Lighten Up!

If you need advice putting up outdoor Christmas lights at your house, here are some tips from light expert, Sherry Berg. She’s responsible for lighting the biggest house of all – the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. Berg’s the landscape architect who designs Ottawa’s annual Festival of Lights. She uses 250,000 lights for over 60 sites along Confederation Boulevard. Here’s her advice for dazzling holiday lights at your home.

Choosing your colour combinations

  • Let your imagination run wild! The most effective and vivid colours are green, red and copper.
  • Most effective combinations: blue-green (pleasant and subdued) and red-green (symbolizes Christmas).
  • Other interesting combinations: blue-red, mauve-blue, copper-mauve, copper-red.
  • Deciduous trees: use no more than three colours.
  • Coniferous trees: use no more than five colours.
  • When using different colours of lights on one tree, install the colours in consistent combinations; for example, when using green-mauve-blue, every third socket should be the same colour.
  • Whenever possible, avoid using white in a colour combination. The eye tends to see ly the white, and accompanying colours are diluted and may lose their richness. If you are going to use white, it is best to use it on its own.
  • Try to match colours with architectural surroundings and other sources of light.

Preparing your strings of lights

  • To prevent corrosion within the sockets, dip the socket-end of the bulb into petroleum jelly. This light film will also make it easier to remove the bulbs.
  • As you finish each section, plug the string into a multi-outlet connector to extension cords. Remember to tape all connections with electrical tape to avoid short-circuiting.
  • Test to ensure all bulbs and connections are working before you install the lights.

Determining the availability of electricity

  • Exterior Christmas lights are available in two levels of wattage – 5 watts or 7 watts. Your choice depends on the effect you wish to achieve. For high displays that will be viewed from a distance, 7-watt lights are preferred. Also, strings of lights which have sockets spread at twice the normal interval are best for large trees.
  • Identify available electrical outlets when decorating your trees and shrubs.
  • Check your electrical panel for voltage and amperage. Most circuits carry 120 volts at 15 amps, to give a total available wattage of 1,800 watts. It’s best to use only 80 percent, or 1,440 watts. The maximum number of bulbs per circuit would be 205 (which is 1,440 divided by seven) or eight strings with 25 7-watt lights each, or, 288 (which is 1,440 divided by five) or eleven strings with 25 5-watt lights each.

Installing your lights

  • When you decorate a tree or shrub, try to highlight its natural grace and beauty. Work with the natural shape of growth and avoid straight lines and regular patterns when decorating.
  • Use a ladder, stepladder or extension pole appropriate to the size of the trees you intend to decorate. Do not climb the branches, and be sure to have someone hold the ladder for you.
  • Divide the tree or shrub into manageable parts. Begin at the top and work randomly downward, moving from the inside to the outside of the tree and back again, following the natural sweep of the branches.
  • Connect the strings to extension cords (ensure they are CSA approved and marked for the appropriate wattage), tape together and plug into the selected outdoor circuit.
  • A timer can help you avoid competing for energy at the peak hours of demand, and can also prevent dangerous overheating.
  • Finally, respect the tree you are decorating as a living thing and remember that frozen branches break easily when handled roughly.