I volunteered recently to hang string lights outdoors. The project was not as quick or easy as I had anticipated. It was also more expensive than my initial estimates, but the results were spectacular.
I will describe my mistakes below so that you can shortcut past my wrong turns during installation. In total, I spent almost $900. However, you can probably accomplish this for about $400-$500 by following these steps.
The photo gallery below shows more than 20 photos from the project.
Genesis of the Project
My girlfriend purchased 2 strands of the FEIT® Electric weatherproof string lights at the Paradise Valley Mall Costco for her home in Phoenix. Cost was $49.99 plus tax per strand.
These UL-listed outdoor landscaping lights are durable, well insulated, heavy and made to last a long time. I have also seen these type of decorative lights labeled online as cafe lights, bistro lights, Edison lights, outdoor party lights and globe lights.
The lights are popular over outdoor patios, at local restaurants, and in residential back yards. The 11-watt bulbs cast a soft, amber light outdoors and do not produce an environment of blinding light or harsh shadows. They create a casual backyard evening atmosphere for neighborhood holiday parties or dinner with friends.[bctt tweet=”How to Hang Outdoor String Lights… #landscaping ” username=”arizonareport”]
Similar brands are lighter weight and less expensive, but did not appear as durable. The string lights for this project would remain outdoors in the hot and arid Arizona climate with intense sun, so the Feit® brand lights were a great choice for our project.
Up to five strands can be strung together. Each strand is 48 feet (14.6 meters) in length and features 24 bulbs. Twelve additional bulbs are included in each box in case you crush a few by stepping on the strand (like me).
Ensure that your outdoor string lights will be:
- attached to a permanent structure (house, garage, shed, ramada, mature tree or cemented post)
- plugged in to a GFCI-protected and weatherproofed outlet
- raised high enough to prevent people, objects or vehicles from coming in contact
- compliant with HOA architectural covenants, if any
First, my early assumptions and project miscalculations:
Mistake #1: Casually securing the lights with rope
In a rush to hang the lights and wrap up the project, the string lights were first attached to hooks on lag bolts and lashed to the house with cotton rope. The bolts were screwed into the gutter fascia. These lights are heavy and lag bolts would eventually tear loose when the wood fascia or rope rotted. In my case, a heavy wind blew the strand off of the hook and into the pool within 10 days after installation. Braided stainless steel wire is required. Which leads me to my second revelation and mistake…
Mistake #2: Hanging string lights over a pool or hot tub
Soft, reflected light over a pool at twilight looks amazing.
Danger, Will Robinson. Don’t do it.
Lights can fall into a swimming pool with a strong wind despite your best knot-tying skills. A pool tech can contact the electrical wire with an aluminum pole net while sweeping the pool and introduce electrical current into the water. Glass bulbs can shatter over the pool deck and injure bare feet.
From a practical perspective, if draped over a pool, you would be dismantling the project each time that you need to replace burned out light bulbs. No bueno.
We moved the project to the other corner of the yard and as far away from the pool as reasonably possible.
Mistake #3: Attempting to secure to a concrete block fence
One option I considered was attaching the light string to the back wall of the yard. I scrapped the idea when evaluating the strength of the wall. Very few of the residential block walls in the Phoenix area that I have seen utilize adequate footings or rebar. The walls were built for privacy and to delineate yard boundaries, not to bear side loads. In high winds, they can sway, putting tension on the strand of lights and the wall.
Mistake #4: Hanging the bulbs from a wooden post secured only by a deck post base
The biggest roadblock and time delay in the project was when I first used wooden posts seated on deck post base clamps (see photo in gallery). I decided not to seat the posts themselves in the concrete in order to avoid rotting and exposure to termites. As a result, the posts were only secured above grade, on top of the footing. When the strands were stretched from the house to the posts, the heavily-tensioned lines almost pulled the wooden posts completely over. Back to square one.
The Project Starts
I needed a permanent and safe option after the wooden posts failed.
Steel poles in concrete footings quickly became the only solution after I abandoned attaching the lights to the fence wall. I chose a horizontal “W” pattern over a “V” or straight line to hang the lights. There are three attachment points along the house at the fascia. There are two attachment points in the yard at the poles. Based on my measurements, I knew approximately where to dig both footings.
Two light strands would be combined into one 96 foot length.
The steel poles were 11.5 feet (3.50m) in length and would be buried about 2 feet (.6m) into the ground, leaving approximately 9.5 feet (2.89m) above grade.
The three attachment points on the house were 14′ 8″ (4.26m) apart. The center of the poles was separated by 15′ 4″ (4.67m). Center of the footings were dug at a point perpendicular to the fascia at a distance of 22′ 4″ (6.80m) out into the yard. The poles were centered between the three fascia attachment points. I left enough room between the poles and the back wall in order to accommodate a lawn mower.
Half-inch diameter holes were drilled in the steel posts 3″ down from the top for the eye bolts, setting the height of the light strands at approximately 9′ 3″ (2.82m) above the ground.
The Shopping List
Here is a list of project parts that I purchased from Home Depot:
- 7 bags Sakrete Fast-Setting concrete mix (50lb bag)
- 1 bag Sakrete multi-purpose sand (60lb bag)
- 2 redwood 4 x 4 wooden posts (would later be scrapped, see Mistake #4)
- 2 aluminum deck post bases (scrapped, see Mistake #4)
- 1 large 21-gallon concrete mixing tub
- 1 four foot length of #4 steel rebar (1/2″ diameter)
- 1 twelve inch diameter cardboard Sonotube (in a 48-inch length) for the 2 footings
- 100-foot length of 3/38″ braided stainless steel wire (uncoated)
- wire attachment pieces
- 5 stainless steel 1/2″ x 8″ eye bolts
- assorted stainless steel washers and nuts for the eye bolts
- 5 quick links
- 5 twist (to tension the wire once it was up)
- 1 drill bit 1/2″ for steel application
- 1 tube Lucas Oil white lithium grease to cool the drill tip
Here are the tools that you will need:
- hand saw
- needle nose pliers
- assorted crescent wrenches
- permanent marker
- garden trowel
- tape measure
- utility knife
- plastic concrete mixing tub (in shopping list above)
The new footings were dug 24″ deep and slightly more than 10″ in width in order to accommodate the Sonotube concrete forms.. I expected to hit hard caliche (sedimentary rock made up of calcium carbonate that binds sand, clay and silt; like a natural concrete). Digging though was fast and efficient. Holes were prepped in 20 minutes each.
Light at the end of the tunnel
I returned to the project the following weekend armed with a 10-amp electric rotary hammer to remove the old concrete footings. Now I had a blank slate again.
I found an agricultural fencing supplier in Avondale called LP Steel through a Craigslist ad. Click the link here to the LP Steel website and ask for Ross when you call. Their industrial yard (just east of Avondale Blvd. and State Route 85) had plenty of steel post options for my project. They also specialize in dog runs, horse corral panels and mare motels if you are in the market.
I chose two of the pre-galvanized 4×4 square tube in 12 foot lengths. Square tube won out over round tube because it had a less industrial feel to me.
The steel product has 3/8″ walls which seemed like overkill for my backyard project. I was going to over-engineer it this time though. Ross had the two beams custom cut in-house to an 11.5 foot length for me. For a fee of about $80, the beams were delivered and dropped in the front yard within 24 hours.
The posts are extremely heavy (198+lbs) and may require two adults to lift and maneuver into place. Twenty four inches of the poles will be seated in the ground, leaving 9.5 feet above grade.
Note: Bring the garden hose and all of your tools to the place in the yard where you are working. When the concrete gets wet in the mixing tub, the clock is ticking and there is no time to search for missing tools. Have a partner available to assist you and brief them in advance on these steps.
Here are the steps on day one:
- Measure and mark footer placement
- Measure and mark attachment points on house or structure
- Dig holes
- Prime paint the steel posts in 2 coats using a paintbrush and a gallon of Kilz Complete primer/stain blocker in an exterior oil base. Let dry 24 hours.
Here are the steps on day two:
- Cut sonotube concrete form to hole depth +2 inches using a saw or utility knife
- Insert the concrete sonotube in to the hole leaving 2″-4″” above the ground and sight tube and level.
- Pour a small amount of sand or pea gravel into the footer hole
- Seat the half concrete block squarely in the bottom of the tube on the sand. Steel post will sit in block. Orient block for correct position perpendicular to house.
- Mix concrete in concrete tub using shovel and garden trowel
- Concrete mix should be “clumpy” like Sloppy Joe mix with no visible standing water once thoroughly mixed
- Lift steel post in place and seat in the concrete block
- Partner should be checking all four sides of post with level
- Pack wet concrete with garden trowel tightly in hole around base of block and post
- Fill in remainder of tube and hole with concrete
- Use rebar or stick to tamp out air bubbles in concrete
- Smooth top of concrete using a masonry trowel
Wait at least 24 hours for the concrete to set before stringing the light strands.
Holes for the eye bolts were drilled in to the three locations at the fascia. If you are working in a climate where your home has gutters, you will to find alternative attachment points. Aluminum gutters will not be strong enough to support the weight of the lines.
My girlfriend was impressed with the finished project. Testosterone success. My man card is renewed for another year.
I think that I will celebrate by mounting a Cabela’s hammock between the two poles next weekend.
Note: If you live in a wet climate, be sure to devise a cover for the top of the open steel posts to prevent water intrusion and rusting.
I used to tell jokes about Internet-enabled lightbulbs. I can’t tell jokes about it anymore – there already is an Internet-connected lightbulb. – Vinton Cerf, co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and architecture of the Internet.