During the festive season, no decorated home would be complete without at least one set of twinkling fairy lights, and my place is no exception. Whilst I aim to be as environmentally friendly as possible, I love a traditional family Christmas and believe that with a bit of thought you can still make ‘greener’ choices during this time of excess. Unfortunately, many people who are careful with energy throughout the year leave strands and strands of tiny bulbs blazing day and night throughout December in an attempt to instil a Christmassy ambiance. Then you have those who really go to town and put up outdoor illuminations that make the Griswold family Christmas look subtle by comparison. As a child I found such displays magical, now I find them thoughtless. On top of the utter waste of energy, the light pollution blocks out the stars, which to me are the most beautiful light show of all. Only this week, I read an article about a family in Canberra who have achieved a Guinness world record by covering their home in more than half a million Christmas lights! They raised money for charity and thankfully were sponsored by a green energy company, but it epitomizes a worrying trend. Every year there is a push to make light displays bigger and better and it all takes a massive toll on the environment.
Christmas lighting and your Carbon footprint
The sad fact is that unless you are running your Christmas lighting on renewable energy or sourcing your power from a green energy supplier your festive celebrations are increasing greenhouse gas emissions. At present, 80.6% of the world’s energy consumption comes from dirty fossil fuels. Here in Australia, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as much as 80 per cent of electricity is generated by large, centralised carbon–intensive, coal-based power stations. In 2012, the United States generated about 4,054 billion kilo-watt-hours (kWh) of electricity, of which approximately 68% was generated from fossil fuels. Meanwhile in Britain, where the ‘Big Six’ energy giants control 98% of the market, 61.5 units of every 100 generated by coal and gas fired stations are lost through inefficient generation and heat wastage. The easiest way to reduce your carbon footprint is therefore to reduce your energy consumption, but what does that mean for your Christmas lighting?
How much energy is wasted by Christmas lighting?
If you think a few Christmas lights can’t possibly do that much harm, you would be surprised at the cumulative effect of all the households who probably think the same. In the USA, the Department of Energy estimates that more than 6 Terra-watt hours (TWh) of energy each year is expended on holiday lighting. The equivalent of the total monthly energy consumption of nearly 500,000 homes. In the UK, the Energy Saving Trust claims that the cost of Christmas tree lighting adds us to a combined energy bill of 7.5 million. Another 2010 study by UK comparison site ‘Go compare’ reported that the use of 100 5W bulbs for 6 hours a day during the festive season consumes around 207 kWh of energy, which is equal to the average total consumption of energy over 22.8 days by British householders. I don’t want to sound like some kind of Eco-Grinch, but in the season of giving, taking so much from the environment just doesn’t seem right. Something needs to change.
Lower your Carbon footprint and save money by switching to LED’s
There is a very easy way to instantly reduce your Christmas power consumption, just ditch the tangled old ball of incandescents and make the switch to light-emitting diodes (LEDs). LED’s use 10- 30% of the electricity used by strands of old-school incandescent bulbs, so you immediately reduce your carbon footprint. To calculate just how much difference such a change would make to your energy bill, simply take a look at the label on your current Christmas lights and do the math. Multiply the Volts by the Amps and you get the watts per hour, then calculate the number of hours you intend to run the lights per day and multiply that by your suppliers cost per kWh. If you have a lot of light strings and are running them daily for an extended period, you could find that the energy savings you achieve by switching to LED’s will completely offset the cost of the purchase price within the first year. Whilst early LED’s were expensive, prices have plummeted and are now very competitive. Last year I purchased a set with 500 bulbs suitable for outdoor use for around £30 and they run on about 30 watts.
Other advantages of LED’s
Whilst LED’s once had a tendency to flicker and had a less than cosy cool blue hue, that has all changed in recent years and a range of colours and styles are now available. Look for ‘warm white’ if you wish to achieve a similar glow to that of traditional fairy lights. LED’s shine brighter and produce directional light so you need less per foot to effectively illuminate the tree. They are also much more durable as they have wear resistant bulbs that won’t break or fade. LED strings can last 20,000 – 100,000 hours compared to the pitiful 1,200 hour lifespan of incandescents. This means fewer replacements and less waste. If you have ever had one light in your string of fairy lights blow, you know the sheer frustration of painfully checking every single bulb to identify the dud. Switch to LED’s and you will never experience this again. If one bulb no longer works, the rest of the strand still functions absolutely fine without it. They are also made up of electric components rather than filaments with gas enclosed bulbs so are less toxic and much easier to dispose of/recycle.
In terms of safety, LED’s again win hands down. Traditional lights run hot, you wrap them around a load of dried pine needles, place paper covered presents under the tree as kindling and then possibly leave a couple of gift wrapped liquor or aftershave bottles lying around to act as an accelerant. To all extents and purposes you are building a pretty effective pyre to torch that angel. Between 2006-2010, U.S. fire departments responded to an an average of around 230 home structure fires a year that started as a result of Christmas trees. These fires caused an annual average of 4 deaths, 21 injuries, and $17.3 million in direct property damage. Christmas lights were involved in 14% of these incidents. Thankfully LED’s are cool to the touch, so very unlikely to cause a fire hazard.
Additional tips for reducing the environmental impact of your Christmas lighting
Whilst LED’s use considerable less power than incandescents and have a much longer life-span, they still use energy, are made from plastics and epoxy resin and will eventually need to be thrown away. Here are some additional tips to help you make sure your Christmas lighting choices are as green as possible:
– Switch off your tree lights when you go to bed or place them on a timer to reduce energy consumption
– Position your Christmas tree in a corner and cut down the number of lights needed per foot by decorating only the area actually on display
– Avoid epic extravagant Christmas light displays that are more likely to infuriate your neighbours than make them jealous.
– After Christmas, store away the strands carefully to extend life as much as possible
– Recycle old Christmas lights. There are a number of companies and organisations who will reuse the materials from your Christmas tree lights regardless of the type you have. Some will accept them as a donation, others give a discount on a new set of LED’s!
– If you are on the grid, consider solar powered Christmas lights, especially for outdoor displays.
– Consider putting lights on only after dark and switching off other lights
– Source your electricity supply to a verified green energy company
– Ensure you do not use more lights than needed. There is a useful LED light table here to calculate how many bulbs per string would be effective on your tree. Less lights are required per foot when using LED’s as they are much brighter.
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