Right tools for the job

Lighting contractors share their go-to equipment and a few secret weapons that give them job site advantages.
Two men survey a lighting housing with a flashlight with the words "Right Tools for the Job" over the top of the image.
(Photo: Vande Hey Company)

The adage “use the right tool for the job” never gets old. Whether installing a new system or troubleshooting a service call, essential tools are linked to a lighting contractor’s success.

Every landscape lighting toolbox features various screwdrivers, hand implements and snips applicable to many tasks. However, a solid plan is an essential tool a lighting pro should reach for first, says Heinrich Fischer, CLVLT, COLD, and owner of Sundown Designs-NY, Fairport, New York.

Some contractors don’t have access to adequate recordkeeping or accurate schematics of an existing design, which is an immediate obstacle.

Two men drill a hole in a concrete step.
(Photo: Luminocity)

“Because our installations are below ground, things often get mixed up and are not done exactly the way they’re supposed to because of the obstacles an installer encounters,” Fischer says. “For me, it’s key to have a detailed plan or an outline of the job. Having an accurate plan to work with makes life a heck of a lot easier to orchestrate what needs to be done during the operation and the tools you’ll need to complete it.”

For example, a routine service call involves replacing faulty lamps. Without accurate records about the type or brand of lamp used in the system, contractors could arrive unprepared and needlessly spin their wheels. It comes down to efficiency on the job, and time is money, Fischer says. “The less time we spend guessing why we’re there and what we’re supposed to do saves us dollars and cents.”

Quality vs. quantity

Many landscape lighting contractors are swayed by low-cost equipment options, especially for everyday tools like cutters, crimpers and hand tools used for manual work. However, the pros say you often get what you pay for, so go quality all the way.

(Photo: Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems)

Most contractors fail to factor in the time and resources it takes to travel to a big-box store to replace a cheap tool that has failed in the middle of a job, says Heinrich Fischer, CLVLT, COLD, and owner of Sundown Designs-NY, Fairport, New York.

“When you factor your time and the fuel it takes to leave the job site, get the replacement and then come back, you could have already paid for the upgraded tool,” he says. “And I’m not talking about something that’s gold plated, but a good quality tool that will last you longer.”
But quality tools don’t remain sharp or effective for long if they’re not cared for, Fischer adds. “Keep a cloth on you so you can get the soil, grease and oil off when you are finished on the job,” he says. “It only takes a few minutes, but it will keep those tools in excellent operating condition and ready to go when you show up to the next job.”

Testing the line

While Fischer’s sound advice about recordkeeping and planning resonates with many lighting contractors, arriving on-site with no idea where the installing contractor buried the lighting system’s wire is often unavoidable.

“A lot of systems we service we didn’t install, so we don’t know what we’re getting into,” says Matt Carli, COLD, lead designer at Moonlighting Landscape Lighting Systems in North Charleston, South Carolina. “The first tool we reach for is our wire tracer.”

A landscape lighting wire locator is a dedicated tool designed explicitly for detecting wire underground. A transmitter clips to the wire that needs to be traced, and the receiver, a dangle or a wand, scans the ground and sounds an alert when it’s near the buried wire, typically between 6-12 inches below the surface. Pricey premium units include depth finding and GPS.

When they locate the wire runs, the problem is only sometimes evident. That’s why a quality multimeter is found in most toolkits. A multimeter or voltmeter tests low-voltage current by becoming part of the circuit and allowing current to flow through the meter. This is handy for determining whether a lighting circuit delivers power to each lamp, for example, a looped set of landscape lights.

Quality, pro-caliber meters aren’t cheap, but they pay for themselves in the time they save troubleshooting lighting issues, “Often, with older systems that we didn’t install, there’s no documentation on where the wire runs are located,” says Andy Vande Hey, CLVLT, the president of Vande Hey Company in Appleton, Wisconsin. “If you don’t know where the failure is, a multimeter accelerates the process of locating breaks and bad connections.”

Digging in

A trenching tool is another common component of a landscape contractor’s toolkit. While handheld manual shovel-type versions are found on most trucks, many contractors use powered versions to bury lighting wire.

Contractors can invest in dedicated motorized trenchers, some of which feature chainsaw-like blades that will dig down 12-18 inches. However, Vande Hey sets up a landscape bed edger with an 8-inch-by-2-inch blade that he uses to trench or utilizes a trenching attachment with his sod cutter. Both work effectively and slash the time it takes to trench by hand.

“We did a time study a few years ago with a 50-foot trench, and we can literally do that in five, maybe 10 minutes [with a motorized trencher],” he says. “If you’re doing that same work with a shovel, now you have a wider trench, and once you get the wire down, you have to backfill it. So, you’re looking at an hour or so to dig it by hand. You can’t expect your guys to be doing that all day.

“It’s a fraction of the time,” Vande Hey adds. “There are variables like soil condition and rocks, but in nice light soil, you could do 50 feet in about five minutes.”

Portable power

Handheld power tools are a job site necessity. The pros gravitate toward battery-powered models due to their flexibility, portability and ability to interchange the rechargeable battery packs across several tool platforms.

Karl Lundberg, CLVLT, COLD, owner of Fishers, Indiana-based Luminocity, relies on the vibratory power of his battery-powered hammer drill to drive lighting fasteners into mortar, concrete, brick and stone. When compared to a standard power drill, there is no question. “Before the hammer drill, we used to draw straws to see whom the unlucky sap was going to be who had to use the drill,” he says. “The drill was heavy in your hands and just awful. Once we upgraded, we almost fought over who would use it. When you use the hammer drill, it’s like a hot knife through butter.”

Lighting pros pride themselves on the neat and clean appearance of their work. That’s why Vande Hey swears by his portable router equipped with an edge guide. “So many times on a pergola or pavilion, you have wire that goes up the sides,” he says. “Some codes require conduit, while others with low-voltage wire just say you can tack it to the side. I hate seeing that wire, so we’ll route a channel and tuck that wire inside. Then we seal it in with caulk that matches the pergola or pavilion, and that wire virtually disappears.”

Lundberg also recommends a cordless landscape blower to assist in quick site cleanup at the job’s conclusion. “Our goal is to make sure we leave the area better than we found it,” he says. “Part of that is to blow off the site. The homeowners always love seeing that we give their property extra care and attention. And the hum of the blower is nice because it lets them know we’re giving their property some TLC.”

Pieces and parts

Just as important as hand tools, lighting contractors say several components and spare parts are vital to a comprehensive toolkit. A landscape lighting professional knows to show up with lots of extra wire, including 12/2, 14/2 and 16/2 landscape cables. When joining or splicing wire, most pros prefer a heat-shrink sleeve connector with a silicone sealant that offers a water-tight gasket and a neat and tidy appearance. It also pays to have an assortment of commonly used screws, nuts and washers to substitute for lost or missing components.

Pest control

Crews working out in the elements often encounter nature’s outdoor denizens. And some have nasty reputations that require solutions as vital as any shovel, screwdriver or trencher.

When engaged in ladder work, there’s nothing worse than setting it up near a bee or hornet’s nest hidden behind a light fixture or housed under a nearby roof gutter. “Wasp and hornet spray is super important to have with you,” Vande Hey says. “It’s very uncomfortable to get stung and some people can have an allergic reaction, which is extremely dangerous.”

Fire ants are a nuisance throughout the South, and Carli takes precautions to avoid their painful bites. “Fire ants are abundantly available here,” he says. “They’re nasty, and they hurt when you stumble upon a nest. You’ll see mounds built up around a transformer or a fixture. We keep granular fire ant products on all of our trucks to deal with them.”

Further to the Midwest, Wisconsin summers bring out swarms of mosquitos, so Vande Hey ensures his trucks are stocked with ample repellant. “Mosquito spray is a big one to protect our crews,” he adds. “We’ve got boxes of it here.”

Honorable mentions

Wire cutters and strippers are essential tools too important to contractors not to receive an upgrade, says Andy Vande Hey, CLVLT, president of Vande Hey Company in Appleton, Wisconsin. “Quality brands are just better performing than other lower-cost versions. They’re built with better components, don’t dull prematurely, and are easier on your hands.”

Screwdrivers, hex keys, pliers and sockets make up the bedrock of any pro’s toolkit. However, Heinrich Fischer, CLVLT, COLD, and owner of Sundown Designs-NY, Fairport, New York, advises owning both U.S. and metric sets of these tools. Some manufacturers use imperial measurements and others use metric, and some tools don’t necessarily fit into the other’s fixtures and components.

“It’s critical to have both sets to perform your job,” he says. “For example, does an oddball figure require a star bit? And what happens if you don’t have one on you?”

Ladders should get special notice, as hobs will require you to go vertical to access or install lighting components. Be sure the ladder is versatile and will safely and effectively deliver you where you need to reach.

Worker safety is of paramount importance. Therefore, every tool bag should include a basic first-aid kit, suntan lotion, safety glasses, dust mask and gloves.

Mike Zawacki is a freelance writer with nearly two decades of experience covering various aspects of the green industry.

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