Oct 30

String Christmas Lights Safely

Christmas TreeThere are three main areas to watch for when putting up Christmas lights, indoor and outdoor: shocks, fires and falling.

Electrical products have become significantly safer over the past few decades. With GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interruption) outlets, non-reversible plugs and other innovations of the recent past, it’s rare to get shocked. But the possibility still exists.

It takes only about 100 volts to push less than 2/10ths of an amp through your body, which is enough to kill or cause serious harm. The 120V, 5-20amp systems common in households provide more than enough to do the job, especially if your hands are moist and/or salty. Salty water is highly conductive.

The most obvious thing to check is the insulation. Storing multiple strings of lights away for a year, jammed into a box with ornaments, can easily strip a small hole in the plastic around wires. Missing insulation is even more likely if the lights were hung last year by tacking them on with u-shaped nails. Those compress the insulation and sometimes even puncture it.

Being shocked isn’t the only possible outcome from electricity, though. A simple spark near a piece of exposed wood won’t usually start a fire. But wood shavings produced by insects or construction can provide a starter. A piece of dried paper from insulation is almost as good as the wick on an oil lamp. That’s just one reason it’s always recommended to keep oil, paint thinner and similar solvents away from the walls in the garage.

An artificial tree will be made from or coated with flame retardant material. They’re very hard to combust. But a natural tree, especially one that has dried out over a few weeks period, is a potential fire hazard. With care, the risk is very low. But it’s worthwhile making efforts to ensure that any tree strung with lights is not exposed to a source of electricity. Don’t leave any sockets open and ensure there are no breaks in the insulation. Don’t use spliced wire on a Christmas tree.

But falling is probably the most common hazard around Christmas time.

It’s common to use a tall ladder to string lights inside and out. But that activity should never be undertaken solo. Make sure someone is there to hold the ladder when you climb and when you descend. Friction is never assured. One slight body movement can produce a sideways force that pushes the ladder out from under you.

Always use a ladder with non-slip feet and set it one foot out for every four feet in height. As always, avoid using the top two steps. Indoors it’s helpful to have someone secure the ladder if it’s more than three feet tall. Even a fall from a step stool while stringing lights on a tree indoors can result in serious hip or arm injuries.

Hazards are more common during the holiday season because of the greater use of lights that have been stored, slippery floors from more frequent cleaning and other seasonal behaviors. Compensate by taking extra care.

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