How to safely hang Christmas lights on your house, tree

Putting up a festive display of lights is an annual tradition for many during the holiday season, which can include stringing lights across the outside of a home and adding a dazzling display to a Christmas tree.

But if not done safely, adding lights across a roof and inside a home can also sometimes lead to physical accidents and fire hazards. 

In fact, holiday trees and lights cause about 390 fires annually in the U.S., resulting in 21 deaths and $25.2 million in direct property damages, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and National Park Service (NPS).

As families make holiday memories by decorating their homes, here are some safety tips to keep in mind.

Use caution (and a buddy) when hanging outdoor Christmas lights

Dr. Thomas Waters, an emergency medicine physician for Cleveland Clinic, says hanging up lights on the upper levels of a home can quickly lead to an accident if you’re not careful.

"The most dangerous part of that is the ladder and falling. Especially when you’re putting them up in weather conditions where it might be cold, rainy, wet or even icy," Waters said.

He added that the best way to stay safe is to only hang Christmas lights on the lower level of a home, where a ladder isn’t needed. However, if you are going to use a ladder to get up to the roof, be sure to have someone down below holding the bottom. 

Light hangers should also be mindful of the weather and don’t overlook any slick spots. 

Use clips to hang lights and not nails, the NPS says.

Christmas Tree Lane

FILE - Illuminated houses with elaborate holiday lights are visible at Christmas Tree Lane, a residential street on Alameda Island, which puts on a well-known light display in Alameda, California, on Dec.21, 2020. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Gett

Inspect the holiday lights

Before using them inside and outside, check for any strands with cracked lights, excessive kinking, frayed cords or loose sockets and discard them, the NPS advises. Wires should also not be warm to the touch.

Outdoor lights are "UL/FM" listed for cold and wet conditions and tend to burn hotter than indoor lights, according to the NPS. Indoor lights are cool enough to be used on the tree but are not designed for outdoor conditions. 

Many newer strands are made for either — but individuals should verify the type of strand before use by looking at the tag near the plug.

"These are things that you typically pull out once a year. You should inspect them once you pull them out and then inspect them again once you put them away for the season," Waters advised.

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Don’t overload electrical outlets

No more than three mini-light strands or 50 screw-in bulbs should be linked together to prevent overloading an electrical socket, the NPS says. 

It adds that lights should always be plugged into permanent outlets installed by a professional electrician.

Use caution with extension cords

The NPS says families should not run extension cords under carpets or across doorways, heaters, lawns or high traffic areas in an effort to prevent hazards.

"Ensure cords are not pinched under or behind furniture," the agency says on its website.

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Be careful with metallic trees

Never use electric lights on a metallic tree, officials say. 

"Damaged insulation in lighting on a metallic tree could cause the entire tree to be charged with electricity. To avoid this danger, use colored spotlights above or beside a metal tree, never fastened onto it," the Nassau County Firefighters Museum and Education Center in New York says on its website

Other fire hazards to keep in mind

For families who bring home a live Christmas tree, choose a fresh one. 

"The stump should be sticky and the needles should be green and difficult to pull back from the branches. Test the tree by bouncing the trunk on the ground. If many needles fall off, the tree is too dry, creating a potential fire hazard," the NPS says.

The agency adds that live Christmas trees should be watered at all times, and cutting 2 inches off of the trunk before setting up the tree will improve water absorption.

The tree should be standing away from fireplaces or heat vents and should not be burned in a fireplace or woodstove after the holidays. 

Candles should never be used on trees. The NPS suggests using battery-operated candles "with the look, feel and smell of wax candles."

Holiday celebrants should also make sure to use nonflammable decorations that are placed away from lights and heat vents.

"Do not place wrapping paper in a fireplace. A large fire can throw off dangerous sparks and cause a chimney fire. Avoid smoking near decorations," the NPS adds.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.