Holiday Lighting Saftety Tips

Geek!This is Joe Hunter’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

You might ask: What is Geeky about holiday lighting? If you do, you haven’t been watching any of the numerous videos on the internet for the last few years. Holiday lighting can indeed be very much a geeks favorite pastime this time of year. The more complex setups are computer controlled and can be quite expensive.

A discussion of safety in holiday lighting needs to cover two aspects:

  • The materials being installed, and
  • How you actually go about installing them.

Although both are important, the latter becomes increasingly important as you age and have to be more careful about working on ladders on in high places.

Hopefully these ideas will help someone avoid injury and give them suggestions on how to simplify installation of outdoor holiday decorations. It may be too late to adopt any of these ideas for this season, but if you keep them in mind you can both simplify and speed up your work next year.

Codes – First and foremost, you must always obey any national or local codes. Failure to do so could well void your insurance if something unforeseen should happen. Remember to keep this in mind as you read further. Use only those devices bearing the appropriate approval seals, and follow proper procedures for installation of electrical devices. Many municipalities permit homeowners to perform a certain level of electrical work themselves. But check the codes, before you start, and use a licensed contractor if required or if there is anything with which you are not comfortable.

Reduce the need for extension cords – A network of extension cords quickly becomes unwieldy and often dangerous. Installation of permanent outlets as close as possible to each planned location can drastically reduce the need for extension cords; maybe even eliminate them entirely. Properly planned outlets can also eliminate the need for multiple three-way adapters. The placement of these outlets will vary depending on how important it is to keep them an unobtrusive as possible. Obviously you will want to keep them above any level at which snow might be expected. Whenever possible you should try to keep them low enough so they can be reached without the need for a ladder. A simple three-step work ladder with a front you can lean against is a lot safer.

For roof lights, you may be able to place your outlets under the eaves. In a single-story house of the lower part of a split level, these can usually be reached without the need for a normal ladder. Under or beside windows may be other good places to locate permanent outlets.

Plan ahead – When deciding on what type of outlets to install and how they should be wired, think ahead. You may decide at some future date to expand your system. When planning a more permanent installation, it’s always better to allow for this expansion even though you may not need it right away. It’s both easier and cheaper to include additional circuits for future expansion during an initial installation than to add them later.

Simple lighting vs. Special effects – When planning, now or for the future, you may want to consider whether or not you will be using any special effects. Here’s where careful planning comes into play again. If you are going to be using special effects, you will need to plan for separate distinct circuits for each lighting channel.

Note: I’m not going to identify any specific types of special effects devices. Any geek worth their salt can easily locate detailed descriptions of them on the internet. Prices vary widely, depending on where you actually purchase them. Warehouse stores tend to have the best prices on the more common devices, with home improvement stores next in line. If you opt for the more complex devices you will probably have to buy them from the manufacturer via the internet.

Until recently, special effects required fairly expensive computer-controlled setups that were not for the faint of heart. Now there are at least three variations of readily available special effect boxes at reasonable prices. One that has been around for a couple of years has separate outlets for each of six channels. This year that manufacturer has released a newer model that has only four channels; but they use a wireless controller that eliminates the need to wire everything back to the central controller.

Another relatively new unit from a different manufacturer comes with three devices. The main unit has six outlets. There is also a satellite unit with an additional six outlets that can be synced to the main controller by a long extension cord. I’m not sure if these additional six outlets match the first six or if they are energized in a different sequence. The third unit is an external speaker. This also has an extension cord so that it doesn’t have to be placed right next to the main control unit. Although this unit only comes with ten pre-programmed songs, it has one feature the other units do not: you can hook up your own music source.

Installation safety – The second aspect of safety mentioned originally relates to how you actually go about putting up exterior lighting. For years now there has been a line of accessories that let you install lights without the need for ladders. Just think of that! No Ladders! These accessories screw onto the end of a pole and let you lift light strings up to gutters, shingles, or even trees. Then you unscrew the pole and you’ve eliminated the safety hazard or trying to work up on a ladder, when cold weather or age might increase your risks.

Other installation notes:

  • I can’t repeat the first caution enough: pay attention to codes and other proper installation practices.
  • A GFI-controlled outlet is a must for any exterior lighting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that “every” outlet has to be a GFI outlet (check your local codes, though). As long as there is a GFI outlet or a GFI circuit breaker somewhere in each circuit, this should satisfy the codes.
  • If you are wiring a complex setup, remember that a duplex outlet can actually support two different circuits. They are manufactured with a jumper that connects each of the two outlets, but the jumper can be snapped off if you want separate circuits.
  • If you are wiring for special effects, remember to use separate wires for both the hot and cold sides of the circuit. Do “not” try and share the common or cold side; you could end up with a circuit that doesn’t work or one that could possibly damage your lighting control device.
  • The best choice for permanent outside wiring is some type of exterior rigid conduit with watertight fittings. Cast aluminum boxes with proper covers and gaskets should also be used. These can all be painted to match the exterior of the house.
  • If you are going for special effects, consider planning your wiring so that everything is terminated in your garage or someplace indoors. Some users have reported problems with these inexpensive devices if the temperature gets too low. Also, since they come with stakes to hold them in place (one model does have keyhole slots for wall mounting), they could easily be covered with snow.