Top 10 Tips for Safe Outdoor Lighting

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Orange lights, an old house... Halloween!
Orange lights, an old house... Halloween!. Bill Lewis

Most of us have some lighting outside our home that belongs to us, and that we control. Porch lights or security lights, for example. A lot of people also like to add outdoor lighting as part of decorating for the holidays -- some at Halloween and even more at Christmas.

We all like to be safe too, and to keep our house, our family, our pets and our guests safe too -- even if they're only staying long enough to pick up some candy or sing a carol. That means that we want the lights, power...MORE cords, controls and everything else associated with our outdoor lighting to be done with safety in mind.

There's one thing that isn't true about lighting, and electrical connections in general, but that many people believe, is that a temporary setup can be done without much regard for whether it's really safe, or "up to code," or not. That's not so. Because they're not permanent installations, temporary lighting and power connections can be more dangerous. The National Electrical Code includes special requirements for temporary installations that apply in addition to all of the regular guidelines.

So the top tip of all is Make It Safe. Follow the tips here, of course, but keep in mind that safety is Goal #1. Then make it look and function the way you want it to.

  • 01 of 11

    Install Outdoor-Rated Fixtures

    If you're installing a lighting fixture outdoors, it must be designed and built to be there. For two quick examples, a light that's under your porch roof and never gets wet needs to be rated for damp locations, or say "outdoor" on it, because it will still get damp, cold and hot, and it needs to be able to take that.

    A wall fixture that goes next to your door but doesn't have a roof over it needs a higher rating -- weatherproof, weather resistant and "suitable for wet...MORE locations" are the words you're looking for.

  • 02 of 11

    Use Outdoor-Rated Light Bulbs

    In an exposed fixture such as an outdoor flood light, most of us think of this. But it'll pay you in terms of the life of the bulb and the ease of replacing it to do the same with your porch light. If you're having trouble finding a standard bulb that's rated for outdoor use, check the fine print on some appliance bulbs. If it can survive in a freezer or an oven, it can probably survive outdoors.
  • 03 of 11

    Don't Overlamp a Fixture

    Most fixtures, indoor or outdoor, will have a sticker or label that says "Maximum Wattage: 60W", or 75W or 100W. Whatever it says, respect that. It's there to keep you from putting in a light bulb that will overheat the wiring in the fixture, which will damage the insulation on the wires. What does matter, BTW, is the actual wattage of the bulb -- not the "incandescent equivalent." If you're putting a CFL bulb in a fixture with a 60W rating, for example, you can use one...MORE that draws any amount of power up to 60W (which would put out more light than a 200W incandescent bulb).

  • 04 of 11

    Use Outdoor-Rated Extension Cords

    The extension cords we use indoors are made for that. They're usually light and flexible, so they're easy to keep out of the way. And they're definitely not made to stand up to getting wet. Buy and use only outdoor-rated extension cords for any temporary lighting you're connecting outside your house.

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  • 05 of 11

    Use Decorative Lights Made for Outdoor Use

    Orange lights, an old house... Halloween!
    Orange lights, an old house... Halloween!. Bill Lewis
    If you want to hang some lighted pumpkins or skulls or candy canes or icicles on youy eaves or porch railing, only use ones that are made to go there. The labeling should say "indoor" or "indoor/outdoor" or "outdoor." Keep the ones that say "indoor" inside. Either of the other two is built to take outside.
  • 06 of 11

    Watch Out for Flammable Materials

    I wasn't really thinking of the materials the product is made from when I put this in my notes, but that applies too. What I was really thinking of, though, was being careful to keep lighting materials that generate heat, like many light bulbs, away from other materials that can ignite and burn easily.

    An accent light under a manger to give it a glow may be just the effect you're looking for in your nativity scene, for example. But if you've also scattered a lot of hay, or straw,...MORE around the stable, the effect you get might be  a little bit different.

  • 07 of 11

    Install Weather-Resistant Receptacles

    You should always plug temporary outdoor loads into outdoor receptacles, rather than running a cord out through a doorway or window from one of the receptacles inside your house, and those receptacles need to be weather-resistant. Even though they'll have special outdoor covers over them, the receptacles themselves need to be able to take dampness, freezing and heat without being damaged. They need to be rated as weather-resistant.

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  • 08 of 11

    Install GFCI Protection

    GFCI, or Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, protection is one of the most important electrical safety improvements of the last forty years. We have it installed in our kitchens, our bathrooms, our garages, even our attics, crawl spaces and unfinished basements. It's required anywhere we might be plugging something in while we're grounded. And that certainly includes when we're standing out in the yard.

    If the wiring that feeds your outdoor receptacle has GFCI protection from a circuit...MORE breaker or some other GFCI device upstream, you can install a standard weather-resistant receptacle in the outside box. But if it doesn't, then you need to install a GFCI receptacle there. Weather-resistant, of course.

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    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Install a Cover for Damp Locations Under a Roof

    If you have an outdoor receptacle that's on your porch or your screened-in patio or in some other location that's protected from direct protection, then you can cover it with a "trap door" cover that will close, and keep it protected, when nothing id plugged into it -- and it's OK, then, to plug something into that receptacle and leave it there for a few days. These covers will be marked "Suitable For Damp Locations."

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  • 10 of 11

    Install a Cover for Wet Locations in the Open

    If your outdoor receptacle isn't under a roof or some other protective cover. it needs to have a special cover, known as as "in -use" cover, over it. As the name implies, these covers will keep the receptacle, and the plug that's in it, dry -- even in the rain.

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  • 11 of 11

    Attach Holiday Lights with Non-Metal Non-Binding Materials

    Be careful when you're attaching temporary lighting strings and ornaments. Don't use something that might damage the wires, and avoid anything with metal in it. Metal conducts electricity. Plastic cable ties are one popular and inexpensive choice for this task.

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