The pressure to get your holiday lights just right is great, scrutinized by neighbors and pleasure-seeking passersby, all hoping to brighten their spirits with the help of such dazzling demonstrations of holiday cheer.
Here are some great tips from Dave Pilkington, who designs and supervises holiday light installations.
Outdoor power: A covered, GFI-protected outdoor outlet for holiday lighting is a must.. No running cords out of windows or under doors and risking the sort of damage to them that causes fires. The outlet cover will keep moisture away from the electrical source, and a ground fault interrupter (the same type that’s often in bathrooms and kitchens) will prevent an unsafe condition by automatically shutting off power to the outlet if it comes in contact with water.
Know your load: Check the number of amps that corresponds to your outlet. Find the amps by checking the breaker box that’s usually in the basement. Multiply the number of amps by 120 (the number of volts that run through an outlet). The result is the maximum wattage a circuit can handle. A 15-amp circuit can handle lights totaling 1,800 watts and a 20-amp circuit can handle 2,400 watts. If you live in an older home, be aware that more than one outlet might rely on the same circuit, which explains why the lights go out as a result of an overload when you’re running the toaster oven and the vacuum. The circuit breaker cuts off power to the outlet, helping to prevent an electrical fire.
And if you’ve ever wondered how to wind enough lights around a tree trunk and through its limbs when the light package clearly states that no more than three light strings should be connected, the answer is a splitter. Pilkington explains that in this case the string limit has to do with conductivity, not wattage. Too many lights on the connected wires and the light sets are sure to blow a fuse at some point. To get more lights on your tree, a splitter (such as what you find at the end of some extension cords) divides the power so that various light strings can be used up to the wattage limit. Stores also sell specific splitters to help with this and other holiday lighting tasks.
Design tip: Sometimes all it takes is lighting one central tree spectacularly. Have one really beautiful focal point,” If you have a weeping tree, go heavy with wrapping mini lights on that.
The right stuff: In addition to having a ladder that is tall enough and stable enough to allow high-level work, the pros use a variety of clips that attach to gutters, siding, window frames and other areas to keep the lights upright and evenly spaced. Nails, which can damage exterior trim are usually not the best option. Many of the clips, spacers, light-installing guns and other helpers are sold at Home Depot and Target.
Go green, save green: Many professional holiday light installers are now using LED (light-emitting diode) strings exclusively. While these energy-conserving lights cost more, their wattage-reducing powers are impressive. Consider that the conventional, larger C9 bulb requires about 10 watts of power to operate but an LED bulb of the same size uses only one watt.
Put all holiday lights on timers. Instead of plugging them in, forgetting them and falling asleep, you can be sure that the lights are going to stay on for a prescribed amount of time.
Call for help: Ulta Lit Technologies, a Chicago holiday lighting repair company, has toll-free holiday lighting helpline (888-858-2548) through Christmas for questions on installation, safety, troubleshooting when lights don’t work and more. The company also makes a tool, the Lightkeeper Pro, for prelit trees and has instructional videos at lightkeeperpro.com. Brian Gleason, the company’s vice president offers this advice: “When you see bulbs burned out, you need to replace them. Four bulbs burned out in 50-light set will cause 65 percent more current to be driven to the remaining bulbs,” he said. “Those bulbs will then get brighter and burn out faster.” There’s also a risk of the remaining bulbs popping as a result of being overpowered, he said.
photo credit: The Clark Griswold Collection