Holiday Safety Tips: Seven Ways to Prevent Electrical Fires


I remember every year at Christmas dad went up into the attic and drug down a big, thick cardboard box of multi-colored lights. There was usually hot chocolate and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” involved – and the risk of dad tumbling off the ladder while being overcome by the size of the box.

The blue, green, red, and yellow lights bulbs were thick as glass and the cords were wide and strong enough to strangle reindeer. A broken bulb could cut little fingers, so I stood at a distance. The ever-present “UL Listing” logo and the fine print next to it reminded that this was serious business. So did the power tools needed to string the lights.

Decking the halls – and eves – with holiday lighting today doesn’t require as much muscle mass, thanks to lighter-weight and sleeker designs of long strands of twinkling lights. The evolution of lights to almost life-like realism invites even Scrooge to hang a few strands. And they make great, festive decorations for apartment leasing offices and clubhouses, which get residents and staff in the holiday spirit.

But that UL Mark, the most widely recognized seal of approval in product safety, is still serious business. Faulty electrical lighting contributes to holiday fires each year. Even though the wires and bulbs are much smaller, the lights are being powered by the same 110 volts of electricity that coursed through those mondo decorations 40 years ago. They may get hot and catch fire just the same.

While deaths by fire are on the decline, technology presents challenges. Homes and furnishings today are potentially more dangerous than those of yesteryear. An apartment fire started by a shorted out light, for example, can become uncontrollable in less than three minutes. Universal Laboratories, founded in 1894 and creators that UL safety listing, proved that point in 2009 during a side-by-side comparison of two simulated living room fires to study the difference between modern and older “legacy” furnishings. A room outfitted with similar modern-day furnishings reached flashover eight times faster than the furnishings that your parents and grandparents once owned.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a number of safety tips when stringing lights indoors or outdoors during the holiday season, or for that matter, any time of year. At the top of the list is using only lights that have been tested for safety by a recognized testing laboratory like UL.

Also, beware of lights that may claim to have the seal of approval from a laboratory but haven’t really been tested. The UL posts products that do not comply with UL’s safety requirements for the United States and is not eligible to bear the UL Mark.

Other suggestions offered by the USCPSC for use of lights indoors or outdoors include:

Test Lights Before Use

Use only lights that have fused plugs and check each set, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires or loose connections. Always replace burned-out bulbs promptly with the same wattage bulbs. If the set doesn’t work, even after replacing bulbs, pitch it. Light strands cost only a few bucks these days.

Go Easy on the Extension Cords

Use no more than three standard-size sets of lights per single extension cord. Make sure the extension cord is rated for the intended use. When using extension cords or outdoor outlets, check with an electrician on how to prevent the energy source from shorting out because of weather conditions.

Don’t Mix Electric Lights with Metallic Trees

Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.

Make Sure Lights are Securely Fastened

Fasten outdoor lights securely to trees, house walls, or other firm supports to protect the lights from wind damage. Use only insulated staples to hold strings in place, not nails or tacks. Or, run strings of lights through hooks (available at hardware stores).

Make Sure Lights are Grounded

Outdoor electric lights and decorations should be plugged into circuits protected by ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Portable outdoor GFCIs can be purchased where electrical supplies are sold. GFCIs can be installed permanently to household circuits by a qualified electrician.

Turn off the Lights When Not in Use

Turn off all holiday lights when the office, clubhouse or any other common areas is closed. The lights could short out and start a fire day or night or anytime when in use.

Take Care Removing Lights

When the holidays are over, the lights come down. But not so fast. Use caution when removing outdoor holiday lights. It’s not a good idea to pull or tug lights because they could tangle around power lines.

By taking a few simple precautions, those twinkling, bright holiday lights can be a pure joy for staff and residents and safely evoke that holiday spirit. And if you’d rather not hang the lights yourself, there are always a number of companies that will do it for you.



Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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