Guide to Safe and Energy-Efficient Holiday Decorating

When you want to make your home merry and bright – literally – there's no better way than stringing up the holiday lights. But if your strings of lights are time-treasured heirlooms handed down through the generations, it may be time for an upgrade. Newer decorations are not only more energy efficient, they're safer, too.

Even with state-of-the-art lighting and decor, there are several safety precautions you should take to minimize the risk of fire, electric shock, tripping and other hazards. Here are our best tips for lighting up your home safely while keeping your energy bills in check!

Break Out Your Fine-Toothed Comb

Before plugging anything in, unpack all of your holiday lights and electric decorations and carefully inspect every piece. You're looking for frayed wires, melted plastic, scorch marks and any other signs of damage. If you find this type of damage, it's almost always best to discard the entire string or piece. Professional repairs are usually impractical, and it's never worth the risk to try to patch damage with electrical tape or other modifications.

Give It a Test Run

Once you've deemed a piece to be damage-free, plug it in to make sure it's working properly. Check every light, tightening or replacing loose or burned out lights as you go. If your string of lights is a dud, you'll want to figure it out before you spend time putting it up!

Retire the Antiques

Vintage holiday decorations have a certain charm, and perhaps you're still hanging on to a few pieces that you've enjoyed since childhood. But nothing lasts forever, and when it comes to plugs and wires, age increases the chances of a dangerous malfunction. If you continue to use older lights and decorations, it's especially important that you inspect them closely and operate them in safe areas, well away from flammable materials.

Newer holiday lights are safer in more than one way. With fewer holidays under their belt, they're less likely to have damage from age and wear. Most new lights are LEDs, which remain cool to the touch, unlike incandescent bulbs. And LED lights are also far more energy efficient than incandescents, helping to keep your wintertime energy bills under control.

Check Your Rating

Holiday lights and plug-in decorations are rated for indoor use, outdoor use or dual use. Lights rated for outdoor use are tested to ensure they can withstand wet, cold conditions, while those rated for indoor use are not, but are safe to use on natural or artificial trees.

If you're not sure about the rating on a string of lights, look for a stamp or tag with a "UL" logo. This stands for Underwriters Laboratories, and a UL tag denotes a product as tested and safe. The UL tag will also indicate the lights' indoor/outdoor rating and is sometimes color coded, with silver and green tags on indoor lights and silver and red tags on outdoor lights.

The same goes for extension cords: if you need to use them outdoors, make sure you're using thick, heavy cords that are rated for outdoor use.

Safety First When Decorating

Depending on your lighting design, you may need to climb a ladder or even get on your roof. You should only attempt this if you're confident in your ability to do so safely while taking proper safety precautions, including using a spotter and wearing appropriate footwear. Because you'll be working with electricity and possibly near power lines, you should use a wooden or fiberglass ladder. And you should always do this type of work on a clear, dry day.

If you're not certain that you can safely work on a ladder or rooftop, you may be able to hire professionals to put your lights up for you. Holiday light installation is a big business, and can spare you the most difficult and hazardous steps in the decorating process.

Prevent Electric Shock

Not only should your outdoor decorations be rated for outdoor use, they should always be plugged into ground fault circuit interrupter outlets, or GFCIs. These outlets are easy to recognize by the reset buttons you'll see in the middle. GFCIs reduce the risk of electric shock by automatically interrupting the circuit as soon as a fault is detected, and they're especially important in areas where water is present, like kitchens, bathrooms and the outdoors.

If You Connect It, Protect It

Your lighting design may require you to connect strings of lights or extension cords in areas where they could get wet from rain or snow. It's important to keep these connections dry, but there are several simple ways to do this. You can buy plastic connection covers that are designed for this exact purpose, or you can do it the DIY way by poking two holes in a large zip-top bag. Connect the cords inside the closed bag, then bundle the bag and secure it in place with vinyl tape.

Watch Those Wires

You can't string up lights just anywhere. To avoid tripping hazards, make sure there are no lights or extension cords crossing walking paths. If you absolutely must run an extension cord across a walking surface, make sure it's a heavy duty outdoor-rated cord and that you cover it with a durable floor cord protector, which forms a ramp over the cord.

You should also avoid running cords or wires through doorways where they could be pinched or damaged by a closing door or hinge. And when running lights around corners, make sure they're attached loosely enough that they don't rub against any sharp edges.

Pour the Tree a Drink

If you're displaying a natural tree, either indoors and outdoors, check and top off its water dish twice each day. A thirsty tree can quickly become dry, presenting a fire hazard.

Stringing up the lights is a great way to build anticipation for the holidays and make your home feel especially cheerful and whimsical – but anytime you're working with electricity, it's important to put safety first. Stay safe, and happy decorating!

Visit our Learning Center for more tips and resources to make caring for your home easier.

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