How to decorate your Christmas tree without wasting too much energy.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 16 2008 10:43 AM

Do I Have To Throw Out My Christmas Lights?

How to decorate your tree without wasting too much energy.

I know Christmas lights waste electricity, but I just won't give them up. I've seen these LED lights at the store that claim to save energy, and now I'm wondering if they're really any better than the ones in my closet. Should I chuck my old lights immediately for a new set?

Let's be honest here: No matter how hard you try, your decorative light display is never going to be eco-friendly. (Yes, it's true: The Grinch is greener than Santa Claus.) Still, the Lantern sides with the Energy Savings Trust when it says that a straight condemnation of Christmas lights isn't necessary. If decking the halls is a cherished family tradition, there are ways to mitigate your environmental impact. (The same goes for folks who advocate against lighting Hanukkah candles because they produce a few grams of carbon dioxide. To his fellow celebrants of the Festival of Lights, the Lantern has a simple recommendation: Ditch the paraffin candles for beeswax.)

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First, the basics. Old-school incandescent Christmas lights are, indeed, a big energy waster. Turn on a string of hundreds of high-wattage light bulbs and leave them lit for hundreds of hours, and you're using a pretty significant amount of electricity. All told, Christmas lights consume more than six terawatt-hours per year, or something equivalent to the total electricity consumption of 500,000 homes, according to a report commissioned by the Department of Energy (PDF). To make things worse, incandescent lights burn out pretty quickly, so you're likely to be throwing your lights in the trash every few years.

Newfangled LEDs, on the other hand, do use much less energy than incandescents. According to the DoE report, the average strand of larger incandescent C-7 lights runs at about 92 watts; the LED equivalents run at 2.5 watts. For miniature lights, which dominate the market, incandescent lights aren't quite as bad—with the average strand using 36 watts—but that's still far worse than the average five-watt LED minis. LEDs also last as much as 10 times longer, with an operating life of more than 20,000 hours. That's somewhere in the range of 40 or more Christmases for the LEDs. There's an added (albeit not purely environmental) bonus: LED bulbs don't pose the same fire risk as the incandescent kind. (Unlike compact-fluorescent lamps, which are replacing incandescents in most other contexts, LEDs don't contain mercury, either.)

There are a couple of real problems with LED lights, of course. First, they can be a few dollars more expensive at the front end, with the fanciest strings going for more than $40. (In the long term, they're a money-saver.) Second, LED bulbs—and in particular, the larger ones—often don't burn as brightly as their old-school counterparts. But the Lantern has seen LED designs that look as attractive as any incandescent display; just shop around until you find a color and a brand you're happy with.

So should you let your old lights go out in a blaze of glory or replace them immediately? The downside of buying new lights right away is that you'd be wasting a perfectly good product to buy a lot of plastic shipped in from China. LEDs are also more complicated devices than incandescent bulbs, which means they could require more energy to produce. (Efforts to conduct a full life-cycle analysis [PDF] haven't yet been completed.) But lighting experts are generally confident that the "upstream" impact of producing the bulbs doesn't offset their energy savings.

If you're using larger, power-hungry lights, you should invest in LEDs right away. There's a better case for keeping your incandescent mini-lights until they burn out, particularly if you have an energy-saving brand that runs at a lower wattage. Still, the Lantern thinks switching to miniature LEDs now is the greenest choice. (Scaling down your lights—both in the number of hours you keep them on and in the number of strings you put up—is always a good move, too.) In fact, the only good argument against moving to LEDs as quickly as possible is that more attractive (and perhaps more efficient) lights may be available next season. But isn't that always the problem with buying new gadgets for Christmas?

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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