- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

It can be hard to be jolly this time of year when thinking about families who lose their Christmas trees — if not their homes — because of an errant spark from the Christmas tree lights. Electrical mishaps remain a stain on the holiday season, but experts say that doesn’t have to be the case.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that emergency rooms nationwide treat, on average, about 12,500 people each year suffering from a combination of cuts, falls, shocks and burns stemming from faulty holiday lighting and other decoration disasters.

Christmas tree fires alone cause about $10 million in property damage and loss each year.

Fuad Reveiz, the host of DIY’s “Weekend Remodeling” show, says the biggest fire-related problem around the holidays is the combination of a harmless spark and a brittle pine.

“You’ve got to keep [the trees] alive as best as you can. They get really dry, especially in the winter. Any spark, and there’s a great opportunity for a fire,” Mr. Reveiz says. “That’s a fact to be conscious of when you plug lights in.”

The lights in question are often sold in supermarkets and discount shops for a nominal cost, sometimes less than $5.

“We buy the cheapest ones we can find,” Mr. Reveiz says about the average consumer, which means some models don’t offer the kind of insulation needed. “Those lights are made for seasonal use. They’re not made for rigorous environments.”

When buying lights, read the package thoroughly and make sure the system satisfies the UL, or Underwriters Laboratory, guidelines for safety. The letters “UL” should appear within a black circle logo.

It often takes more than one string of lights to make a Christmas tree twinkle. Combining several lighting sets into one long chain leaves homeowners with a potential fire hazard. A separation in the link or an exposed wire could let contact occur between the electric current streaming through the lights and the Christmas tree. It’s an area where moisture can accumulate, causing a spark that leads to an arc and a fire.

Michael Kiser, owner of Manassas-based E&W; Electrical Services, says holiday lights should be inspected carefully before being placed on the family tree or wreath.

“You want to make sure the wire isn’t stiff or the insulation’s not cracking off the wire, and look for broken or missing bulbs,” Mr. Kiser says. The latter can cause electricity to run out of the empty socket and reach the vulnerable pine needles.

Homeowners also should inspect the copper plugs for signs of discoloration, which could mean the connection won’t be as strong as needed.

Once the equipment appears safe, the homeowner should try to use as many outlets as possible to prevent a Christmas blackout.

A home’s circuit can be overloaded by misuse, so it’s better to “go to different outlets on different circuits in your house,” Mr. Kiser says, such as plugging in one set in the living room, another in the kitchen and a third in the nearby den, if space and wiring permit.

Mr. Kiser also says to heed the labeling on light sets earmarked for either indoor or outdoor use.

Outdoor sets offer, among other advantages, protection from ultraviolet rays, which he cautions could hurt less protected wiring over time.

D.C. Fire and EMS spokesman Alan Etter says his department sees at least one case each year in which someone’s tree has caught fire.

“It’s inevitable,” he says.

He recommends that holiday lovers buy flame-resistant artificial trees to stave off a calamity.

But because too many consumers want the lush look and fragrance of the real thing, he suggests picking the freshest tree possible.

Make sure it has been cut recently and hasn’t been lying around for a while, Mr. Etter says. The consumer can check by pulling on the needles. If they come away easily, it’s best to choose a different tree.

Eric Moore, a manager with the District’s Home Depot, says homeowners can pick up power strips or power blocks to help ward off electrical problems.

Mr. Moore, who reports brisk sales of icicle lights this season, says a typical home outlet can handle 15 amps of power usage. Some outlets may go as high as 20, he adds.

To play it safe, he suggests using just 80 percent of that total figure.

“Most lights will tell you the amperage,” he says.

When it comes to the home’s exterior, homeowners tend to get a bit excessive. Every neighborhood seems to have one home, or even an entire street, dedicated to draining every last amp out of the local power plant.

Those homes likely spread their electrical power usage to several breaker boxes in their building, Mr. Moore says.

The newer the home, the more likely it is to have more than a few breakers, he adds.

Other homes may turn to separate generators to provide ample juice.

Outdoor Christmas lights offer more insulation and sturdier wiring than interior sets, but that doesn’t guarantee a spark-free Noel.

Mr. Moore advises homeowners to wrap the connections between outdoor sets with aluminum foil or plastic to ensure no rain gets through.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also recommends not mixing electric lights with metallic trees because faulty lighting can conduct an electric charge through the tree and shock anyone who touches it.

The group suggests never pulling or tugging on the seasonal lights to prevent damage and to plug outdoor lights into circuits protected by ground-fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs, to protect against electric shocks. Portable GFCIs can be found where many electrical supplies are sold.

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