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The Bright Ideas Blog

Design inspiration and outdoor lighting tips and advice for homeowners

The Best Control / Timer for Your Outdoor Landscape Lighting System

With different smart home automation control systems, automating your outdoor lighting is becoming as simple as plugging your transformer into the wall and letting your smart home know, via app, when you'd like your lights turned on & off.

While this futuristic technology is truly spectacular, most of us do not have smart home automation. But this doesn't mean that we have to live in the stone age either! 

With a variety of different transformer control systems available, there is bound to be a control system suited to your specific needs & budget

What is the best control for your outdoor lighting system? Well that really depends on what your needs are and what you are looking to have your controller do for you. 

There are two types of transformers: ones with an integrated control that can't be switched out, and ones with space available inside for plug and play. We are going to be taking a look at some of the controls that are used in transformers that can have their controls swapped out and outfitted differently. 

In this blog, we will go over a number of different control systems. Some control systems are fairly basic, others can be a bit more sophisticated. As we take a look at some of these control systems, we will do our best to hit on some of the pros and cons of each. 

 1. Analog Timer    

    An analog timer is simply a mechanical timer. You know the old school timers used to turn lamps on and off at night in your home to make it look like somebody is there. These timers are pretty straight forward. The mechanical gears inside the timer rotate to turn the timer's  outer clock face. The tabs along the clock perimeter can be set to a designated on and off time. 

While these timers can be set relatively easily, there are a few downsides to them. If the power goes out, for instance, your timer will be offset however many hours the power was out. This means if your power was out for two hours, then the timer will be off by that exact same amount of time before it comes on. You will need to reset it. These timers also need to be adjusted for daylight savings. They may also need to be adjusted for when the sun will set throughout the year. 


1. It's Affordable

2. Can be set easily.


1. This timer will need to be reset whenever there is a power outage.

2. Mechanical failures can occur over time. 

3. Will not adjust for sunset

4. Will not adjust for daylight savings.  


2. Digital Timer 

   A digital timer is a big step up from an analog timer. While they can be a bit more difficult to program, the instructions are usually pretty straight forward. With most digital timers, you can set multiple on/off programs for different days of the week. For example, you can set your lights to turn on at 6:00 P.M. and turn off at midnight. You can then set another program to have them turn on again at 6:00 A.M. and turn off at 8:00 A.M. for your early morning illumination. In addition, you can also have your weekday program shut off time at a different time from the weekend program.

With a digital timer you are given a lot more control over when your lights come on and off. 

Another nice feature with a digital timer is their built in memory. A good digital timer will have an internal battery in case of a power outage. If the power were to go out, your timer will save it's programming and continue operating once the power has been restored. 

The timers batteries will need to be replaced every two years or so as they wear out. This timer may or may not also need to be manually set for daylight savings depending on the model.  This timer is limited to designated on / off times, and can not adjust itself for sunset. 


1. Affordability

2. Ability to set various on / off programs. 

3. Built in battery with internal memory in case of power outage.

4. May adjust automatically for Daylight Savings. 


1. Batteries need to be replaced every couple of years.

2. Some models do not adjust for Daylight Savings

3.Does not adjust for sunset. 


3. Photocell

  A photocell  is a light sensor. It senses sunlight to determine when the lights should turn on and off. While photocells come in various shapes and sizes, the operate the same way: they sense when it's getting dark outside and turn your system on once it's dark enough. 

A photocell is a great way to ensure that your lights will turn on at sunset. 

However, a downside to a photocell is that they will not shut off until they sense light again at sunrise. Another issue can be the location of the transformer. The photocell is attached to the outside of the transformer. If the transformer is in a shaded area, in a garage, or somewhere else that limits light, the photocell will not know when to shut off. There are ways around this, but but they often require creating something customized. 


1. Affordability

2. Will ensure that your lights adjust for sunset and sunrise throughout the year. 

3.Great if you want your lights to always come on between sunrise & sunset. 

4. Very dependable. 


1. Can not be used effectively on transformers located in dark or heavily shaded areas. 

2.Will not shut off at designated time. 


4. Control Combination

A photocell is great for ensuring that your lights will adjust for sunset throughout the year, and turn on whenever it's dark. The biggest issue with them is that they won't shut off at a specific or designated time. Analog and digital timers give you control over turning the lights on and off. 

One way to get the best of both worlds (adjustment and control) is by combining the two. Using a photocell in combination with a timer will enable you to have your lights turn on at sunset, and turn off when you want them to. 

Let's say, for example, you used a digital timer with your photocell. Accounting for how early the sun sets in the winter, you set your timer to turn on at 5:00 P.M. and shut off at midnight. The photocell will turn on whenever the sun sets and turn off whenever you would like. 

By using a photocell with your timer you give yourself more control over how the system operates. The photocell turns the lights on, the timer turns them off. 


1. Affordability

2. Your lights will turn on at sunset and shut off at whatever designated time you'd like. 

3. You can trust your lighting system to operate more smoothly. 


1. Whether you choose an astronomical or digital timer, they will still need to be reset for Daylight Savings. 

2. Will not be effective if transformer is located in a dark or heavily shaded area, or if it is located in a well lit location.  


5. Astronomical Timer

An astronomical timer is much more sophisticated control system than the previously mentioned control system. While the programming may feel somewhat more involved, astronomical timers are extremely effective. 

The programming can be as simple as entering in the approximate GPS coordinates of your property's location, or zip code. Using this information, the astronomical timer will know exactly what time the sunrise and sunset are no matter what time of year! 

Unlike photocell timers, astronomical timers don't need to sense the light outside to determine what time the sun is setting. With an astronomical timer, your transformer's location becomes irrelevant. 

Like a digital timer, an astronomical can be set to various on / off times for different days. You can have your lights shut off at midnight on weekdays and 2:00 A.M. on weekends. An astronomical timer also has a memory with a built in battery. 

Unlike a digital timer, an astronomical timer can be set to adjust itself for daylight savings, it's extremely accurate & shouldn't require any adjusting after the initial setup. 


1. Affordability

2. It can adjust itself for sunset and daylight savings without many of the short comings we find with digital timers and photocells. 

3. Backup for memory in case of power outage. 


1. Astronomical timers are typically a little bit more robust than other control devices. Some transformers may not be accommodating to the amount of space it requires to be housed inside of the transformer. If you are planning out your system ahead of time this isn't really an issue. However, if you are retrofitting your old system, it's good to double check and make sure an astronomical timer will fit in your transformer. 

2. The programming can be a little bit more involved than other control devices. 

3. Backup batteries need to be replaced every 2 years. 


6. WiFi / Bluetooth Smart Control

There are numerous different products that offer you the ability to outfit your lighting system with a control operated smart device. There are several different products out there that offer a variety of different features. Rather than get into the specifics of each, what we'll do is briefly skim over some of the neat features of this type of control system.  

1. On / Off Can be set

2. You can manually turn your lights on and off with your phone. 

3. With certain systems, this can even be done when you are away from home. 

4. Certain systems give you the ability to dim your lighting and control different zones.

5. Advanced systems give you the ability to control the color of your lights. 


1. If you are looking to have full control over numerous aspects of your lighting system, a smart control is a good fit for you. 


1. This is not as affordable as some of the other timers we previously mentioned. 

2. These systems are pretty incredible in terms of the control they provide, but just keep in mind that they often come with an incredible price tag. Smart design & strategic planning can certainly save time & experience when considering these options. 



If you enjoy having a lot of control over your lighting system, a smart controlled device may be a great fit for you. But at the end of the day, if you just want your lights to turn on and off when they are supposed to, there are a great number of options available to you. Free Landscape Lighting Design Guide