Tips for a safe decorating experience

Agnes Hapka

December 7, 2013

MASON COUNTY — It’s that time of year — time to brighten up these long, dark evenings with strings of colored lights. Trees, windows, and roofs are festooned with bulbs of white, yellow, blue.

Fun and exciting as decorating can be, however, certain safety measures should be taken to prevent unnecessary accidents and injuries. Travis Cullen of West Virginia University Extension Service has compiled some tips and guidelines for maintaining a safety-conscious approach to decorating this year.

According to Cullen each year thousands of Americans suffer electrical shock, fires and falls during the holidays, resulting in “over 90,000 emergency room visits and $16 million in property damage from fires annually.”

In some cases, these falls and fires have fatal consequences.

Cullen’s first guideline deals with the purchase of lights. Cullen said people should “make sure they are designed for the proper application.” Use indoor lights only indoors, Cullen said, looking for labels marked with the UL or ETL designation. These labels “indicate the light meets standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

The bigger and brighter bulbs, the hotter the burn and the more electricity they consume, Cullen noted. It’s best to purchase lights with bulbs under seven volts, or use LED light strings to reduce electricity consumption and limit the heat emitted. In previous years, Cullen said, some stores have offered discounts on each LED light string in exchange for recycling an incandescent string.

“The potential impact on the environment is big,” Cullen said, “considering the amount of energy holiday lights use is equal to powering approximately 500,000 additional homes in the United States for one year.”

When it comes to extension cord use, Cullen noted, use a weather-safe cord with three-prong plugs. Indoor cords or those with only two prongs should never be used outdoors. Also, Cullen said, “cords should be plugged into a ground fault interrupter (GFCI) outlet.” Portable units with GFCI outlets are available from most hardware stores, he said.

For outdoor lights, Cullen noted that screw-in hooks should be used, or fasteners that won’t damage the lights or wires. Nails, tacks and staples should never be used, he said.

“Be sure lights are strung tightly to avoid wind damage. When possible, point the light sockets down to avoid moisture buildup. Do not operate light strings with missing bulbs. When connecting light strings together refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines to determine how many strings can be safely connected.”

According to Cullen, unsafe use of ladders presents one of the most serious dangers when installing outdoor lighting.

“Use a sturdy ladder,” he noted, “Securely position it and make sure it is properly anchored by another person. Use a bucket and rope to haul tools from the ground instead of carrying them while climbing to reduce the risk of injury. Place the ladder directly in front of the work surface. This eliminates the need for you to lean left or right, which makes the ladder unstable.”

Finally, remove outdoor lighting at the end of the season.

“Lights are not designed to withstand prolonged exposure to sun and weather conditions. Never remove strings of lights by pulling on the wires; this can cause the wires to break free from the sockets and the bulbs to break. Should this happen, discard the damaged light string. Do not reuse it.

To learn more about safely installing holiday decorations, contact your local office of the WVU Extension Service.