Getting Extra Festive with Holiday Lights

By Erik J. Martin

Is that a merry twinkle in your eye we see, or a shining reflection, bouncing radiantly off your cornea, of the ornate outdoor holiday lights display you just put up with pride? Chances are it’s both—especially if you’ve taken the time, like so many homeowners will this Christmas season, to adorn your property’s exterior with elaborate electric luminance.

Indeed, a turkey and some mistletoe may help to make the season bright, but they’re not going to outshine a carefully planned holiday light display designed to wow guests, neighbors and passersby alike.

“Holiday lighting has become an increasingly popular trend to help homeowners turn their yards into a true winter wonderland,” says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. “The rising investment in outdoor lighting mirrors the public’s commitment to investing in their yards as an extension of their home. No longer does décor start after the threshold of the welcome mat. Today, a homeowner’s sense of style is exhibited long before a guest steps foot on the property.”

That doesn’t mean you need a Clark Griswold “Christmas Vacation”-style strategy that blinds everyone on the block or saps the power grid. But especially if you want to keep up with the Joneses and make a lasting impression on visitors, you’ll need to up your game beyond a few icicle lights and a plastic illuminated Santa on the front porch.

Fortunately, technological improvements have made it safer and less expensive to achieve a showier lights display — primarily thanks to the increasing affordability of LED lights.

“LED technology is the biggest influence on homeowners choosing to put up larger quantities of lights today,” notes Jennifer Petersen, spokesperson for Balsam Hill, the Redwood City, Calif.-based makers of artificial Christmas trees. “LED colors can be as soft and natural as traditional incandescent lights, but they use significantly less energy — one kilowatt each hour per LED bulb versus 12 kilowatts for each incandescent bulb. And they can burn up to 50,000 hours compared to 3,000 hours for an incandescent. They are less likely to break and pose less of a threat of fire because they don’t heat up.”

LED innovations have made it possible, too, to incorporate different types of holiday lights with versatile functions in your display, including twinkly, fiber optic, and ultrabright LED lights as well as programmable units that change color — all designed for outdoor use, Peterson adds.

“There are a variety of lighting elements available nowadays for creating a magical look — including playful and whimsical lights, simple spotlights that focus on a favorite outside decoration, tree lighting that intricately wraps around interior branches, and creative elements like mason jar lanterns and light-lined porches,” says Henriksen.

Holiday light projectors are growing in popularity, too.

These provide a safe alternative that allow you to project decorations rather than installing them around your home manually.

The most important step in creating a crowd-pleasing holiday light display is ensuring safety. Consider the following tips:

Inspect the lights. Evaluate light strings for any frayed or exposed cords. Check for empty slots or burned-out bulbs.

Check the rating. Be sure the lights and any extension cords you use are rated for weather-resistant outdoor use.

Know your power needs. Most outdoor displays that use blow-up decorations exceed 100 watts. Before you start plugging lights and decorations into a single socket outlet, be sure you’re not exceeding that outlet’s safety threshold.

Stay away from staples or nails. These could damage your light strings and cut through the wire insulation, creating a fire hazard. Instead, use UL-approved light clips or hangers.

Use ladders safely. Make sure your ladder is stable. Get someone to assist you while climbing the ladder. And avoid climbing on a wet roof.

Choose a good day. It should be sunny, dry and not windy when you install your holiday lights.

Remove the lights within 90 days. The longer they stay up, the more likely it is that wires will fray and critters can chew on the cords. Coil each string loosely around stiff cardboard and store the lights in a sturdy container.


When in doubt, hire a pro

While most handy homeowners should be able to install their own outdoor holiday lights and weather-resistant decorations and fixtures, fact is this task can be tricky. That’s especially true if you have electrical challenges, a high roof from which you intend to add lights, a physical impediment, or little time due to a busy schedule.

When these conditions apply, swallow your pride and opt for safety by hiring an expert — an electrician, Christmas lights installer, landscaping service, or neighborhood handyman.

The holiday rush can be stressful, so leave your outdoor lighting needs to the pros. Work with a professional to design and install your outdoor lighting,” recommends Missy Henriksen with the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

If you’re worried about your safety or are unfamiliar with your home’s electrical capabilities, reach out to an experienced electrician who can install and repair light fixtures as well as upgrade your electrical panel and subpanels.