As I get older, it seems the Christmas season starts ever earlier and I catch up ever later. One way to get in the mood, I find, is to dig the lights out of the garage and make a holiday decorating statement. Here are a few tips on outdoor light decorating to keep you and the family safe this year.
First, it might be time to trade in your old incandescent light strings for new LED versions. They used to cost two or three times more than regular bulbs, but the price difference between the two technologies has gotten pretty minimal. LED light strings produce less heat so are not hot to the touch, meaning they are a great choice around little kids. Of course, they use lots less energy, and since they contain no filaments to burn out, they can last for thousands of hours. Plus the bulbs themselves are plastic, not glass, and so are much less likely to be damaged when you get them out for the season and then put them back.
Finally, the LED technology runs a little more efficiently (and brighter) in colder temperatures. All things considered — and especially with the price difference pretty much gone between them and their incandescent light cousins — they are a wonderful choice for holiday lighting.
Feeder extension cords to light strings should be labeled as “approved for outdoor use”. String over — not under — walkways, and make sure all plug connections are well off the ground. It’s a good idea to wrap plastic grocery bags around the cord ends and splitters and secure them with duct tape.
All outside lighting should be run to a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) safety outlet — the kind with those little push-buttons. If your house was built after the mid-’70s, chances are that outdoor plug is already protected by a GFCI in the garage. If not, you can put one in yourself for about $15.
Modern indoor lights (especially LED’s) run at really low temperatures, so the risk of fires in or around the tree is minimal. One danger spot that remains, however, is the fireplace — whether wood or gas-fired. Using natural pine, fir or spruce boughs — or any other flammable material — on or around the mantle or hearth is asking for trouble. This material dries out very quickly and can become explosively flammable in no time.
Dear Ken: I heard on a local show that you should use only the low-efficiency, cheap fiberglass-type furnace filters, and never the high- efficiency ones because they could restrict the air flow and overheat the furnace. Do you agree? Julie
Answer: I avoid the cheap (less than a dollar) fiberglass type. They only capture stuff down to about 50 microns (that’s millionths of a meter, roughly the diameter of human hair). On the other hand, the corrugated paper filters I like can grab mold spores, pet dander, dust mite debris and dust and smoke particles down to about 10 microns. They are available almost anywhere — grocery, hardware and discount stores, for instance — for about $4. Yes, they are a little more restrictive to cross-blower air flow. But not enough to worry about; modern furnaces can handle it just fine.
Filters are graded on their MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating. The higher the number, the more effective the filter is at grabbing tinier and tinier material. For example, the super cheap ones have about a 3 MERV; my favorite mentioned above is about a 7 or 8, depending on brand. There are also super-efficient household filters with a MERV of about 11, but they can be $20 or more. They are a good choice if you have hay fever or asthma suffers in your family. Change your filters monthly in both the heating and cooling seasons and you’ll have both a cleaner house and more allergy-free indoor air.
Dear Ken: I have a dimmer switch in my kitchen that controls some halogen track lighting. Sometimes it feels pretty warm on the cover plate. Is this a problem? Marty
Answer: It depends what the meaning of warm is! Warm’s probably OK, but hot isn’t. Take off the cover plate and note the maximum allowed wattage of the dimmer stamped on its metal frame. Then add up the wattage of the light bulbs it’s controlling. The bulbs’ totals should be 80% or less than the switch’s rating. If it turns out that the dimmer switch is too small, replace it with the next larger size. Also, sometimes it helps to replace the plastic switch/dimmer cover with a metal one, which can aid in dissipating the heat.
Finally, if you’re comfortable doing so, check all the connections in the box for tightness — otherwise call in an electrician. Remember, too, that the dimmer usually produces more heat when it’s set at less than full power.
Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 4 pm Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit www.aroundthehouse.com.