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Outdoor holiday lights...tricks of the trade for buying, displaying.

Stringing up outdoor lights to brighten the holidays is a once-a-year pleasure for many of us, even allowing for the frustration of untangling light strands or replacing bulbs that flicker out.

But there are also potential hazards to be aware of: overheated wires, short circuits and blown fuses, even electrocution. We asked specialists in the electrical, gardening, ornamental light, and fire prevention fields to help us compile this brief review of the kinds of lights to buy and the best ways to care for and display them.

Basic choices: miniatures and C-sets

Outdoor strands come as miniature lights or as standard lights called C-sets in the trade ("C" refers to the conical shape of the bulbs). The C-set strands almost always have a clip or bead attached to each bulb socket to secure it to a branch.

The large bulbs of C-9 strands draw 7 watts each; the medium-size bulbs of C-7 strands draw 5 watts each. (Over 20 years ago, C-9s drew 9 watts, C-7s drew 7.) All miniature light strands draw about 18 watts each, no matter how many bulbs are on a strand.

You can buy all three kinds with colored or clear bulbs. Some miniatures come with extra-wide (8- or 10-inch) spacing between bulbs for use on large trees.

You can also buy light strands that flash in unison or strands with some lights that twinkle individually at random while the rest dim and brighten.

On C-sets, you can replace one or more steady-burning bulbs with twinkle bulbs that will blink on and off individually at random. On miniature strands, which are wired in series, you can replace one steady-burning bulb with a flasher bulb to make the entire strand flash in unison--or buy twinkle bulbs that will blink individually (on a steady-burning strand, don't replace more than a few bulbs with twinkle bulbs).

One more option: buy a flasher plug at a hardware store; it will cause all strands attached to it to flash.

Before you start to string the lights

When taking lights out of storage, check them carefully for frayed wires or insulation, stiffness, chipped spots, cracked sockets, loose connections, or other damage. (This is especially important for light strands over five years old.) Discard bulbs that separate from their bases and discard strands with uninsulated wire protruding from bulb bases.

Then plug each light strand into a socket to check for other bulbs that need replacing. (It's best to unplug or switch off each strand before screwing in new bulbs.) When buying replacement C-set bulbs, find the correct size and confirm that it's rated for 115- to 125-volt current (look on the bulb bottom).

If a strand seems intact, let it warm up for 10 to 15 minutes to make sure all bulbs are sound; let them cool before hanging.

Safeguarding against short circuits

Anytime you run wires outdoors, you accept a certain chance of experiencing a short circuit due to rain, weather, and other potential hazards. Here are ways to minimize the risk:

Use GFCIs. If you can, plug your lights into an outlet with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). In the last decade, many counties in the West have required such outlets in new construction: near bathroom sinks, in rooms below grade, in garages, and outdoors. You can spot a GFCI outlet by the presence of two buttons: one to test the circuit and one to reset it. This device is sensitive to slight leakages in the electrical circuit that fuses or circuit breakers can't detect. You can buy a GFCI receptacle for $25 to $40 at an electrical supply store (installation instructions are included); you can also buy a GFCI circuit breaker for $45 to $70, but installing it takes some electrical savvy.

Check for an internal fuse. U.L.-listed tree lights sold today have an internal fuse that will turn off the lights before a short in the line can overload the house circuit. In some sets, the internal fuse can be replaced and the strand can continue to be used; look for a small case containing a visible fuse at the plug end. In other sets, a fuse damaged by a surge or overload will render the strand permanently useless.

If you're stringing together old light strands end-to-end and these strands were manufactured without built-in fuses, use a new fused strand at the outlet end. This ensures that all the lights--new and old--will turn off if the circuit is overloaded.

Strands with combined male and female plugs at the same end can't be joined end-to-end with other strands; thus their fuses cannot protect bulbs on connecting strands.

Avoid house circuit overload. Each circuit in your house can provide electricity for only a limited number of lights and appliances. If your television, stereo, several lamps, and a heater are already plugged into one circuit, plug the Christmas lights into another, lightly used circuit. (A heater alone can draw enough amperage to use up most of one circuit's capacity.)

To find out which fuses or breakers control which outlets, check the circuit pattern noted on your fuse or breaker box.

The back of the light package indicates how many strands you can plug together before wires will overheat: for example, only two 25-bulb strands of C-sets or six 35-bulb strands of miniature lights. If you want to hang more lights on a tree than a safe series of strands can provide, use a heavy-duty extension cord that can accept multiple plugs or use several different outlets to activate the lights. Or buy a multi-outlet box with its own circuit breaker that will plug into a wall outlet.

Ways to string lights

on evergreens and other trees

Among the patterns favored for evergreen trees are the conventional spiral and a pattern that divides the tree like the sections of an orange.

On small deciduous trees, like the cherry trees pictured on page 141, lights are often strung along every branch. On larger deciduous trees with boughs that droop gracefully from the trunk, an umbrella shape will result if you string lights along branches to their tips and leave the top part in darkness. Even if a tree's lower boughs grow mostly sideways or upwards, this stringing method looks attractive.

If children or pets play in your yard, avoid hanging lights on low branches.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1985
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