Deck Lighting and Amenities

Amenities increase the comfort and convenience of your deck and make it more inviting.

Plan your amenities based on how you want to use the deck. At a minimum, consider outdoor lighting. Adding lights costs little, but it extends the use of your deck into the nighttime hours, increases its safety, and makes your house more secure, even when you're not using the deck.

Lighting

Lighting a deck takes a little planning, but installation is straightforward. If you choose a low-voltage lighting system, installation is downright easy. Line-voltage lighting costs more, but installation is well within the skills of the average do-it-yourselfer.

Before you install any system, it helps to understand some lighting principles. Outdoor lights come in a multitude of fixtures, each made for its own purpose.

Concealed fixtures focus attention on an object or area. Typically they cast their bright light a long distance. Place them so the bulbs aren't visible from any angle.

Decorative fixtures cast diffused light. Freestanding pillars push into the ground, and units made for mounting attach to posts or other deck surfaces. Because they're styled to be part of a design scheme, choose fixtures that fit your style.

Your outdoor lighting will be more useful and will add to the beauty of your landscape if you rely on a variety of lighting strategies.

Uplighting draws attention to an object by casting light up from its base. Position the fixture in front of the object so that the beam shines away from viewing areas and grazes trees or artwork, highlighting their shapes.

Downlighting casts indirect light -- it's good for steps, paths, floors, and tabletops. Mount the fixtures on trees with conduit and hardware designed so it won't harm them, or fasten fixtures to overhead rafters. Keep the fixtures out of sight and aim them to light your yard, not your neighbor's. Thread wires through the center of hollow columns or a groove routed in the post on overheads.

Path lights illuminate a walkway, linking your deck and other parts of the yard. They're made to order for lighting short flights of steps or to mark points of entry.

Outdoor kitchen

It's a simple fact of life that food tastes better when you cook it outdoors. Properly designed and equipped -- even with just a basic propane grill and a prep sink -- an outdoor kitchen can be easy and fun to use.

Putting a basic outdoor kitchen on your deck might require minor modifications, but the small investment of time and funds will return much increased enjoyment. You also can plan a more lavish installation, complete with a high-end gas range, rotisserie, food storage areas, and a refrigerator.

No matter what kind of kitchen you're planning, what matters most is where you put it. The best location offers a combination of convenience (close to the indoor kitchen) and safety (far away or insulated from combustible material).

Place a portable grill close to the indoor kitchen, at the edge of the deck and out from under overhangs and overheads. Construct a built-in grill with fireproof materials that conform to local building codes. Whether portable or built-in, keep your kitchen out of the main traffic route and make sure it doesn't block the views. You'll want enough room for preparing and serving food and for storing utensils. If you're short of space, tuck cooking items into a bench or screened cabinet. Make a portable grill more attractive by hiding it -- large potted plants on platforms with casters make clever roll-around screening.

Look for outdoor-grade permanent equipment that's made to meet building codes and withstand all weather conditions. Waterproof countertops made of marble, metal, or tile will prove to be a worthwhile investment. And if you build the countertop with an 18-inch overhang, you'll have a bar or buffet.

Storage

Planning adequate storage is part art, part science. Like all deck design, storage starts with a list of everything you might conceivably keep on the deck: garbage cans, firewood, furniture covers, pet supplies, hoses, chair cushions, garden tools, and barbecue utensils. All this stuff needs a home. Without it, your deck will quickly turn into a large storage platform, and you won't use it as you planned.

You have opportunities to create storage space both topside and below the deck. On the deck surface, vertical cabinets made from the same cedar, redwood, or the lumber as your decking make attractive and functional accents. Sketch out the size of the cabinet before you build it, making it large enough for the items it will house. Then adjust the proportions so they are pleasing to the eye. When you have the size right, design a framed door with an? infill pattern that complements the overall style of your landscape theme.

Deck boxes, either handmade or commercial, are also popular storage places -- and they'll double as seating. Buy freestanding benches with lids -- or build them into the perimeter of your deck. Paint a child's toybox with exterior paint and use it as an outdoor coffee table and a place to keep chair cushions. Keep pet supplies and birdseed in watertight tins, decorated with painted designs of your choice. A decorated mailbox makes a dry place for storing hand tools and garden gloves, and provides an unusual accent. Stand a baker's rack in front of a blank wall for storing empty flowerpots, baskets, and watering cans.

The space under the deck poses different problems and offers different opportunities. You can put a complete storage area and workshop or planting shed under a second-story deck. Lower decks will restrict your space, but don't have to eliminate it. A space at least 4 feet high will allow access to lawn mowers, fertilizers, large plastic tubs with tops, garbage cans on wheels, and other moveable containers, as well as portable or folding deck furniture. Hide everything out of sight with hinged lattice or solid panels.

Joists on the least visible side of the deck can make a good spot for storing yard tools. Mount hooks or handle holders on the joists and hang shovels, rakes, and hoes. Protect the spot -- and make it more attractive -- with a small 24-inch overhang. Or go one step further and attach a backpack shed to the joists and posts.

Water feature

If you want to add some magic to your deck, you can make it sparkle with a water feature. A simple birdbath might be all you need, or a small container water garden. With a little hunting you can find attractive commercial freestanding fountains or wall-mounted units that bring the gentle sound of moving water to your deck. And most of these features are easy on your budget.

Even an elaborate deck pond can be relatively inexpensive. For example, incorporate an open rectangle into your decking plans. Plan the framing to support the edges of the decking, then set a plastic basin in the opening, resting it on suitable supports. Hide the edges of the basin by extending the decking over it. Add a recirculating pump and pots with water plants, and you have created an oasis on the deck.

A preformed, rigid pond liner will create an even larger pool. Beef up your framing plans so the structure will support the weight of the water, or set the liner on a grade-level concrete pad. In either case camouflage the edges of the liner with landscape timbers or rocks.

Stagnant water breeds mosquitoes, bacteria, and algae and also collects silt and debris, so install a submersible pump to recirculate water over a waterfall or through a fountainhead for aeration. Set the pump on a stone or brick on the bottom of the pond to minimize clogging, and skim the surface periodically to remove debris.

Spas, hot tubs, and pools

A spa, hot tub, or soaking pool is a popular deck addition, but installing one requires careful planning. It's better to select the pool first. This way, you can design the deck to accommodate the pool.

The best approach often is to set the pool on a grade-level concrete pad and build the deck around it, letting the rim of the pool stand slightly above the deck surface.

The pool will probably need electrical, water, and drain connections. These should be concealed for aesthetics and to prevent damage, but need to be accessible for maintenance. An outdoor pool will have to meet local code requirements, so have your plan checked before you spend money.

Fireplaces, fire pits, and chimineas

Fire -- whether in a fireplace, a fire pit, or chiminea -- constitutes the ultimate focal point in both indoor and outdoor settings. Nothing matches the comforting glow of an outdoor fire, and including a place for fire in your deck plans is easy.

Of all your options, fireplaces will prove the most labor intensive and expensive. They require a strengthened frame and a safe location. If you prefer, include a rotisserie and a brick-lined warming oven in the plan, and use your fireplace for cooking and keeping food hot.

As an alternative, freestanding gas and wood-fired fire pits have become widely available for installation on decks. Lined with firebricks and surrounded by a wide, fire-resistant coping, such as stone, their open flames resemble campfires. Provide plenty of floor space on all sides of the pit to keep people a safe distance from the flames. Keep an extinguisher handy, as well as a cover to smother flames that grow too large. The cover also helps contain sparks, which might blow out of the pit after the party is over.

Chimineas are portable enclosures for fire that look like ceramic potbellied stoves. They originated in Mexico and have become increasingly popular around the U.S. Place a chiminea on a metal stand or firebrick platform to keep the deck from overheating. Chimineas are not designed for cooking or winter weather. Store them indoors when temperatures fall below freezing.

Voltage: line or low?

Outdoor lighting systems are powered either by line voltage (the 120-volt AC power in your house), or low voltage (which uses power reduced by a transformer to 12 volts of direct current). Installing a line-voltage system is easy enough for homeowners with experience in doing electrical work, or you can hire a licensed electrician to do the wiring.

Most outdoor line-voltage systems require a permit and approval from a building inspector. Most low-voltage systems don't.

You'll need line voltage for outdoor appliances. Installation requires conduit, fittings, junction boxes, receptacles, fixtures, and wire. Low-voltage systems require few accessories.

Several kinds of fixtures are made for both systems, but line-voltage systems generally offer more options.

Lining up the utilities

Before building your deck, plan the location of the utilities. Once the deck is up, it will be more difficult to add water and gas lines. Run utilities underground to maximize safety and minimize clutter. Plot the runs on paper and rough them in before you dig footings.

A water feature will require installation of a pair of 2-inch schedule-40 PVC pipes under the deck site. Draw them in your plans so they run like tunnels under the deck -- from one end to the other. Run the electrical cables and smaller pipes for water through the sleeves. The sleeves protect wires and pipes and allow them to be removed for repair or replacement without digging up the deck. You can run added utilities through the sleeve too. Any water leaking from a line break flows through the sleeve and out of the site instead of seeping into the soil under it. Run power and water lines through separate sleeves.

Spa installations are more complex, requiring both running water and a drainpipe. Spas, ponds, fountains, and waterfall pumps also require electrical outlets with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Lighting systems require electric lines. For an outdoor kitchen, consider a permanent natural gas line for a gas grill instead of a propane tank. The orifices for gas and propane appliances are different -- make sure you have your grill fitted with the right ones.

Install an exterior phone jack, even if you use portable phones indoors. You'll eventually want to carry on conversations off the deck surface, and the indoor phone signal might not reach that far. To bring television to the deck, you'll need an electric outlet and cable or satellite connection. It's relatively easy to run speaker wires from your stereo system out to weatherproof speakers on the deck.

 

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