Patio Lighting, Storage and Other Feature Ideas
Patio lighting requires some planning, but installation is straightforward. A low-voltage lighting system is easy to install. Line-voltage lighting is more complex, but installation is still well within the skills of the average do-it-yourselfer.
Before you install any system, it is useful to understand some lighting principles. Outdoor lighting fixtures come in a multitude of styles for different uses. Your outdoor lighting will best serve and enhance the beauty of your landscape if you rely on the following variety of lighting strategies.
- Uplighting highlights an object by casting light up from a low position. The fixture is usually in front of the object so the beam shines away from viewing areas and grazes objects, highlighting their shapes.
- Downlighting lights large areas from above -- it's good for steps, paths, floors, and tabletops. Mount the fixtures on trees with conduit and hardware that won't harm them, or fasten fixtures to overhead rafters. Keep the fixtures out of sight and aim them to minimize stray light. Thread wires through the centers of hollow columns or press them into the grooves routed into overhead posts. Conceal the fixtures to focus attention on the lighted object or area. Fixtures may cast their bright light a long distance, so aim them carefully. Place them so the bulbs aren't visible from any angle.
- Decorative fixtures add style. Some mount on posts, others attach to walls. Choose fixtures that fit your patio's design theme. Path lights illuminate a walkway, linking your patio to other parts of the yard. They're made to order for lighting short flights of steps or to mark points of entry.
Almost everyone believes food tastes better when it's cooked outdoors. An outdoor kitchen on your patio -- even a basic one with just a propane grill and a work surface -- inspires cookouts. An outdoor kitchen complicates the construction of the patio, so be sure the benefits of adding one are worth the extra cost. Adding a basic kitchen is inexpensive. If you spend more, you can have an outdoor kitchen with a deluxe gas range, a rotisserie, built-in cabinets, built-in refrigerator, and even a kitchen sink. No matter what kind of kitchen you desire, where you put it is important. The best location offers both convenience (close to the indoor kitchen) and safety (distant or insulated from combustible material and away from traffic patterns). For a simple cooking spot, place a portable grill at the edge of the patio, close to the indoor kitchen. Keep it out from under eaves and overheads. When it isn't in use, hide it behind large potted plants on platforms with casters or other movable screening. 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 attractive views. Provide enough room for preparing and serving food and for storing utensils. If you're short on space, tuck cooking items into a bench or screened cabinet. Equip your patio kitchen with outdoor-grade appliances that meet building codes and will withstand weather conditions. Waterproof countertops made of marble, metal, or tile withstand the elements. If you build the countertop with an 18-inch overhang on one edge, you can use it as a bar or dining counter.Storage
Planning adequate storage is part art, part science. Like all patio design, storage starts with a list of everything you might want to keep on the patio, such as firewood, furniture covers, pet supplies, hoses, chair cushions, garden tools, and barbecue utensils. Without a home, all that stuff can turn your patio into a large storage area, and you won't enjoy it -- or use it -- as much as you planned.
Opportunities to create storage space exist both on and around the patio. On the patio surface, vertical cabinets made from cedar, redwood, or painted pressure-treated lumber serve as attractive and functional accents. Sketch out the size of the cabinet before you build it, allowing enough room 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.
Patio boxes, handmade or commercial, are popular storage places that double as seating. Buy freestanding benches with lids -- or build them into the perimeter of your patio. Paint a child's toy box with exterior paint and use it as an outdoor coffee table and a place to store chair cushions. Keep pet supplies and birdseed in watertight tins decorated with painted designs of your choice. A decorated mailbox provides a dry place to store hand tools and garden gloves in an unusual accent. Stand a baker's rack in front of a blank wall and line up your empty flowerpots, baskets, and watering cans.Water features
Water gardens bring the sparkle and soothing sound of water to your patio. A simple birdbath or a small container water garden might be all you need, but first explore the many sources for freestanding fountains or wall-mounted units available. Many are easy to install and affordable. Even an elaborate patio pond is relatively inexpensive. For example, if you can incorporate an open area into your plans, you can excavate a hole for the pond before you lay the patio paving. Then line it with whatever liner you've chosen before building the base. When you lay the paving material, cut the individual pieces around the pond's opening so they look more natural. In a contemporary setting, make straight cuts to match the style. Add a submersible pump and pots with water plants to complete the oasis. A preformed, rigid pond liner creates an even larger pool on the surface of the patio. Follow the manufacturer's directions when building the framing, and pay special attention to the need for a footing to support the structure below ground. Camouflage the edges of the liner with landscape timbers, rocks, or paving material. 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 patio addition, but installing one requires careful planning. It's better to select the pool first so you can incorporate electrical, water, and drain connections into the patio design. For aesthetic reasons, and to prevent damage, you'll want to conceal wires and plumbing but make sure they're accessible for maintenance. An outdoor pool must meet local code requirements, so have your plan checked and approved before you spend any money.Fireplaces, fire pits, and chimineas
Fire -- whether in a fireplace, fire pit, or chiminea -- is the ultimate focal point in both indoor and outdoor settings. Nothing matches the comforting glow of an outdoor fire, an amenity that's easy to include in your patio plans. A fireplace is the most labor-intensive and expensive option. Building one requires a concrete base and a permanent, safe location. You can include a rotisserie and a brick-lined warming oven in the plan, and use your fireplace for cooking and keeping food hot. Freestanding gas and wood-fired pits have become widely available for installation on patios. 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 and to prevent sparks from jumping out onto flammable material. Keep an extinguisher handy, as well as a cover to smother flames that grow too large. The cover also helps contain sparks, which otherwise might blow out of the pit when the party is over. Chimineas are portable fireplaces that look like ceramic potbellied stoves. They originated in Mexico and have become popular in the United States. Place a chiminea on a metal stand or firebrick platform to keep the patio 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 runs on either line voltage (the 120-volt AC power in your house) or low voltage (12-volt DC power provided by a transformer). Installing a line-voltage system is a job much like house wiring -- a homeowner with experience in electrical work or a licensed electrician can do it. You'll need line voltage for outdoor appliances. Installation requires conduit, fittings, junction boxes, receptacles, fixtures, and wire. Most outdoor line-voltage systems require a permit and approval from a building inspector.
Most low-voltage systems don't require a permit and are designed for do-it-yourself installation. They do require a line-voltage outlet for the transformer to plug into. Several kinds of fixtures are made for both systems, but line-voltage systems offer more options.Pro Tip:
Lining up the utilities
Before you build your patio, plan the utility requirements. Once you've built the patio, it will be difficult to add water and gas lines and underground wiring. 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 patio site. Draw them in your plans so they run like tunnels under the patio, 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 you to remove them for repair or replacement without digging up the patio. 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 because they require 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 installing a permanent natural gas line for a gas grill so you won't have to deal with propane tanks. The orifices for gas and propane appliances are different -- make sure your grill is fitted with the right ones. Install an exterior phone jack, even if you use cordless phones indoors. You'll eventually want to carry on conversations off the patio, and the indoor cordless phone signal might not reach that far. To bring television to the patio, you'll need an electric outlet and cable or satellite connection. To provide music, it's easy to run speaker wires from your stereo system to weatherproof speakers on the patio.