Yes, they have a reputation for being a hassle. But holiday lights have changed. Thanks to LED technology, the nightmares of Christmases past have largely been resolved. Even Clark Griswold would approve of the more reliable, energy-efficient options available these days.
As a consumer expert, I know how to find a great deal, but I haven’t untangled a string of lights in years — since I moved to the city from a larger home in the mountains. So I asked several experts for their advice on light features, safety, storage and more. Here are our illuminating tips.
Make a plan. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Mike and Jenn Onstott, whose spectacularly lit Commerce City, Colo., home attracts thousands of spectators annually, suggest asking yourself: Do I want lights everywhere or in a few select spots? A classic look or more modern? Showy or subdued? Take some measurements. Remember: A 10-foot rail may need 16 feet of lights if you plan to wrap it tightly so the lights are close together. Choose a theme or color scheme.
Frank Skinner, director of marketing for online retailer Christmas Lights, Etc, says: “If you know you like Christmas and will be decorating for years to come, build up a collection. Initially, you might buy clear lights and then add colors in subsequent years. You aren’t locked in, because you can mix and match and rearrange strings.”
Choose your bulb. With their soft, warm glow, traditional incandescent lights evoke cozy memories for many. But the more vibrant LEDs have come a long way. LEDs use far less electricity, stay cool to the touch, last longer and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, lens styles, colors and finishes.
Over the past six years, the Onstotts have converted 90 percent of their 27,000 lights to LED, mostly to save on electricity, reserving the remaining incandescent lights for special displays.
Whether you opt for incandescent or LED, experts agree it’s best not to mix the two in one display. Not only will the lights visually clash, but you may also experience power issues.
Decide how much you want to spend. Would you rather save money now or over time? A box of 50 mini-incandescent lights can cost as little as $3 in a big-box store, whereas a 50-count string of LED lights may start at $10. Outdoor-specific or commercial-grade lights will cost more. Although incandescent lights are less expensive, they use significantly more electricity and typically last one to three seasons. Though pricier, LED lights are energy-efficient, allowing you to plug more lights in to one outlet. And although most LED light manufacturers say they will last up to five seasons, Skinner says test sets lit 24/7 at his company offices are still burning bright after seven years.
Buy with confidence. Take note if lights are rated “indoor” or “indoor/outdoor.” The latter are usually more durable. Depending on your local climate, you may want to buy commercial-grade lights that hold up to extreme heat or cold. If you are especially picky, check a sample light string if the lights are on display in the store. Major brands, such as Wintergreen or Kringle Traditions, that supply detailed specifications (such as wire style, color or plug) to manufacturers will stamp their name on the tube near the plug. That’s a clue that the product is of a higher quality.
Try outside-the-box tricks. Substitute icicle lights (normally used outside) for traditional strings if you want a well-lit indoor tree, suggests Albie Mushaney, host of the HGTV holiday special “You’ll be Home for Christmas.” Instead of wrapping your tree 20 times, you may only need two strands and three to four wraps to achieve the same amount of coverage and light.
Jenn Onstott says to look for lights with faceted bulbs and add reflective ornaments to your tree, so you don’t need as many lights. If you have children or pets, consider erecting and decorating some sort of barricade around your lit tree. Incandescent lights do get hot to the touch, and pets that chew may find light strings tempting. The Onstotts use a baby gate. Mushaney, who has two Great Danes, built a small picket fence.
Know your power. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The biggest difference between LED and incandescent lights is the amount of electricity used. For example, Mike Onstott redid a reindeer display at his home. The original, with 300 incandescent lights, used 122 watts; the new version, with 360 LED lights, uses three watts. “When you’re not pulling as much power, you can put up more lights without short-circuiting your home,” Jenn Onstott says. You need to determine not only what outlets are available, but also what else in your home — lamps, electronics, appliances — is being powered by that circuit. A kilowatt meter ($20 to $30) easily monitors an outlet’s power usage, so you don’t overload it and trip the breaker.
Minimize hazards. Remember: Water and electricity do not mix. For outdoor displays, buy lights with a “sealed connection.” That means the base of each bulb has an acrylic seal to permanently affix it to the wire, keeping moisture out. To avoid standing water (or snow), Mike Onstott recommends using stakes to keep plugs above the ground. He also wraps any electrical connections in plastic bags secured by a rubber band.
And Skinner says you shouldn’t use a staple gun to hang lights. “You risk nicking or ripping off the wire coating, causing a potential electrical short.” Instead, use inexpensive clips to attach lights to your roof or gutters. As a timesaver, in lieu of clips, Mushaney rims his house and windows with small screw-in hooks and leaves them up year-round.
Take the easy route. Sure, you could invest the time, money and effort in hand-wrapping lights around the trunks of outdoor trees or artfully decorating bushes, but you don’t have to. Manufacturers have developed reasonably priced trunk-wrap lights (essentially lights woven into netting with loop clasps) that expand and stretch around a tree trunk. Net lights can be easily draped over bushes and hedges. So he doesn’t have to run out nightly, Mushaney uses a solar switch on a timer. At sunset, his outdoor lights automatically turn on, then turn off a few hours later.
Store lights properly. Everyone has their own preferred method for keeping their lights organized when they aren’t in use. Skinner says to simply wrap lights in a circular pattern or roll them into a ball. Then store them in a box. The Onstotts suggest looping them, but instead of using the “palm and elbow” technique commonly used to store extension cords, start by dangling the strand and make decent-size loops, as if you were spooling a cord onto a vacuum cleaner without a hook at the bottom. Use Velcro or zip ties to keep cords together. Sort lights into plastic bins, and label either by location or specific tree. Mushaney hangs outdoor lights over chairs to dry, then puts lights in plastic grocery bags — one strand per bag — with the plug hanging out. Bags go into storage tubs labeled “inside” or “outside.”
Take advantage of post-Christmas sales. Although retailers run sales in November and December, to get the best deals, shop right after Christmas. You can often find lights and other decorations discounted by as much as 75 percent to 90 percent. Mushaney says he sets the following year’s theme based on what he scores at a discount.
Look into recycling options. Christmas lights are made from copper, glass and plastic — valuable materials that can actually be recycled and reclaimed. Contact your city’s municipal solid waste office. Many will recycle the lights if you bring them in. They may even run collection days for old lights or point you to a drop-off spot. If you live in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia or the District, you can drop off your lights at any Mom’s Organic Market.
Get online help. You’ll find all sorts of guides for holiday lighting on topics including artfully wrapping tree trunks, safely hanging lights on gutters or calculating wattage. Christmas Lights, Etc has a collection of lighting and decorating resources on its website, christmaslightsetc.com. Serious decorators should check out the Planet Christmas Forum or search for fellow holiday light enthusiasts in Facebook groups.
Make memories. No matter the design, Christmas lights brighten the holidays, and they may spread joy far beyond your front yard. “I grew up poor, and my family had to find ways to entertain us kids, so we drove around looking at holiday lights on houses,” Mushaney says. “That created wonderful memories I’ll always remember. Now, maybe my house will be one that families drive by and build memories, too.”