By Paolo Benedetti
There's a common misperception among designers and builders whose projects carry them beyond a pool and spa and out into the landscape: In large numbers, these professionals believe that low-voltage landscape lighting systems are perfectly safe for use in close proximity to the water.
The truth of the matter is that the National Electric Code (NEC) has defined an exclusionary zone of ten feet around pools and spas for these fixtures!
That's right: Even with low-voltage systems deemed safe in all sorts of other contexts, the luminaires should not be positioned any closer to the water than ten feet away. And that's true even if the system's transformer is protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).
There are no exceptions. This does not mean, for example, that use of a "pool rated" low voltage transformer allows you to move the lighting any closer to the water's edge. That sort of proximity is clearly and strictly prohibited under all conditions.
This all makes sense if you think about it. Most good-quality low-voltage fixtures are made of metal, whether it's aluminum, brass, copper or cast metal. No models I've seen are provided with a ready means of connecting them to the pool/spa's bonding grid, as they must be (according to the NEC) if they fall within the exclusionary zone and are more than four square inches in size.
These photographs are of a project over which I was called in as an expert witness. The up lights in the planters adjacent to the spa (left) and under the palms (right) are too close to the water. The remedies here were simple: In both cases, the up lights were moved up into the trees and became downlights.
This doesn't mean it's impossible to provide your clients with landscape lighting that steps over the line and is closer to the pool than the NEC allows. All it means is that, for liability reasons alone, it's a good idea to hire an expert who knows the landscape lighting rules inside and out and can safely bring lighting fixtures closer to the water.
In this case, the path-lighting fixtures in the poolside planters were simply too close to the water's edge and had to be removed to enable the project to comply with the National Electric Code.
Speaking for myself, my goal in my projects is to stay safe and comply with all applicable codes. Bringing in someone who knows the tricks involved in effectively and efficiently lighting the plants and architectural details that surround my pools just seems like the right thing to do!