Line vs. Low Voltage Pathway Lights

Outdoor lighting can make a dramatic difference in the look and feel of your home’s exterior. Pathway lights are a popular choice to illuminate walkways, driveways, patios and other outdoor areas. When it comes to pathway lighting, two main types are available – line voltage and low voltage. Understanding the key differences between line vs low voltage pathway lights can help you choose the best option for your needs and budget.

What are Line Voltage Pathway Lights?

Line voltage pathway lights are powered directly by your home’s electrical system, the same 120-volt current that powers the lights and outlets inside your house. The luminaires are wired to the main circuit breaker panel and each light has its own dedicated line running to it.

Here are some key features of line voltage pathway lighting:

  • Higher wattage – Line voltage fixtures can accommodate bulbs up to 100 watts or more, enabling them to produce very bright light. This makes them a good choice for illuminating large areas.
  • Longer run length – With line voltage, you can have continuous runs of pathway lighting spanning over 100 feet from the power source. This makes it easy to add lights throughout an expansive outdoor area.
  • More bulb choices – Since line voltage luminaires have higher wattage capacities, you can use a wider variety of bulb types, including incandescent, halogen and LED.
  • Hardwired installation – Line voltage pathway lights require professional installation with wiring run through your home’s walls and ceilings to each light fixture. The wiring must connect back to your circuit breaker panel.
  • Higher energy use – Running on 120-volt current, line voltage lights use more electricity and can be more costly to operate. Energy efficient LED bulbs can mitigate this.

Line voltage pathway lighting provides the highest light output and allows for flexible, long lighting runs. However, the hardwired installation and higher energy use are downsides to consider.

What are Low Voltage Pathway Lights?

Low voltage pathway lighting operates on 12 or 24-volt current from a power transformer installed at the lighting site. The lower voltage enables several advantages versus line voltage:

  • Easier DIY installation – Low voltage lighting does not require running wiring inside your walls. Low voltage cable can be buried shallow underground along the pathway and daisy chained between fixtures. No electrician needed!
  • Safer to operate – The reduced electrical current of low voltage lighting produces less heat and eliminates the risk of electrocution when installing or maintaining the system.
  • Lower wattage bulbs – Low voltage lights use lower wattage bulbs, usually 10 watts or under. This limits the light output but increases energy efficiency.
  • More focused light – Low voltage lighting tends to produce a more narrow, focused beam ideal for accenting pathways. The light distribution can be easily adjusted.
  • Versatile placement – Since low voltage luminaires are small and connected via exterior cable, they can be creatively placed in flower beds, steps, retaining walls and other landscape areas.
  • Cost effective – Low voltage lighting costs significantly less to buy and install vs line voltage. And the energy savings mean lower operating costs over time.

For ease of installation and energy efficiency, low voltage pathway lights are the most popular choice for many homeowners. But the lower light output can make them unsuitable for large areas.

Key Differences Between Line vs Low Voltage Pathway Lights

To summarize the comparison:


  • Line voltage – Hardwired installation by certified electrician; wiring routed through interior walls and ceilings
  • Low voltage – DIY friendly installation with simple burial of low voltage cable along exterior pathway

Wattage/Light Output

  • Line voltage – Up to 100 watts or more; bright illumination for large spaces
  • Low voltage – Usually 10 watts or less; more focused beam, ideal for accent lighting

Run Length

  • Line voltage – Continuous run of over 100 ft from power source
  • Low voltage – Typically up to 60 ft from transformer; can be extended with booster cables

Energy Use

  • Line voltage – 120 volt current; less energy efficient
  • Low voltage – 12 or 24 volt current; high efficiency and lower operating costs

Bulb Options

  • Line voltage – Wide variety of bulb types including incandescent, halogen, LED
  • Low voltage – LED or halogen bulbs only


  • Line voltage – Higher equipment and installation costs
  • Low voltage – Lower equipment cost; inexpensive DIY installation

When deciding between line vs low voltage pathway lighting, the main factors are light intensity needed, installation complexity and energy efficiency preferences. Low voltage is more popular for small-scale outdoor accent lighting, while line voltage excels for lighting very large areas.

Low Voltage Pathway Lighting Systems

Now that we’ve compared the basics, let’s take a more detailed look at low voltage pathway lighting. Here are some key components in a typical system:

Power Transformer

The transformer converts 120-volt current from an indoor electrical outlet down to 12 volt for outdoor low voltage lighting systems. There are a few transformer types:

  • Plug-in transformer – Smallest and least expensive option; plugs into indoor outlet and is wired to first light fixture. Can handle up to 300 watts.
  • Hardwired transformer – Hardwired directly to house current by electrician; concealed in attic or basement. Can handle 300-500 watts.
  • Weatherproof transformer – Larger transformers that can be placed outdoors; handle up to 2500 watts for very extensive systems.

Proper transformer wattage depends on the number and wattage of connected light fixtures. Buy a transformer with 15-20% more capacity than what’s needed to allow for additions. Place transformer as close as possible to first lights on circuit for best efficiency.

Low Voltage Cable

Outdoor-rated, direct burial low voltage cable runs power from the transformer to each light fixture. Two conductor, 12 gauge cable is commonly used. Cable is buried about 6 inches underground for a hidden look. Use only UL-approved, outdoor cable for proper safety and performance.

Pathway Lights

Low voltage pathway luminaires are designed for either in-ground or above-ground installation along walkways, driveways, patios, steps and other areas:

  • In-ground lights – Seamlessly installed with just the top protruding above ground; provide subtle illumination from the perimeter.
  • Deck/patio lights – Surface mounted on deck railings, patios, platforms to light up walking surfaces.
  • Step lights – Smaller fixtures to mount on riser edges of steps and stairs for visibility and safety.
  • Accent lights – Miniature spotlights to highlight architectural features, signage, monuments and plantings.

LED bulbs are the most efficient light source for low voltage fixtures, providing the best longevity and light quality. Halogen MR16 bulbs are another option but use more energy and require frequent replacement. Always choose outdoor rated bulbs and fixtures designed to handle weather, water and insects.

Lighting Controls

Low voltage lighting systems also include components like timers, dimmers, and photocells to control functionality:

  • Timers – Turn lights on/off automatically at preset times daily or weekly. The transformer must have a timer connection.
  • Dimmers – Manually adjust brightness levels; saves energy and creates ambiance.
  • Photocells – Sense darkness to automatically turn lights on at night and off at dawn.
  • Motion sensors – Detect movement and turn lights on for added security then off after a set time. Helpful for infrequently used paths.

Controls allow customizing pathway lighting to suit the application. Automated timers and photocells provide effortless operation.

Designing a Low Voltage Pathway Lighting System

Proper design is crucial for a low voltage pathway lighting system that is functional, efficient and aesthetically pleasing. Here are some best practices:

Choose Appropriate Light Fixtures

  • In-ground lights provide gentle ambiance, ideal for wide paths and accenting landscape beds.
  • Deck lights properly illuminate walking surfaces for safety.
  • Step lights guarantee visibility on stairs.
  • Mini accent lights highlight special features.

Mix fixture types as needed for both general and accent lighting.

Determine Proper Layout

  • For general illumination, space lights 5-10 feet apart along walking paths.
  • Use closer 3-5 foot spacing for higher light levels on steps and narrow side paths.
  • Accent lights can be sporadically placed to highlight specific items.
  • Fixture placement should avoid harsh glare and dark shadows.

Establish Lighting Zones

Group fixtures on separate circuits to create customizable lighting zones:

  • Front walkway and driveway
  • Back patio, deck and garden
  • Side yard path
  • Accent lighting

Zones controlled by separate transformers allow turning portions of lighting on/off independently.

Calculate Transformer Load

Add up wattages of all fixtures on each circuit to determine needed transformer capacity for that zone:

  • Standard low voltage bulbs are 4-7 watts; accent lights 1-3 watts.
  • Multiply fixture wattage by number of bulbs per light.
  • Choose a transformer with 15-20% extra capacity.

This ensures the transformer won’t overload and lights will shine brightly.

Use Proper Low Voltage Cable

  • Run separate cables from transformer to each zone for control.
  • Plan cable routing to minimize length; avoids voltage drop.
  • Cable capacity depends on transformer wattage and lighting load. 12 gauge is recommended.
  • Bury cable at least 6 inches deep; deeper for protection under driveways.

Include Controls

  • Timers, photocells and motion sensors promote automation and energy efficiency.
  • Dimmers allow manual light adjustment for mood and ambiance.
  • Place controls in easily accessible indoor location.

With good planning and proper installation, low voltage pathway lighting can offer years of enhanced safety, charm and enjoyment for your outdoor living space.

Popular Places to Install Pathway Lighting

Beyond basic sidewalks and paths, low voltage pathway lights are often installed to enhance other exterior spaces:


Line both sides of the driveway leading to your home. Lights welcome visitors while ensuring safe nighttime navigation. For long driveways, utilize brighter deck light fixtures.

Front Walkways

Welcome guests and highlight architectural details by lighting the front walkway and entry stairs. Use in-ground perimeter lights and step lights as needed.

Backyard Patios

Line patios with deck lights for ambient lighting during evening social gatherings. Post mounted pathway lights work well for larger patios.

Pool Areas

Illuminate the pool deck and surrounding patio area to extend swimming time into the night. Use fixtures with IP65 waterproof rating.

Landscaping Beds

Strategically placed in-ground lights uplight trees and accent architectural plants to showcase the landscape.

Retaining Walls

Continuous lighting along the top of patio and garden retaining walls casts a beautiful glow.

Fences/Privacy Screens

Mounting slim, mini spotlights on fence posts provides subtle ambiance. Allows adjusting beam direction.


Accent your yard art by highlighting statues, sculptures and fountains with mini spotlights. Creates dramatic nighttime focal points.

Get creative and use pathway lighting to transform your entire exterior living space into a magical nighttime oasis!

Benefits of Pathway Lighting

Installing pathway lighting brings numerous valuable benefits that enhance your exterior spaces:


The top motivation for most homeowners is improving nighttime safety. Pathway lights prevent tripping on uneven surfaces and clearly mark steps, curbs and changes in elevation. This reduces the chance of dangerous falls and injuries in low light. Proper lighting also deters prowlers and intruders.


In addition to deterring criminals, pathway lighting allows easier monitoring of your property at night. Motion activated fixtures ensure lighting comes on if unexpected visitors approach.


Low level pathway lighting guarantees safe access from your vehicle along the driveway to the entry door. It also allows enjoying gardens and patios after sunset.


Artistically designed low voltage systems create a magical, resort-like atmosphere in your backyard during evenings for relaxation and entertaining.

Architectural Interest

Strategic up-lighting of landscaping and architectural features accentuates the home’s unique style, adding curb appeal and creating visual interest after dark.


Efficient LED and solar pathway lights conserve energy for lower operating costs compared to traditional lighting systems.

Property Value

Outdoor lighting is a sought-after amenity that will increase your home’s value and set it apart on the market when it comes time to sell.

For all these reasons, installing pathway lighting is one of the highest return-on-investment outdoor upgrades you can make.

Low Voltage vs Solar Lighting

Low voltage lighting provides the best illumination but requires wiring to each fixture. For simpler installation, solar pathway lights are a viable wireless option:

How Solar Lights Work

  • Built-in solar panel charges batteries during daylight hours.
  • LED bulbs automatically turn on from dusk to dawn.
  • No wiring required – just position lights and insert into ground.

Solar Lighting Pros

  • Extremely easy and quick “plug & play” installation.
  • No need for transformers or buried wires.
  • Operate independently without connections.

Solar Lighting Cons

  • Less light output than low voltage – suitable for accenting.
  • Limited placement since solar panels require sun exposure.
  • Batteries must be replaced periodically.

Solar lights work best for supplemental general lighting and highlighting steps. Low voltage systems are preferable for primary pathway illumination. Often a combination of both provides maximum flexibility in lighting design!

Costs of Low Voltage Pathway Lighting

Low voltage pathway lighting is an affordable option that offers great value. Here are typical system costs:

Equipment Costs

  • Fixtures from $10 – $30 each; $200 average for typical 15 light system.
  • Transformers from $50 – $250 depending on wattage.
  • Low voltage wiring around $100 for 150 foot roll.
  • Timers/controls range from $50 – $200.

Professional Installation Cost

Expect to pay $50 – $100 per hour for an electrician’s labor. DIY provides major cost savings. Basic systems can be self-installed in just a few hours!

Total System Cost

Complete low voltage lighting systems usually range from $500 – $2,000 depending on size. Expect payback from energy savings within 3 years. Improved home value is an added return. For the benefits provided, pathway lighting is a high-value investment!

DIY Installation Tips

With a little time and effort, low voltage pathway lighting can be tackled as a DIY project without hiring an electrician:


  • Mark light fixture and transformer locations with spray paint or stakes.
  • Determine wiring routes between lights to minimize trenching.
  • Have utilities marked if digging near buried lines.


  • Use a rented trencher or manual edger for fast digging of wire trenches.
  • Trenches should be 4-6 inches deep and narrow.


  • Run 14-2, UL listed, outdoor-rated direct burial cable between lights.
  • Leave 2-3 extra feet of cable at each fixture for connections.
  • Use gel-filled wire connectors suitable for underground use.


  • Attach fixture wires to main cable at junction points using connectors.
  • Position fixtures and connect transformer. Test lights before burying cable and fixtures.
  • Restore ground surfaces around lights with sod or seed.

With low voltage lighting’s simple components, installing a system is an easy, rewarding DIY project! Be sure to follow all safety precautions when working with electricity.

Professional Installation

For homeowners short on time or wanting to ensure proper setup, hiring a professional electrician is a great option for new pathway lighting:

Benefits of Professional Installation

  • Electricians have the proper tools and experience for efficient installation.
  • Licensed electricians are insured and meet local permit requirements.
  • A certified pro can customize the lighting design for maximum effectiveness.
  • Electricians know the codes and provide safe, compliant workmanship.
  • Most offer warranties on new low voltage lighting systems.

What to Expect

  • Landscape disruption will be kept to a minimum. Holes will be patched and restored.
  • Installation usually takes 1-3 days depending on system size.
  • Permits and inspections may be needed for code compliance.
  • Always get a detailed quote upfront outlining specific services to be performed.

Though DIY is possible, hiring a reputable electrician guarantees your pathway lighting is properly designed and installed for lasting performance and enjoyment.

Low Voltage Lighting Safety Tips

While low voltage lighting is safer than line voltage, electrical hazards are still present. Here are tips for safe installation and operation:

  • Use only UL approved, outdoor rated low voltage lighting components.
  • Shut off power at the breaker before doing any work.
  • Avoid burying cables less than the required underground depth.
  • Inspect cables for damage before backfilling trenches.
  • Make waterproof wire connections per manufacturer instructions.
  • Isolate and label live wires in junction boxes.
  • Use only insulation rated for underground use.
  • Ensure proper transformer capacity for the lighting load.
  • Never exceed the recommended cable lengths.
  • Repair damaged fixture housings that expose internal wiring.
  • Have an electrician handle any line voltage connections.

Following basic precautions keeps your low voltage lighting system running safely for years!

Troubleshooting Common Low Voltage Lighting Problems

Low voltage pathway lights are very reliable but occasional issues can arise. Here