How to keep your home safe from fire this holiday season
Christmas should be a time for summer fun and family celebration, but some of our Christmas traditions can turn into safety issues if we’re not careful.
For example: we all know that one of the best things about Christmas is all that great food – the turkey, the prawns, the mangoes and all those desserts that throw our diets right out the window.
But December heat can quickly spoil food if it’s not properly stored. Small children with new toys can also be in danger from choking hazards and may even get into strife with discarded wrapping paper, ribbons and plastic bags. Because the mood is festive, we also tend to consume more alcohol around barbecues and swimming pools than usual, which can lead to trouble.
None of this means we need to be super-paranoid about safety at Christmas – it just means we need to be aware of the dangers and take a little more care.
Are your Christmas lights a fire hazard?
Christmas can certainly be an expensive time of year for families, so it’s only natural that we always keep an eye out for bargains. However, one area where you should be wary of buying cheap is when purchasing Christmas lighting.
Be careful when buying these lights from overseas sources online, at second-hand or ‘bargain’ stores or at weekend markets.
Quality Christmas lights can be perfectly safe if installed and used properly. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. Another problem is that some folks use unapproved holiday lights in and around their home, sometimes without even knowing it. There’s always an assumption that if it’s sold in an Australian store, it must be approved for use in Australia.
In an ideal world this would be true, but dangerous products do sneak in from time to time, so you have to be careful what you’re spending your money on.
Every year, state and territory fire authorities warn communities to make sure they only purchase Christmas lighting products and decorations that are approved for sale in Australia; they tell people to be careful when buying these lights from overseas sources online, at second-hand or ‘bargain’ stores or at weekend markets. If you do buy second-hand decorative lighting, have it checked over by a licensed electrician to make sure it’s safe.
In 2008, Energy Safe Victoria, in the process of auditing a number of discount stores in the weeks before Christmas, found numerous imported, non-compliant Christmas lighting products on shelves. The controlling units that came with some of these lighting sets were also of major concern, with inadequate insulation and evidence of overheating.
Unapproved Christmas lighting products still find their way into stores around Australia…
It’s a safe assumption that unapproved Christmas lighting products still find their way into stores around Australia, increasing the risks of dangerous home fires during the holiday season.
There are a number of dangers associated with unapproved Christmas lights. These include:
- Voltage incompatibility – lights might be designed to be used with voltages that are different to the Australian standard of 240 volts
- Light globes with incorrect ratings that may dangerously overheat, presenting a hazard to surrounding combustible materials
- Plugs that don’t match up with Australian power points
- Woefully thin insulation on flexible leads
- Substandard cord connections that may pull out too easily
So how do you tell if a set of Christmas lights is approved by Australia’s electrical safety regulatory authorities? Always check for a product compliance number and/or compliance logo – and if you’re in any doubt at all, don’t buy the product 1.
Tips on using Christmas lighting products safely
Once you’re sure you’ve got Australian-approved Christmas lights, the next step is to ensure you’re using them properly. Here’s some advice to keep your home safe:
Inspect all lighting products (old or new) before use. Don’t use them if there is any sign of damage: crushed cords, frayed leads, exposed wire, burn marks.
- Read the manufacturer’s instructions so you know how to correctly assemble and install the lighting and safely replace globes.
- If you’re using lights you’ve had for years, check their condition. All it takes is a tiny bit of exposed wire or other fault to create a potential fire hazard.
- Some Christmas lights are designed for outdoor use, while others are strictly indoor-use only. Don’t use the wrong light in the wrong place: this applies to power boards and extension leads as well.
- Thoroughly inspect all lighting products (old or new) before use. Don’t use them if there is any sign of damage: crushed cords, frayed leads, exposed wire, burn marks, etc.
- When you vacate the room for an extended period, head off to bed or leave the house, always turn off and unplug your decorative lights. And don’t water your Christmas tree with tree lights operating.
- Don’t cover Christmas lighting or try to modify it in any way.
- Closely monitor your decorative lighting the first time you put it up and turn it on, to make sure it’s working the way it’s supposed to.
- If a bulb blows, replace it straight away.
Outdoor lighting meets additional safety standards for external use, so make sure you never use indoor Christmas lights outdoors. Even on a veranda, heavy rain can get to your lights. Outdoor lights come with a specific IP rating that tells you how weatherproof they are; the higher the rating, the more protected the light.
In Australia, outdoor electrical equipment must be rated at a minimum of IP23. Another important point is that some types of outdoor lighting still need to have the transformer indoors, so check the manufacturer’s instructions.
If you must run electrical leads from indoors to outside, avoid placing them where they’ll be damaged.
Just because the weather is perfect when you string up your outdoor Christmas lights doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Summer is storm season in many parts of Australia, so ensure your lights are properly secured – and turn them off in heavy winds and rough weather.
If you must run electrical leads from indoors to outside, avoid placing them where they’ll be damaged – like across the driveway or wedged under a window sill where they can get flattened under the weight of a closed window.
High-powered halogen or flood lights can get quite hot, so ensure they’re far away from anything that could catch on fire. Don’t string lights above the swimming pool or around any other wet areas.
Moderation is the key: don’t go so crazy with lighting that you overload your home’s electric circuits or cause a blackout over the entire neighbourhood!
Before installing any Christmas lighting (indoors or outdoors), test your electrical safety switch. If you don’t have one installed at the switchboard, use a portable safety switch at the very least. Your circuit breaker is there to protect your property, but a safety switch is designed to protect your life.
Children are naturally curious, so do your best to keep them away from lights, electrical appliances and cords at Christmas time.
Ensure you have an adequate number of smoke alarms installed in your home. Keep in mind that most smoke detectors do not detect the presence of carbon monoxide as well (though some do), so either install separate carbon monoxide detectors or buy detectors that are designed to detect both.
Children are naturally curious, so do your best to keep them away from lights, electrical appliances and cords at Christmas time. Indoor Christmas lighting isn’t waterproof, so keep it away from any wet areas as well.
Use power boards that come with surge protection – don’t use ‘piggy-back plugs’ or double adaptors with your lights. Uncoil extension cords so they lie flat: this avoids possible overheating. Check the plugs on your Christmas lights to see if they have insulated pins. All electrical appliances sold in Australia since 2006 are required to have insulated pins. If your ancient holiday lighting doesn’t, it might be time to buy a new set 2.
Christmas lights have changed a lot since Thomas Edison lit up the first Christmas tree in 1880 3.
Incandescent bulbs have given way to the modern LED version, which burns much cooler and is more energy-efficient. Strict controls on the manufacture, importation and sale of electrical products in Australia have also improved the safety factor with Christmas lighting.
Still, as with anything connected to electricity, risks will always exist, so buy approved lights, install them properly, monitor how they’re going and don’t leave them unattended.
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree
Having a decorative tree in the corner of the living room with piles of presents underneath is a time-honoured tradition around the world, and Australia is no different. Whether you choose an artificial tree or a freshly cut pine tree, there are safety factors to think about.
Give the trunk a little bounce on the ground – if a lot of needles fall off, it was probably cut too long ago and has dried out.
If you’re using an artificial tree, make sure it’s constructed from flame retardant or non-flammable materials.
If you’re using a natural tree, keep it well watered so it doesn’t dry out. When buying a pine tree for Christmas, choose the freshest-looking one you can find. Give the trunk a little bounce on the ground – if a lot of needles fall off, it was probably cut too long ago and has dried out. All the pine needles should be green and pliant on a fresh tree.
All natural Christmas trees have a finite life span. Don’t put them up too soon before Christmas or leave them hanging around longer than a week or so afterwards.
Keep cigarette smokers and other heat/flame sources away from the tree.
Your tree stand should be full of water at all times – if you leave a natural tree to dry out too much, it can go up in flames in an instant as this shocking video shows. Natural pine Christmas trees contain highly flammable oils that can flare up incredibly quickly if they catch fire (did you know turpentine can be distilled from pine sap?) 4.
Decorations and Christmas candles
Christmas decorations come in all shapes, sizes and materials and most are pretty safe to use, year after year. However, around Christmas lights, it’s important to be especially careful with homemade decorations made from light tissue paper and other easily ignitable materials.
Avoid decorations that break easily or have small or sharp parts that can be a danger to small children.
If the power board is close to the tree, beware of tinsel falling on top of it – tinsel is composed of metal foil which can conduct electricity. Tinsel should also be kept away from Christmas lights. Make sure electrical transformers aren’t covered up with decorations or gifts: this is a common cause of holiday season fires in Australian homes 5.
Typical Christmas weather in our part of the world doesn’t normally require the use of fireplaces or indoor heaters, but still be aware of placing any hanging decorations near anything that can get hot – especially the kitchen stove and oven.
Avoid decorations that break easily or have small or sharp parts that can be a danger to small children.
Don’t attach decorations directly to lights and keep them far away from candles.
Everyone loves Carols by Candlelight, but candles in the home can be a real hazard. If a candle gets knocked over by a window draught or clumsy Christmas reveller, it can set a room ablaze in minutes.
Candles should always be on a secure, stable base and be kept away from curtains, upholstery and flammable liquids. Candles shouldn’t be used at all when there are small kids around.
Extinguish all candles before leaving a room – you can always relight them later.
Beware of using candles on tables covered with plastic tablecloths – these can catch fire quickly if the candle topples over. Extinguish all candles before leaving a room – you can always relight them later. Keep all fire-lighters, matches and lit cigarettes away from youngsters and have a fire escape plan in place that the whole family has practiced.
Check out our article DIY Christmas Ideas to get into the Christmas spirit and enjoy the holiday season. And make sure you have appropriate home and contents insurance to protect your valuable home if the unexpected should happen.