Decorative Christmas tree lights enhance the holiday scene but they can also be potentially hazardous. The hazards are those of possible electric shock and fire.
Of the estimated 2,200 injuries from holiday decorations treated in hospital emergency rooms across the country last year, approximately 440 (one-fifth) were associated with Christmas tree lights, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports. The potential hazards may exist in both the standard size Christmas bulb and the miniature bulb string sets. The miniature lights consist of very small bulbs and are sometimes called "minis," Italian or midget lights. The standard size bulbs (designated as C7 and C9 sizes) are the more traditional sizes.
To ensure a safer holiday season, CPSC urges consumers to take a few extra moments to examine their lights visually, while they are unplugged, for the possible defects described below. These few basic safety precautions can help consumers reduce the risks of fire or electric shock from defective bulbs or light sets.
Many light sets use standard size Christmas bulbs. For these sets, before inserting replacement bulbs examine them as follows:
-- Examine each light bulb for improper assembly. If the glass readily separates from the bulb's base, the bulb should not be used.
-- Check each light bulb for protruding wires from the solder tip at the bulb's base or at the side of the bulb where the glass meets the base. If wire protrusions are detected, consumers can repair the defect by cutting as much of the protruding wire off as possible.
-- Check each light bulb for excessive or irregular solder at the bottom and side of each bulb base which may prevent complete insertion of the bulb into the socket. If this condition is found, the bulb should not be used.
Inspect the interior of each light socket carefully. Sets that use the standard size bulbs often have lampholders with two metal tabs inside each socket. With the set still unplugged, check to see if tabs are used. If they are, there should be a side tab and a center contact at the bottom. If these two metal parts come together when a bulb is inserted, or if these two parts are both upright, a short circuit will occur when the set is used. If you are not sure that the tabs in the socket are correctly located, have a knowledgeable repair person check the set before you use it.
There are also some special precautions to follow with the miniature Christmas lights.
-- When replacing miniature bulbs, be sure to use bulbs having the same voltage rating (for example, a 3 volt lamp to replace a 3 volt lamp, a 12 volt lamp to replace a 12 volt lamp). This is particularly important to prevent dangerous overheating, melting, and possible fire. Remember bulbs are not marked individually with a voltage rating, so save the voltage information on the bulb packaging.
-- Burned out bulbs should be replaced promptly because the remaining bulbs burn brighter and hotter for each burned out bulb.
-- Light sets with bulbs that burn out rapidly or sets that show signs of melting around bulbs are early indications of defective or incorrect lamps. These sets should not be used.
-- Miniature lights have been used in displays where lights have been bunched up together into a cup or pot for special effects. Unless the set is designed or recommended for this use, the heat generated by bunching the lights together may result in melting, which could expose live parts. Christmas lights are basically designed for decorating trees and objects where lamps are separated so the heat of the lamps is not concentrated.
For all types of Christmas lights:
-- With the lights still unplugged, check the light string for frayed insulation, loose connections, and exposed bare wires. Repair or discard sets displaying these potential trouble spots.
-- Check all light sockets on the string to make sure none of them is broken or cracked. If the sockets are broken or cracked, the set should not be used.
-- After visually examining the set, place it on a non-flammable surface and plug it in for lo-15 minutes before decorating. If the set is not working properly, or if bulbs don't light, repair or discard the set. Unplug the set when decorating.
Do not cover lamps with decorations that were not supplied with the set. The set may not be designed to handle the increased heating and could melt, thereby exposing live parts.
Never use Christmas lights on a metallic tree because a person could be electrocuted if the tree becomes charged with electricity from metallic tree needle decorations getting into the light sockets.
Any set to be used outdoors should be specifically constructed and labeled for outdoor use. Do not use indoor lights for outside lighting. Remove outdoor lights as soon as the season is over; they are not designed for prolonged exposure to the elements, especially in winter weather.
To avoid the possibility of a dangerous electric shock, do not insert or remove bulbs with the set plugged in, especially if outdoors. Always unplug Christmas lights when you go to bed or leave the house. Lights could short and start a fire.
Lastly, careful handling of lights during unpacking, decorating and repacking will reduce the chances of damaging a good set of lights.