I was in a very nice restaurant the other evening, and I noticed something while pondering the electrical code that got me to thinking: Those are really cool "Christmas Lights” they have strung all around the restaurant. It made me think of the holiday season. The only problem was it was July!
Holiday lighting has existed for centuries. Early
lighting consisted of bringing in an evergreen tree and adorning it with
candles. It did not take long for an open flame and a drying out tree to
produce unfavorable results.
With the development and use of electricity came the
desire to make things safer. Out went the unsafe candles and in came the
strands of holiday lighting. Early versions of holiday lighting were seen
annually during the Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Millions of
homes were decorated with various forms of holiday lighting strands and
ornaments. Children were mesmerized by the beautiful lights and with the hopes
that Santa would be visiting soon.
Photo 1. Cool icy treats available from this holiday lights ship. Photos by J. Wages, Jr.
Who can forget the movie Christmas Vacation
and Clark Griswold’s obsession with having the brightest house on the block?
Clark Griswold’s installation had electrical inspectors cringing all over the
world, but the local utility was happily benefiting from the use of more
Unfortunately, there are people that take things a
little too far. The NEC addresses holiday lighting in Article 410 and
Article 590 and limits the use of this product. We will also be referencing UL
standards in this article.
Photo 2. Can you find the opossum in the sea of lights? This photo demonstrates that not all holiday lighting is temporary; some is left in place year-round. Photo by J. Wages, Jr.
One of the requirements is that holiday lighting
shall be listed. Another one limits the installation and use to 90 days as seen below for your review:
410.160 Listing of Decorative Lighting. Decorative lighting and similar accessories used for
holiday lighting and similar purposes, in accordance with 590.3(B), shall be
listed. (2011 NEC)
590.3 Time Constraints.
(B) 90 Days. Temporary electric power and
lighting installations shall be permitted for a period not to exceed 90 days
for holiday decorative lighting and similar purposes. (2011 NEC)
590.5 also contains lighting requirements for holiday lighting.
A Little History
A wise man
asked me a series of questions concerning these installations. Since I did not
know all the answers, I visited our library to find a few more answers.
From my research results, requirements for these
installations first appeared in the 1971 NEC. At that time, these
requirements were located in a new article, entitled "Temporary Wiring,” and
were found in Chapter 3, Article 305. Code-Making Panel 6 made the proposal in
hopes of generating enough comments to establish an adequate section for
temporary wiring in the NEC. The panel vote was unanimous for this new
The language was similar to that now located in
Article 590. The language in 305-1(b) stated that temporary electrical power
and lighting installations may be used for a period not to exceed 90 days for
Christmas decorative lighting, carnivals, and similar purposes, and for
experimental and development work. It is interesting that the word "Christmas”
was specifically mentioned at that time.
The 1999 NEC was the last edition to contain
Article 305. For the 2002 NEC, Article 305 was deleted and Article 527
became the location for finding a new term holiday lighting; but this
article was to be short-lived. In the 2005 NEC, Article 527 vanished,
and Temporary Wiring Installations was moved to Article 590 where it remains
Photo 3. Old-fashioned Christmas lights. Courtesy of David Dini, Underwriters Laboratories
It is interesting to ponder another question. We
often see trees within parks adorned with holiday lighting. Is this permitted
by the NEC? Let’s visit 590.4 (J) in the 2011 NEC concerning
support. The language here reads:
(J) Support. Cable
assemblies and flexible cords and cables shall be supported in place at
intervals that ensure that they will be protected from physical damage. Support
shall be in the form of staples, cable ties, straps, or similar type fittings
installed so as not to cause damage.
Vegetation shall not be used for support of overhead
spans of branch circuits or feeders.
However, we find an exception to this main rule, which
Articles 225 and 230 still prohibit feeders and
services from being supported by vegetation. By exception in Article 590,
branch-circuit conductors and cables are allowed to be supported by vegetation
and trees if appropriate strain relief devices and/or take-up devices are
holiday lighting in accordance with 590.3(B), where the conductors or cables
are arranged with strain relief devices, tension take-up devices, or other
approved means to avoid damage from the movement of the live vegetation, trees
shall be permitted to be used for support of overhead spans of branch-circuit
conductors or cables.
Unfortunately, needless loss of life and
property result from the use of these products. Every year there are news
reports of families losing their homes or loved ones due to careless use of
holiday lighting. Placement of these products on once live trees that have a
tendency to dry out has resulted in many fires. Improper use of extension cords
is another contributing factor. Again, revisiting the movie Christmas
Vacation helps drive home this point. In this scene, a family member who is
a careless smoker ignites the tree at their Christmas celebration.
nationally recognized testing laboratories such as Underwriters Laboratories
conduct investigations on the flammability of some of these products. This
author was fortunate enough to be able to witness one of these tests. The tests
were conducted with two Christmas trees. One had a fire rating and the other
did not. It does not take long for a once beautifully adorned tree to become a
raging tower of inferno. Viewing this testing procedure drove home for me the
simple point that things like this could become truly dangerous if not treated
UL Standard 588
addresses the use of Seasonal and Holiday Decorative Products. This standard
was developed due to testing of these various seasonal and holiday products.
The UL 588 document is included for your review:
Seasonal and Holiday Decorative Products
1.1 These requirements cover temporary-use, seasonal
decorative-lighting products and accessories with a maximum input voltage
rating of 120 V to be used in accordance with the National Electrical Code,
ANSI/NFPA 70. Temporary-use is considered to be a period of installation and
use not exceeding 90 days.
1.2 These requirements cover
factory-assembled seasonal lighting strings with push-in, midget-screw, or
miniature-screw lampholders connected in series for across-the-line use or with
candelabra- or intermediate-screw lampholders connected in parallel for direct-connection
use. These requirements also cover
factory-assembled seasonal decorative outfits such as wreaths, stars, light
sculptures, crosses, candles or candle sets without lamp shades, products in
the shape of, or in resemblance to, a Christmas tree not exceeding 30 inches
(762 mm) in height as measured from the top of the tree to the bottom of the
base of the tree and provided with simulated branches and needles, products in
the shape of, or in resemblance to, a wreath not exceeding 48 inches (1219 mm)
in outer diameter and provided with simulated branches and needles, blow-molded
figures or objects, animated figures, tree tops, controllers, tree stands, and
motorized decorative displays. These requirements cover products which are
portable and not permanently connected to a power source.
1.3 These requirements additionally cover ornaments which
are provided with an adapter for connection to a push-in lampholder and are
intended to replace a push-in lamp in a series-connected decorative-lighting string
or decorative outfit.
1.4 These requirements do not cover
strings employing lampholders larger than intermediate-screw, non-seasonal
lighting, non-seasonal products, permanently connected products, non-decorative
lighting intended for illumination only, cord sets, or temporary power taps.
These requirements also do not cover nightlights which are covered under the
Standard for Direct Plug-In Nightlights, UL 1786, or flexible lighting products
that are not part of a decorative outfit which are covered under the Standard
for Flexible Lighting Products, UL 2388.
1.6 These requirements do not cover
portable electric lamps intended for general illumination with a seasonal
decoration and a typical lamp shade construction open at the top and bottom,
which are covered under the Standard for Portable Electric Luminaires, UL 153.
One can also find useful information within the 2013
UL White book. See Categories DGVT, DGWU, DGXU, DGXO, DGXW and DGZZ. Category
DGVT does not cover nonseasonal lighting, nonseasonal products, permanently
connected products, nondecorative lighting intended for general illumination
only, cord sets (extension cords) or relocatable power taps.
UL 588 has language at 1.6 to clarify that a Portable
Lamp (intended for general illumination) is not covered under UL 588, even if
it has a seasonal theme. An example would be a portable lamp with a lampshade
and a Santa Claus on its stand. This would still be covered under UL 153, the
Standard for Portable Lamps.
Photo 4. Christmas lighting to the extreme.
UL 153, states at
1.4 that these requirements do not cover Christmas trees and decorative
lighting outfits, electric candles and candelabras without lampshades, or
portable luminaires with a seasonal decoration and a lampshade of other than
the open top and bottom construction. It directs us to the Standard for
Seasonal and Holiday Decorative Products, UL 588.
The holidays are a time for celebration with
family and loved ones. The anticipation of Santa and his reindeer is broadcast
annually by many weather stations throughout the country. Technological
advances have allowed us to track Santa with great detail and success, but
holiday lighting has a purpose and a time frame for use. It is fun and
enjoyable, but all good things must come to an end. For the safety of the user,
this lighting has been deemed as temporary and has a 90-day limit of use.
Photo 5. UL testing procedures help assure safety with these products.
Take a look around and see how much of this lighting
is being used on a non-temporary basis. There may be a need for manufacturers
to produce a similar item that can be tested and listed for year-round use. A
review of fire statistics might suggest that this product could be safely used
more than the Code currently allows. It is evident that demand exists
for such items. The Code may need to look further at these installations
and offer additional guidance.
Some homes and businesses elect to leave these lights
installed yearly so as not to have to put them up and take them back down. Even
though these items are not energized for a vast amount of the year, is this
acceptable and in line with the intended use of this product? Let’s take a few
moments to think about the consequences of this situation. It is never our
intent for someone to get hurt. This is not the season for something that is
unavoidable to take place. Happy Holidays to all and please celebrate
Electrical Code, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2011
Copyright © Underwriters
Laboratories Inc. Standard for Seasonal
and Holiday Decorative Products, UL 588, 18th edition, 2000
Copyright © Underwriters
Laboratories Inc. Standard for Portable
Electrical Luminaires, UL153, 12th edition, 2002
Copyright © Underwriters Laboratories Inc. Guide Information for Electrical Equipment ,
White Book, 2013. Categories DGVT, DGWU,
DGXU, DGXO, DGXW and DGZZ.