Electrician’s Guide to Holiday Lights: Minimize Power Interruptions and Stay Safe

It’s that time of year! Your holiday decorations are out and your lights are up. Now it’s time to keep your yard brightly lit until the new year… 

Each December, we visit a homeowner every day to help with power issues caused by holiday lights. That’s why we created this guide, to help you avoid unnecessary costs and nuisances and stay safe.

This guide is broken down into the following sections. Skip ahead as needed!

Step 1: Understand what can go wrong

Step 2: Proactively set up your lights to avoid common power loss and safety issues

Part 3: DIY troubleshooting when the power goes out [Download steps here]

 

Prefer a summary? Albert Bustos, owner and master electrician, gives the 5 most needed tips in this video.

 

 

Step 1: Understand what can go wrong

 

After decorating your yard, the countdown begins for when the first outage will occur.

You could lose power to the lights only. But oftentimes, an outage impacts other parts of your home too.

Imagine losing power to a garage deep freezer filled with game meat. Or trying to get the car out of the garage to go to work and…the opener isn’t working. Or even going to turn on your hair blow dryer, only to find there’s no power in your bathroom. We’ve seen it all!

The most common culprits for these scenarios are…

  1. Moisture comes into your yard in the forms of rain, sprinklers, or dew. And as you know, water & electricity don’t mix. Our homes’ GFCI outlets keep us safe when moisture mixes with electricity by clicking off and cutting off power.
  2. Overloaded circuits have more electricity running through them than they’re designed for. When this happens the electrical circuit breaker cuts off power or “trips,” preventing the circuit’s wire from becoming overheated.
  3. Electrical shorts occur when electricity is traveling along an unintended path, which can happen if the insulation on your lights’ wiring is old, damaged, or intentionally spliced or cut. Your electrical breaker often trips when there is an electrical short, cutting off power.

Now that you know what can go wrong, let’s talk about preventing problems.

 

Step 2: Proactively set up your lights and decor to avoid common safety issues and power-loss nuisances

 

Choose Your Lights Carefully

When pulling out your box of string lights from years prior or buying new ones, make sure to select lights that are UL-listed and approved for outdoor use.

Check all the strings for damage. The cords shouldn’t have cracks, frays, or bare wires. Discard damaged strings of lights.

When replacing broken bulbs, review the original package for wattage/voltage information. Unplug the lights before replacing bulbs.

Finally, check the manufacturer’s instructions on the maximum number of light strings that can be safely connected together.

 

How To Best Install Your Lights

Installing your lights so that they will be dry as often as possible is the key to avoiding nuisance outages and safety hazards throughout the holiday season. 

As you string lights together, consider sealing the connections between the lights. We haven’t used or tested Twist and Seal products ourselves, but their positive reviews indicate they can help water-proof connections. Visit their website here: https://twistandseal.com/

Twist and Seal Product

Ideally, you’ll position the plug connections under an area protected from moisture and above ground, out of water. Hang your lights under awnings where possible so they are covered from rain. Position them so they can dry out if water enters the bulb.

To secure the lights, use fasteners that will not damage the wire insulation, such as insulated staples. And of course, always follow the directions from the lighting or decor manufacturers.

 

Plug in to a GFCI Protected Outlet

Since your yard decorations are exposed to rain and water from sprinklers, the outlet you plug in to should be GFCI protected. GFCI protection cuts off power by sensing a potential water shock hazard. In up-to-code homes, GFCI protected outlets are present in all wet areas, including bathrooms, kitchen, garage, and the home’s exterior.

You should expect and be prepared for the GFCI to click off while your lights and decorations are out. Locate the GFCI that protects your holiday lights’ circuit in advance and test it to make sure it’s operational.

Common places you’ll find the GFCI (the outlet with buttons) are the garage, bathrooms, or outdoors. If you’re unsure which GFCI outlet protects the outlet you’ll use for holiday lights, test different GFCIs until you cut off power to that outlet. In older homes, power could be cut off by more than one GFCI, as they may be connected. 

Pressing the “Test” button on the GFCI outlet should cut off power to anything plugged in to the outlets on the circuit. This indicates the GFCI protection is working correctly. If you push the “Test” button and the power does not cut-off, the GFCI protection may not be functioning. At this point, have it inspected by a qualified electrician.

Special note on GFCI protection in older homes

GFCI protection became required in homes in the early 1970s. While most homes built before the 70s have undergone some code updates, we recommend you have an electrician assess your system to ensure you have proper GFCI protection before plugging in outdoor holiday lighting.  

If your home was built after the 1970s but before 2000, it’s likely that the outlets in your bathrooms, garage and exterior are connected. Ensure all GFCI outlets in your home are tested before plugging in lights. If your home is wired this way, a power loss to your lights could cause power loss in other parts of your home.

There are a couple solutions for homes that are wired this way: (1) Separate these connected outlets by adding a circuit with a licensed professional electrician, or (2) Add GFCIs onto the circuit so that an issue with the holiday lights would only cause one outlet to click off, rather than all outlets on the circuit losing power. This tends to be a more cost-effective solution than adding a circuit.

 

Avoid Overloading Your Circuit

Consider what is already plugged in to the circuit you’ll be plugging in your lights and decorations. If you have an appliance like a refrigerator or deep freezer in your garage, adding the lights might cause an overload. The electrical breaker could trip and cut off power to the circuit. It’s best that an appliance and a large amount of holiday lights aren’t plugged into the same circuit, so consider using another circuit if possible.

Adding a circuit that is used exclusively for your seasonal outdoor decorations is a great option to avoid circuit overload. In this case, an electrician would add a breaker to your electrical panel and outlets for your decorations to plug in. The one-time installation cost would reduce nuisances for years to come.

Another way to reduce the chance of overload is to use LED lights, as they use far less power than standard incandescent bulbs. You may also prevent a spike in your electricity bill during the holidays. If you make the switch to LEDs, it’s best practice not to string them together with incandescent lights.

 

Protect the Outlet You Use From Moisture

Another consideration when plugging in lights: Is the outlet protected from the elements? For instance, a garage outlet is not exposed to rain like an outdoor outlet.

The safest way to plug into outdoor outlets is to have an in-use weatherproof cover (or bubble cover) shielding the outlet while the lights are plugged in. Plugging into a weatherproof outlet will reduce moisture and electricity mixing, thereby reducing the possibility of the GFCI cutting off power to the lights.

In Use Weatherproof Outlet

 

Exercise Your Electrical Breaker

Whichever electrical breaker will be powering your holiday lights and decorations, you should exercise it by flipping it off and on. This is especially important with older breakers. Like any mechanical device, the components need to move regularly to stay operational. Exercising breakers helps them to work properly should they need to cut off power. 

If power still runs when you flip the breaker to the off position, it likely needs to be replaced by a qualified electrician. Remember, although counter-intuitive, a breaker’s primary job is to cut-off power, not to allow electricity to flow haphazardly. While a tripping breaker can be disruptive to your daily life, it is most often doing its job to keep you and your family safe.

 

Use Extension Cords Correctly

If you’re using extension cords, select ones that are intended for the outdoors and UL-listed. Do not use extension cords that are taped up or spliced. Further, they should be 3-wire grounded cords – identified by the product label and the three prongs rather than two.

Select the right length extension cord for the application. If you are need to connect power across a long distance, do not use several shorter extension cords plugged into one another. Use a longer extension cord. On the other hand, do not use a long extension cord to run power for a short distance. Every extension cord is designed for a specific distance and amount of electricity. Extension cords used incorrectly can cause overheating. For instance, we’ve come across a long extension cord that was used to run power a short distance, with the cord’s slack neatly coiled. The coil overheated and the insulation was melting when we found it, creating a serious hazard that thankfully didn’t cause any more damage. If you’re interested in more technical, in depth extension cord sizing information, visit this article from askthebuilder.com.

Should you choose to plug your extension cord into an indoor outlet, make sure it is GFCI protected, and route the cord carefully so it cannot trip anyone. Do not run the extension cord under rugs, furniture, or other appliances to avoid a fire hazard.

 

Final Reminders

Before you get started, be mindful of overhead power lines. Keep yourself and your decorations away from them. Check if your tree branches have come into contact with the power lines before decorating them.

Any ladder used doing this work should be fiberglass, not aluminum, for your safety.

Finally, consider children and pets when you decorate your yard or your home’s interior, minimizing the risk to those more vulnerable to hazards.

 

Part 3: DIY troubleshooting when the power goes out

 

Should you encounter any minor issues with the power to your lights, you can perform the following DIY troubleshooting steps to possibly resolve the issue.

If you are ever unsure or uncomfortable, call a professional licensed electrician. If you see sparks, smell burning, feel something that is hot to the touch, or hear popping sounds, shut off power if possible and call a professional licensed electrician or the fire department, depending on your assessment of the situation.

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Troubleshooting Steps:

  1. If there is moisture in your yard, from rain, dew, or sprinklers, wait a couple hours for your lights and decorations to dry before troubleshooting. Moisture is a common cause of power interruptions. Your electrical system is designed to detect the hazard of water and electricity mixing.
  2. Reset the GFCI that protects the outlet where your lights and decorations are plugged in.
    • First, unplug all of the outdoor holiday lights and decorations.
    • Press the “reset” button on the circuit’s GFCI outlet – the outlet with buttons, likely in the garage. This should re-energize the circuit.
    • Plug something that you commonly use back into the outlet to see if power is restored, but not the holiday lights yet. If the power is not restored, move to troubleshooting step #3. 
    • If power is restored, plug in the lights or decorations. If the power stays on, you fixed it! Going forward, if the issue comes back repeatedly, there could be a hazard that an electrician should assess.
    • If the GFCI clicks off when the lights are plugged back in, there may be an issue along your strands of lights or decorations. Unplug and inspect them. Check for loose connections at plugs, and damaged or cut cords. Remove or repair the damaged decor, then return to the start.
  3. Reset the breaker that controls the circuit following the same steps.
    • First, unplug all of the outdoor holiday lights and decorations.
    • Reset the breaker by pushing the handle all the way to the OFF position, and then back to ON.
    • Plug something that you commonly use back into the outlet to see if power is restored, but not the holiday lights yet. If the power is not restored, move to troubleshooting step #4. 
    • If power is restored, plug in the lights or decorations. If the power stays on, you fixed it! Going forward, if the issue comes back repeatedly, there could be a hazard that an electrician should assess.
    • If the breaker flips off when the lights are plugged back in, there may be an issue along your strands of lights or decorations. Unplug and inspect them. Check for loose connections at plugs, and damaged or cut cords. Remove or repair the damaged decor, then return to the start.
  4. Some older homes have GFCIs connected throughout (outdoors, garage, & bathrooms). Locate and reset all other GFCIs in your home, keeping a close eye out for outlets hidden by furniture.
    • Once all GFCIs are reset, plug something that you commonly use back into the outlet to see if power is restored, but not the holiday lights yet. If the power is not restored, it’s probably time to call an electrician to complete a full evaluation and diagnosis. Schedule service with us here.
    • If power is restored, plug in the lights or decorations. If the power stays on, you fixed it! Going forward, if the issue comes back repeatedly, there could be a hazard that an electrician should assess.
    • If the GFCI clicks off when the lights are plugged back in, there may be an issue along your strands of lights or decorations. Unplug and inspect them. Check for loose connections at plugs, and damaged or cut cords. Remove or repair the damaged decor, then return to the start.
  5. If none of these steps yield a solution, consult with a professional licensed electrician. Schedule service with us here.

 

The best way to prevent power interruptions and safety hazards is to proactively plan your holiday lights and decorations, ensure your electrical system is up-to-code and working correctly, and take precautions, such as the ones listed above.

To make sure that your electrical system is ready for the holidays, or to get help troubleshooting, consult with a professional licensed electrician. Our team can help! Book online today.

 


Safety Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional electrical advice, diagnosis, or work. Always seek the advice of a licensed residential electrician with any questions you may have regarding your home’s electrical system. Never disregard professional electrician advice or delay in seeking professional service because of something you read on this website. If you think you may have an electrical issue or emergency, call a professional electrician or the fire department.