During the holiday season, homes are decorated with lights and, at the same time, space heaters are brought out for extra heat and extra cooking appliances are plugged in to prepare food for holiday dinners. Here are some tips on how to prevent electrical fires and power up everything safely.
- Check the power cords and the plugs on your decorations to make sure they are intact and undamaged. Damaged cords with exposed wires could cause a fire or an electrical shock. Discard anything that has a damaged cord or plug. All extension cords used outside to power decorations should be heavy duty, have a three pronged plug, and be rated for outdoor use. An extension cord that is not heavy duty could overheat and start a fire when used to power a heavy load of outdoor lighting.
- Only use appliances, decorations, and extension cords that are UL (Underwriters Laboratory) rated. You should see the ‘UL’ label on a tag attached to the item. Check the label to see if the decoration is rated to be used just indoors or can be used outdoors also. Also, plug your decorations and appliances into a GFIC (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlet, if possible. This type of outlet will shut down the electricity if the circuit becomes overloaded or if there is an electrical short. If you don’t have one, an electrician can install one for you.
- Even if you are using GFCI outlets, you should still do the math to compare how many watts your decorations and appliances use vs. the ratings of the wiring in your home. First, look at the circuit breaker and find out the amperage of the circuit the outlet is on. If you are not sure what else is on the circuit, turn lights and appliances on, and note which lights turn off and which appliances power down when you flip the breaker to off. If there is something else drawing power from the circuit besides the decorations, you will need to take this into account.
To find out how many watts the circuit can support, multiply the amperage of the circuit (usually 15 amps or 20 amps) by the voltage of the household circuit (which is usually 120 volts). Fully loading the circuit could cause overheating, so experts recommend only using 80 % of the total wattage. Finally, add up the wattage of everything that will be powered by the circuit, including items like porch lights that are on only occasionally, to make sure it does not exceed this limit.
- The amount of wattage an appliance or decoration uses is marked on the packaging. (If the amperage is provided instead of watts, multiple by 120 to get the wattage). If a breaker trips or a fuse blows when you turn the decorations or appliances on, this is a warning sign you have overloaded the circuit. If you have done the math and can’t spot the problem or are trying to set up a very large light show, seek professional advice if this happens.
- Read the directions on strings of Christmas lights. There may be a limit on how many strings your can connect together. Even though your outlet may be able to safely power many strings of light, the inexpensive wiring in the lights may overheat and start a fire. Also, keep in mind that incandescent bulbs can get hot and possibly start a fire if your Christmas tree is dry. Keep your tree hydrated and never leave decorations on while no one is home or when everyone has gone to bed.