Bright Ideas for a Well-Lit Deck
Make your deck safer and more enjoyable with good lighting.
Synopsis: Nobody wants the fun on their deck or patio to stop when the sun goes down, but keeping the party going and keeping everybody safe requires good deck lighting. Author and code official Glenn Mathewson describes how a good deck-lighting strategy involves three types of lighting: essential, targeted, and ambient. Essential lighting is required by code at doors and stairs. Targeted lighting is for specific tasks like grilling or eating. Ambient lighting creates an inviting space and brightens dark areas. The article gives examples of all three types of fixtures and describes the most effective places to install them. Relevant lighting requirements for pools and hot tubs are also discussed. Most deck-lighting projects involve both line-voltage and low-voltage fixtures. Mathewson offers guidance on how to choose between the two types and the specific locations where you should choose one type over the other. Illustrations of lighting concepts on a sample deck reinforce the main points of the article.
Aside from a sturdy structure and strong railings, good lighting is an outdoor deck’s most important safety feature. Decks might have multiple levels, or they might be wet and slippery from nearby hot tubs and wet bars. In addition, decks can be crowded with guests unfamiliar with the layout.
Proper deck lighting is about more than just safety, however. The right lights in the right spots can make a deck better looking and more enjoyable. Although deck lighting can feel overwhelming with so many fixtures, brightness levels, and installation methods to choose from, the end result is worth it. After all, who wants the fun times on their deck to stop when the sun goes down?
There are two spots on a deck where building codes require lighting. For security, the International Residential Code (IRC) requires a light near every exterior door with grade-level access. This light allows you to see visitors before you open the door. If you’re installing a door adjacent to a deck that has access to grade, you’ll need to include a light with a wall-mounted switch.
The code also requires that stairways be well lit; unfortunately, the IRC’s language is cumbersome. In simple terms, it calls for a fixture at the top landing of every stairway and for a “means to illuminate” the whole stairway.
For a deck with stairs near the door, a single bright light may be enough to illuminate both the stairs and the entry. When the stairs are farther from the door, you’ll have to light these areas separately.
Stairways must be at least 36 in. wide, so nonrecessed, post-mounted lights may create a code violation on narrow stairs. Keep in mind that according to the IRC, even a single step between two parts of a deck is a stairway and so is subject to stair-lighting requirements.
Just like an indoor kitchen, a deck’s food-prep area should have at least one light aimed at each workspace. To better set the mood after the cooking is done, these lights should be switched separately from general lighting. The greatest difficulty in illuminating a grill is finding a spot overhead to mount the light. One common solution is spot lighting in the home’s soffit, but shadows from the chef or from the grill lid can be problematic. A better choice is flexible grill lights, which are available from several manufacturers. These lights can be mounted on a wall or installed on a guardrail.
Lighting for a deck’s dining area is best installed where it can illuminate the area without shining in peoples’ eyes. A logical spot is on a roof or trellis over the table, where a light can also be a decorative centerpiece. Roof or trellis mounting makes it easy to tie the lights into the house’s 110v power. Using that power source also makes a ceiling fan a possibility, provided it’s rated for outdoor use. For ambience, dining lights should be less bright than kitchen lights and on a dimmer. Without a trellis or a roof over the table, select a lightweight low-voltage system that hangs from an umbrella or shade frame.
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