of the front porch light when you come home from work on a dark winter night, exterior lighting adds both safety and curb appeal to any home. To help make the lighting more convenient as well, there are a number of exterior timers and other light activation devices available that will work for just about any situation.
120-Volt Timers: You can easily automate virtually any 120-volt exterior light fixture by simply replacing your existing light switch with a timer. After shutting off the electricity, remove the cover plate and the old switch. Connect the new timer to the existing switch wires, replace the cover plate, and then install the timer cover and knob. The timer has an easy to set dial that turns the fixture on and off at the desired times, as well as an override switch to let you manually turn the fixture on or off as desired.
Low-Voltage Timers: If you have exterior low-voltage lighting, it’s easy to control that by a timer also. The timer is part of the transformer that converts the 120-volt house current to low voltage, typically 12 volts. The timer and transformer are contained within a waterproof housing that mounts anywhere inside or out. Simply connect the low-voltage wiring to the transformer, install the removable timer pins to turn the system on and off at the desired times, set the timer for the current time of day, and plug it in.
Be aware that timer/transformers are rated for a certain number of fixtures, and exceeding the allowed number of fixtures can cause the transformer to overheat or otherwise fail to operate properly. When purchasing or upgrading a transformer, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on sizing the unit to match the number of lights you have.
Portable Timers: Portable exterior timers are great for holiday decorations, party lighting or other outside lights that will be used only temporarily. The timer may come already mounted on a stake, or it may have mounting holes to allow it be attached to a wall or post (avoid just letting it lie on the ground). There is an attached cord on the timer unit that plugs into a 120-volt exterior outlet, and the timer also has one or more grounded receptacles for plugging in the lights or decorations that you wish to control. After that, it’s simply a matter of setting the timer dial to the correct time of day and the desired on and off times for the lights.
Photocells: A photocell is a small electronic device that reads the amount of available daylight it can “see” through its eye. When the circuits detect that the light has fallen below a certain level, it will activate a switch that sends power to the lights it’s controlling. Photocells are ideal for situations where you want the lights to come on at dusk and go off at dawn. Photocells are available in both 120-volt and low-voltage models, depending on what you want to control. They may be built right into a light fixture, or they may be an optional setting on some types of fixed and portable light timers.
Photocells can be added to existing lights, but it requires access to the electrical wiring in the wall. The power line that is feeding the fixture is routed to a weatherproof box, which houses the photocell. From there, the power is routed to the fixture, so that the photocell now controls the power to the light. Remember that photocells can be easily fooled by other ambient light in their immediate vicinity, giving false readings that turn the light off at the wrong time. When installing a photocell control, pay close attention to which way the eye faces, and what other lighting may be in the area that the photocell eye can see.
Motion Detectors: Another method for remotely activating an exterior light is to use a motion detector, which has some advantages and some disadvantages. A motion detector has a wide-angle eye that can detect motion within a set degree of arc that is in front of and to each side of the detector. When it detects the motion, it immediately triggers the light — usually one or two flood lights — to come on.
Motion detector lights work well as security lights where your primary concern is lighting up an otherwise unlit area to illuminate someone who shouldn’t be there. As a primary exterior light, however, they leave an area in complete darkness until a person gets close enough, and then hits them with an unexpected beam of bright light — not the ideal way to welcome your guests.
All of these light timers and other devices are available at home centers, lighting stores and anywhere that electrical components are sold. Complete mounting and activation instructions are included. As with any electrical device, read and follow the instructions carefully, make sure the power is off, and always consult with a licensed electrician if you are unsure how to proceed.
Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.