GFCIs/GFIs and Christmas Lights – A Survival Guide
As a pro Christmas installer, no other term is as hated as GFCI. It’s a 4 letter word that has no equal. Nothing kills a masterpiece jobsite quicker than a little moisture sneaking into the Christmas lighting or electrical system. Literally in the blink of an eye, all your hard work goes dark. Then the angry phone calls, emails and social media post begin. The customer doesn’t understand how they can pay thousands of dollars for Christmas lights only to find out that their lights won’t stay on. This scenario plays out all over the country throughout the holiday season. Countless installation jobs have been lost due to those pesky little GFCIs.
So before going any further, let me make clear that I’m in no way anti-GFCI. They are a life saving devices and countless lives have been saved by having them required for outdoor electrical outlets. I in no way want to go back to the days before GFCIs when people were frequently seriously hurt or killed from the lethal combination of water and electricity.
What I’m focusing on in this article are the headaches that GFCIs cause professional Christmas installers and what steps can be done to minimize the issues related to moisture and GFCIs. I’m also in no way recommending anything that would go against the standards established by the National Electric Code (NEC).
What is a GFCI?
GFCIs can be either an outlet or built into the breaker.
One GFCI outlet or breaker will typically control more than one outlet.
A ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protects people against getting shocked. It’s as simple as that. But if you want the full description, the NEC defines it as, “A device intended for the protection of personnel that functions to de-energize a circuit or portion thereof within an established period of time when a current to ground exceeds the values established for a Class A device.”
Basically, a GFCI senses the slightest difference in the amount of electricity between what enters a circuit and what leaves the circuit. A small variation, as little as 5 milliamps, will cause the circuit to trip or shut down within 1/10th of a second. This prevents people from getting electrocuted.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Christmas lights and decorations and GFCIs, generally all it takes to trip a circuit is for a little moisture to get into the outlet, cord or lights. If this happens and the power is on, the circuit will trip, causing the lights and décor to go out.
This is a frustrating situation for professional Christmas installers and anyone that has been in the business for more than a couple of seasons has lost jobs, oftentimes very large ones, due to GFCI issues.
So why don’t they just replace the outlet with a non GFCI? That would solve the whole problem, right? Unfortunately, that’s where someone can get into a lot of trouble. Electrical codes throughout the US require GFCIs to be used in any situation where electrical outlets and moisture coexist. If an installer replaces or even openly encourages a customer to replace their GFCI outlets or breakers with standard ones, they could and more than likely would be held liable if an accident happened. In the event that someone was electrocuted, even if it was not during the Christmas season, if it was found out that the Christmas installer was involved with the outlet replacement, the Christmas business could be held directly responsible for that accident.
There’s lots of arguments that can be made regarding the above scenario and when the law and lawyers mix together, all kinds of craziness can ensue. The point of this article is not to get into the liability and arguments that go along with who is responsible when electrical codes are not followed. But instead, I want to offer ways of minimizing GFCI tripping while still following established electrical codes.
Let’s take a look at different ways to reduce nuisance GFCI tripping.
Cords, Connections and Outlets
At least 50% of GFCI related issues can be traced down to issues at either an electrical connection or the outlet itself. During my years in the field with installation teams, I was always amazed at how many outlets did not have bubble covers. This is a big problem area when it comes to nuisance GFCI tripping. The bubble cover needs to be oversized so that it can accommodate as many power cords as there are outlets and it should be able to completely close and latch while in use. Also keep in mind that one GFCI outlet or breaker will frequently control multiple standard outlets. So, it’s important to make sure all outlets, even if they are not in use have proper bubble covers.
An oversized bubble cover that can close completely should be on every outlet.
You’ll also find that older and weathered outlets tend to trip easier. The corrosion that builds up inside the outlet seems to make them more prone to tripping. This is especially true if an outdoor outlet does not have a proper bubble cover and has been exposed to weather for a number of years. If outlets appear to be old and weathered, having them replaced can help reduce tripping.
Moving past the outlet, the next problem area is where two cords connect together. This can be either two extension cords or where the extension cord connects with the light sets themselves. Any cord to cord or set to set connection is a potential nuisance tripping trigger point. Fortunately, there’s a number of ways to help reduce the chances of GFCIs tripping when it comes to the connection points.
- Make sure all connections are tight and completely plugged together. The male blades should not be visible.
- Do not allow connections to be buried in ground cover or mulch. You need air flow around the connections to keep them dry.
- Do not allow connections to sit in low areas where water gathers.
- For set to set and cord to cord connections, a little electrical tape around the connection can help. But do not get too carried away wrapping with electrical tape. We’ll cover that in more depth in a moment.
No Plastic Bags!
Years ago, we were working with a large city in Florida and they got it in their head that they were going to stop GFCIs from tripping by placing plastic bags over the outlets and electrical connections. We immediately warned them not to do this and it would only make the situation worse. We also warned them that it can cause a fire hazard as well. But as anyone in this business knows, city electricians never listen to the Christmas guys. And they went ahead and used the plastic bags. The GFCI issue only got worse and within a few days, they actually had an outlet and tree catch fire due to the bags.
So, why did this happen? Why did the bag not help seal up the outlets, and even more serious, why did it start a fire?
First and foremost, you need to keep in mind that moisture gets into everything. All a bag does is prevent airflow to the outlet. Moisture, in the form of condensation, still builds up. But without significant airflow, it will not dry out. The GFCI will trip as this moisture builds, but there is still power going to the outlet, but just not through the outlet. The moisture continues to build and can lead to the wiring in the electrical box to short out, which in turn can start a fire. It is rare for this to happen and I’ve only encountered it twice, but nevertheless, it’s still a hazard that needs to be avoided.
So never cover an outlet or connection with a plastic bag. Instead of preventing the outlet from tripping, it will only make the situation worse and can lead to shorting out the outlet, which can potentially cause a fire.
Electrical Tape for Connections
But what about using electrical tape between light set connections? Unlike a plastic bag, if done properly, electrical tape can reduce the amount of moisture getting into a connection, while still allowing air flow. Granted, if there is enough rain, snow or irrigation, the tape will not prevent tripping. But for the occasional light drizzle, it can reduce problems. Apply enough tape to wrap around the plug connection twice, but keep in mind that using too much tape will result in poor airflow and can lead to an increase in GFCI problems.
It is important to note that not all pro installers agree with the electrical tape for connections. In our own testing, we found a GFCI reduction of about 10%. By itself, this may not seem too significant, but every little bit helps. But, with that being said, these days our own installation teams do not tape set to set connections. We now only use light sets with water tight co-axial connections, which eliminates the possibility of moisture getting into the plug between sets. I’ll cover co-axial light sets later in the article.
Moisture Displacer Spray
Example of a moisture displacer spray to help reduce GFCI nuisance tripping.
Over the years we’ve found that dielectric grease, or a deep penetrating moisture displacer can further reduce the amount of nuisance GFCI tripping. When used on set to set connections, extension cord connections and the outlets themselves, the spray creates a barrier the helps prevent moisture from immediately tripping the GFCI. This will not impede the function of the GFCI and it will still operate as designed. But it does appear to help reduce the amount of nuisance tripping that we encounter.
It does take some training with your installation teams to teach them not to overspray and make a mess. Just a small squirt goes a long way in coating those troublesome electrical connections. This method is also especially useful on jobsites that are close to salt water. The moisture displacer will reduce the amount of corrosion on metal electrical components.
Watch the Load
Through a lot of testing, we have found that the heavier the electrical load, the more prone to tripping a GFCI is. To test this, we selected multiple jobsites and loaded up individual outlets with 15 amps and measured their tendency to trip under various conditions. We then took this same load and divided between two outlets. In most cases, we found that the two outlets with lighter loads were less prone to tripping than a heavy load on a single outlet.
But along these same lines, if you’re dealing with a GFCI breaker, rather than an outlet, the two outlet scenario does not reduce the tendency to trip if both outlets are on the same GFCI breaker. So, in a situation like that, you would need to split the load between different breakers. Also keep in mind that the breaker load should never exceed 80% of the max rated load. For example, a 20 amp breaker’s maximum constant load should never exceed 16 amps.
We’ve had a number of electricians over the years argue with us regarding the increased tendency of GFCI outlets and circuits to trip at higher loads. But after 21 years selling, installing and offering consulting services in this business, I can tell you without a doubt that the total load plays a role in how easy a GFCI will trip.
Adjust Those Sprinklers
For at least 80% of the pro Christmas installers out there, irrigation during the holiday season is nonexistent. But for the folks in Florida, Southern California and South Texas, irrigation during the winter months is very common. But unfortunately, sprinklers and GFCIs are not a good mix.
Adjusting the irrigation schedule around when the Christmas lights are on will make a big difference. If sprinklers are on at the same time as the holiday lights and decorations, you will be fighting a losing battle.
Timers and Photocells
When it comes to GFCI’s, avoiding keeping lights and décor on 24/7. The longer the lights are on, the greater the chance they will trip. If the outlet or circuit is not on a photocell or standard timer, then one needs to be installed. If it’s not possible to have this done as a permanent photocell or timer, then use a temporary, plug in photocell. But avoid the plug in, temporary traditional timers. Unless you’re using a timer with a battery backup, you’ll not only be battling GFCI issues, but also dealing with timers that are not set correctly. Every time the GFCI trips, the timer will also need to be reset due to the loss of power.
It’s best to push the customer to install permanent timers if they are not already on the jobsite. Using a temporary timer adds one more possible GFCI tripping point. You want to eliminate as many connection points as possible and timers and photocells are notorious for allowing moisture into the plug or control surface, which will lead to additional nuisance tripping.
Staples either penetrating too deep and cutting into the cord or the staple not being lined up properly and being shot through the wire are both very common GFCI hazards. At one point, our installation teams went completely staple free. We were tired of staple GFCI related issues and made the decision to go with custom made, UV inhibited rubber bands. While it did prevent staple related GFCI issues, it significantly slowed down installations and was a costly alternative. Eventually we did go back to staples, but we changed from the traditional Arrow T50 staples to the rounded head, T25 staples. The rounded head helped prevent the staple from penetrating too far into the insulation, causing the outlet to trip. Also, insisting our crews use guns with staple guides helped as well.
Reducing the number of staples per light set can help with GFCI issues. The quantity of staples will depend on the type of tree. Trees with rough trunks may not require any staples, smoother bark trees will require more. If you’re dealing with palm trees, you’ll find that Royal Palms need a good number of staples, but Washingtonias don’t need any. So, adjust your staples based on the trunk texture of the tree. Use enough to hold the lights, but the fewer you can use, the less potential GFCI problems associated with staples you’ll encounter.
Weep Holes Matter!
Weep holes on a C9 socket to help drain water and allow airflow.
Less than 1 in 10 pro Christmas installers know what weep holes are when it comes to Christmas lighting. But they are vitally important in order to reduce GFCI issues. In the old days we did everything we could to keep moisture out of C7 and C9 sockets. We’d even use rubber washers to help create a seal between the bulb and the socket. You may even come across some of my early videos where I mistakenly made this recommendation. But just like I mentioned previously about placing plastic bags over outlets, no matter what you do, moisture tends to find its way into the sockets. And by using washers, it prevents airflow, but moisture and condensation still enters into the socket. Without airflow, the socket stays damp, leading to an increase in tripping.
So, these days we go the opposite direction. Instead of trying to seal up the socket, we want to make sure moisture and air can flow through it. We’ve moved away from the rubber washers and most quality sellers are now offering C7 and C9 sockets with two weep holes in the bottom. This allows water to flow through the socket as well as allowing air to pass through, keeping the socket drier than what was previously possible.
This does lead us to a question we frequently get asked, “Why do we still sell the rubber washers for C7 and C9 sockets if they are problematic?” While we don’t recommend washers for standard perimeter lighting installations, there is one situation that you do benefit from using washers……….ocean front installations.
If you’re installing light line within a block or two of salt water, the washers can help reduce the amount of corrosion inside the socket from salt. For anyone that has done installations in this type of environment, you know how damaging salt can be to C7 and C9 sockets. By using the washer, you are dealing with some condensation issues in the socket, but the amount of corrosion you get in the socket from the salt water will be significantly less. The corrosion can create even bigger GFCI issues, so the washer can be helpful in salt water environments. It’s also be a good idea to put a drop of moisture displacer in the socket. This will further reduce the corrosive impact of salt and moisture.
Pick the Right Light Set
Quality, quality, quality…………..this can’t be stressed enough when it comes to the lights used by pro Christmas installers. There’s many reasons for this, but at the top of that list is the fact that better quality lights will reduce the amount of nuisance GFCI tripping.
So what types of light sets should be avoided? Above all else, always remember the #1 rule when it comes to selecting a proper light set; NEVER buy two-piece Christmas lights! (stringer light sets with removable bulbs) Yes, you’ll save a little money upfront, but between quality issues, bulb failures and an increase in GFCI nuisance tripping, you’ll have nothing but headaches. Bottom line………only buy one-piece LED stringer sets. Stay away from the cheap, big box retail two-piece lights. Because the socket and bulb are not a single, molded unit, moisture tends to penetrate the bulb socket leading to significant GFCI issues. This is also a significant failure point within the light set, even if conditions are dry. Two-piece stringer light sets are not designed for demanding professional holiday lighting applications.
Example of a two-piece LED light set. Two-piece lights should always
be avoided for pro Christmas installations.
On inexpensive light sets, in addition to the bulb issue, you’ll also find that the rectifier is another weak point. But with high quality pro grade lights, the rectifier is double injected molded. Meaning that it is placed in the injection machine twice, creating a double layer seal. This makes it virtually impossible for moisture to get into the rectifier.
With any light set, the plug is always a weak point and is where a significant percentage of GFCI issues occur. If you’re installing 500 light sets, you have 500 connection points that moisture could penetrate. Two prong Edison plugs have been the standard for Christmas lights for many year, but even the tightest plug connection is not water tight. This brings us to our last, but definitely the most important consideration when working to reduce GFCI tripping: Coaxial Connect light sets.
Coaxial Connect Light Sets
Coaxial connect, sometimes referred to as RY connect lights, were first introduced during the early days of LED Christmas lights. The sets used heavier 20 gauge wire instead of the standard 22 gauge. Set to set connections were made by screwing the threaded ends together and a rubber washer created a water tight seal. In 2007 and 2008, these sets were the standard when it came to commercial grade LED Christmas lighting. At that time they were only available in 25 light sets and were very costly. But despite the short configurations and the cost, many of us in the higher end Christmas markets jumped on board and embraced these new light sets. We loved the coaxial connections.
Co-axial connect light sets help keep the set to set connections water tight.
Initially we thought that GFCI issues would be reduced by 75% or more, but unfortunately, after a couple of seasons of using these lights, we found that we were overly optimistic, and the true reduction was closer to between 30% and 40%. However, despite the lower reduction percentages, we were still thrilled to have a light set that would help to reduce nuisance tripping. Add to this the advantage that the sets do not come unplugged from each other and the heavier gauge of wire helps them hold up longer and it was clear that coaxial sets were the way to go.
As LED Christmas light prices fell and commercial grade LED stringer sets started to be produced with 22-gauge wire and Edison plugs, a lot of pro installers switched away from the coaxial connect in favor of the lower cost Edison plug versions.
These days only about 25% of our light set sales to the general public and pro installers are coaxial connect, but for our own installations in Florida, 100% of what we install are coaxial sets. The GFCI reduction alone makes these a worthwhile choice. There is about a 15% price difference, but this is more than made up for during the first two seasons of the light set’s lifecycle.
For about half the pro installers in the US, GFCIs are not much of an issue. In the colder regions where the temperature seldom gets above freezing, nuisance tripping is not as big of a problem. But for the other half of installers in the country, GFCIs can range from moderately troublesome to a major detriment to their business.
If you live in an area where winter temperatures are frequently above freezing and especially if you live in very warm winter regions, such as South Florida, then minimizing GFCIs is a major pursuit. And reducing tripping is imperative in order to keep your customers happy.
Start with a plan prior to the holiday season. Determine what GFCI tripping reduction solutions would work best for your business model and then implement the plan. And don’t forget about your team. A GFCI plan is only as good as the team that implements it. Training your staff is critical and having good QC checks for jobsites to make sure the plan is being fully utilized and that employees are not skipping critical steps.
If there are GFCIs on a jobsite, there’s no way to entirely avoid nuisance tripping, but with proper planning and preparation, you should be able to eliminate 75% of the GFCI issues your business encounters during a typical season. This allows for more time for you and your team to install lights and décor, in turn making you more money. After all, that’s the goal! No one gets into this business because they want to reset outlets and breakers all season. We’re in this business to make a good living and see those smiles on our clients faces when everything is lit up and looking amazing. That’s the goal we’re all striving for.
About the Author: Jason Woodward began his career in the pro Christmas industry 21 years ago with Christmas Designers. For years, Jason led one of the largest Christmas lighting and decorating teams in the nation. Comprised of 60+ employees and 15 separate crews utilizing a fleet of box and bucket trucks, Jason's installation team roamed far and wide. His crews routinely tackled jobs ranging in size from single-family residences to entire cities.
Now days, in addition to consulting within the pro Christmas industry, Jason is also a managing partner for Christmas Designers and operates their distribution facilities in Sherman, TX, comprising more than 90,000 sq feet of warehouse space dedicated to stocking and supplying the industry with pro quality Christmas lights and decorations.