By David A. Kelm

Christmas decorations are going up in neighborhoods and at area businesses as nearly everyone is getting ready for shoppers, family and festivities. From simple white twinkly lit wreaths to massive  computer-aided, musically-timed, “Christmas Vacation” light shows, traditional holiday lighting is getting phased out and replaced by energy efficient LED (light-emitting diode) lighting.

In the 1970s, holiday lighting was revolutionized by the introduction of the “mini-light.” The incandescent bulb strands became the industry standard. For years, parents across America have spent untold hours untangling countless strands of lights only to find that one miserable bulb has not lasted the previous 11 months and an entire strand is out.

As a child, I learned some of my most colorful language as my father’s Christmas light “assistant” as he tried to find that needle-in-a-haystack bulb that had blacked out an entire strand or, Heaven forbid, turned one strand out of a thousand into a “blinker.”

Prior to mini-lights, festive lighting consisted of much larger incandescent bulbs. However, the mini-lights, while using less energy, are still not what most would consider “energy efficient.” Each year, it is estimated that 100 million strands of decorative lights are sold in the United States.

Incandescent mini-lights only transfer five percent of energy used into light while the remaining 95 percent is emitted as heat. And, colored incandescent bulbs are even less efficient with approximately one percent of power used transferred into light. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, holiday lighting consumes more than six terawatt-hours per year or the equivalent of the total power needs for one month for 500,000 homes.

The holiday lighting industry has reacted and consumers are beginning to shift to “green” holiday lighting that is energy and cost efficient. Primarily, Christmas lighting is going to LED strands and fixtures. In the last two years, the White House Christmas tree and the tree at Rockefeller Center have both been bedecked and bejeweled with LED lights. This year, the industry estimates that LED lighting will consist of nearly 50 percent of the market. Several “big-box” retailers are devoting 50 percent or more of their shelf stock to LED products this season. Only three to four years ago, LED lighting was relegated to less than 10 percent of offerings at the holidays.

While traditional mini-lights are inexpensive to purchase these days, to the point where I save time and frustration spent attempting to ferret out the bad bulb by throwing a bad strand away, LED strands are still significantly more expensive as a holiday investment. A quick website price check of a popular, large home improvement store found that a traditional strand of mini-lights is approximately three dollars.

The similar LED strand is approximately $20. This year, as consumers are becoming more green-minded and seeking to transition to LED lighting, many retailers, online and bricks-and-mortar, are offering rebates and discounts for shoppers who trade-in their old incandescent strands and purchase LED strings.

When the neighborhood Clark Griswold pulls out the ladder, climbs up on the roof and staples “250 strands of light, 100 individual bulbs per strand for a grand total of 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights” and this year his house is lit with LED, he may have spent a lot of  holiday cash for the decorations but he may save money in the future.

The estimated cost of running 10 strands of mini-lights for 30 days is $12.96. Clark Griswold’s bill for one month would be approximately $324.00. If Clark switched over to LED Christmas lights, his bill would be approximately $34.00 or $.136 per strand for 30 days. Plus, LED strands last, on average, 10 years rather than the 1 to 2 year lifespan of traditional decorative lighting.

Decorations and holiday lighting bring warmth to the cold, dark days of December. The glow of a Christmas tree and festive outdoor lighting is part of our collective holiday experience. One of the complaints, certainly in my household, is the cool hue emitted by LED strands.

The early energy efficient strings were bright and cast a blue-white hue rather than the warm yellow-gold of the incandescent strands. There is still a strict, Cuba-like embargo on LED lighting inside my house because of the “cold” nature of the white LED strands. The technology is shifting as quickly as consumer attitudes and newer LEDs are getting a more traditional look.

Energy efficient lighting is working its way into our everyday lives and it appears that LED decorative lighting is one way that homeowners and businesses are adopting limited use of a newer technology. Given the life-cycle cost savings of LED Christmas lights, transitioning away from cheap, power hungry mini-lights will continue to expand the offerings.

In the Kelm holiday household, until LED strands produce the warm glow we all grew up with, we’ll probably stick with the cheap mini-lights and fork over a bit more money to CWLP every January.

David A. Kelm


David A. Kelm is an attorney from Springfield with experience in environmental law.