There seems to be a wee dispute about who invented electric Christmas lights, ranging from President Grover Cleveland, who was the first president to illuminate a White House Christmas tree, to a lonely telephone operator in New England, who stared dreamily at the miniature lights of his switchboard and imagined them festooning his house.
Guide Lights the way
If you go all-out on your outdoor holiday decorations, get listed in our Holiday Lights guide. Provide a description of your display and include your street address and phone number.
Regardless of who deserves credit, the idea caught on faster than a burning candle could catch fire on a Christmas tree branch, and by the 1950s average suburban houses were getting the Rockefeller Center treatment. Since then the popularity of exterior holiday lights has grown exponentially. But it’s still the same old electricity coursing through those wires, and no one wants to get fried for Christmas.
Frank Suster, facilities and safety manager for City Mill, decorates a fantastically illuminated house in Ewa Beach every year, so this is old hat. We’re talking 5,000-plus lights. Still, Suster "divides the lights into quadrants, making sure each quadrant doesn’t pull more than 20 amps, and I also use fluorescent illumination for key lighting."
Suster said his electricity bill rises only about $50 this time of year, thanks mostly to his mix of LED and 2-watt low-voltage bulbs. "The older-style bulbs, the C-7s and C-9s, they’re being phased out. Too hot, too much power. A string of 25 C-7s, 7 watts each, that’s like burning a 175-watt light bulb."
A string of newfangled LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, can cost roughly triple that of a traditional string of Christmas lights, but they’re sturdier and cost just a fraction of what it costs to turn on a string of C-size bulbs. A chart to be mailed out with December’s Hawaiian Electric Co. bill shows that a string of C-9s can cost $18.75 to power, while an equivalent string of LEDs costs 8 cents.
And so, "choose light strands and decorations that use LED bulbs whenever possible," advises HECO’s Janet Crawford in the flier. "For outdoor lighting, consider buying solar-powered string lights with LED bulbs. Only purchase holiday lights that bear the certification mark of a standards testing lab, such as UL, FM, ETL, or CSA."
Electrician Chris Richardson suggests being ruthless with Christmas lights. "Look at them closely. If the wires are frayed, throw them away. If the bulbs are broken, throw them away. Lights are cheap, and you should assume they’re going to have a brief lifetime. Repairing them isn’t worth the time or energy. Trying to resurrect lights might not be safe.
"Plug them in to check them out. If you hear crackling or smell burning — bad sign. If a bulb is out, replace it with the same wattage. Sockets that are cracked, that’s not good. If half the string is out, you have a break in the wire. And make sure they’re unplugged when you string them."
Oh, when you’re stringing lights, have someone help, even if it’s just to hold the ladder. And use only "outdoor" lights outdoors.
Keep little kids away, too. "If it’s sharp, hot or explosive, kids will find a way to set it off," mused Richardson.
Never attach lights with nails, tacks or staples. "Anything that pinches the wire is a no-no," he said. Keep the wire away from metal objects like chain-link fences and well away from utility poles. He suggests using plastic Zip Ties to attach the wires to the house, as long as they’re not zipped too tight. Well-organized light hangers, like Suster, have plastic-coated hooks permanently attached to their eaves, which makes hanging lights a quick, safe operation.
"I’m not wild about twist ties, but some people use them," said Richardson. "And keep strings away from trees that might blow branches that could rip strings down."
Virtually all Christmas light strings have a fuse in the plug. Keep it there. It’s also much safer to plug light strings into a ground fault circuit interrupter outlet, or a multiple-strip extension that has a GFCI in it. These are the types of outlets used around sinks in bathrooms and kitchens. If the circuit get wet and shorts out, the circuit breaker in the GFCI pops out and shuts off the power.
"Use extension cords that have at least 16-gauge wire," said Richardson.
Don’t leave lights on while you’re asleep. Suster’s lights are on timers.
When storing lights for the next season, try not to get them tangled. Pulling them apart puts strain on the delicate wires, creating breaks. Richardson suggests using plastic, snap-lid boxes to store coils of wires, with bundles separated by a sheets of scrap cardboard.
Some light strings have plugs on the end to add more strings, making it longer. Even though that doesn’t change the voltage, it gooses the wattage, making the lights burn hotter. Too much heat makes the bulbs burn out faster and might cause fires in older strings. That’s why underwriter-certified lights have fuses in the plugs. If the fuse blows, you’ve either overloaded the circuit or one of the strings has a short. Toss it. This is the exact sort of situation for which the phrase "better safe than sorry" was cobbled.
The copper strands in Christmas light strings are sometimes not the best quality, and over the years they might break. Suster points out the biggest enemy of nighttime Christmas lights is daytime. "Sunlight kills ’em, especially light-colored wires. The plastic becomes brittle."
Modern Christmas lights are safer and more energy-efficient than older strands, and by far the best-selling variety these days are the feathery LED "icicle" lights, which use little electricity.
But "it’s the auxiliary stuff that drive up power usage," said Richardson. "Snow globes, waving Santas, spotlights on cartoon cutouts, that kind of stuff."
We didn’t have to look far to find a hard-core holiday-lighting buff. Star-Advertiser television and film writer Mike Gordon, two desks away, does everything listed in the story above and looks forward to making his house into an annual illuminated wonderland.
Mike, do you know how much your electrical bill went up last December?
"I don’t know," Gordon scoffed, "and I don’t care. It’s Christmas, man!"
» City MillHonolulu, Hawaii Kai, Kaimuki, Kaneohe, Mililani, Pearl City, Waianae, Waipahu; www.citymill.com
» Hawaiian Electric Co.: www.heco.com
» Chris Richardson Electrical: 778-5397