This project was a result of the New Decks Project. You can read about the motivation and details on this web page, but an essential requirement for the new decks was to have some nice, built-in lighting of some sort. I decided I would do the work myself, since I did not want some generic, off-the shelf solution. The generic off-the-shelf solutions tend to be uninspiring, yet somehow expensive: you get a Walmart solution for Neiman Marcus prices. I went with a 12V DC system using LED lights since this would be both safer and more efficient.
I had spent quite some time researching deck lighting options, but never had a firm idea as the deck construction got underway. I had settled on a few things though:
- there would be lights of some sort on the stair risers;
- the lights would all be LEDs;
- the system would be low voltage, 12V DC, for safety; and
- there would be some form of permimeter lighting.
After the deck was finished, I had to get serious about making lighting decisions. I had played around with LED strip lighting a few months before as part of the Server and Storage Closet Project and was generally happy with the result, including the cost and flexibility. I decided I would use LED strip lights for the perimeter lights, though I had to work out exactly where to put them and how to affix them in a clean way.
For the stair lights, I was very underwhelmed with the options for stair riser LED lights. The best ones I liked were small round ones, and they looked best if you had more than one per riser, which would mean more cost and work. With 3 stair risers, this meant I would need at least 6 of these lights, and for some reason, these were ridiculously expensive at $30 a piece. These are tiny little LEDs in a small weatherproof enclosure, so $200 total seemed too much to spend on these. I eventually found a set of these that were $60, but you got 10 in the set. At $6 each, this was much more reasonable and within my budget. It also mean I could put 3 on each riser, which I thought would look better anyway.
I needed to dis-assemble some deck boards to be able to drill the holes for these lights, as well as connect the wiring. The lights I bought had very nice connectors to allow daisy-chaining them. Thus, instead of having to have the low voltage wire run to each riser, I could just daisy chain them from the first riser.
There was a little bit of annoyance in removing the deck boards due to bent and over-torqued screws. The screw gun was definitely torqued too high for this and the screws were driven deeper into the Ipe boards than they should have been, which meant a healthy dose of splintering when I tried to take them out. I also had to drill out one stripped screw and throw away many bent ones as a result of the too much installation driving torque.
I needed to drill through the Ipe boards and the pressure treated lumber behind it to accomodate the lights and their wires. I drilled the Ipe holes first on a drill press using a Forsner bit (to get a nice and clean hole), then aligned them on the stairs to mark where the holes needed to be in the stair frame wood. I used a simple spade bit in the pressure treated wood since this was going to be hidden behind the deck boards with the clean hole. I did misaligned one of the boards while doing this and I was left with a slightly annoying little gap. This was not bad enough to spend the time to redo it, but enough to annoy me every time I see it.
Though the lights and their connectors are weatherproof, I used some clear silicone sealant around the front to add a little better to the seal and act a bit as a glue to hold them in place. The lights had two O-rings on them, but the holes were not that precise for that to be much help in holding them in place.
Wiring and Control
One of the most important things for me in the deck lighting was to be able to conveniently turn it on and off. This meant a switch in some convenient location, which meant nears one of the doors from the house (co-uld be inside or outside). As the overall complexity of the project came to life, it had a reality in terms of costs, time, budget and coordination, so this "convenient switch" requirement got lost in the shuffle. I would think about it occasionally, but did not want to complicate the project any more than it already was. I figured I might be able to figure something out later.
The working plan that evolved during construction was to have a transformer on the back side of the deck, plugged into a new outlet there, and where all the low voltage wiring ran to. A transformer in this location would not be convenient for turning the lights on and off. All along, I ideally wanted a switch in the house, but that would require a lot of electrian work and labor costs. It turns out that I had a fortunate alignment of circumstances that led me to a beautiful solution:
- an unused switch in the hallway going to the side deck;
- convenient access to the attic of one of the deck's low voltage wires;
The unused "mystery" switch was a switch I had never figured out in all the years I had lived in the house. This project caused me to tackle this 14 year old mystery. After tracing wires, it turned out that the light in our utility closet was a combination light and fan and each was on controlled by a separate switch. The fan must have gone bad before we ever moved in, so I never knew it even existed as part of the light fixture.
After all the other deck lighting work was completed, I also replaced the old switches in the hallway. Reasons for this were:
- I wanted a controllable (Insteon) switch for the deck lights;
- I wanted a controllable (Insteon) switch for the overhead spotlights;
- I wanted to make the utility closet switch match the Insteon switched (decorator-style); and
- I wanted to re-arrange the order of the switches to make them logically match their physical locations.
The Insteon (controllable) switches have a feature that is both good and bad. Unlike a regular light switch where you run the sire directly into the switch, the Insteon switches have wires already running out of them and require you to wire-nut them to the main electrical wires. This makes them slightly easier to wire, but it also causes the o-utlet box to be very crammed since each wire nut has to be acommodated and they are not small.
Note that for switch controlling the overhead light that was already on the side of my house by the decks, I replaced the existing, decrepit, bulky dual spot light with a new, sleak LED version. This provides a brighter light than the deck lights will, which mmight only be useful if I needed to do some work outside at nighttime. Otherwise, the deck lights are ample lighting for the common usage patterns we have.
I had the switch, but this was controlling 120V AC power, while I needed 12V DC power to the deck lights. I did not want to run new 120V AC electrical wires outside due to the cost, complexity and disruption is would incur. Running a few extra wires and junction boxes in my attic was easy. The low voltage line in one corner of the southeast deck is right against the side of my house, and the general contractor nicely had left ample slack: enough to run up the wall and into my attic. This meant I would have to put the AC to DC converted in my attic, and use that low voltage wire as the main feed to the rest of the wires.
Finding the right AC to DC converter (a.k.a., DC driver) was complicated:Generally, sites like Amazon did not have enough details for me to know exactly what I was getting, and specialty places seemed to be seriously overcharging for these. What I did was find a high-end LED lighting site, zoomed in to find the brand name of the transformer and then went looking for this brand at a better price. I bought it from mouser.com which was a site I had previously bought electronics from and it was fantastic in having all the specs and manually so I knew exactly what I was getting.
- there are both 12V DC and 12V AC lighting systems out there, and some sites did not specify whether the transformer was AC ro DC;
- I struggled with what wattage to get to ensure current and future needs (Isettled on 120W); and
- I wanted to make sure I got a high-quality one since it would be invisible to me while mounted in my attic.
Since all the low voltage lines terminated at the same place (back of the deck), I just needed to splice them all together there. One of these wires would be the feed from the attic transformer, while the rest would run to the wires in each corner (and stairs). Thus, the original plan of locating the transformer on the back side of the deck was obsolete, but I did need some "clean" solutionn to splicing them all and a weatherproof way to keep it all dry.
I had recently been in Fry's looking for connector ideas for the LED strip lights for the Server and Storage Closet Project and noticed terminal blocks. Something triggered this memory, and these seemed like the ideal way to cleanly splice the 6 12 gauge wires together. I wound up getting these terminal block through Amazon though. I needed to make little jumper wires to tie all the wires in these blocks, and that wound up being relatively simple using some 12 gauge, solid electrical wire from scraps.
I looked in the local home improvement store for an wetherproof enclosure, but they had nothinbg suitable. I have a box for my pool pump timer/controller and wanted something like that, only smaller and that would allow me to easily mount the terminal blacks. I eventually found the right thing on Amazon, though it took some digging to turn this up.
Deck Perimeter Lighting
After considering post lights and rail lights, we settled on using a strip of LEDs around the underside of deck screen and fence. Since these would be near eye level, you want to avoid direct line of sight to them them since that would be too harsh. Mounting them facing down was the answer. For the southeast deck, the new front-facing fence had 2x4 cross members at a good height and this would give me 1-1/2" of space to work with to mount an LED strip to the underneath. There were these nice silicone brackets that needed about 1 inch to mount.
Mounting the LED strip along the Deck Screen Page of the northeast deck was a bigger problem. The only mounting surface was only 3/4" wide, so not enough to use the nice brackets. I eventually stumbled upon sites that sold LED light "channels", complete with translucent covers. These would be thin enough to mount on the deck screen. The problem with this solution was the price. The cheapest ones I found were about $25 each and that was just a 1 meter segment. I had 5 meters of LED lights to mount. Further, for some inexplicable reason, these do not have any mounting holes, so I would have to do work to drill them and seal them.
I eventually decided that I could get a wider mounting area by adding a strip of wood to the underside area and then mount the LED strips to that. This also had the nice effect of offsetting the LED strip so that I would not need to splice it around the two posts that would have otherwise been in the way.
The down side here is that I had to use an 8 foot long 1x4 board of Ipe that was allocated to the upcoming Deck Table (see Deck Furniture Phase II Project Page). I ripped this exactly in half which gave me about a 1-5/8" surface to mount the LEDs on. I would space the silicone mounting brackets every 6 inches to give it a "sag-less" look. I needed a lot of very small stainless steel screws and after striking out at the local home stores, I discovered AmazonSupply.com, which was truly great discovery.
I drilled all the small silicone bracket holes before mounting as this was easy. I also needed to ensure the holes for mounting the rail itself were on a slight angle. There would be no room up against the deck screen to get my screw gun close enough for driving a screw straight in. This made the location of these mounting holes important to get right.
For the southeast deck, where the LEDs would simply mount to the underside of the fences 2x4s, the complication here was that I would have to cut the LED strip into 3 segments. The fence is shaped to be 3 sections and you cannot bend an LED strip in the horizontal direction. They make special, nice connectors to make splicing them easy, but the problem here is that I would be splicing LED strips that were weatherproof and these connectors were clearly not weatherproof. I was not able to find these splicing connectors in any weatherproof form, plus you have to peal back some of the silicone weathproofing from the LED strip to use the connector. Thus, I needed to find a way to weatherproof these connectors and the splice points.
I found this silicone tape that looks a bit like electrical tape that was supposed to do what I needed. It might do the job, but it will be helped by the fact that I was able to tuck these splices under the 2x4 so they will be mostly shielded from the worst of the weather. I also added a wrapping of electrical tape over them for more mechanical support. The result is not very pretty, but will do for a while. I expect I'll need to redo these in not too many years and maybe will have a cleaner solution by then.
Northwest Deck Lighting
The LED strips installed around the decks were monochrome (warm white), but I had originally hoped they would be fancier multi-colored LED strips. This is not Christmas tree multi-colored, but the ability to set the LED strip to be any color you like (the entire 16 million colors of the RGB space). Early onwards, in my LED experimentation phase I bought this Color Changing LED Stip Kit. At $34, it was a great bargain and worth buying to experiment with.
I did a bunch of planning to install two of these strips in the place where I eventually installed the monochrome strips, but the show stopper was the fact that the deck was already wired with 2-conductor wire, while these colored LED strips needed 4-conductor wires. The work to re-wire the decks was certainly not worth it for the added feature of being able to change the colors.
Looking for something to do with this colored LED strip, I thought about mounting it under the eaves of the house over the new northwest section of deck, which had no other good lighting. This was not necessary, but it turened out to be relatively easy to install them, so I figured I would put them up and see what they looked like. End result was they looked alright, so I'll leave them there for a while.
One of the things that made it convenient to install the colored LED strip was the presence of a switched outlet in the exact area where I planned to install it. This outlet was put in a few years before for a ceiling fan we have over our covered porch area. It is a two receptable outlet, both of which are controlled by the same switch, so I could just plug in the colored LED strip power supply to that. This is a separate switch from the rest of the deck lights, but that is actually fine since these would not need to be turned on for most of the use cases where we wanted the deck lights on. The fan also has a light, but since both can be turned on and off via a pull cord, there is the ability to fully control exactly what goes on when the switch is turned on.
The main problem with the colored LED strip is the same as with the monochrome strips. The LED strip itself is housed in a nice weatherproof casing, but all the other components and connectors are not. In this case, there are two other components: the power supply, and a little control box that controls the colors (via infrared and a hand-held remote control. Since I would mounting these under the eaves of the house, they would not be expposed to too much harsh weather, but I still went and put silicone sealer in every unsealed junction point to at least keep some moisture at bay. The wiring is al pretty crude and ugly, but as long as you don't look up, it is fine.
I ran out of screws and had not fully worked out how to clean up the wires and weatherproof things, so there was a few days between getting this mostly finished and getting it fully finished. Once fully finished, it was time to take some nice nighttime pictures to try to capture the effect.