Dear Mr. Electrician: How can I make my home safe for the holidays? My family wants to set up elaborate decorations, but we don’t have any outside electrical receptacle outlets to plug our extension cords in.
Answer: Extension cords are usually used to deliver power where it is needed on a temporary basis. Finding a source of power and laying extension cords down in a safe manor can be tricky. I have seen many variations of methods to get power to outside holiday decorations. Sometimes the cords are run through windows or under doors and are plugged into electrical receptacle outlets that are the most convenient. Going through door and window openings could cause the extension cord to become damaged and possibly energize a metal frame. NOTE: Text links below go to applicable products on Amazon.com
I once saw at a client’s garage how he had plugged an extension cord into a ceiling electrical receptacle outlet. He stapled the cord across the ceiling to a side window where he had a power strip with the outside Christmas light cords coming through the window and plugged into the power strip. There was no GFCI protection and he had the window closed down on the cords which can damage the cord insulation. Do not do this at your home!
Some of My Personal Holiday Safety Tips
If installed correctly, extension cords and holiday decorations can bring some holiday excitement to your household. If done wrong, fire, electrical shocks, and even death by electrocution become possible.
Extension cords should be properly sized for the load that they will be carrying. Cords should be 14 or 12 gauge (12 is larger than 14 and can carry more electrical current). If using an extension cord outside it should be rated for outdoor use. Outdoor extension cord wiring must be plugged into an electrical receptacle outlet that is GFCI protected to help reduce shock hazard and electrocution. Portable GFCI protection devices are available. Do not use power strips outdoors!
To reduce nuisance tripping of the GFCI from outdoor decorations, elevate the plugged connections between extension cords and tree lights and other decorations. Drape the plugged connections on top of a piece of wood or log to keep them off the ground. This will keep water from directly entering the plugs from rain or snow. It will also allow the plugs to dry faster when the sun comes out. I do not think that it is a good idea to wrap plugged connections in plastic bags. Condensation can build up inside the bag and cause arcing.
Electric Christmas lights and decorations that are used indoors should be AFCI and GFCI protected. Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters will help protect against arcing and sparks which can create fires. Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters will help protect against electrical shocks and electrocution.
It is now possible to purchase dual function electrical receptacles that have AFCI and GFCI protection in one electrical receptacle outlet. They also have the capability of providing protection for all electrical outlets downstream of the device. These should be installed by a qualified licensed electrician.
Here is another holiday safety tip: Electrical power should not be taken from an outdoor light fixture that has a plug adapter screwed into the lamp socket. Light fixtures are wired to carry only enough electrical current to supply power to the light bulb socket safely. The light fixture is rated for a limited amount of watts. Exceeding that capacity by adding Christmas lights or decorations can cause a fire. This is especially concerning as many outdoor light fixtures are mounted on the house. If a fire started in the light fixture it would be very easy to ignite the house from there.
In addition to holiday decorations, the winter season also sees the use of portable heaters around the home for supplemental heat. Caution should be used when operating a portable electric heater in the home. Be sure that the wattage rating of the heater does not exceed the capacity of the circuit wiring that it will be connected to. I think that a good rule of thumb is to keep the heater size to 80% or below of the electrical circuit capacity. For instance, the average electrical circuit in a home is rated for 15 amps which at 120 volts can handle up to 1800 watts. 80% of this is 1440 watts. A 20 amp circuit that is normally wired into kitchens and dining rooms can use a 1920 watt heater (80% of 2400). Of course when calculating the total electrical load for the circuit, other appliances, devices, and lights that are connected must be taken into consideration.
Electric heaters must be kept away from combustible materials such as curtains and furniture. Read the manufacturer’s instructions for the proper placement of your heater.
Electrical receptacle outlets that are not normally used during the year, but are used heavily during the holidays can create problems. Sometimes older electrical receptacle outlets have loose wire connections inside of the wall. Sometimes older electrical receptacle outlets have loose internal contact prongs where the inserted plug makes contact. Both of these situations can become hazardous as an electrical load is connected. The increased power draw on loose connections will generate heat and sparks which can lead to a fire. Arc Fault Circuit Breakers can reduce the fire hazard by shutting power off at the first sign of a spark. Talk to a qualified licensed electrician about installing AFCI circuit breakers in your home’s electrical panel.
Check to make sure that the electrical decorations that you buy as well as the needed accessories are laboratory tested for the use. They should have a UL tag on them or the mark of some other electrical testing laboratory. Having a testing laboratory label indicates that the manufacturer paid the testing laboratory to test their product for the use that it was intended and that it passed the tests. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for the use of their product.
Another holiday safety tip is to use a ladder. A household hazard that becomes more apparent around the holidays are falls. When hanging decorations around the house, use a ladder to get up high. Do not stand on a chair, or a step stool, or a table, or a bucket, or anything not intended to elevate you safely. Use a properly sized ladder to get to where you need to. One bad fall can ruin your holiday now and forever.
Refrain from lighting up candles. Do not put lit candles on Christmas trees or in the window or anywhere that a child or pet could knock over. Flameless battery powered candles are available.
Keep small children and pets away from the Christmas tree and other decorations and displays. They tend to put things in their mouth which could lead to them swallowing an object. Artificial Christmas trees are treated with chemicals to make them fire resistant. You don’t want your children or pets ingesting chemicals. Also pets like to chew on things such as electrical cords hence the need for GFCI and AFCI protection for holiday electrically powered displays.
Something else to be concerned with during the winter months is carbon monoxide poisoning. With the windows shut tightly to keep the cold out, less fresh air gets in the house. If there is carbon monoxide present from a faulty heating system or an appliance, it can kill you and your family while you sleep. Install carbon monoxide detectors in all of the bedrooms.
Smoke alarms. There have been many instances where I have seen smoke alarms missing from the ceiling electrical box, or they were dangling by a wire, or yellow from age, or did not work. Make sure that you have working smoke alarms at all times, not just for the holidays. They do save lives. If you have had many false alarms due to cooking, try replacing your smoke alarms with the photoelectric type of smoke alarm. Most home builders install ionization type smoke alarms because they are cheaper. There is nothing wrong with ionization smoke alarms, they work well, but they are prone to nuisance alarms from cooking. Photoelectric type smoke alarms are less likely to activate from minor cooking smoke. A smoke alarm that has ionization and photoelectric sensors combined offers the best warning of a fire.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has their own list of safety tips for the holidays. I recommend that you read it.
Read what the Government has to say about holiday safety.
You can read my post about arc fault circuit interrupters here.
My post about safety when working around your home should be read by all DIYers.
Please do not drink, or smoke, and then drive. Your life and the lives of others may change forever in a very bad way if you do.
Have a happy and safe holiday season all year long,