Fifteen tips for lighting up the holidays

During the holidays, many homeowners drag out festive lights and decorations to create vivid landscapes bursting with color. In my neighborhood, there is one house that is always outstanding — lights on all sides and levels, wrapping all the windows, including part of the roof and even some of the landscaping.

One time, about 20 years ago, I met the homeowner at one of our sorely missed neighborhood block parties. Just to make conversation I asked him how he did such a wonderful job lighting his house each year.

"Oh," he replied, "you want to know the family secrets!"

Er, no, I was just interested in the Christmas lights. Believe it or not, he wouldn't tell me a thing.

Well, I've been doing holiday lighting myself now for so long I've decided to share my own "secrets," if you will. A big part of getting in the holiday/Christmas spirit is seeing all the nicely lit houses, so in the hope of sharing some of the joy, here we go:

— 1. Holiday lights are discounted so much after the new year, sometimes up to 90 percent, that it makes absolutely no sense to buy them at any other time. Just go into your favorite home center or drug store after the holidays are over and stock up for next year.

— 2. The old-style glass lights have a limit to how many strands you can plug in series. The new style LED (light-emitting diode) lights are much more power efficient, so you can create much longer runs. Just follow the instructions (always a good idea with any device).

— 3. If you're lucky, you have a lot of exterior electrical boxes. If you don't, you can always have some good weatherproof ones installed. The other option is to use outdoor-rated extension cords. Make sure the cords are outdoor rated, and be sure to install them in such a way that no one can trip over them. I like to wrap the exposed connections in plastic and duct tape as an extra safety precaution as well.

— 4. There are all kinds of gutter clips to attach strings of lights to your house. These are also on deep discount after the holidays, so that's when to buy them. I've had to modify some styles of these for particular applications, which is easy to do with side-cutting pliers. Be sure to wear eye protection when you snip the plastic, as the cut-off piece shoots all over the place.

— 5. If you need to use an indoor outlet that's OK, just run it out the window and don't pinch it too hard. Use some kind of insulator to keep drafts out of the small window opening.

— 6. At some point, you'll probably wind up on a ladder. I can't stress this enough: Be very, very careful any time you're on a ladder. I had one collapse under me, which led to rotator-cuff surgery, no fun at all. Just put "ladder+safety" into any Internet search engine — you'll be glad you did.

— 7. How many lights should you put up? Some folks have so many they could land a 747; others have many fewer, maybe only a candle in the window, but it's done so tastefully it works. Here is where I'm at a big disadvantage, as I have no artistic sensibility at all. I just put up enough lights to where I know the kids will be satisfied. Works for me.

— 8. Using timers makes controlling when the lights come on and off easy. Outside-rated timers are insulated for safety, so always use these outdoors. I like mine to come on when it first gets dark and stay on until at least midnight.

— 9. I do all the work in setting up and putting away the lights myself, but, if you can get any help, be sure to take advantage of it. It's easy to damage dangling strings of lights, and you can always use a third hand.

— 10. Strings of lights lead a hard life. They make a tool that injects a brief voltage spike into the string. This will often bring some bulbs back to life. But light strings are wearable items that should be replaced over time. Since the discounts after the holidays are so great, regular replacement is a good thing to do.

— 11. Storing used strings of lights is difficult — you'll never get them back in the box they came in. You can get plastic cord wraps from the home center, or you can wrap them around a tube of some sort and then hang them. If you just toss them in a box, you'll have a nasty mess next year. Anything is better than that.

— 12. To light trees, they make long poles to help you get the strings up there. Again, just make sure no one can trip on the extension cord when you run it back to the house.

— 13. Replacing your porch or garage light bulbs with colored bulbs is an easy way to add a little color with not a lot of work.

— 14. It costs money to really do up your house big time (lights, time, electricity), so it's up to you how much you want to get into it. If you really want a house that folks flock to see from miles away, you're going to pay for it (as well as almost surely annoy your neighbors) so make sure that's really what you want to do.

— 15. I try to put my lights up as soon after Thanksgiving as possible, since it's so much work, you might as well enjoy them for as long as you can. Here's an entrepreneurial thought: removable siding that hides the lights underneath, so all you have to do is pull a few panels each year and you're done! If you start a business based on this, please remember me when Wall Street issues your IPO (initial public offering).

One of my favorite holiday pastimes was always driving around Brooklyn and Howard Beach marveling at what dedicated homeowners who are really into outdoor lighting can do. You'd often see parades of cars driving by slowly and ogling the gala displays.

We'd always park and walk around the block to look up-close. Aside from miles of dazzling lights, there were also many kinds of large stationary sleighs and reindeer, some of them movable.

Many homes even pipe Christmas music outside for your enjoyment as well.

The best one, I think, is on a corner in Brooklyn. This guy replaces his garage doors with Plexiglas, and, inside the garage, there is a very large diorama with model railroad-type structures and scenery. He has all kinds of exquisitely detailed scenes that you really need to see to believe — the attention to detail is stunning.

It is simply lovely, and I always would drop a couple of bucks in the slot to help support him. It was worth it because it was so very, very beautiful. I hope he's still doing it.

So there are my holiday lighting "family secrets." Now go hang some lights.