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What's new with holiday lights?

A thousand points of light punctuate many an outdoor holiday display, but getting those lights up easily and without defacing your house with staples or nails can be tricky.

Our pictures show you some temporary, reusable, and permanent hardware you'll find where you buy light strings. Most of these helpers cost between $2 and $5 a dozen. We also give you the latest word on lights and how to use them safely.

Lights fall into two groups: standard sets (with screw-in bulbs) and miniature sets (with small push-in bulbs).

The old standards: screw-in bulbs

These sets are made like regular lamp cords, with two parallel wires. Each string has a regular two-prong polarized plug at one end, 15 or 25 C-7 or C-9 lights, and a receptacle plug at the other end so another set can be added in line. Lamps on standard sets operate independently; if one is removed, all the others will continue to burn.

If a set is labeled indoor-outdoor, it likely uses C-7 bulbs. It's called indoor-outdoor because the bulbs generally burn cool enough for indoor use, though not necessarily to touch.

C-7 bulbs each use 5 to 10 watts, depending on the manufacturer. The larger, brighter C-9 bulbs use 7 to 10 watts each and are recommended just for outdoors, though they also meet UL's indoor-outdoor rating.

If you buy lights new, follow manufacturer's recommendations for number of strings that can be connected. For older sets, use a maximum of 75 C-7 bulbs if you know that all the bulbs are 5 watts. But wattage can vary greatly; if you don't know your bulbs' wattage, figure 50 bulbs maximum on any one line. Always figure 50 bulbs maximum for a line of C-9s.

Overloading the wires will at the least blow the string's fuse. If old sets (pre-1982) have no fuses, overloading could cause a fire. Check to see whether your strings have replaceable fuses; they're either built into the plug or into an in-line holder.

Standard strings usually are lit continuously, but you can use random-twinkling replacement bulbs with both C-7s and C-9s (you can also buy new sets with all twinkling bulbs). You need only replace a third to half of the bulbs on a string to get the twinkling effect.

Miniature lights: lots of options

The small-bulb midget sets have 10 to 160 bulbs. They're made with two to five wires, depending on what the lights can do.

Strings with few lamps use 6- or 12-volt bulbs, slightly larger than the 2.5- to 3.5-volt bulbs used in longer strings.

Some or all of the bulbs in midget sets are connected. This means that if one lamp is removed, some or all of the lamps will go out. If any bulbs are loose or missing, the midget set won't light.

Each bulb has a shunt, so that if the bulb burns out the set keeps working, but only if all the bulbs are tight in their sockets. Replace burned-out bulbs as soon as you can, because remaining bulbs absorb the voltage previously consumed by a burned-out midget bulb, shortening bulb life.

Midget sets have an add-on plug so another set can be connected at the front of the string; some have a receptacle plug at the other end for stringing in line. Some sets are circular, which can make stringing nearly impossible; check before you buy.

Battery-operated sets let you decorate without worrying about running an extension cord; these are generally for indoor use only.

All midget sets are cool enough for indoor use. Unless they have some decorative feature (such as paint or glitter) that isn't weatherproof, they can be used outdoors as well.

Compared with standards, midgets generally have more lights per string. Because more than 200 bulbs can be on one circuit, you can also string more sets together.

Nearly all midget sets come with one or more red-tipped flasher bulbs as spare bulbs. If you place a flasher bulb into the first socket in the midget string, all the other bulbs in that part of the string will flash together. The instructions on the package will tell you whether more than one flasher bulb is needed for that particular set.

Another type of midget set is random twinkle. Half the bulbs are special lamps that twinkle independently; the other half are ballast lamps that protect the string and burn continuously.

Electronic sets have several circuits and a control that can cause the lamps in each circuit to flash or change brightness (fade in and out). Some flashing sets are called chasers because the lamps are arranged in line and appear to move, or chase each other. The control lets the user adjust the flashing speed. Other sets have a control that lets the user select not only the speed but also whether the lights flash, fade, or burn continuously.

Most midget sets have nonreplaceable fuses built into the plugs.

New configurations and bulb covers

Midget lights usually are arranged in a straight line on a string. A new electronically controlled set runs 16 branches of 10 lights, each evenly spaced off a 7-foot main line. It's useful for rectangular areas like windows and railings, as well as trees and bushes.

Another new shape encloses a midget set in clear or colored tubing. The tubing lends the midget lights a greater degree of durability.

A whole range of slide-on embellishments is available for midget strings. Most of them are sold with a light string, but a growing number of manufacturers are selling them separately-like little lit ornaments. You can find everything from Santas and candy canes to chilies and bacon and eggs.

One of the cleverest sets uses midget lights with colored translucent plastic covers that look like standard bulbs, giving the look of a standard set with many more bulbs possible per string.

The nitty-gritty on safety

Always use UL-listed lights (sets with green labels are for indoor-use only; sets with red labels may also be used outdoors).

Check sets before using them to be sure they weren't damaged in shipping or handling (or in handling since last season). Be sure the wire insulation hasn't been cut or scraped and that plugs and sockets aren't broken or cracked. Make sure that no bulbs are loose, broken, or missing, especially on standard sets, since a set will still work with an open socket.

Never connect standard sets to a midget set: you'll overload the fuse. Never try to shorten, lengthen, or splice strings.

Don't test standard strings on carpeting or furniture; standard bulbs get hot enough to damage synthetic fibers and wood finishes.

Unplug strings before you replace any lights or fuses. Always use the specified fuse.

Because electricity and water are a potentially lethal combination, take extra care in how and where you plug in strings of outdoor lights. Exterior receptacles should be connected to a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) located at the receptacle or in the circuit breaker.

You can also use GFCI extension cords, sold at electrical supply and home improvement centers. However, don't be tempted to use the test-reset buttons as on-off switches; constant use of them makes units slower to respond and less safe.

Electrical code requires that any outdoor receptacle be housed in a weatherproof enclosure. Most are metal flip-top covers. These are fine for briefly used, fair-weather appliances such as leaf blowers. But for Christmas lights or timers that will be plugged in for longer periods, you might want to change the covers to the style shown at the top of page 62.

Two manufacturers have lines of safety enclosures with deep lids and openings in the bottom for the cord. Look for them at electrical supply stores. For more information, call Tay-Mac Corporation at (800) 526-5416, or Intermatic/Malibu at (815) 675-2321.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Best of the Holidays
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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