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Let There Be Light! Tips for Setting Up Your Outdoor Holiday Lights Display

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By , dealnews contributor

Yes, it's a little soon to be thinking about your holiday decor when you're just putting the finishing touches on the turkey dinner and Black Friday shopping list. But it's true, we are about to enter the most wonderful time of the year. Just a mere six weeks long, we love getting in the holiday spirit as soon as possible. And we start by decorating on Black Friday night itself.

When I think of "holiday lights" I remember the scene from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation when the beleaguered Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) finally manages to turn on the 25,000 Christmas lights on his house, which required the electric company to bring another nuclear reactor on line. For those of us who love holiday displays, this is not, I repeat, not, an example of excess, but a delightful celebration of the season.

It all begins with a plan. Are you the kind of person who likes straight lines? Perhaps outlining your home, windows and all, in solid lights would work for you. If you prefer a more whimsical look, you might want to emphasize your foundation plantings and trees. Ground-mounted, upward pointing lights can add helpful accents (and drive your family nuts, if they happen to point into a window). Check out YouTube for some over-the-top displays.

If you'd like to follow in the footsteps of Clark Griswold, here are some pointers to illuminate the process of illuminating your house.

To start, make a sketch of your house and yard. Then use a tape rule to take measurements of any features you choose to light; you'll need these figures when you go shopping for your lights. Identify which outlets are available, too; you can't run an unlimited number of lights off of one circuit.

When you're picking out lights, make sure you buy outdoor, not indoor lights. Then you must decide between incandescent or light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The holiday lights we all grew up with were incandescent ones, much like the light bulbs in your home (if you haven't already gone florescent or LED) and the ones that Thomas Edison used when he did the first outdoor light display on his workshop back in 1880. LED holiday lights are a relatively new option.

The choice seems like a no-brainer to me. Old-style incandescent lights have three significant drawbacks when compared to LEDs: they have a shorter lifespan, burn hotter (which can become a fire risk), and eat up way more electricity. The GE Energy Smart 50 LED C9 Warm White Indoor / Outdoor Holiday Lights ($19.31 with $5.99 s&h, a low by $8) have an average life of 20,000 hours and use up to 80% less energy than a comparable incandescent strand. The lower power draw means you can hook up more strands, end to end, to a single outlet. What's more, most LED light strands will stay lit if one of the bulbs burns out, unlike incandescent lights, which require all that annoying testing.

The last thing you want when decorating your house with holiday lights, is to blow a fuse from too many lights. The second to last thing you want is to run out of light strands! Make sure you know how many feet of lights you'll need to complete your lightscape. Consult your sketch and add up the linear feet of lights you'll need. To bring bling to a tree or shrub, we estimate that you'll need 100 LED Mini Lights ($27.49 with free shipping, a low by $1) or 50 larger ones per foot. The rule of thumb among aficionados is, more is always better.

The next choice you'll have to make pertains to bulb size and color. Holiday lights range in size from mini-lights up to the large C9-sized. Selecting a color for your lighted decorations comes down to personal taste; some prefer a single (usually white) hue, while others prefer a riot of color. Color-Changing LED Lights can fade from one color to another ($25 plus $5.49 s&h, a low by $1), giving even more festiveness to your holiday scene.

Speaking of festiveness, if you're going with classic holiday decor, most people choose always-on lights, while the more adventurous opt for the flickering and dancing lights. There are even Solar Powered Lights ($15.90 plus $5.58 s&h, low by $3), although their effectiveness under gray December skies remains to be seen.

For safety sake, look for the Underwriters Lab (UL) label on the package of each set of lights you buy. This label signifies that the strands have been vetted by the Underwriters Lab safety organization. If you're concerned about the environment, also look for Energy Star certification on all your holiday lights.

Holiday lights aren't all you need for your yard decorating. Remember to pick up at least one extension cord. The GE Indoor/Outdoor 25-Foot Grounded Extension Cord ($12.49 with free shipping via Prime, a low by $5) from Amazon will work just fine. While Griswold stapled his lights to his house soffit, today Multi-Purpose Holiday Lights Clips ($9.99 with $5.91 s&h, a low by $1) are available that safely and conveniently attach your light strands to gutters or via a tab that slips neatly under your shingles.

To really bring pizzazz to your display, consider setting your lights on a timer. The 4-Channel 8-Function Programmable LED Holiday Light Controller and Timer ($17.60 plus $11.29 s&h, a low by $18) allows you to put together light shows, with fades and washes and waves and twinkles. Plus, you can set it to shut off at a specific hour, thus helping you save money on your electric bill.

Try to stretch out your lights before you put them up and test the strands to make sure they all work. It's best to put up your holiday display on a dry, calm day, and practice safe ladder usage; you don't want to find yourself putting on an acrobatic show of ladder-walking like Griswold.

Outside lights are all about sharing the holiday with your neighbors, providing them an island of beauty in the upcoming winter landscape. Decorate well to honor the occasion and you'll reap holiday cheer in return.

Front photo credit: Things We Heart


Tom Barlow formerly wrote for Aol's WalletPop and DailyFinance, and in addition to his dealnews contributions, he currently writes about lifestyle topics for Forbes.com. You can follow him on Twitter @tombarlow. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.
Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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6 comments
winthrop62
Thanks for the great tips on Holiday lights, very informative.
tboy00
What are Holiday lights? I've ask for them in the stores, but keep getting directed to the...CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!! 
shawntownsend
Wow, get your panties out of a bunch. Face it, Christmas is no longer a religious holiday. I am an athiest yet I still celebrate with the biggest HOLIDAY light display in my neighborhood. So you are saying that those who celebrate other holidays in the month of December are banned from putting up lights? Get off your soapbox churchy, enjoy the holidays with your family, not worshipping some ghost that lives in a far away land.
The guy wrote an article on lights, stop bringing religion into it.
Smithda
If I might add to your points. I have found LED lights help extend the life of our real Christmas tree. The lower heat decreases how much the lights dry out the needles. I would also highly recommend that people choose a brand they like. LED lights, more than incandescent, seem to have more variety in color. I have a couple of different sets of warm white lights, and they put out very different white from extremely pure white to a little yellow. If you can't find your brand  or their is a deal, it's best to take one of your other strands with you so you can see if they look similar. I have found most stores would let me plug the my old strand and what they sell so i can see if they match. 
Howard/Sue
Yes
Please keep Christ in Christmas.
Thank You
hallnass
They are not holiday lights (Mr, PC) They are Christmas Lights and Christ is the reason for the season.  Lets not forget. 
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