How to Avoid Overloaded Circuits With Christmas Lights

Christmas is a time for beautiful lights and decorations, but all of those extra lights can easily overload circuits and cause dangerous electrical situations. Avoiding overloaded circuits requires some strategic planning and thoughtful execution. By following some key tips, you can keep your home’s electrical system running safely and efficiently throughout the holiday season.

Audit Your Christmas Lights

The first step is taking stock of all the lights and decor you plan to use. Make a list with the following information:

  • Number of light strands
  • Length of each strand
  • Wattage rating on each strand
  • Any other high wattage decorations (blow up figures, projectors etc.)
  • Number of outlets you plan to use

This audit will give you a good idea of your total wattage load. As a general rule, do not exceed 80% of your circuit breaker’s amperage rating. For typical 15 amp household circuits, that equates to around 1400-1500 watts.

Strategize Your Lighting Plan

With your wattage numbers in hand, you can now strategize the best placement for lights to avoid overloads.

Distribute Lights Evenly

Avoid plugging all your lights into just one or two outlets. This easily overloads those circuits. Instead, evenly distribute lights throughout your indoor and outdoor wiring. For example, if you have 1000 watts of lights, you could distribute them with:

  • 500 watts on the living room circuit
  • 300 watts on the front porch circuit
  • 200 watts on the tree circuit

Spreading the load prevents any one circuit from becoming overloaded.

Evaluate Each Room’s Circuits

Consider the amperage rating of circuits in each room. For example, kitchen circuits are often 20 amps, while bedroom circuits may only be 15 amps. Use your higher capacity circuits for more lights.

Use Timers and Controllers

Programmable timers and controllers allow you to easily manage multiple strands of lights with varying schedules. This prevents all the lights from running simultaneously, which reduces the electrical load.

Check For Daisy Chaining

Daisy chaining is connecting multiple strands end-to-end into one long string of lights. This can overload circuits if not done carefully, as it concentrates all the wattage into one outlet. Avoid daisy chaining more than 3 or 4 strands together.

Use LED Lights

LED Christmas lights use up to 90% less electricity than incandescent bulbs. Replace any old strands with efficient LEDs to greatly reduce wattage. Just 500 incandescent lights use about 400 watts, while LEDs use around 50 watts.

Use Proper Extension Cords

Heavy duty extension cords are often needed during the holidays, but using undersized cords can lead to overload issues:

Match Cord to Wattage Rating

Select extension cords rated for your total wattage. For high wattage applications, use at least 14 gauge cords rated for 15 amps (1875 watts).

Avoid Cheap Light Duty Cords

Thin, lightweight extension cords are meant for low wattage uses under 10 amps. For Christmas lights, spend a little more on thicker 12 or 14 gauge cords.

Don’t Exceed Cord Lengths

Voltage drop increases with longer cords, which can reduce efficiency. Keep runs under 100 feet for best voltage supply, and avoid linking multiple extension cords.

Use GFCI Protection

For all outdoor uses, ensure extension cords are GFCI protected to prevent shocks. GFCI outlets and extension cords trip quickly if electricity flows outside the cord.

Check Condition of Cords

Inspect all cords for damage before using. Fraying, cracked insulation and exposed wires can indicate a faulty cord that’s a fire or shock hazard. Replace any suspect cords.

Use Proper Outdoor Lighting Gear

Outdoor Christmas lights require weather resistant materials and connection methods:

Choose Outdoor Rated Cords

Cords meant for indoor use can deteriorate outside. Use only extension cords labeled for outdoor use.

Use Plastic Clip Connectors

Avoid nail-in Christmas light clips, which can damage cords. Use plastic clip-on connectors to safely fasten lights without putting holes in the cord.

Plug Connections Off the Ground

Always elevate light connections above wet ground. Place plugs in a covered box or use an outdoor outlet cover to prevent moisture damage.

Install a GFCI Outlet

Having a GFCI protected outdoor outlet is the safest option. A GFCI trips when it detects abnormal current flow to prevent shocks.

Use a Weatherproof Cover

For regular outdoor outlets, install a “bubble cover” to protect the outlet from rain and snow. This prevents moisture from tracking into the outlet.

Check Lights Daily

Inspect all outdoor lights daily for signs of wear like frayed cords or broken lamp holders. Water can degrade lights quickly. Replace immediately if any damage is found.

Be Strategic With Power Strips

Power strips offer an easy way to add extra outlets, but they must be used properly:

Don’t Piggyback Power Strips

Piggybacking means plugging one power strip into another. This can quickly overload circuits. Always plug strips directly into wall outlets.

Don’t Use Low Quality Strips

Avoid cheap, lightweight power strips without built-in circuit breakers. Use heavy-duty, 12+ gauge models rated for 15 amps.

Space Out High Draw Items

Don’t plug heaters, projectors or other high wattage items into the same strip as lights. Distribute these into separate strips and outlets.

Never Exceed Strip Rating

Add up wattages to ensure you don’t overload the strip’s circuit breaker. For example, don’t exceed 1875 watts on a 15 amp strip.

Don’t Conceal Strips

Do not run cords or strips under rugs where heat can build up. This creates a fire hazard.

Inspect All Decorations

Scan all holiday decor thoroughly for damage before displaying:

Check Cords and Wires

Examine decoration wiring for cracked, frayed or exposed cables. Also look for loose plugs and incomplete connections.

Note Damage

Note any decorations with broken, cracked or missing lights or plastic parts. These exposed components pose a shock and fire hazard.

Ensure Flame Retardant Materials

Older decorations may not meet current flame retardancy standards. Check labels to confirm retardant materials.

Use Only Indoor Lights Inside

Lights made only for indoor use can overheat and ignite flammable materials outside. Verify outdoor/indoor ratings.

Check For Recalls

Search online for any recalls related to lights or decorations you are using. Follow proper disposal guidelines for recalled products.

Exercise Caution With Holiday Displays

How and where you display lights requires special attention:

Secure Cords Properly

Don’t just tack up cords haphazardly. Use plastic hooks to neatly and safely secure cords out of high traffic areas.

Position Away From Flammables

Keep lights away from flammable materials like curtains. Never wrap lights directly around flammable decorations.

Avoid Overhead Light Connections

Plugging in strands while standing on a ladder is very dangerous. Set up a safe, ground level connection area.

Fasten Lights Securely Outside

Use clips, hooks and insulated staples to firmly fasten outdoor lights. Check frequently for loose lights.

No Overhead Line Connections

Never drape light strands over power or cable lines. Contact can fray the cords, causing a dangerous electrical hazard.

Check Lights are Off When Away

Turn off all indoor and outdoor lighting when away from home. Lights left on for long periods create fire risks.

Watch For Signs of Electrical Issues

Stay alert for any of the following warning signs of an overloaded circuit:

Flickering Lights

If lights periodically dim and brighten, the circuit is being overloaded. The voltage is dropping, making the lights flicker.

Burning Smell

A burning odor indicates overheated wiring and insulation. Unplug all items from affected outlets immediately.

Warm Outlet Faceplates

Receptacles and outlet cover plates that feel warm to the touch signal an overloaded circuit. Disconnect some lights.

Tripping Breakers

Frequently tripped circuit breakers are a clear sign of overload. The breaker is doing its job to prevent electrical fire.

Buzzing, Cracking or Sizzling

Unusual noises from wires or outlets can mean damage within the walls. Have an electrician inspect for dangerous faults.

Vibrating Wall Plates

Wall plates that vibrate or move slightly may indicate unsafe arcing behind the walls. Leave outlets turned off until wiring is examined.

Sparks or Smoke

Seeing sparks, smoke or scorched marks around outlets is extremely hazardous. Turn off power immediately and call an electrician to investigate.

Prevent Damage to Home Electrical System

Avoid harm to your home’s electrical infrastructure using these tips:

Use Compact Florescent or LED Bulbs

CFLs and LEDs generate much less heat than traditional bulbs. This puts less stress on lights and cords.

Alternate Lighting Schedules

Program decorations on alternating schedules so all lights are not on simultaneously at peak wattage each night.

Provide Good Ventilation Around Lights

Ensure decorations and cords have open air space around them and are not tightly packed together or covered.

Turn Off When Not Home

Disconnect all unnecessary lighting when away from home. Don’t leave unattended lights on for long periods.

Remove Lights Gently

Unwrap light strands from trees and bushes carefully to avoid leaving coils which can damage wiring.

Allow Cords Enough Slack

Don’t pull cords taut across walkways, under doors or around decorations. This can stress and fray cords.

Call An Electrician for Major Issues

If confronting any of the following electrical obstacles, call a licensed professional:

  • Old, outdated electrical panel or wiring
  • Not enough outlets to distribute lighting
  • Recurring tripped breakers or blown fuses
  • Previous overload damage like scorched outlets
  • Moisture in outdoor wires and lighting

Safely lighting up your home for the holidays depends on strategic planning. Carefully audit your decorations, distribute lights evenly, choose heavy duty cords and power strips, securely fasten all connections, inspect for damage and continually monitor lights for overload indicators. With some diligence and electrical know-how, you can deck the halls without overloading your circuits!

Frequently Asked Questions About Overloaded Christmas Light Circuits

Christmas lights are a staple holiday decoration, but their extra electrical load can easily overwhelm home circuits. Here are answers to some common questions about avoiding overloaded circuits when stringing festive lights.

How many light strands can I safely connect?

As a general rule, avoid connecting more than three or four 100-light incandescent strands together end-to-end. Any more than that can potentially overload a typical 15 or 20 amp residential circuit. For LED strands, you may be able to safely connect more since they use much less electricity.

What gauge extension cord is best?

For Christmas lights, use a heavy duty 12 or 14 gauge extension cord. Lower 16 or 18 gauge cords can overheat with high wattage holiday lighting. Ensure the cord’s wattage rating exceeds your total wattage.

Can I run cords under carpets?

Never run extension cords or power strips under rugs or carpets. Covering cords traps heat and can ignite a fire. Use exterior-rated flat cords designed to safely lie under carpets if needed.

What’s the risk of overloading a circuit?

Overloads create increased heat in wires and outlets that can melt insulation, scorch walls, spark fires and increase electric shock risks. Circuit breakers or fuses will trip, but only after overload potential.

Should I use a timer for outdoor lighting?

Timers are highly recommended for outdoor lighting. They prevent lights from being left on inadvertently for excessive periods. Automatically varying lighting schedules also reduces electrical load.

How many drops of voltage are unsafe?

Voltage drop over 3% can be problematic for lighting. Measure voltage at the first and last bulb to determine drop. If greater than 3%, rearrange lights to shorten cord length.

Can I plug a space heater and lights into one outlet?

No, small space heaters and lighting should always have separate dedicated outlets. The high amp draw of a heater combined with lights can easily overload a circuit.

What gauge wire should I use for outdoor lighting?

Outdoor light wiring is exposed to moisture, so thicker is better. Use a heavy 12 or 14 gauge cord that’s designed and rated for outdoor use. Never use thin, indoor-only cords outside.

Should I turn the lights off when I’m asleep/away?

Yes, turn off or unplug all lights when asleep or away from home. Unattended lights left on for long periods increase fire risks. Outdoor lighting left on all day also wastes electricity.

How can I fix dim flickering lights?

Lights that intermittently dim or brighten are usually caused by a voltage drop from an overloaded circuit. Turn off or unplug some strands to reduce the electrical load.

Key Takeaways for Avoiding Overloaded Christmas Light Circuits

Christmas lights are beautiful but require extra diligence to prevent electrical overload hazards. Keep these key tips in mind:

  • Audit wattages before stringing lights and decorations. Do not exceed 80% of breaker amp rating.
  • Distribute lighting evenly throughout indoor and outdoor circuits. Avoid plugging all strands into one outlet.
  • Use heavy duty extension cords and power strips rated for your total wattages.
  • Carefully inspect all lights and decorations for damage before displaying. Discard damaged items.
  • Secure cords properly with non-conductive fasteners. Position cords safely away from flammables.
  • Monitor lights for flickering, heat, trips and other warning signs of possible overload issues.
  • Unplug lighting when not in use to avoid unattended fire risks. Take extra care with outdoor connections.
  • Call an electrician immediately if you have any continued tripped breakers, sparks, smoke or electrical concerns.

With careful circuit audits, strategic lighting plans, high-quality cords and decorations, and continual monitoring, you can deck out your home with stunning lights without overloading critical electrical circuits. Stay vigilant, distribute wattages wisely and enjoy a bright, breathtaking and safe holiday display.


The holidays are a time for beautiful twinkling lights, but also a period of increased electrical load on home circuits. Avoiding overloaded circuits when decorating requires diligent planning, high quality cords and decorations, careful installation and monitoring, and a thoughtful distribution of lighting wattages. By following proper protocols, inspecting equipment, and enlisting an electrician when needed, you can safely illuminate your home with spectacular holiday cheer. This season, let your home shine brightly without any blown fuses, tripped breakers, flickering lights or overload hazards. Take the needed steps to light up the holidays in the safest and most dazzling way possible!