An early job of mine was building boat docks with a neighbor from down the street. He was the sort of man who liked to bring his crew back home and treat them to a dinner he cooked himself. He’d grill some chicken or hamburgers and we’d eat on his back deck at a picnic table he built himself. We’d have a couple of beers with dinner, and talk late into the evening. When it got toward the holidays, he ran strings of white Christmas lights along the railings and on the awning that served as a roof. We were all very startled to be able to see each other—and the stairs—by this light. Those Christmas lights became a permanent fixture on the deck for years.
This became a problem when my neighbor started dating. These year-round Christmas lights drove a succession of girlfriends crazy with their out-of-season illumination, and when he finally replaced the lights with something more permanent, we knew that it must be love. However, exterior stair lighting isn’t just a convenience feature, it’s a safety feature, too. A well-lit set of outdoor stairs can make the difference between a fun night and a serious injury. The best stair and deck railing lights don’t just look great, they fulfill an important purpose.
What’s Wrong with Unlit Stairs?
For something that is used multiple times a day, stairs are startlingly hazardous. Deaths due to falling on stairs seems to happen about twice as often as falls on level ground. When people are impaired by substance use, stairs become an especially dangerous part of the home, beating out all other parts of the home when it comes to causing injuries. The data tends to suggest that falls on stairs aren’t necessarily more common than falls on level ground, just that falls are more likely to end in serious injury or death if they happen on stairs. It’s gruesome data, but many of these falls are preventable.
One thing that can help prevent these falls is lighting. People are more likely to fall going down stairs than they are going up, since while descending a flight of stairs only the treads are visible, and not the rise of the steps. This leaves the elevation open to misinterpretation and makes it more likely someone will misjudge the step. Lighting between the risers can help by giving a better idea of the height of the drop.
What to Look for in Exterior Stair Lighting
When it comes to deciding what stair lighting to use for safety there are some things to consider. While lighting the risers will undoubtedly make a set of stairs safer, lighting the handrail as well is also a good idea. My friend lit his deck with strings of Christmas lights, and this wasn’t ideal. They were wrapped around the railing, and didn’t light the stair treads that much. Since they were wrapped around the rails, they actually discouraged grabbing the rails, as it was a good way to end up with a handful of glass bulbs. We’d also generally end up tripping over the extension cord when we went into the house. Plainly, lighting that keeps its wires and bulbs out of the way would work better. Eventually, this was the sort of lighting that my friend did install, but he struggled with it, and it became a lengthy project.
The reason was the need to find a place to run the wires. His railings were solid wooden posts and had no out-of-the-way place to run wires. He resorted to replacing those solid posts with ones made of four two-by-fours nailed together to make a tube. The wires from the lighting ran through these tubes and underneath the rails.
My friend’s experience offers some insight into what makes for good exterior lighting in general.
- Lights for risers are an important safety feature, and a recessed lighting fixture that mounts flush with the surface of the riser and won’t snag toes is safer and easier to install than trying to modify a light fixture to fit.
- Space for wiring is an important feature because it makes it easy to install lighting safely without creating a trip or a shock hazard from a make-do solution. Hollow railings that allow wires to run through are not only safer, but they’re easier to wire up and look better.
- LED lighting is more compact, lasts longer, and generates less heat than other bulbs, and this makes them the best lights to install in a deck’s surface where they’ll be next to flammable wood or meltable plastic. They’re a good choice if you’re looking for porch lights that won’t attract bugs, and since LEDs don’t usually get hot enough to burn an incautious hand, they also work well as lighting for stair railings.
- Appropriate transformers won’t blow the lights, or leave them barely glowing. Transformers either step up or step down the voltage and amperage to meet the requirements of the circuit it’s powering. It can be tricky to find the correct transformer, especially if you’re not very familiar with electrical systems. It’s helpful if a manufacturer provides a transformer calculator along with railings, wirings, and lights that all work as a complete system. This is one good argument for buying your lighting, wiring, and railings from the same manufacturer.
These lessons became very clear after my friend’s deck remodel. Time and exposure to the elements started to warp, dry out, and separate the railings he built. Since each structural piece was made of multiple boards of wood, aging hit them hard. My friend could have saved himself a lot of trouble over the long term by installing a railing system that was designed with lighting as an option from the start.
One such railing system is made by Fortress Railing. Fortress makes steel, aluminum, cable, and glass railing systems that are designed to work with lighting options such as post cap lights, in-rail lighting features, post lights, and—most importantly for stairs—recessed surface light fixtures that fit flush with the deck on the tread or riser. To find a dealer or installer of Fortress Railing products, visit their contact us page. The same thoughtful design used in Fortress Railing products can be found in all of Fortress’ products, from sturdy fencing to composite decking.