How to Find a Short in Your Outdoor Lighting Installation

How to Find a Short in Your Outdoor Lighting Installation

As an outdoor lighting installer, getting an emergency call on a particularly hot or humid day is a nightmare.  

What's worse is when that client is calling to report that their outdoor lights aren't working, period, and they need you to fix it ASAP. You've got your fingers crossed that it's not a lighting short...because we all know how long that could take you to fix. 

It’s always frustrating to experience problems with your landscape lighting project after you’ve spent so much time installing high-quality residential lighting for your customers. Worst of all is dealing with a short circuit, which can take hours of sleuthing just to diagnose and uncover. 

Okay, now that you’re done sweating while imagining the worst call ever – let's go over how to find a short in your outdoor lighting installation in the most efficient, effective, and stress-free way possible. 

How to Find a Short in Your Outdoor Lighting Installation, Step-by-Step 

Is there a trick to finding a short in your landscape lighting that doesn’t require spending days digging up the whole yard? 

It depends. 

We can’t say it’s always easy, but we can give you some tips on finding a short in outdoor lighting that makes the process as efficient as possible. 

  1. First, in case you’re newer to this, we’ll give a quick refresher on what a short circuit is in landscape lighting and the usual causes. 
  2. Then, we’ll go over how to find a short in your residential outdoor lighting installation. 
  3. Finally, we’ll tell you how to reduce the chance that this sort of headache ever has to happen again. 

*If you’re a homeowner looking for advice, close this page and call your outdoor lighting’s manufacturer or a pro lighting installer ASAP! As a DIYer, it’s so easy to inadvertently do more damage to your fixtures and cables trying to resolve this. Save yourself the headache and let a pro do the dirty work!* 

1. What Exactly is a ‘Short Circuit’ in Outdoor Landscape Lighting?

For newbies to the outdoor landscape lighting industry, let’s start with the basics. 

The term short circuit is often used wrongly to refer to any kind of wiring problem in an electrical circuit. But a true short circuit occurs when one or more electrical circuit wires or connections are exposed or damaged, and the electrical current completes its circuit journey via a shorter path than is allowed by the established wiring. 

Shorts can be hard to troubleshoot for two reasons: 

  1. They can occur in strange places. 
  2. They can happen in multiple places at the same time.  

Finding a short in an unlikely location can be frustrating. It is even more frustrating to find out that the system has still been tripped by something else after you have fixed the first issue! 

The good news is, with low voltage residential outdoor lighting, you only have so many fixtures you can fit onto a low voltage transformer; which narrows the possibilities.  

You May Be Wondering: How Does a Short Circuit Happen? 

We’ve got you! 

Shorts happen when there's an arc in the system. Basically, a short circuit is when electricity is going where it isn’t supposed to, and nothing is slowing it down. 

A low voltage lighting system uses two direct burial wires. Arcing happens when currents pass through these two wires and come in contact. There are a bunch of reasons why this could happen, which we’ll outline below.      

a) Cable Ends Not Finished Off Correctly

One of the most common reasons for a short circuit in a low-voltage system is exposed cable at the end of the run. When you lay low-voltage cable through a property, the end of the cable MUST be finished off correctly using cable caps, electrical tape, and dielectric grease. If the copper ends are exposed, the entire lighting system can be disrupted by moisture, dirt, or even the two cable ends touching and short circuiting the system. 

Anywhere the system has been exposed to moisture can result in a short circuit. This is why it’s so important to use high quality cable and finish off a low voltage cable properly 

b) Faulty Circuit Wire Insulation

A common fault in circuit wire insulation is damaged or old wire insulation. Damaged wire insulation can allow neutral and hot wires to touch, which can cause a short circuit. This can occur when wires are inadvertently cut or frayed (such as digging with a shovel and accidentally hitting a wire), stretched by growing tree roots, or rubbed against rocks over a long time.  

Wildlife like groundhogs, gophers, squirrels, rats or mice can also gnaw on buried or exposed circuit wiring, exposing the inner wire conductors to cause short circuits. 

c) Loose Wire Connections

It is very common for the attachments to loosen up over time, sometimes allowing neutral and live wires to touch. Although low voltage outdoor lighting is safer to handle than line voltage lighting, fixing faulty wire connections can be tricky and is best handled by those thoroughly familiar with wiring work.  

d) Faulty Light Fixtures

When an outdoor light fixture is plugged into a transformer, which is then plugged into an outlet, the fixture’s wiring effectively becomes an extension of the circuit, and any problems in the fixture wiring become circuit problems.  

Old or broken residential outdoor lighting fixtures can develop inner short circuits over time. Short circuits in fixtures can occur in the plugs, in the power cords, or inside the device itself. 

Your outdoor lighting supplier should be able to tell you how long you can expect their light fixtures to last, and whether this type of fault could be covered under warranty. This varies greatly between outdoor lighting manufacturers, so don't assume!  

How to Find a Short Circuit in Your Outdoor Lighting Installation

If none of your lights are working, it may be the result of a short. On the other hand, this is a broad problem that could be the result of a multitude of factors.  

Below is a list of methods to try and check on in order to find and fix a short in outdoor lighting, depending on the situation and location of the suspected short. 

a) First, Try These Methods to Fix It:

  1. Make sure the wires entering the transformer are tight and fully inside the terminal lugs. If the problem’s as simple as a loose connection, it’s an easy fix. 
  2. Check to see if the low voltage transformer has any power. If you do have power at the transformer and the lights still aren’t coming on, there is likely a short causing it to shut off. 
  3. There should be a toggle switch or a fuse stat inside the transformer. Check to make sure the toggle switch is in the correct position or see if your fuse stat is blown. If your toggle switch has flipped itself to the off position, or if your fuse stat has blown, it's because there is a short somewhere in the system. 
  4. If this doesn’t do it, check your GFCI outlet and reset that. If your outlets are working, then check the voltage and amperage of your transformer. If you’re not receiving power, the transformer may need to be replaced. 
  5. Locate your circuit breaker. Examine the breaker and look for tripped switches. A tripped circuit breaker switch will appear to be in the “off” position when it was previously in the “on” position. 
  6. Unplug or turn off all electrical components attached to the outdoor lighting circuit breaker switch. 
  7. Reset the circuit breaker by flipping the switch to the “on” position. If the breaker successfully resets, which means if it does not return to the “off” position, the short is in one of the lighting elements you unplugged. However, if the breaker trips after all fixtures have been unplugged, the short is in the electrical wiring. 

b) To Determine the Location of a Short in Outdoor Lighting:

  1. At the points where fixtures are connected, look for loose fittings. 
  2. Make sure that your sockets are not damaged, corroded, or wet. 
  3. Make sure you check for any areas that are exposing the wires or bulbs to excessive moisture (beyond the normal rainfall). 
  4. You should look for wires that are cut, broken, frayed, incorrectly connected, or twisted by roots or rocks to see if they need repair. This is the part where you will have to dig a bit deeper – literally, in some cases

c) Not a Short Circuit? What Else Could Cause Problems in Outdoor Lighting

If you’ve done your detective work, have not located a short and are still stumped, there are a few more things that could be causing your issue. 

First, check out our in-lite troubleshooting tips. If you still need answers, our in-lite product experts are on hand to help troubleshoot. 

If you’re a professional outdoor lighting installer, consider joining our free in-sider program. As an in-sider member, you have a direct line to our team, so you get answers to your questions as soon as possible. in-lite also gives you access to trade pricing, education, and training through our in-sider program as well. You deserve nothing less from your outdoor lighting manufacturer! 

3. How to Prevent Outdoor Lighting from Short Circuiting Again

Taking the time to ensure that the lighting system is installed correctly in the first place is the single most effective way to avoid future problems! By selecting residential lighting fixtures and components made of durable materials, you will ensure that your system will last for a long time. 

a) Professional installation

Low voltage lighting is easy to install compared to line voltage, but there’s still skill required to install it! Ensuring that you have been professionally trained, or that whoever had previously installed it was a professional is crucial for safety reasons. 

Here is a free training video for how low-voltage lighting works and proper installation from our team at in-lite. Always choose an outdoor lighting supplier who offers detailed installation instructions! 

b) Finish Off Low Voltage Wires Properly Every Time

After you finish rolling out your low-voltage cable, there are a couple ways you can end the cable correctly. If water gets into your main line cable, it can cause issues to the transformer and the fixtures – so this part of the installation is very important! 

Created with lighting pros in mind, some of in-lite’s low-voltage cables come with finished ends designed for an immediate connection to your landscape lighting transformer OR you can use the cable caps that come complete with our low-voltage transformers. Plus, in-lite’s low-voltage cable is specifically designed for low-voltage residential outdoor lighting in order to extend the transformer’s lifespan. 

c) Choose a Reliable Outdoor Lighting SupplierforComponents and Fixtures 

Choosing to go with the lower cost option may be tempting to you but using low quality supplies from inferior outdoor lighting manufacturers is just asking for trouble. Sure, you’ll make a great profit margin on the initial installation, but that’ll quickly be outweighed by the hours you’ll spend digging it all up later and having customer complaints. As we all know, call backs are the enemy. 

Remember, the quality of the products you install will reflect on your reputation as an installer. At in-lite we take the quality of our product very seriously; in return we offer a 5-year comprehensive warranty for our customers to ensure that they are always taken care of. 

in-lite is here to help you along the way, from learning how to perform installations and maintenance checkups, and the ins and outs of the landscape lighting industry. Join our free in-sider program today or contact us to learn more about partnering with in-lite as your outdoor lighting supplier!