4 outdoor lighting solutions for your cottage property

Published: April 23, 2021

Photo courtesy Nightscapes of Muskoka, Muskoka Living

When you’re installing outdoor lighting at your cottage, one approach is to look to the campfire for inspiration, says Dirk Zylstra, a Montreal industrial designer specializing in light fixture design. “We’ve been programmed over millennia to stare at a fire,” he says; its low, warm light is comforting and “makes humans look good.” Then there’s the opposite lighting style, one you’ve probably cursed at if it’s on your lake: megawatts blasting across the water and up into the sky, bare bulbs on all night at empty cottages, appealing to no one but some vulnerable insects.

Proper lighting will help you: avoid injury by illuminating dark areas; minimize light pollution; keep animals and insects healthy; add ambiance; preserve the stellar views of cottage country.

1. Make a plan
Lighting designers aim for low-key, layered illumination, says Chris Shirchenko, the owner of Nightscapes of Muskoka. They want you to see the effect of the light, not its source, especially the concentrated light source of an LED. “That’s harsh,” he says, “beams of light shooting at you, like you’re on a highway or a landing field.” He often hides LED downlights in trees to cast gentle, dappled light—like moonlight—toward the ground.

“Be purposeful with light,” Shirchenko says. Direct the light by aiming each fixture carefully, shielding the bulb with a cowl or a shroud, and then checking what you can see, especially from lower vantage points. Can you see any bulbs when you’re sitting on the deck? Do neighbours get interrogated as they climb their stairs? No wonder they’re annoyed.

Light that leaks upwards is just as annoying to Zylstra. “Shooting light up into the air just wastes it,” he says. That light pollution also hides the stars, even at the cottage, and can affect wildlife. “The eye is a precise machine.” We don’t need a lot of light when the surroundings are dark, he says. In fact, like a theatre spotlight, an overly bright cottage light can create so much contrast, we can’t see beyond the beam, and the darkness starts to feel oppressive and menacing instead.

And outdoors at night, humans prefer the warmer, campfire-like end of the light spectrum—red over blue. Look for “warm white” bulbs with a colour temperature between 2,700K and 3,000K, says Zylstra, and never icy cool white bulbs that make cottages “look like gas station parking lots.”

landscaped pathway outside of a cottage with solar stake lights pointed down
Different types of lights will offer different light outputs. Solar lights average two to 15 lumens per light, while low-voltage LED options average 30 to 100 lumens per light. Photo courtesy Nightscapes of Muskoka

2. Paths and stairs
A good plan starts with functional lighting. “Traversed areas, anything that’s a trip hazard at night—start there,” Shirchenko says. For safety, point path or downlight fixtures in towards stairs or along a path, rather than letting too much spill out to the sides. On stairs, Zylstra suggests step lights—miniature, low-profile downlights—mounted on every third riser or LED light strips on the underside of the handrail. Light strips—which are often used on docks—are easy to work with for all sorts of cottage DIY projects. “You can get kitschy,” says Zylstra, laughing, “and, I don’t know, light up antlers with LED strips. It’s easy to be creative.”

And don’t forget to light another common nighttime trip hazard: the threshold out to the deck. You’re probably going in and out for the washroom and the fridge, Zylstra says, “and you shouldn’t underestimate the effects of a few cocktails.”

3. Entertaining areas
Decks, docks, and other outdoor living areas need flexible lighting that can be adjusted for different uses. Define the edge of the deck, Zylstra says, with “perhaps something a little higher, around the perimeter to demarcate the space.” Lighting the edge of a space creates a feeling of comfort, wrapped in warm light, and safety.

low profile lights pointed down on a deck set up for entertaining at night
In addition to adjusting the level of light, you can also tune light strips to specific colours using your phone or voice-activated smart home systems. Photo courtesy Kichler Lighting

Shirchenko uses a similar approach on docks, with low-profile lights around the edge, washing light back over the surface. Perimeter lights will guide boaters in at night and help prevent missteps into the water. When you’re entertaining on the dock, the best lighting, he says, is the simplest. On decks, he works with Wi-Fi-enabled systems that can easily adjust light levels in a mix of “themes.” There may be one theme with task lighting for barbecuing (with flexible downlights aimed at the surface of the grill), another with ambient light on the table for eating, and a third option for quiet late-evening conversations.

4. Inside and out
Outdoor light can enhance the cottage from the inside too. With the right lighting, “inside-to-out views can be incredible,” Shirchenko says, especially when you’re spending more time indoors in the shoulder seasons. “Winter is a beautiful time to enjoy the snow and the trees with a little lighting.” You can even use outdoor light to expand the cottage interior. A few soft lights, just outside windows and glass doors increases transparency and opens up the view, softening the transition from indoors to out.

Why light can be dangerous
The effects of artificial light at night (ALAN) are widespread and profound. Research shows that baby songbirds have more stress hormones, while Australian zebra finches have less sleep-regulating melatonin. Male common toads have trouble fertilizing eggs. Blue-green algae increases, and the overall nutrition of microorganisms (a food source for many fish) in freshwater declines.

A recent study published in Biological Conservation suggests ALAN contributes to the “insect apocalypse.” Moths and beetles attracted to light get eaten by predators, while insects that avoid light can’t feed. Entire mayfly populations can be lost overnight when they’re fooled into laying eggs on overlit asphalt lots. Brett Seymoure, a behavioural ecologist and the senior author of the study, has three easy fixes for light pollution: light a smaller area, for less time, with warmer light (it affects animals less). The good news about light pollution? “Hit the light, it’s gone,” he says. “There’s nothing to clean up, unlike toxins in a river.”

3 lights that you’ll want to try

led step lights on a white background
Courtesy Home Depot

Step lights
These LED deck and stair lights from Hampton Bay come in an eight-piece kit. They’re weatherproof, waterproof, and rustproof. $75, Home Depot

light tape on a white background
Photo courtesy Home Depot

Strip lights
This tape light kit from Illume allows you to control dimming and 14 light effects in 16 different colours. You can even sync the lights to your music. $50, Home Depot

black solar stake light on a white background
Photo courtesy Canadian Tire

Solar stake lights
For Living’s solar stake lights come in 10 packs. The panels will charge even on a cloudy day and have a run time of up to eight hours on a full charge. $50, Canadian Tire

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