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Safety tips for outdoor lighting during the holidays

By Rick Thomason

UT-Johnson County Extension Director

For many people, decorating the outside of their home with brightly colored lights and decorations is a favorite part of the holiday season.  Although these outdoor decorations are enjoyable to look at, they can be a safety hazard and can potentially cause a fire if not installed properly.  Michael Buschermohle, an engineer and University of Tennessee Extension specialist offers these guidelines for those planning on lighting up the outside of their homes this year:
1.   When selecting lights, extension cords or outside decorations, be sure the packaging states that it is designated for outdoor use.  Outdoor lighting is weatherproof and designed for temporary operation in harsh winter weather.  Look for the UL label.  This label indicates the product has been tested by an independent laboratory recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Outdoor lights with these labels satisfy the minimum standards for product safety.
2. Before you hang your outdoor decorations, take a minute to check the bulbs, sockets, light cords and extension cords for nicks, cuts, broken insulation or exposed wires.  Throw away any damaged lights and cords.
3. Since you will need to use extension cords, make sure the wires in the cord are large enough to carry the intended load.  The thicker the wire, the more it can handle and it should be able to carry the load without overheating.  If the cord gets hot while the lights are on, it is carrying too much load.  Always fully unwind extension cords to avoid overheating.
4.  When connecting outdoor lighting, be careful not to create a maze of extension cords, plugs and wires that all come from the same electrical outlet.  Electrical outlets and timers used for Christmas lights should be readily accessible for quick disconnection or adjustment as necessary.
5.   Purchase appropriately sized timers to automatically turn lights on and off.  Lights should be turned off when people are not present and they should not be left on overnight.
6.  When connecting two or more strings of lights together, wrap the plug connections with electrical tape.  This prevents the strings from being disconnected, and also protects the connection from the elements.  You should also tape the unused female plug at the end of the light run.
7.  Many stores have a variety of hangers that greatly simplify installation of outdoor lights.  Avoid nailing or stapling the wires in place, since this can easily damage the insulation on the outside of the wire and create corrosion in the wire or a short circuit against the staple.
8. Electrical outlets for exterior lighting should accommodate three-prong grounded plugs and should be on an electrical circuit protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).  Portable outdoor GFCIs can be purchased at hardware stores if this circuit protection is not available.  Be sure to pull the plug rather than the cord itself when disconnecting cords.
9.  Remove outdoor lighting at the end of the Christmas season.  Christmas lights are not designed to withstand long-term exposure to the sun and weather.
“Don’t spoil your holiday season by risking a fire,” said Buschermohle.  “By following these simple steps, we can all enjoy the pleasure of seeing homes transformed for the holiday season.”