Holiday Lighting Safety Tips

Christmas tree with lights. It's important to follow holiday light safety tips.

This winter is certainly different from most and holiday gatherings are sure to be smaller. Still, many families have already started decorating this inside and outside of their homes for the holidays. In fact, since indoor gatherings are limited right now, many people are putting extra effort on fitting out their outdoor spaces with dazzling lights. From Christmas to Hanukkah to New Years, and other winter outdoor entertaining, glittering lights set the mood with magic and wonder. But, as lovely as it is to gaze upon, holiday lighting can present a fire hazard if certain guidelines aren’t met. Read on for holiday light safety tips to ensure that your holidays are merry, bright and safe.

Understand The Dangers

According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), Christmas trees are the cause of upwards of 250 fires per year, resulting in over $16 million in property damage as well as personal injuries. Each year, fire departments throughout the country respond to hundreds of calls for house fires started by decorative lighting that is strung throughout the inside or outside of homes. Another source of electrical danger are extension cords. Throughout the U.S., approximately 4,000 injuries associated with electric extension cords are treated in hospitals each December. These statistics underscore the importance of following decorative lighting safety protocols in order to avoid damage to property and to keep your family safe.

Home decorated with outdoor holiday lighting.

Follow These Safety Tips

For many families, the winter just isn’t as festive without the dazzle of lighting. Fortunately, with some careful planning and care, it is possible to enjoy a holiday season that is both decorative and safe. Here are some holiday safety tips to keep you on track:

Don’t mix up or combine indoor and outdoor lights.

Outdoor lights are specifically designed for exterior use, including exposure to rain, ice and storms. Using indoor lighting outside can result in damage and lead to fires or other accidents. When you pack up the lights at the end of the season, be sure to mark them “indoor” or “outdoor”. This will help prevent you from unintentionally mixing up or combining different types of lighting in future years.

Toss out broken or old lights.

As you go through your boxes of holiday lighting, be sure to throw away any decorative lighting that has exposed wires, frayed or cracked cords or broken bulbs. The cost of replacing a few decorations is far less than the potential cost associated with a fire or other accident.

Consider replacing incandescent lighting with LED lighting.

Light-emitting diode (LED) lights utilizes less energy and are generally considered safer than traditional incandescent lights as they are both cooler to the touch and less likely to overheat. LED string lights are also more cost-efficient, lasting longer and consuming 70 percent less energy than incandescent string lights. When purchasing any type of new lighting, be sure to only buy lights approved by an OSHA-certified laboratory, such as the Underwriters Laboratory (UL).

Observe string light rules.

The number of light strings that can be combined (plugged in together) varies based on the wattage of the particular light string and the amperage of your home’s electrical circuit. Because LED lights consume less power, you can generally plug more LED light strings together compared to incandescent light strings. To be safe, look for the UL note on the lighting box. It should indicate the number of lights that can be safely strung together.

Don’t combine LED light strings and incandescent light strings.

Light strings are manufactured in a series to have the same amount of current running through each of the lights on a particular string. As strings are combined, they require (and pull) more current. Incandescent lights draw more current than LED lights. If incandescent and LED light strings are combined, the extra current will likely damage the LED lights and may cause a fire.

Select your tree carefully.

If you plan to decorate a Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush, first decide on real vs. artificial. If you opt for real greenery, select a fresh tree with springy needles that are difficult to pull out. The drier the tree, the more likely it is to catch on fire, so water it daily and avoid placing it next to a fireplace or radiator. If you opt for an artificial tree, select one that is labeled as being “fire-retardant”. It is important to realize that fire retardant trees can still catch fire, but they will resist burning and should be able to be extinguished more quickly than traditional artificial trees.

Ensure outdoor lights are grounded.

Whether you are adding outdoor string lights to your lamp post, front bushes, fence, back deck or she-shed, always plug them into a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. GFCI outlets offer protection from electrical shock. A licensed electrician can install an outdoor GFCI outlet if you do not have one, and can also answer any questions you may have about holiday lighting safety.

Flip the switch before you leave.

Of course, you’ll want others to be able to enjoy your holiday lights at night, but be sure to turn off all interior and exterior decorative lighting when you are not home. This will prevent the possibility of lights overheating and causing an accident while you’re away. You might also consider plugging your lights into a timer so they will turn off automatically every night before you go to bed.

Take care with extension cords.

If you’re utilizing extension cords for indoor or outdoor lights, be sure to observe the maximum wattage guidelines on the label. Extension cords can overheat when too many items are plugged in. When in doubt, try the “touch test” - unplug any extension cord that feels hot to that touch. Fire isn’t the only danger associated with extension cords, they can also be a trip hazard causing twisted ankles, broken limbs, lacerations and even concussions. Be sure to tuck extension cords out of the way, or tape them down to reduce the risk of injuries.

Be wary of power lines.

Before decorating the outside of your home, look up to make sure you are not hanging outdoor lights near any power lines. Likewise, never raise ladders or extend objects into or near power lines.