Keeping Christmas bright: What to know about holiday lighting maintenance

Updated Dec 13, 2019
Photo: Christmas DecorPhoto: Christmas Decor

If you are considering getting into the holiday lighting business, one aspect you might not have considered is the maintenance required to prevent any Christmas catastrophes from occurring.

Several experts in the holiday lighting field shared their advice on how to handle holiday lighting problems that might transpire and how to mitigate them from happening.

What to do when there’s a lighting issue

While in a perfect world, none of your customers’ Christmas lights will mess up during the holiday season, you have to be prepared for the worst and have a plan of action in place.

“Address it immediately; with such a short season, there is no room for faulty decorations,” says Drew Weesen, a project manager with Boreal Property Management Inc. based in Jackson, Wyoming. “We have a good relationship with our supplier, so if it is defective equipment, they take care of us.”

Conducting regular property checks will allow you to catch any lighting issues. Photo: Heroes Management ServicesConducting regular property checks will allow you to catch any lighting issues.
Photo: Heroes Management Services

With Heroes Management Services in Omaha, Nebraska, clients rent the lights, so the company conducts weekly property checks and fixes any problems found during the checks or within several hours of a client calling about an issue, according to operations manager/partner Taylor Olberding.

“No matter how good a job you do installing exterior holiday lights, there will be some service issues along the way,” says Seth Wilson of Christmas Decor by SeaScape, based in Coventry, Rhode Island. “There are several things that can be done to minimize these failures, but service calls will be required nonetheless.”

Wilson’s company has several procedures in place to make sure everything is working as it should be. SeaScape offers two proactive service calls during the lighting season, allowing them to address any issues the customer might not be aware of, such as straightening bows and garland and double checking the timer settings.

“We also communicate with our clients to find out if they have any parties/events planned during the holiday season so we can time our service calls accordingly,” Wilson says. “The last thing you want is lights out for their annual Christmas party.”

Along with the two proactive service calls, SeaScape also has on-call service technicians to address emergency issues each night during the holiday season. Because the company has a large territory, it schedules a service/install truck to each region daily to address any issues the same day so customers don’t miss out on a night of lights.

Photo: Heroes Management ServicesPhoto: Heroes Management Services

“Our customers are paying us for a lit display for a very short period of time, so we do all we can to make sure it is lit for each of those days,” Wilson says.

While Boreal Property Management has been fortunate enough to not have any incidents with lights not working on Christmas or Christmas Eve, Heroes and SeaScape have had to deal with those last-minute calls in the past.

“In the event we do have a service issue on Christmas Eve, we have service technicians on call through the evening,” Wilson says. “Our office staff monitors the phone messages and emails throughout the day to address any service requests immediately. Christmas Day we take the day off. Our crews have worked tirelessly throughout the season to make sure everything is just right, and they deserve a day off to enjoy with their families. Any service requests on Christmas Day will be addressed immediately on the 26th.”

Causes of lighting troubles

Since the industry switched to LED lights, Weesen, Olberding and Wilson all agree there are fewer service issues with holiday lighting.

“Oftentimes, you can do an entire display with only one outlet and only draw three-four amps where previously you may have needed two or three outlets and were drawing 11-12 amps on each one,” Wilson says. “With minimal amperage draw, moisture is far less likely to cause a trip. Also, with LED minis, they are a sealed unit, so moisture has one less opportunity to enter the display.”

Bad weather can easily leave holiday decor disheveled. Photo: Christmas DecorBad weather can easily leave holiday decor disheveled.
Photo: Christmas Decor

However, this doesn’t mean these lights are immune to all the sources of lighting woes. The main culprit for lighting issues is bad weather as it can bring wind, rain, sleet and snow.

Moisture is the most common cause of lighting failures. Wilson says while the products are designed to be used outdoors, they are not designed to be saturated with moisture.

“If it snows and is below freezing the whole time, it’s not a big deal, but when we get the rain or the mist, water always finds a way in,” Olberding says.

When snow packs accumulate and slide off roofs, they can take down roof lights. Wind can cause plug connections to open up and move greenery and bows out of place.

“Extreme cold and wind can crack the wires and cause a short,” Weesen says. “The greased connections prevent most water-related issues but keeping the connections off the ground whenever possible is also a good measure.”

Animals can also be a problem when they chew through the wire, making lights more susceptible to moisture and causing things to trip. Wilson says areas where the wire is compromised can be near impossible to locate until the lights are physically removed and inspected.

“Lots of rabbits and squirrels when it’s cold chew through the wire to get warm, and that causes issues,” Olberding says. “We have houses out in the middle of nowhere that had rabbits chew through, or deer run through cables and just trip them up or tear them down.”

Another common cause for lighting malfunctions is GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) tripped breakers.

“Sometimes, it’s just a Gremlin that doesn’t happen again and sometimes it’s a single string of lights that keeps causing an issue,” Weesen says. “That can be tough to diagnose on a 60′ tree.”

Minimizing malfunctions

The main way to minimize tripping issues is to install the lights properly early in the season.

 “If you do it right the first time, you typically don’t have to go back out and fix anything,” Olberding says.

Taking your time and doing and installation right can minimize lighting problems down the road. Photo: Boreal Property ManagementTaking your time and doing and installation right can minimize lighting problems down the road.
Photo: Boreal Property Management

When Boreal Property Management is doing an installation, they plug in the lights as they are putting them up to check for issues, as well as grease all connections with dielectric grease to keep moisture out.

“The time and effort on the front end goes a long way,” Weesen says.

Wilson advises keeping timers mounted in a vertical direction to keep moisture from collecting in the sockets and to use dry boxes/cord torpedoes/silicone gaskets on all your cord junctions where moisture could be a concern.

“Don’t lay cord connections inside a gutter where they can be flooded underwater or frozen inside the gutter in colder climates,” Wilson adds. “Keep cord connections off the ground where rain/snow may pool. Be sure all cord connections are completely secured together. A slight gap between cords allows water to enter the system and can cause a trip. Be sure to angle open cord ends down toward the ground so water won’t collect in the open socket.”

Once you have installed the lights, checking back frequently to make sure everything is functioning properly can keep holiday havoc to a minimum.

“Unfortunately, service calls will never comply with a calendar, so yes, lights can go out at the most inopportune times,” Wilson says. “To minimize this, we try and visit every client the week leading up to Christmas.”

Once the season is over, takedown is just as important as the installation to ensure a stress-free season the following year.

“Taking the time to properly map everything at takedown allows it to go back up seamlessly the following year,” Wilson says. “All light strands when removed need to be inspected for any damage through critters/UV/accidental prior to balling or hank tying in preparation for storage. It is also critical that all product is completely dry before placing it in storage containers or things will develop rust in the offseason.”

Photo: Christmas DecorPhoto: Christmas Decor

As for where to store the lights during the offseason, the experts agree it’s better to keep the holiday decor in your care rather than the customer’s house, just for more control over the products’ safekeeping.

Olberding opts to use custom-cardboard boxes that are clearly labeled to store his company’s lights. Wilson prefers to use plastic totes, as they are durable and can be used for several seasons.

“All products for each job are properly labeled for each individual client and placed in storage for the following season,” Wilson says. “Everything within each tote is inventoried and labeled on the outside of each tote so we know exactly what is inside. If any products have reached their life cycle at the end of the season, they are discarded with instruction to be replaced the following season.”

 Weesen says they store their lights in plastic bins filled to 7/8ths capacity.

“Make sure the lids go on nicely and you aren’t smashing them down,” Weesen says. “Don’t tightly wrap the lights as you are winding up the strands, especially in cold weather. A loose wrap, just enough to keep it together works best. Don’t use the Clark Griswold method of storing the lights in one giant intertwined ball!”

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