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Light your house safely this holiday season

Dale Roe, Go-To Guy

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Each year, 420 home fires involving Christmas trees, holiday lights and other decorative lighting occur in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration.

That doesn't sound like a lot. Little comfort, though, if the blinking lights you see this holiday season sit atop fire and rescue vehicles.

In case you've forgotten, it's been awfully dry out there. The good news is that the drought conditions don't really call for any extra measures as we start hanging up our holiday lights, only heightened attention to what we ought to be doing every year, according to Battalion Chief David Girouard of the Austin Fire Department.

It's always important to check the condition of your outdoor lighting, Girouard says, but it's essential now because of the drought. Inspect exterior light strings, which can become weathered and worn, for fraying, bare spots, damaged sockets and excessive kinking.

"Use common sense," he continues. "If you have shrubbery or trees that did not survive the summer — if they have died and are brittle with dried-out leaves — you might not want to string lights on them this year."

Check your gutters, too, Girouard suggests. If they're full of leaves and debris, it's a good time to clean them out. Clogged gutters can become flash points in the spread of wildfires and, with holiday lights hung just inches away, could even cause them.

Good, old-fashioned manual labor such as gutter cleaning isn't the only way to keep your decorated home safe from fire during the holidays. Technology, in the form of LED lighting, also can help. The lights can use up to 90 percent less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs, and they generate considerably less heat.

"This would be a good time to upgrade lighting," Girouard said. The newer technology definitely has its advantages, but purchase price is not among them. LED lights can cost up to three times as much as traditional lighting, says Les Stobart of ABC Home and Commercial Services (one of the company's services is designing and installing custom holiday lighting).

Stobart says all of the company's installers have received extra training this year from a master electrician on topics like fire safety issues and proper wattages for various string lengths. Other safety measures ABC installers take include installing lights near the ground so that they don't touch the grass.

"If you have managed to keep a decently watered lawn, then it should be safe to use lighting that's in good condition near the ground," Girouard says, but he does recommend the use of LED lighting and the industrial-grade stands that ABC uses.

More tips

The USFA recommends that consumers use only lighting listed by an approved testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories and that electrical outlets are not overloaded. Only lighting rated for outdoor use should be used outdoors, and no more than three light strands should be linked, unless the directions indicate otherwise.

Lighting strings should have fused plugs. Fasten strands securely with insulated staples or hooks, not nails or tacks. Plug outdoor lights and decorations into circuits protected by ground fault circuit interrupters, which can prevent electrocution by disabling current. You can find portable GFCIs for outdoor use at home improvement stores. Promptly replace burned-out bulbs.

Finally, Girouard reminds us that fire is not the only danger from holiday lighting — wires can be tripping hazards.

And Grandma's in enough danger from the reindeer.

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923