Lighting of Water Features

water feature grotto closeHave you ever noticed how much we are all attracted to water?  It’s a natural instinct to gravitate towards this elemental form, as there is a special energy within it which we all desire.  Outside of the fact that water is a critical component to survival and life, it serves as a medium that works extremely well with light.

This article will broadly view the use of water in conjunction with outdoor lighting to better understand the various types of water features we find for this application.  To help categorize these features, we have created a listing of them of which we will briefly discuss below:

  • Water ways—streams, creeks, rivers, lakes (natural or manmade)
  • Pools & Basins—swimming & lap pools, Koi ponds, grottos, water basins (manmade or natural)
  • Fountains, structural—pre-fabricated, architectural, bowls, tiered (manmade)
  • Fountains, spray—immersed jets or sprays below water or at the surface
  • Waterfalls & Spills—(natural or manmade)

As you can see, there are five separate types of water feature types that have been listed.  Each of these has a preferred way to illuminate them, based upon how they are viewed.  An experienced lighting designer will truly understand these differences and what best applies for the design intent.


Because this article is an overview to the whole concept of applying light to these varying forms of water features, we wanted to give the reader additional insight into how each are lit.  There are several ways to bring a water feature to life and it all has to do with the way you position light fixtures.  In addition, you need to understand how water reacts with light.

Harshbarger tree mirror compressWater is unique in that it can reflect or refract light.  It is like glass or a mirror when light is aimed at its surface.  When the light source is within the water, it acts to refract or to bend in its projection.  Water acts like a solid shape, as it spills in the air and light is projected onto it—it will cast a shadow.  This is the magical part of both forms, as they create movement—a dancing of shadow patterns upon a backdrop or wall.

Generally speaking and for any setting which is viewed as a whole, it is best to illuminate water features from outside the water and from above.  This application allows for the lighting to be cast so that darkened or shadowed areas are less prevalent.  Also, this provides for a smooth viewing transition across the setting that is not distracting.

water feature natural spillsHowever, water features can become wonderful focal points.  Depending upon the type of feature that is being lit and the surrounding elements, it can take on a much more pronounced effect.  Backdrop structures, such as walls or fences can add to this drama.  Plants or trees can do the same thing, depending on how they are arranged.


As with other applications, there are some concerns that must be addressed with this form of lighting:

  1. Electrical Protection—electricity and water don’t mix well.  It is a safety hazard and measures should be in effect when providing lights in or around water.  A licensed professional should ensure that all codes and standards are utilized for this work.
  2. Glare—this is always a concern no matter the application.  Light can cause glare problems for the viewer whether the source is inside or outside of the water.  Glare can be both hazardous and annoying.
  3. Waterproofing—this is a two-fold concern, especially if the light fixture is placed within the water feature (underwater).  The fixture, whether L.E.D. or incandescent, needs to be waterproofed, as well as any connections.
  4. Routine Maintenance—underwater lighting services is about as demanding as tree down lighting, and requires extra demands of the provider.  Ideally, conduit should be installed for all cable runs entering the water feature, as this will provide those working on the structure a means to address any potential problems with the cabling.

water feature tiered bowlsIt is important to note the value of a good lighting designer here.  If time and considerations are made on the front end of a lighting design, then this will allow for ease of service maintenance and any future additions to the system.  Experience is the key to success.


We are extremely passionate about outdoor lighting and in providing proven solutions for these particular needs.  We are a nationally-recognized and award-winning business.  Founded in 1998, we have served this region almost two decades.

We welcome the opportunity to meet with you and to explore ideas.  You may reach our design consultants by calling the numbers listed below or e-mailing us at

NiteLiters, Inc.


(270) 685-7070        Kentucky

(615) 674-9950      Tennessee

(812) 431-7250          Indiana

We serve most any outdoor lighting need within a 200-mile radius of Owensboro, KY for both residential and commercial properties.  This includes the beautiful states of Kentucky, southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and northern Tennessee.  We are a nationally recognized, award-winning company that is licensed, insured and certified.

Published by

Mark Carlson

Exclusively serving the landscape lighting design profession since 1999, artistically as a designer-builder. My firm, Avalon Lighting Design is located in the Sacramento region of N. California. Avalon is a multi-award winning company that has performed nationally and internationally. My role is primarily that of an artist of landscape lighting design. Additional roles include consulting, specification writing, blogger/subject writer, and trade expert.

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