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LED's Impact on Lighting Up the Holidays

The Lighting Doctor Randall Whitehead shares his take on LED and holiday lights! 

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Holiday Lighting, Randall Whitehead, The Lighting Doctor
There is a right way (and a wrong way) to light up the holidays. It all depends on preference.
Holiday Lighting, Randall Whitehead, The Lighting Doctor
The time is here for holiday lighting! Photo: Randall Whitehead.

It is that time of year again, when homeowners become lighting designers.  What we are talking about here is holiday lighting.  Did you know that the first string of electric Christmas tree lights were put together in 1882 by Edward Johnson, who was a partner in Thomas Edison’s Illumination Company. It consisted of 80 red, white and blue light bulbs. People at the time were totally blow away, so Johnson started to market them. At the time, a string of 16 bulbs cost $12, which would be equivalent to $350 in today’s money. Before that, people placed actual candles on their trees, a tradition that started in Germany in the 17th century.  Today, more than 115 million sets of string lights are sold each year. 

When I was growing up we had a choice of strings of big bulbs or little bulbs.  That was it.  Then came LED string lights. The first ones out on the market had a gray-green color of light due to a very low CRI. They looked kind of dead…like doll eyes. They were not very bright and not dimmable either. As color quality and lumen output improved, manufacturers were able to introduce products that were even a little bit better than incandescent; offering richer blues, reds, greens and lavenders. Different color temperatures are also available now. Those lights in the 2700 K range have a warmer, more nostalgic feel. The 3000 K versions have more clarity. The tradition of using string lights has spread out to other holidays as well. You can get orange string lights for Halloween and red string lights for Valentine’s Day. The possibilities seem endless and the public is eating them up.

Randall Whitehead The Lighting Doctor Christmas Lights
Union Square, San Francisco. Photo by Randall Whitehead.

The Christmas tree on Union Square in San Francisco is using the older LED lights. It is not a crisp white nor a warm white light. It has that green-gray tinge.  Here is the conundrum — these hundreds of strings of lights were a substantial investment for the city. They still work. Do they just ditch them start all over? The reality is that all cities are hurting financially. So for now, we will work with what we have. We just do the color correction on our phones.

Christmas Tree Lights, Randall Whitehead, The Lighting Doctor
Good Christmas Tree Illumination. Photo by Randall Whitehead.

In some instances, the trees are highlighted from ground mounted directional LED lights.This one is lit with 3000 K LEDs with a CRI of 90. This makes the colors really pop and the branches are vibrantly green. The accent lights should be installed around 4 feet from the base of the tree for the lower half and 8 feet away to light the upper portion.

Christmas Tree Light Placement, Randall Whitehead, The Lighting Doctor
Intricate weaving of lights through the Christmas Tree. Photo by Randall Whitehead.

I’ll spend hours weaving the string lights along each branch, getting deep into the center of the tree. I feel it gives the tree a lot more dimensionality. It is a bear though, at the end of the season, when everything has to be unraveled. Now, you can get lights that twinkle or chase or sync up with your music. The possibilities are dazzling…and dizzying.

Holiday House Lighting, Randall Whitehead, The Lighting Doctor
Over-the-top holiday lighting, but oh so much fun! Photo: Randall Whitehead.

Photo by Randall Whitehead
Take note that the icicle lighting on the house in the image above has a warmer color temperature of 2700 K, while the Christmas tree in the yard and the animated figures have a crisper color temperature of 3000 K.  Admittedly, I am a fan of over-the-top holiday house lighting. Who doesn’t love a bit of excess and extravagance?  Especially when someone else is doing it and all you have to do is appreciate the effort. 

Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at furniturelightingdecor.com. And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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