Give Your House that Holiday Glow

The grounds of Airlie are magical at Christmastime due to a large staff beginning adorning the property with white lights in November. “We keep stringing lights until we run out,” says Groundskeeper Kim Terry. Photos courtesy of Airlie. 

Outdoor lighting tips from professionals 

Seeing homes decorated with outdoor lights is one of the joys of the holiday season. It’s so bright and cheerful, and this year, with social distancing impacting our seasonal celebrations, driving around neighborhoods seeing houses aglow from the safety of our car will be even more important. Make the extra effort and give your neighbors something to enjoy! 

Depending on how elaborate you want to get, installing holiday lights can be hard, time consuming, and even dangerous. We’ve interviewed three area experts to get their take on the best practices and products, and to get some handy tips. Kim Terry, who has been the groundskeeper at Airlie in Warrenton for eight years, takes on the project of adorning the resort with white lights in mid-November. At this huge resort, a large staff, including a staff electrician, is required to accomplish this, and the results are stunning and magical. Charlie Beaty is the owner of Piedmont Lawn and Landscaping who supplements his landscaping business by decorating homes with outdoor lights during his favorite time of year. Mike Sfreddo is the owner of Virginia Christmas Lighting and Decor Company in Nokesville where he and his professional craftsmen installers also eagerly await the Christmas Season every year.  

Safety first: what outdoor lighting tips do you have for homeowners? 

Check the product packaging to check limitations, such as how many strands can safely be strung together, says Mike Sfreddo of Virginia Christmas Lighting and Decor Company

According to all our experts, always plug the light strings or extension cords (use the outdoor versions of both) into a GFCI outlet, or use a GFCI adapter. That way, if any moisture finds its way in anywhere the power will cut off, which could possibly save your house and your life. Also, be sure to read the product packaging for important information, such as the number of strands that can safely be linked together to avoid a fire hazard. And, of course, only install your lights yourself if you are 100 percent comfortable on a ladder. The cost to pay a professional is not worth your life.

Is it important to have new light strings every year? How long can strings last? 

LED lights strings will last multiple years, while incandescent lights will need spot replacement of bulbs or fuses every year. And, Charlie reminds us that each year strings should be inspected for frays or exposed wire which can be dangerous. 

Which lights are the most energy efficient? Is it important to turn the lights off at night?

According to Mike, LED (or SMD) lights consume a fraction of the power required by incandescent lights. Turning the lights off when they aren’t needed will extend bulb life. Consider using dusk/dawn timers to automate the on/off cycles of the lights.

What are the best types of outdoor lights? Do they need to be waterproof? 

No light string is 100 percent waterproof, but as long as water does not infiltrate vulnerable areas, such as connections between strands, there are rarely any issues. Mike recommends avoiding the use of electrical tape where strings connect; instead of keeping moisture out, electrical tape traps any moisture that comes in, which is more dangerous. Always make sure that any open female ends face down so they do not collect water when it rains.

What kind of lights do you recommend? 

Courtesy of Airlie

At Airlie, LED lights are used because there are more lights per string so they are closer together creating a more showy look. All three of our experts agree that commercial grade lights have advantages over home-use versions. Their waterproofing is more solid, they last longer, and come in longer strands. The suppliers are likely to have more stock, meaning a) they are unlikely to run out, and b) you can get all your strings in the same brand and color so all your lights are the same shade and match exactly. With home-use strings you may have to mix different brands together, making subtle color variations a possible problem. 

What are the best types of attachments? 

There are many great clips out there —— they have different clips to attach to shingles, ridges, gutters, and even magnetic clips for metal roofs. Make sure you do your research and buy the right clips for each of your surfaces instead of buying an all-in-one; it will make your life much easier, Charlie explained. Hot glue is also a possibility on almost any surface besides stucco and painted brick. Staples can be used, but they are not a favorite with our professionals. If you do use them, Kim recommends using special rounded ones that are designed for this purpose that will not crush the plastic coating on the wires, and do not set them too deep. And be careful not to pierce the string with the staple. If you do, eliminate that string.   

What’s the deal with white lights? 

Tip: Pre clip your bulbs with the attachments before starting, you will be on and off the ladder in half the time, says Charlie Beaty of Piedmont Lawn and Landscaping

With LED lights in particular, white is not always white. Simply organized, Charlie explained, there is pure white, cool white, and warm white. According to Mike, professionals distinguish them as follows: “cool” white looks icy and has a bluish hue, “pure” white is the brightest and purest (think hospital sterile), “warm” white resembles the light produced by incandescent bulbs, “sun warm” white has a slight bit of yellow, “champagne” white is aptly named, and “amber” white has a brownish hue. At Airlie, Kim uses a “warm” white, which she feels is more elegant, but which can be hard to find locally. If you prefer the hue of incandescent, there are LED versions out there that can come close. 

What other cool things can you do with lights?

According to Mike, high tech features such as color changing lights and timing to music, which have always been the domain of people with programming abilities, are becoming more user-friendly. Now powerful mapping and programming products are available in easier-to-use formats that everyone can have fun with. Some are even app-driven.  

Final tips? 

Charlie: Pre clip your bulbs before you do your install. You will be on and off the roof or ladder in half the time.

Mike: Installing light strands with the lights on will help identify bad bulbs and assist in visualizing good bulb placement (such as in bushes).

Kim: Mix it up a little. There are many different lights out there. Icicle lights can be beautiful, big bulbs in the ground along walkways can light the path as well as being decorative, and don’t forget the battery-powered lights for wreaths and things that are far from a power source. 

Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 112 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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