’Twas the week before Christmas and all through the nation, homes were being decorated to join the celebration.
The holidays are a time when many homeowners go all out with dressing their homes, inside and out, with festive trimmings: Christmas trees, candles, wreaths, lights and, in recent years, larger-than-life inflated Santas and snowmen adorn living rooms and front yards alike.
However, if the wires on those lights aren’t carefully examined before adorning the eaves of a home, they could easily start a fire, experts warn. It’s one of many tips homeowners should keep in mind during the holiday season, above and beyond everyday common sense.
Lt. Raul Castillo, public information and safety officer with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, said that seven fires were attributed to decorating, candles, fireplaces or alternative heating sources between November of 2003 and February of 2004 in Fairfax County.
“The threat posed by home decorations are minimum, but it’s important for people to take precautions,” he said. “Electrical systems can be a problem as well, but the main concern this time of year is wiring, making sure smoke detectors are in working order with good batteries and keeping an eye on candles.”
“The CDC estimates that 6,000 people per year end up in emergency rooms as a result of stringing lights,” said Andrew Porter, executive director of the Washington chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “When hanging lights, that’s tip number one: use sufficient ladders of the right height.”
Porter said when using a ladder outdoors to fix lights to the eaves or windows of a home, it’s crucial to use a wooden or fiberglass ladder, as metal ladders will conduct electricity if a string of lights shorts out. “It’s also important to be aware of any wires hanging overhead, which can electrocute a person just as easily.”
The most important thing to do when decorating a home, inside or out, with strings of lights is to check the lights before hanging them up, Porter said.
“Anything that compromises the integrity of the wire can be a hazard,” he said.
“There’s no firm rule on the lifespan of a string of lights,” said John Drengenber, consumer affairs manager with Underwriters Laboratories (UL). “If stored well, a string of lights could last a good number of years. Storing them in a cool, dry place is best, but most people store their lights in their attics, which get hot in the summer and cold in the winter, which can mess up the wire’s insulation.”
He also advised that stringing an infinite amount of lights together to place on a tree is not a good idea.
“Three lines of lights strung together, end to end, is the limit,” he said. “If you’re using any more than that, you have to start from the outlet again. If you’re using the kind of lights that screw onto a string, the most you can have safely on one line is 50 light bulbs, then you needs to start another line. Any more and the fuse will blow, shorting out the line and possibly catching the tree on fire.”
There are two types of lights, Drengenber said. “If a string of lights has a green UL mark in a circle, those lights have been tested an approved for indoor use only. If the lights have a red UL mark in a circle, it has been through a different series of tests and can be used outdoors.”
BOTH DRENGENBER and Porter stress testing light strings before putting them up around the house.
“Plug the lights in and lie them on a nonflammable surface and leave them on for a few minutes to check for frayed wire, burnt-out bulbs or any smoke,” Porter said. “The wires on a light string wear out over time, and using a frayed wire, you run the risk of shock or electrocution. Make absolutely sure, if you have to change a light on a string, that the bulb has the correct wattage for the wire.”
If, while a tree is illuminated or at any time during the year, the lights in a house start to flicker or if a certain circuit breaker keeps shutting off or sparks fly when plugging something into an outlet, it’s time to call an electrician. “People have various levels of expertise, but if you see those things happening or if your light bulbs in the house are burning out frequently, it’s time to call a professional,” Porter said.
Be sure to unplug a Christmas tree before going to sleep, Porter said, and before changing any light bulbs. Also, be sure to use hooks or fasteners to hang lights, never nails or staples that can puncture the wire.
“Natural trees need to be kept watered, or the heat from the bulbs could ignite a dry branch,” he said. “Artificial trees need to be labeled flame resistant. If you’re using a metal tree, or an artificial tree with a metal core, don’t put any lights on it at all. It’s better to illuminate those types of trees with a spotlight from the floor.”
“No matter how fresh a tree is when you bring it home, they cannot last longer than four weeks before the sap inside dries out and the rest of the tree with it,” Drengenber said.
“And don’t put the tree in front of a fireplace or other heat source, as that will speed up the drying time needed for a tree,” he said.
Both men stress being cautious when using extension cords.
“You should use them on a rare basis for temporary lighting,” Porter said. “Never run them under a rug or carpet, as that allows for heat to build up and smolder a rug.”
“If using an extension cord to plug in outdoor lights, be sure the cord isn’t pinched in a door or window, as that can allow heat to build up which could cause smoldering,” Drengenber said. “If there’s a short circuit in the wire, the build up of heat could cause a spark even when the lights are unplugged.”
CANDLES, a holiday favorite for their charm and warm lighting, can be an enormous safety hazard year ‘round.
“You have to keep an eye on lit candles. The flame’s already there, all it has to do is propagate and your house is on fire,” Drengenber said. “A lot of people like to put candles on evergreen branches on their mantle, it’s very pretty. But if the candles burn down close to the branches, it will burn intensely and a household extinguisher won’t be able to put the fire out.”
“With kids running around and pets running around and people running around, we’re all very busy and distracted. All someone would have to do is bump a table where a candle is and if the candle falls, that could start a fire,” he said.
Another fire hazard is the kitchen, where more baking and cooking is going on than usual in most homes.
“Over 96,000 home fires are associated with cooking every year, killing over 300 people,” he said. “You need to keep an eye on what you’re cooking. It’s so tempting to go do something else while cooking.”
He also stressed keeping children out of the kitchen while cooking as they could easily hurt themselves on hot pots, pans or dishes.
“Never use the oven as storage space,” he said. “We just had an incident where a woman turned on her oven to make cookies and started a fire because she forgot she left her cookbooks in the oven.”
If a fire starts in the oven, be sure to have a fire extinguisher in hand before opening the door, as the fresh air will cause the fire to spread quickly, he said. “Also, if a frying pan catches on fire, put a lid on it to smolder the fire out and take it off the stove. Don’t ever use water on a grease fire, as the water and oil will spread the fire around.”