Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, March 27, 1998

Porch torch

Don't be left in the dark.
Check out what's out there
in porch lights

By Burl Burlingame


WHAT does your porch light say about you? Are you warm and welcoming, do you glare blindly, are you a dim, damp squib? Face it, the porch light illuminates the portal to your castle, and creates a mood and a statement all at the same time.

Photos by Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Coach lights warm the entrance to a home in
Kailua, above. The deck light, top, goes
for $15.99 at City Mill.

Perhaps no other light in your home is seen by so many and yet receives so little attention. Mostly through neglect -- it's outside, after all -- but partly because people hate to mess with outside electrical systems for fear they'll blow something up. Outside electricals do need to be protected from damp and water, and exposed wiring can also be weakened by exposure to ultraviolet light. But porch lights are generally protected under eaves, and also come in a variety of protective cases.

The most popular are:

Lights bar ° The jelly jar -- a simple, small light with a screw-on cover that looks, yes, just like a retired preserves jar. The patterns in the glass help break up the light's glare, and the lip screws into the mount. It's simple and inexpensive and relatively watertight.

° The lantern -- an updated version of the traditional hand-carried lantern, generally with four panels of beveled glass and a small "roof" and "chimney." These can be hung or mounted.

° The globe or the cup -- a big simple balloon or screw-in cup of frosted glass to protect the light bulb, distribute light evenly and ward off dampness.

° The deck light -- a kind of frosted lozenge protected by a metal harness. It's descended from shipboard lights.

° The coach or carriage lamp -- yet another byproduct of transportation, these were the lamps affixed to the corners of grand coaches, recognizable by their long, pagoda-like shape and a lollipop handle on the bottom that originally was used as a handle by coachmen. This is the style most people use when "upgrading" their porch light.

° The flood light -- this is the 20th-century innovation, an exterior light in which the glass lens itself is the decorative element, if you can call it that. These are no-nonsense lights designed to do one thing only, light up a large area brightly. Unlike the others, it's difficult to appreciate because it's so brilliant. These are often linked to photo-cell motion detectors and are mainly for security.

There are probably thousands of other models, ranging up to expensive one-of-a-kinds -- there is one with cast pot-metal dragons and a Tibetan crown at Aurora Lighting for $1,238 -- but the six types listed above can be found on virtually all homes.

Variations on the lantern and coach light styles can be attached to hollow poles placed in the yard. This can provide a formal accent to an entranceway. Running electrical wires underground calls for conduits at the entrance and exit ends of the cable, and the wire must be at least 24 inches deep. Check on the code for your neighborhood. It's also a good idea to lay the wire with some loops in it to allow for ground expansion.

The good news is that porch lights are relatively easy to replace. In most cases, it's just a matter of turning off the electricity and unmounting the old fixture and screwing in a new one. Think about it, though -- will the new fixture complement the entranceway? Make sure it's not too bright, or too dim, or too tacky or over-sized. Can you reach the fixture easily and change the bulbs when they burn out?

Some lamps have the choice of standard light bulbs or flame-shaped bulbs that mimic gas or candle flames.

Many floodlights come with motion sensors. These can be pointed and focused in a particular direction so that they come on only when you want them to, such as when you are pulling into the driveway or walking up to the door. Not too many fancy-design lamps have motion sensors built in; they're thought of as an adjunct.

You can also turn your lamp into a robot. At Eagle hardware, the Summit Lighting Camp "photo eye" senses when it's dark and switches the light on and off.

Motion sensors can also be purchased separately and wired into the circuit for the existing or new porch light, which means they can be placed away from the lamp.

The Regent Motion Sensor is $20.96 and the Intelectron motion detector is $19.99 at Eagle.

The other good news is that generic porch lights, being no-frills items, are generally inexpensive.

The house brand at City Mill is Catalina, and the Catalina jelly jar goes for $3.98 there. A coach light is $9.99, deck light is $15.99 and a lantern is $19.99. These come in white or black mounts. City Mill's motion-detector lamps are made by Intelectron, and a basic model is $11.99, a bright quartz model is $29.99 and a coach models with a hidden detector is $39.99.

Most of the lamps at Eagle are by Troy or Envirotech, and come in a dark bronze finish, a bright brass, black or a "verde" that resembles distressed copper. Envirotech jelly jars at Eagle are $3.29, coach types are $24.97, and there are a variety of decorative lantern designs ranging from $67.50 to $179.97.

Photos by Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
A pair of lanterns brightens the way and
guides visitors to the gate.

Eagle's floodlights with motion detectors includes Intelectron's for $19.77, Heath-Zeith models for $19.92 and $25.96, and a solar-powered model by Siemens (it has a separate photo-voltaic dish) for $109.97. A basic Intelectron floodlight-and-motion-sensor kit is on sale at Eagle for $10.98.

At the higher end, Aurora Lighting stocks fancy lamps by Kichler, with prices ranging from $59.95 to $177, plus a few creations costing hundreds of dollars. It's up to you. Aurora does have many of its lamps on sale right now.

So, whether you light up your life or not, you still have to wonder -- where did geckos hang out before the invention of the porch light?

Do It Electric!

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