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Safe Christmas Decorating

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Christmas is always fun for the family. To keep it fun and merry, here are some tips for safe Christmas decorating. (I'm also a medical engineer, so I have two good reasons to be into safety...)

Christmas Trees

Choosing a Tree

I suspect most of us would rather have a live Christmas tree in the house -- many of us still remember past Christmases whenever we smell fresh pine. Many of us still do use live trees, but some of us have resorted to the artificial variety for all sorts of reasons.

Live trees may be less of a fire hazard as long as they stay fresh and moist. Unfortunately live trees become dangerous as they dry out, and in a heated home they will dry out unless you're careful. You need to take precautions when you pick out the tree and continue until you have finished with it.

The tree should look fresh when you get it. (If you can find a place to cut your own tree, you'll have an absolutely fresh one -- and cutting your own can be fun, too.) Make sure that the needles are green and moist; if they are beginning to look dry or falling off, the tree won't last very long in your house.

Keeping a Tree

You should pick your tree stand carefully, too. It should be fairly heavy, with widespread legs, to lessen the chance that the tree may be toppled over by overenthusiastic people or pets (I've seen both happen myself). It should also have enough room for your tree's trunk, and be easy to refill with water. I have seen single-piece cast-iron stands; although I haven't tried them myself, they look like they should be very stable indeed.

If you are unsure of how stable your tree and stand will be -- and with some kids and pets I know, you need to be -- you can also tie the tree to an appropriate anchoring point or two on your wall, or even on the ceiling. Ceiling flowerpot hooks, if they will hold heavy pots, will do splendidly -- and remember that the hooks need to be strong, but may not necessarily have to hold the entire weight of the tree. This depends, of course, on where the hooks are and where the ties are attached to the tree. Some people who use this trick use wire, but I'd be careful with wire if you also have electric lights on your tree.

When you get the tree home, first trim off about one inch of the trunk with a saw; this will expose fresh wood and allow the tree to drink water better. Then put the tree in water as soon as possible. There are many tales of trees staying fresh longer if you add aspirin, sugar, or other things to the water; personally I think fresh water works just fine, but adding a little plant food (such as "Miracle-Gro") may be helpful. Make sure the bottom of the tree is immersed in water at all times. If your house is particularly dry, you may need to add water to the stand twice a day, or even more. When you put the tree up, make sure that it is not too close to a fireplace, a radiator, a heating vent, a space heater, or any other source of heat. (I assume no one reading this page is silly enough to put a Christmas tree near a stove or a clothes dryer or a furnace or water heater, but I'll mention those places as bad places for a tree also.) Also, don't put your tree where it blocks the exit from a room or from the house. And a few needles may fall off here and there, but when lots of needles start falling off the tree, it's time for you to get the tree out of the house.

Decorating a Tree

Never overload the tree with heavy decorations, and certainly not with lights. I would not use lights with bulbs larger than C-7 (night-light size) on an indoor tree, and miniature lights are probably safest as far as the heat they generate are concerned.

Your Christmas lights should all have been tested by Underwriters' Laboratories, Inc. UL tests virtually every electrical gadget available in the United States for safety (shock and fire). You should find the UL seal on every one of your light sets (and indeed on every electrical appliance, light, or other gadget you buy).

UL labels Christmas lights in one of two ways. Sets with a green label, or with a silver label with a green UL hologram, are tested and found safe for indoor use only. These sets were not designed for safe use outside, and may be dangerous if used outdoors. Sets with a red label or a silver label with a red UL hologram are tested and found safe for indoor and outdoor use. The label is usually taped around the wire near the plug. If the label isn't there, don't buy the lights no matter how good the price is. Your extension cords and other devices (such as timers and flashers) should also have UL labels on them.

One common cause of Christmastime electrical fires is overloading the light wiring -- the lights themselves, the extension cords, or the house wiring. If the boxes or instructions that come with your lights tell you what the safe limit is for number of strings connected to one cord or one outlet, do not exceed that limit. If you don't have that info, good, conservative limits are:

With proper care, you can use light sets that you bought and used in previous years. (My family has two C-7 light sets that are over 50 years old. They still work quite well. And they even have the original (green) UL tags on them (smile)...) However, you must check each old string carefully for frayed insulation, and for broken or loose wires, sockets, and plugs. If an old light set is not in perfect condition, I would throw it away and buy a new one. Buying a new light set is much cheaper than replacing a house and everything in it.

For that matter, you should also check new light sets (even those that are UL-listed) for breakage or other defects. The UL tag doesn't necessarily mean that UL inspected the set you bought -- just that they tested samples of the product and found the samples to meet their safety standards. The set you bought may have a problem, and so you should check each new set before using it.

Never use candles or other open flames on a tree,, and -- once again -- don't put your tree near a fireplace or a furnace or water heater. (Candlelit trees were once a tradition. They are gorgeous. They are also very dangerous.)

Also, remember to cover any and all unused electrical outlets (including the add-on outlets on light strings), especially if you have small children around. For that matter, you should not let small children near a tree with lights on it unless a responsible adult is there to watch -- and perhaps not even then. Not only do lights pose an electrical hazard, but the miniature bulbs are small enough to go in children's mouths and may pose a choking hazard.

You should also unplug all of your indoor lights before going to bed or leaving the house.

And last, but definitely not least, make sure your smoke detectors are working (replace the batteries if you haven't in the last 6 months). It's also a very good idea to have working fire extinguishers in your house, and especially near your tree.

Outdoor Decorations

Many people like to put up outdoor decorations, especially lights. These can also be hazardous, although the dangers are a little different (for one thing, you don't really have to worry about the tree drying out unless you live in a desert).

Choosing Lights and Decorations

You should choose your outdoor lights as carefully as your indoor lights. Again, they should all carry the Underwriters' Laboratories, Inc. label -- in this case, the red paper or red hologram label saying that the lights are safe and sturdy enough for outdoor use. (This means, among other things, that they are less likely than other light strings to short-circuit and possibly start a fire if they are rained on or snow-covered.) Extension cords should also be UL-labelled for outdoor use.

The outlets you plug the outdoor lights into are also important. Homes built in the last 20-25 years have ground-fault circuit interrupters on all outdoor (and bathroom, kitchen, and laundry) outlets. A GFCI is a special outlet that shuts off the power if there is any leakage to ground -- that is, if electric current from the outlet is going anywhere except through the gadget plugged into the outlet. The GFCI does not take the place of a circuit breaker or fuse, since it won't necessarily shut off if there is an overload or short circuit; rather, the GFCI protects against leakages that might hurt someone in the leakage path even if the current is small. GFCI outlets always have two buttons on them: one is used to test the GFCI, while the other (which pops out when the GFCI is tripped or tested) resets the GFCI. If your outdoor outlets don't have GFCI's, have an electrician replace them before you use them. (Some outlets that are not themselves GFCI outlets may be protected by a GFCI located in another outlet nearby. Your electrician can tell you if an outdoor outlet is protected by a GFCI somewhere else.)

And, speaking of testing... you should test all of your GFCIs at least once each month (for example, on the first day of each month). To test a GFCI, push the TEST button on the GFCI and make sure that the GFCI shuts off (usually you can tell when the RESET button pops out, but see the instructions on the GFCI or that came with the GFCI to be sure). Do NOT try to test the GFCI by short-circuiting something, or in any other way except by pushing the TEST button.

As with indoor lights, don't plug too many lights into a single circuit. In many houses the outdoor outlets are on the same circuit with indoor outlets, lights, and appliances; this limits how many light strings you can plug in safely. (If you're one of those families who put up huge light displays every Christmas, you should have special circuits just for the Christmas lights, and you may already have them.)

Putting Up Outdoor Lights

When you put outdoor lights up, besides watching out for overloaded circuits and cords, you need to be sure that water won't damage the lights or cause a short circuit. This is especially important with the extra plugs on light sets, some of which you'll always have open.

The solution to the waterproofing problem that I have used for many years involves small plastic bags and electrician's tape. Once the lights are connected, tape the gap between each plug and the outlet/piggyback plug it's connected to with electrician's tape. Then bundle the wires, and put a plastic bag over the taped plugs. Secure the bag with more tape around the wires as they leave the mouth of the bag. Then position the covered plug assembly, under cover if you can, so that the mouth of the bag points down (this keeps moisture from dripping into the bag). All of this helps keep water away from the plugs, where it would be most likely to cause a short circuit. (The diagram below shows part of my method. The plug is halfway out for clarity only; remember to push each plug firmly into its outlet before taping or powering up. The tie around the wires is shown, but the plastic bag is not; remember to tie the bag firmly around the wires.)

Picture of plugs and tape
I have also used outdoor timers on my outdoor lights for several years. Such timers (which should also be UL-listed for outdoor use) may not seem to contribute directly to safety. However, with the timers in place you don't need to go outside and plug or unplug the lights every evening, or in the rain or snow. This not only protects you from electric shock, but from colds as well.

Other Decorations

Other Christmas decorations, such as tree ornaments, garlands and wreaths, Nativity scenes, and toys don't present the electrical hazards that tree lights do, but they do require some care as well.

Small children, especially those just beginning to walk, love putting things in their mouths -- and don't know what they can and cannot safely chew on. They can easily choke on small objects. Make sure that anything that is small or comes apart into small pieces is kept well out of their reach. The same precaution applies to pets -- especially with material like foil that they can tear up and possibly choke on.

(Note from Cat Scan: You're no fun, Daddy!)
(Note from Sniff: Well, maybe you shouldn't have shredded that aluminum foil last Christmas, Cat Scan...)

One possible hazard that can be missed is the wire hanger used to put ornaments on trees. They are usually shaped a bit like a fishhook, and although they do not have barbs, they can get stuck in bad places -- like a small throat -- quite easily. Another hazard is the ornament itself: glass ornaments break easily, and the pieces can cut you or your child. (Personally, if I had small children in the house I would leave the glass ornaments in storage until the kids were big enough to have the ornaments around safely.)

Still another potential hazard is greenery, some of which can be poisonous. Mistletoe is notorious in this regard, although it's usually hung high enough to be out of children's reach. Pine branches aren't usually poisonous (but the needles can hurt your mouth).

There are many other things to watch out for. All of these are a matter of common sense; know what your children and pets can get into, and then keep them away from anything that can't be played with safely. One I would mention again: take whatever precautions you need to take to make sure that kids and pets can't topple the tree -- with or without the lights plugged in. I have personally seen horrendous (but, fortunately, without injury) messes caused by an overeager dog meeting a less-than-stable tree... and I take some care to keep Cat Scan and Sniff away from mine...

(Note from Cat Scan and Sniff in unison:
O Christmas tree!
O Christmas tree!
Your ornaments are history...)

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PLEASE NOTE: As with all of this Web site, I try to give general answers to common questions my patients and their parents ask me in my (real) office. If you have specific questions about your child you must ask your child's regular doctor. No doctor can give completely accurate advice about a particular child without knowing and examining that child. I will be happy to try and answer general questions about children's health, but unless your child is a regular patient of mine I cannot give you specific advice. (And Cat Scan and Sniff give advice only on how to take down Christmas decorations.)

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Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012 Vinay N. Reddy, M.D. All rights reserved.
Written 12/01/96; last revised 11/27/12 counter