The holidays should be a fun time to enjoy family and decorate your home to reflect the spirit of the season. However, it can be a time of tragedy if care isn't taken to minimize the risk of injury or fire when hanging holiday lights.
According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), more than 150 home fires begin with holiday light decorations each year, causing nearly $9 million in damages.
"We see a lot of claims over the holiday season," says Keith Verisario, a principal with All-Security Insurance Agency in Des Plaines, Ill.
In addition to the fire danger, many people are also injured by falling while hanging lights and even tripping over electrical cords, he says.
Take steps now to protect your home from holiday-related injuries. Here are five tips for hanging lights safely.
1. Make sure light strands are rated for safety
Before using any electrical lights, read the package to see if the strands are rated by a major testing center, such as Underwriters Laboratory, Intertek, or CSA Standards, says Brett Brenner, president of Arlington, Va.-based ESFI.
"Only use lights that are approved by a national testing lab," he says. "Check for (the lab's) hologram or marking on the package."
In addition, make sure you purchase lights from a reputable retailer so that you know the rating information hasn't been doctored, Brenner says. Some buyers unwittingly buy lights that have counterfeit laboratory information, especially if they're purchased from unfamiliar online stores, he says.
"I've seen a lot of fires that come from fake wires," Brenner says.
Once the package of lights is in your home, carefully inspect each light strand. Whether the lights are new or being re-used from previous years, inspect everything for cracked bulbs and frayed wiring. "If you find any defects, throw out the set," he says.
2. Don't link too many light strands together
If you're using incandescent bulbs, you usually shouldn't put more than three strands together, says Brenner. If you're using LED lights, however, you may be able to string a few more strands together, because they use less energy and run cooler than traditional incandescent lights, he says.
Always follow the manufacturer recommendations for adding additional strands, no matter which type of light you use. And in either case, if a cord feels hot to the touch, don't use it, Brenner says.
3. Use nonslip shoes when hanging lights high
Make sure you have a sturdy ladder for hanging decorations, and use rubber-soled shoes to help reduce the risk of slipping and falling, says Brandon Stephens, vice president of marketing for Christmas Decor, a holiday decoration installation company headquartered in Lubbock, Texas.
"Most of the ladders have warning labels that tell you not to go up a certain step," he says. It may be tempting to stand on the top rung to hand that last light, but if your ladder isn't large enough, don't use it, he says.
4. Don't leave lights on constantly
"We recommend you turn off holiday lights any time you go to bed or leave the house," says Brenner. If you don't, and a fire emergency occurs, you wouldn't be there to react to it, he says.
Another alternative is to buy a timer that automatically turns off lights at predetermined times, he says.
5. Hire professionals
Experienced workers can handle tips one through four, and can also help with design, says Stephens. Full service decorators tend to be expensive. The average cost is about $1,300, he says. If you can afford the cost without taking out personal loans, however, it may be worth it to have someone hang commercial-grade holiday lights in a safe manner, Stephens says.
Before hiring any workers, be sure to check the company's references, and make sure they have the proper licenses, says Stephens. "If they're not bonded and they don't have insurance, you certainly don't want them," he says.
Hanging decorative lights can significantly improve a home's curb appeal over the holidays. However, make sure that safety rules are followed at all stages of the process so you can help ensure that you and your family enjoy a bright, colorful and safe season.
Margarette Burnette is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and real estate topics. In her twelve years of corporate and journalistic experience, she's written for dozens of publications, including Good Housekeeping, American Express, Essence, Black Enterprise and many others.