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Holiday lights evolution from candles offer an even brighter future

Skagit County Clean Energy Cooperative

Holiday lights abound. As Ray Stevens said about Santa Claus, they’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! They’re all over La Conner’s homes, streetlight posts and various public spaces. The big Christmas tree in Gilkey Square dominates the north end of downtown. The tiny tree auction has come and gone at the La Conner Swinomish Library.

Thousands of years ago, the tradition of holiday lighting started with simple oil or candle menorahs, which were (and still are) used by Jewish families to mark Hanukkah. In the 18th century, central European Christians greatly increased the scale of holiday lighting, by decorating Christmas trees with wax candles.

The invention of electric lights made holiday illumination much less flammable. Thomas Edison, in the U.S. and Joseph Swan, in the U.K., each filed for incandescent electric light patents in 1879. Electric holiday lights quickly followed, when, in 1880, Edison employee Edward Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue electric bulbs and wound them around a Christmas tree.

Incandescent lights dominated holiday lighting for the next 120 years. They were significantly simpler than whale oil lamps; brighter and less flammable than beeswax candles; and available in multiple colors, but they still had problems. The small, inexpensively made bulbs were often unreliable. Failure of a single bulb would often cause the entire light string to go dark. That’s inconvenient on a tree and even more so on outdoor strings that require work with a ladder to replace a single light bulb.

In the early 2000s, incandescent holiday lights became obsolete when inexpensive, energy-efficient light emitting diode bulbs went into mass production. A set of four 25-lamp indoor Christmas tree light strings made with 3 Watt incandescent bulbs, lit four hours a day, used 30 kilowatt-hours of energy over a 25-day holiday season. Today’s similar LED strings are made with 0.6 W bulbs and only need 6 kWh, saving enough money per string to buy AAA batteries for toys that didn’t include them.

LED lights can be up to 10 times as energy efficient as similar incandescent lights. LED bulbs have a brighter light and last much longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. Replacing individual tree lights is becoming as obsolete as traveling to grandma’s house in a one-horse open sleigh.

Given their energy-efficiency, durability and versatility, LED displays have grown to huge sizes. They can cover stadium roofs, or outline high-rise buildings. Users can customize colors, patterns and brightness levels. Recently, app-based control technology has been integrated into some holiday lighting systems. Smart LED light displays can now be managed remotely via smartphones, personal computers or voice assistants. Users can set controls like timers and motion sensors to turn lights on at sunset and off at midnight, or to go on if reindeer set off a motion sensor near the chimney.

Ultra-efficient LED lights are starting to be combined with inexpensive rechargeable batteries and solar panels. It’s becoming possible to use solar power and batteries to accumulate electricity in the daytime to run holiday lights at night. This should, in turn, eventually enable the installation of LED lights in locations without permanent power, further extending the use of holiday lighting to locations that have never seen it before, like the Grinch’s home all the way up at the top of Mt. Crumpet.

Holiday lights abound. As Ray Stevens said about Santa Claus, they’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! They’re all over La Conner’s homes, streetlight posts and various public spaces. The big Christmas tree in Gilkey Square dominates the north end of downtown. The tiny tree auction has come and gone at the La Conner Swinomish Library.

Thousands of years ago, the tradition of holiday lighting started with simple oil or candle menorahs, which were (and still are) used by Jewish families to mark Hanukkah. In the 18th century, central European Christians greatly increased the scale of holiday lighting, by decorating Christmas trees with wax candles.

The invention of electric lights made holiday illumination much less flammable. Thomas Edison, in the U.S. and Joseph Swan, in the U.K., each filed for incandescent electric light patents in 1879. Electric holiday lights quickly followed, when, in 1880, Edison employee Edward Johnson hand-wired 80 red, white and blue electric bulbs and wound them around a Christmas tree.

Incandescent lights dominated holiday lighting for the next 120 years. They were significantly simpler than whale oil lamps; brighter and less flammable than beeswax candles; and available in multiple colors, but they still had problems. The small, inexpensively made bulbs were often unreliable. Failure of a single bulb would often cause the entire light string to go dark. That’s inconvenient on a tree and even more so on outdoor strings that require work with a ladder to replace a single light bulb.

In the early 2000s, incandescent holiday lights became obsolete when inexpensive, energy-efficient light emitting diode bulbs went into mass production. A set of four 25-lamp indoor Christmas tree light strings made with 3 Watt incandescent bulbs, lit four hours a day, used 30 kilowatt-hours of energy over a 25-day holiday season. Today’s similar LED strings are made with 0.6 W bulbs and only need 6 kWh, saving enough money per string to buy AAA batteries for toys that didn’t include them.

LED lights can be up to 10 times as energy efficient as similar incandescent lights. LED bulbs have a brighter light and last much longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. Replacing individual tree lights is becoming as obsolete as traveling to grandma’s house in a one-horse open sleigh.

Given their energy-efficiency, durability and versatility, LED displays have grown to huge sizes. They can cover stadium roofs, or outline high-rise buildings. Users can customize colors, patterns and brightness levels. Recently, app-based control technology has been integrated into some holiday lighting systems. Smart LED light displays can now be managed remotely via smartphones, personal computers or voice assistants. Users can set controls like timers and motion sensors to turn lights on at sunset and off at midnight, or to go on if reindeer set off a motion sensor near the chimney.

Ultra-efficient LED lights are starting to be combined with inexpensive rechargeable batteries and solar panels. It’s becoming possible to use solar power and batteries to accumulate electricity in the daytime to run holiday lights at night. This should, in turn, eventually enable the installation of LED lights in locations without permanent power, further extending the use of holiday lighting to locations that have never seen it before, like the Grinch’s home all the way up at the top of Mt. Crumpet.

 

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