Let There Be Light!…but only when it’s dark…

A really easy upgrade that you can make to the exterior lighting of your home is to swap out standard light fixtures for those activated by a photocell.

Why?  A couple reasons.  

One, you can just leave the switch on and the lights come on when it’s dark and then the photocell turn’s them off when it’s daylight.  Adding automation to your daily routine can both take some of the stress out of worrying about whether or not you’ve done a task and worrying whether or not someone else has taken care of it when you can’t be there.  Sometimes, the simple things that we can do for the security of our loved ones may not get taken care of. I suspect that this can happen more out of habit than complacency, but the reason isn’t important.  The point is, for security’s sake, you want a well-lit yard.

Quick note – Don’t aim lights at your house, especially your windows.  If something’s going on outside, you want to be able to see what it is without having to leave the house.  If you’re being blinded by some fancy landscape lighting, it’s really hard to do that.


Also, this type of automation can save you some money on your light bill versus just leaving the lights burning 24/7, when you forget to turn them off in the morning.  I would rather just leave the switch on and let the photocell do the work.

Another reason for automation of this type is, say you’ve gone on vacation and won’t be home for a few days.  A person who is out shopping for a potential target for theft would be pretty appreciative of your yard being pitch black all night.  Maybe they rode by in the day time and noted that the lights were off, then came back by after dark, and now they’re on. Were I thief, I wouldn’t gamble on the lights being controlled by an automatic switch.  I’d take the safe bet and just assume that someone was home and pick another house.

Lastly, it’s a cheap upgrade.  I got the fixtures that’ll I’ll be using in this write-up for $20 each at Home Depot, and I’ll bet with some shopping around, I could find them cheaper.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, I encourage you to take a stab at it.  It’s really not that hard if you follow some basic safety rules. If this stuff looks like Greek to you, or you get lost in the process, call a buddy or an electrician.

Ok boys, let’s get to it.

Assemble Your Tools.

Screwdriver – I like the Klein 11-in-1 screwdriver.  It’s one of the my most heavily used tools.


Multi-meter – Optional, but good insurance. If you have one, use it.


Wire nuts – There should already be some on the wires that you can re-use, but having some spares is smart.

Pliers – For adjusting the lights.  They make some spanner wrenches for this, but pliers work.

Ladder – Because high.

Kids wagon – Because I can’t carry all this stuff.



First things first.  Safety checks. Turn on the lights.  Go look at the light. See the light on?  Yes? Go turn the switch off. Go look at the light.  Is the light now off? Yes? We can safely conclude that there is no power going to the fixture and that we shouldn’t be electrocuted.  If you turned the switch on and there was no light, maybe the bulb(s) are blown. I would put another bulb in and try the switch again. If that didn’t work, you’re probably either flipping the wrong switch, the breaker is tripped (not likely, you’d see something else off), the fixture is bad (also not likely, the wiring is pretty simple), or some small animal has chewed your wires up.  This is where that multi-meter comes in. If you have a nice one, like I have pictured above, with a non-contact voltage detector, you can just kind of wave the multi-meter around the fixture and see if the indicator light on the meter comes on…uh…indicating…that the fixture is energized. Having said all of that, the safest bet is to figure out what circuit the fixture is tied into on the main breaker box and throw that switch.  If none of this stuff makes sense, it’s time to use a lifeline. Either call a buddy, or call an electrician. It’s just 110v, and likely you’ll just get a little tingle, but I wouldn’t take that chance.

Story Time –  Notice those two fellows in the title image?  That’s my brother, Eric, and my grandpa, Alton (Papa). Eric was helping Papa replace his range hood.  When Eric went to strip the insulation off of some wires, things got tingly.  He asked Papa (a retired electrician, who began to snicker) if he was sure that he had killed the power to the range hood at the breaker.  Papa reassured Eric that there’s no way he should be getting shocked (but wouldn’t reach up and test it himself).  My brother, rightfully irritated, asked Papa to go check the breaker. Papa, laughing, went to the breaker to make sure it was off. Papa assured Eric that it was off, and magically, Eric didn’t get shocked again.  Moral of the story – verify…personally.


The rest of this is is as simple as “take old thing down, put new thing back”.

After we’ve made our safety checks, it’s time to get up the ladder and take down the old fixture.  First, remove the old bulbs from the old fixture.  If they’re good, you can reuse them in the new fixture if it didn’t come with any.  Mine are some nice 1300 lumen LED bulbs that you could light up an airstrip with, so I’m keeping them. Getting the old fixture down should be pretty straight forward, but I can’t really talk too much about taking your existing fixture down, because I obviously don’t know what type you have.  Most of the ones I’ve run into have just been held up by a couple of screws. Your’s may have a cover, it may either just snap on or it may be held in place by a set screw that has to come off before you can take the fixture down.  Again, if you’re not sure how this works, ask somebody. You don’t want to take down half of the side of your house just to replace some fixtures. Especially if you didn’t need to in the first place.

Out with the old.

Once the mounting hardware (screws, etc) has been removed, the fixture should be hanging by some wires.  We’ll need to remove the wire nuts that should be on the white (“ground”) and black (“hot” or “live”) wires.  You sure you did that part that I talked about above with the whole “kill the power first” stuff? You may also notice two bare (“neutral”) wires twisted together, leave those like they are.  There could also be a small green wire running from the old fixture to it’s mounting bracket. Remove that, also. Next, remove the mounting bracket, if there is one. All that’s left should be the black, white, and bare wires sticking out of a hole.

Time to put the new stuff up.  


The new setup should have instructions, follow those.  Usually it’s some version of the reverse of what’s outlined above.  Mount the bracket and connect the green ground wire to the bracket.  If it’s not already done, strip about 1 inch of insulation off of the fixture’s wires (you can do this with your pocket knife), then match the black and white wires from the new fixture with the ones from the house wires, twist the wires together, and twist the wire nuts on them.  Check to make sure there is no wire visible outside of the collar of the wire nut.  That’s how fires happen.


Once everything is wired up, I like to put a bulb in the fixture and turn the power on to make sure I’ve got a working light.  This could save you from having to take everything down again.  Don’t forget to turn the power back off.  Then mount the fixture to the mounting bracket with it’s supplied hardware and put some bulbs in it (unless it had it’s own bulbs).  Cut the power back on and see if your lights are still working as they should.  Easy. 


Tip – Your new fixture will likely have stranded wire as opposed to the solid wire found in the houses circuit.  Twist the stranded wires together, as pictured below, to keep them together.  Also, when you’re twisting the stranded wire together with the solid wire, have the stranded wire stick out a little longer than the solid wire.


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