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Christmas lights: a safety-first approach

Lyndsay Morrison, staff writer
December 9, 2011 — Make sure your home doesn't become a fire or safety hazard while putting up Christmas lights this year.

Ensure that your ladder is secure before climbing (iStock)
Ensure that your ladder is secure before climbing (iStock)

It's the time of year when many Canadians are decking the halls and putting up outdoor Christmas lights.

Still, while your home may look festive over the holidays, it could also become a fire or safety hazard if you're not careful.

“Unfortunately, this is a time of year when there are a lot of preventable residential fires,” says Glenn Barwell, Fire Prevention Officer with the Oakville Fire Department.

Officials are urging residents to take proper precautions and safety measures when getting into the Christmas spirit; both in terms of putting up the lights and ensuring that they don't become a hazard over time.

“The most important thing that people can do to keep themselves safe from fire at Christmas is to check their smoke alarms and review their fire escape plan,” explains Barwell. “I know that's basic and people hear it over and over again, but that's what we really want to urge. Take a few minutes and make sure they are working. Replace batteries as necessary.”

If you're going to be putting up outdoor Christmas lights this month, Barwell says to keep the weather forecast in mind. “If you can, wait for a break in the weather. You don't want to be putting up your lights when it's extremely cold, windy or icy out.”

Barwell says dry, mild weather conditions are the most ideal when it comes to decorating your home. He recommends putting up Christmas lights earlier in the Fall season. “You've got enough going on in December with everything else around the holidays, so next year I would get a jump on this in November.”

If you are going to be using a ladder to put Christmas lights on your home, Barwell has some safety advice.

Make sure your home does not become a fire hazard during the holiday season
Make sure your home does not become a fire hazard during the holiday season

“Ladders can conduct electricity, so keep them away from power lines,” he says. “A ladder should only be placed on stable surfaces. For every four feet up the ladder is, the ladder base should be one foot out from the wall.”

Barwell says you need to be especially careful when decorating near the rooftops.

“Don't over-extend your ladder. It has its limits. Follow the manufacturers instructions and make sure the ladder is secure,” he says. “If you are getting off the ladder and onto the roof, the ladder needs to extend a minimum of three feet above that roof.”

Here are some other tips and pieces of advice Barwell has for Canadians looking to decorate their home during the holidays:

  • Buy the right lights. “When you go and you purchase decorations, you want to make sure that you have CSA ULC approved lights,” says Barwell. “These labels are fixed on to the lights and decorations. You want to get those ones.”
  • Use indoor/outdoor lights correctly. Indoor light strings should not be used outdoors, and outdoor lights should not be used indoors. “The problem with outdoor lights is they can burn too hot,” Barwell says. “And the indoor lights lack some of the weather-proof connections that are required and they can be a shock hazard.”
  • Inspect your lights. Carefully examine new and previously used sets of lights and replace any damaged items before plugging them in. Do this before you put the lights up, as they are much easier to replace.
  • Mount lights safely. Be mindful not to damage cords when you are mounting your lights. Use plastic clips if you want to fasten your lights, not nails or staples. They can damage the insulating cover on the wire and can cause a short.
  • Avoid daisy-chaining. Never overload extension cords, or connect extension cords into extension cords. To avoid overheating, do not coil or bunch extension cords together.
  • Mind the weather conditions. If you can, keep your outdoor light cords above and not in contact with the ground, away from snow and water. Puddles can lead to stray voltage and shock concerns.
  • Don't leave lights unattended. Turn off your light strings and decorations before leaving your house or going to bed.
  • Take your lights down after the holiday season. Fire officials do not recommend that people put up their lights and leave them up year after year. “The problem with that is no one is going up to check them,” explains Barwell. “They're really considered temporary and should be removed after the holidays.”

The Oakville Fire Department is urging Canadians to survive the holidays and have a fire-safe Christmas.

“Don't invite disaster to your holiday events,” Barwell says. “Remember, check your smoke alarms and have a fire escape plan.”

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