Decorating? Don't get your wires crossed

Hello, up there -- you on the ladder with the string of lights in your hands. Where are you going to plug those in? That outlet down there beside the tree that already has a portable heater and the tree lights plugged in? Think again.

Winter and the holiday season bring happy times, happy memories and peaceful thoughts of home and family.


But -- by putting a strain on electric systems and electric cords -- the holidays also bring increased risk of fire. Before you get out the heater, put up the first decoration or untangle the first string of lights, you need to do an electricity management plan. Here are some things to think about.



*Wherever possible, plug portable electric heaters directly into outlets. If you must use an extension cord, use one that's rated higher than the cord on the appliance. The owner's manual will tell you the amperage of the appliance; the rating should be printed on the extension cord.

If the device requires 15 amps or less, use an extension cord labeled 14-gauge. If the device requires from 15 to 20 amps, use a 12-gauge extension cord; more than 20 would require a 10-gauge or heavier cord, but an appliance requiring that kind of amperage should really be plugged straight into the outlet.

If you can't figure out the amperage or the gauge of the cord, make sure that the extension cord is fatter than the appliance cord. Never use an extension cord that's thinner than the appliance cord.

If you have fuses rather than circuit breakers, don't install a 20-amp fuse in a 15-amp slot to run a heater -- you may be overheating the wiring in the walls, and that could lead to fire.

(Also, for safety's sake, you should keep heaters at least 3 feet away from bedding, drapes, clothing and other flammable items. If a wall or other surface near a heater feels hot to the touch, the heater's too close. Remember that unvented kerosene and gas heaters are illegal in Baltimore City. Besides the danger of fire, they release enough pollutants to reduce indoor air quality.)

*When it comes to Christmas decorations, extension cords often play a role. Try to use just one long one, rather than a string of shorter ones. Never run cords under a rug or under anything else that might catch fire.

Check cords periodically, especially at connections, to make sure they're not overheating.

Cut Christmas trees dry out -- keep them watered and don't leave the light on when you're not home.



* Outdoor lights should be plugged into ground-fault-interrupt circuits -- GFIs. The GFI monitors the normal flow of electricity through a circuit's hot and neutral wires. When it senses any imbalance -- a problem in grounding, when a hot wire touches something metal -- it shuts down the circuit in a fraction of a second. A ground fault may not produce the same surge of power as a short circuit, but it's enough for a bad shock -- and if the victim is standing in water, it can be fatal.

Newly constructed or newly rewired houses should have GFI receptacles outdoors. If you can't tell if a receptacle is a GFI, plug something into it, a single string of lights, for instance, and press the test button on a GFI receptacle indoors. The lights should go off. If they don't, the outdoor receptacle isn't a GFI. You can have the outdoor plug rewired for a GFI, or you can buy a portable GFI that will protect the circuit.

If you're using an extension cord outside, make sure it's rated for exterior use. (That information will be available on the packaging.) Protect the connections so they don't droop into puddles or rest where animals can damage them.

Overall, the best advice for keeping holiday decorations safe is to keep the wiring simple. Your only surprise visitor should be Santa with a bag of gifts -- not the local fire department with a 100-gallon-per-minute water hose.

Next: Noises that aren't reindeer on the roof.