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How to Safely Power Your Outdoor Holiday Lights

Candace Nelson
Written by Candace Nelson
Updated September 29, 2021
Lights hanging from house gutter
ArtBoyMB/E+ via Getty Images

When hanging holiday lights, the safest power source is the closest power source

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When it gets dark at 5 p.m. and it’s unbearably cold outside, a cheery light display makes spirits bright. If you want to add twinkle lights, an inflatable snowman, or your preferred outdoor holiday decorations to the neighborhood display, think safety first.

There are two major factors in play when it comes to putting up holiday decorations: Ladder safety and electrical safety. Make sure you plan for hanging holiday lights safely and don’t take unnecessary risks in the name of you outdoing the neighbors.

1. Don’t Mess With Mother Nature

Ladders, electricity, and wet winter weather aren’t a safe combination. Please wait for a decent weather day to hang your lights.

If it’s rainy, snowy, icy, or windy, stay off the ladder and on the ground. You don’t need to set up a ladder in a snowbank or drag an extension cord around a steep, ice-covered roof. That’s how accidents happen.

Practice Ladder Safety

Ladder safety is no laughing matter. More than half a million people are treated for ladder-related falls each year.

Before climbing up with a string of lights looped around your arm, look over the ladder for any problems. Then use it properly:

  • Make sure the ladder is securely in place and have someone hold it for you.

  • Confirm that the ladder is the right height, so you aren’t tempted to step on the top rungs.

  • Climb down and move the ladder as needed–don’t lean off the side to place the next section of lights.

To avoid dangerous holiday movie-style lighting mishaps, don’t try to make do with a ladder that is too short. And remember: there’s no shame in hiring a local holiday decorating pro, waiting to borrow a ladder from a neighbor, or putting the mechanical reindeer in the front yard instead of on the roof.

2. Check Your Lights

Before setting up the ladder (on a fair-weather day), check your light supply. Any strings with frayed wires should be tossed. Make sure all lights and extension cords are rated for outdoor use.

Then plug them in and make sure they work. Better to replace the bulbs in the warm-ish garage than to try to change bulbs with gloved hands while up on the ladder.

Plan how you will hang your lights, too. Avoid using metal staples, tacks, screws, or nails to secure the lights as they can damage the wires. Light clips are available at hardware and discount stores.

3. Plan Your Power

Holiday lights sitting on ladder about to be hung
Lost_in_the_Midwest - stock.adobe.com

You no doubt have a vision for how your lights will look, but don’t forget to factor in the logistics. Locate your outdoor outlets. Hopefully your string of lights reaches the outlet. If not, bring the power closer to the lights with a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cord or a power stake. If you have enough time, you can add more power to your home.

Make sure your extension cords are placed safely. Ideally they won’t stretch over any walkways where they could trip someone or get in the way of the snowplow or shovel. Clip the cord in place, if possible, to keep it from falling into a puddle.

Use Safe Outlets

To prevent electrical shock and protect your home's electrical system, use an outlet with a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) when hanging Christmas lights. Available on wall outlets and extension cords, GFCI monitors the electrical current and turns off power to the device if needed.

Don’t Overload Circuits

Circuits have a capacity. Going above that capacity is a fire hazard. To hang your outdoor lights safely:

  • Don’t plug multiple power strips into the same outlet or one power strip into another.

  • Don’t plug one extension cord into another.

  • Add up the total amps of the light strings and check that the extension cord or power strip can handle it.

  • Don’t plug in your holiday lights on the same circuit as a major appliance like the clothes dryer or a space heater.

You’ll know the circuit is overloaded if:

  • You blow a fuse.

  • The lights flicker.

  • The cords or wall plates are warm.

  • You hear any crackling or sizzling sounds.

Before you hang your lights, you might want to brush up on electrical safety basics.

Consider Solar Energy

Decorate your house and skip the electric bill increase? Yes please! Many outdoor light strings now have solar panels built in. Just put the panel in a spot that gets sun during the day to charge. When it senses it’s no longer collecting daylight, the lights will automatically come on.

Get a Battery Pack

Another option is to use battery power for your LED holiday lights. Some string lights even include a battery pack that takes a couple AA batteries or a 12V battery.

You can also find adapters. Plug your lights with a standard three-prong cord into the battery pack for power. 

Just make sure you use LED lights. LEDs use much less electricity than old, incandescent light bulbs, so you’ll get hours of mood-boosting light out of a battery instead of minutes.

4. Set a Timer

To save power and money, plug holiday lights into an outlet controlled by a switch or add an automatic outdoor timer. This lets you turn off the holiday lights in the daytime and only use power in the evening, when the lights are visible.

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