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Tech Savvy: Christmas lights: Highlights and lowlights in the season of giving

LED lights use 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs. In terms of Christmas trees, LED bulbs average a lifespan 66 times longer than incandescent lighting, yet they cost a tenth of incandescents to operate per 10 mini strings. Brainerd Dispatch / Steve Kohls file photo1 / 2
Christmas lights often factor as a significant burden on pocketbooks during the holiday season -- though, it looks like technology is quickly making Christmas more affordable to the tune of pennies on the dollar. Brainerd Dispatch / Steve Kohls file photo2 / 2

Christmas lights have something of a unique charm—in some ways serving as luminous symbols of good cheer during the winter solstice, shining brightly and happily during the darkest times of the year.

Americans have a special affinity for these vines of light, garlanded around homes and fashioned into jaw-dropping installations—in fact, it's been reported ad nauseum that the U.S. channels more volts into Christmas bulbs than many developing nations use electricity in a given year.

That's about 6.63 billion kilowatt hours per the Center for Global Development in 2015.

It's enough to put the holiday season power consumption of states like Illinois, Texas and New York on an even playing field with the total year-long power consumption of nations like Austria, Indonesia and Vietnam respectively.

That's supersized holiday cheer for a culture that's never been shy about it's fondness for things that tip the scales, one way or another. But, while people's love for lights is unlikely to dim in the foreseeable future, there may be a lot of motivation to dial down power consumption associated with these multi-colored bulbs—whether it's concerns for the environment, or possibly fire safety, but primarily for the sake of wallets and checkbooks.

In the Brainerd lakes area, it can be a little difficult to quantify just how much of local electric bills are tied into Christmas lights because these figures aren't exclusive from other forms of consumption like, say, electric heating, which also sees significant spike in the winter months. For rural areas outside of predominantly natural gas-dependent regions, electric heat is especially prevalent—which means for co-ops like Crow Wing Power jumps in electricity consumption by Christmas lights is observable but nearly impossible to pin down in a concrete way, said Jeff Wohlert, a member service representative for the company.

Todd Wicklund, the finance director at Brainerd Public Utilities, echoed similar statements and noted while there is some power usage increase in December, it's difficult to say how much is associated with Christmas lights.

"If it's the same temperatures in December (as January), we do see a higher load than we do in January," Wohlert said. "I would attribute some of that to Christmas lights. But, we also have snow birds who leave after Christmas is over, so there are a number of other factors when it drops off at the first of the year."

"A conservative guess is that Crow Wing Power sees at least 1.1 to 1.3 million kWh's of increased electrical consumption due to Christmas lights. This equals approximately 4.5 to 5 megawatts of electrical demand and total consumer cost of $141,000 for the season," Wohlert stated in an email to the Dispatch. "These numbers reflect a mix of incandescent and LED lights. If we were to assume that one-half of the lights are traditional incandescent, we could see cost reductions of a $100,000 seasonally by switching all of them to LED."

From year to year, there's been a notable jump in power consumption during December and the heights of the holiday season, Wohlert said, but overall power usage has been largely static going back to 2008, which put a halt to years of growth.

Interestingly, it may be the Great Recession and its reverberations in the intervening decade that continues to influence power consumption and, in turn, the usage of Christmas lights.

That, and LEDs.

The advent of LEDs

Light emitting diodes—or LED lights—are starting to reach the point in a technology's life cycle when the costs to produce the product and the price by which the public can purchase it are proportionate to its perceived advantages.

Simply put, the days of incandescents—the standard of electric lighting going back to the days of Thomas Edison's original and most iconic invention—may be finally coming to close, heralded by the rise of LEDs, which have outstripped their forerunners by virtually every metric of illumination, durability, safety, energy efficiency and, soon, commercial viability.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LEDs use 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs. In terms of Christmas lights, LED bulbs average a lifespan 66 times longer than incandescent lighting, yet they cost a tenth of incandescents to operate per 10 mini strings.

Roughly speaking, this translates to a cost difference of $13.65 a month for your average incandescents or a measly 22 cents a month for LEDs to power five strands of Christmas lights. For Christmas trees, it only costs 27 cents to light a 6-foot tree for 12 hours a day for 40 days with LEDs compared to $10 for incandescent lights in the same time frame.

In the same report by the Department of Energy, widespread use of LED lights by the year 2027 could save Americans an electrical output of 44 large power plants, and a total savings of at least $30 billion.

With free falling prices, LED lights have come to gradually supplant incandescents as the preferred form of holliday luminance—evidenced, in part, by surging sales and retailers like Menards, who now stock about 75 percent of their Christmas lights with LED bulbs over old-fashioned incandescents.

Take it from the Christmas light gurus, people like Jim Grant—the owner of Jim's Electric Company in Baxter, a member of the Brainerd Noon Sertoma and an organizer behind the club's annual Winter Wonderland light extravaganza. This year, during the light show run, participants will be treated to 60,000 Christmas lights on 75 different displays.

In a phone interview, Grant said the show in recent years cut costs by half to two-thirds of what they used to be—in large part, he noted, by switching to about 75-80 percent LED lights for the displays which have, in turn, shrunk electric bills from roughly $2,800 a few years ago to between just under $1,100 in 2017.

Other cost-saving measures

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, here are some steps families can take to lower their energy consumption and boost their pocketbooks this holiday season:

• Empty your vehicle of unnecessary weight, much of which can quickly get lost in the shuffle in the all the errands, cross country travel and sojourns in the snow that come with Christmas and other holidays. An extra 100 pounds drives up gas costs by 8 cents a gallon.

• Holiday lights and other electronics use a small amount of electricity when they're not being used, so plug these guys into power strips and remember to turn thes strips off when out and about, asleep, or just not feeling the holiday spirit. This could save an average of $100 per year for the average American household.

• By installing a light timer, homeowners can concentrate on the true meaning of Christmas without getting bogged down—or hurting—their financial concerns. Timers make sure that power usage in the holiday season actually counts towards the experience, not wasteful energy use in odd hours.

• Kitchen amenities can account for about 15 percent of home power usage, so streamline your usage by thinking carefully—whether it's using the right-sized pan or stove burners to save $18 to $36 annually, or using an oven light to check on Christmas dinner instead of opening the door—and chip away at that electric bill.

• Pick up rechargeable batteries along with those gifts. In the United States, it's estimated energy-efficient batteries and chargers could save families more than $170 million annually.

• Be mindful of windows—whether it's opening the curtains during the day to let in more sunlight, or closing them at night, or taking steps to winterize these windows to cut down on heat loss by 25 to 50 percent—it's often the little things that help downsize a household's energy consumption.

• Proper chimney maintenance—like sealing the fireplace flue damper, caulking around the hearth, and installing tempered glass doors and a heat-air exchange system to blow warmed air back into the room—will help keep warm air in the house and cold air out.

• Lower the thermostat. This one may take a little more discipline—and personal fortitude—than the others, but by lowering the thermostat 10 to 15 degrees during sleeping hours or when you're out of the house for long periods of time, it can save 5 to 15 percent on heating bills.

Safety first

Don't let those plummeting temperatures fool you, winter and the holiday season still present plenty of fire dangers—whether it's a fireplace, overwhelming amounts of cooking and baking, loads upon loads of light bulbs, faulty power strips or other associated risks.

Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes advises area residents to consider the following safety steps as they celebrate this holiday season.

Lighting the tree

• Use lights that have the label of an independent testing laboratory. Some lights are only for indoor or outdoor use.

• Replace any string of lights with worn or broken cords or loose bulb connections. Read manufacturer's instructions for number of light strands to connect.

• Never use lit candles to decorate the tree.

• Always turn off Christmas tree lights before leaving home or going to bed.

Picking the tree

• Choose a tree with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched.

Placing the tree

• Before placing the tree in the stand, cut 2 inches from the base of the trunk.

• Make sure the tree is at least 3 feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights.

• Make sure the tree is not blocking an exit.

• Add water to the tree stand. Be sure to add water daily.

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