Lights pose holiday hazard

Yale’s fire codes are preventing some students from decking the halls this Christmas season — halls like Farnam and Durfee, that is.

While many Yalies decorate their dorms with string lights for the holiday season, hanging lights both inside and outside campus buildings technically violates fire codes, said Anthony Kearns, director of utilities distribution and fire code compliance services. Fire marshals have not asked students to remove the outdoor lights decorating their dorms — such as the displays on Old Campus — but upon seeing lights through bedroom windows, they are urging students to take down the lights in their rooms.

Strings of lights both inside and outside of dormitories technically violate fire safety codes.
Charlie Croom
Strings of lights both inside and outside of dormitories technically violate fire safety codes.

“I think the inspectors have been trying,” Kearns said. “But it’s a tough thing to do, because nobody wants to be the Grinch who stole Christmas.”

Overloading a circuit can cause a fire, and students can short the wires by putting a staple through the strands of lights when hanging them, Kearns said. Hanging the strings improperly and using products that have not been certified can also be unsafe, he added.

When touring campus, fire inspectors focus on indoor lights, which pose a greater fire hazard than ones hung outside, Kearns said. Fire marshals have asked many students, including Celia Rostow ’13, to take down the lights hung up in their common room windows.

But the lights outside Rostow’s dorm, Farnam Hall — which spell out Jonathan Edwards College’s motto, “JE SUX” — have been spared by the inspection. Technically though, Kearns said, there should not be any decorative lights outside, as outdoor lights can still overload electrical circuits.

“There’s a limit on how much you can do,” Kearns said. “The lights outside aren’t as critical as the ones inside.”

Gary Haller, who served as Jonathan Edwards College master until last January, said that though he never encouraged or discouraged the college’s tradition of decorating Farnam, he never heard a complaint from the fire marshal. He did, however, “worry about students venturing out windows” while hanging the lights.

Acting JE Master Penelope Laurans said that no one has contacted her about a problem with the lights either.

People should use lights that have been approved by Underwriters Laboratories Inc., a third-party group that tests products for safety, Kearns said, though these lights are still not permitted in student dorms.. UL-listed products have met the group’s safety criteria; if a string of Christmas lights does not have a UL stamp of approval, it is more of a fire hazard, he said.

Lights are not the only holiday-themed hazard plaguing fire inspectors. Though inspectors have yet to find a live Christmas tree in a student’s dorm, Kearns said that this would also constitute a fire hazard.

“Maintaining the tree, the tree drying out and the lights create another level of hazard,” he said. “Metal Christmas trees with lights could create another problem.”

Christmas lights are not specifically named on the 2009-’10 list of prohibited items in the undergraduate dormitory regulations, though Kearns said they were last year, and the regulations still maintain that fire marshals may remove any flammable or combustible substance from dorms.

Two students who were asked by the fire marshal to remove their lights said they did not know they were violating fire code and still remain confused about the rules.

“Why can’t you have lights?” Zach Groff ’13 said. “That’s bulls—.”

Kearns said he recognized student frustration with the policy.

“We don’t want to ruin the holiday spirit,” he said.

Comments

  • Hieronymus

    Nice to see that in-your-face use of the word “Christmas,” most especially in the phrase “Christmas season.” Way to fight PC-ism, Eliza! You go, person!

  • Leon

    Has there ever been a fire at Yale caused by Christmas lights? Do Christmas lights use that much energy that there is a concern of overload? Is the Yale electrical system so unsafe that if there were a short it wouldn’t trip a breaker instead of start a fire? How many decades have students been hanging lights in their rooms without incident?

  • LED the way

    Everyone should switch to LED lighting – it uses 1/60th or less of the energy of traditional lights, and the individual lights do not produce heat. PROBLEM SOLVED

  • Y11

    Who hangs light with a stapler?! If you do that and get zap, it’s your own fault. It shouldn’t be the fire marshall’s job to stop students from hurting themselves by using normal products incorrectly.

    Also, I’m pretty sure a tree, real or fake, is not going to spontaneous bust into flames if there are no electrical ornaments on it.

  • Moury Roberts

    There’s a limit on how much you can do. The lights outside aren’t as critical as the ones inside and one thing i would like to ask that Has there ever been a fire at Yale caused by Christmas light.

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  • yalealum ’00

    There was a fire in BK in ’99 caused by a menorah.

  • SacredHeartOnline

    Be safe with [outdoor lights][1]. There are a lot of things that can go wrong but just take it slow when installing and know the basics of safety when wiring and you will do fine.

    [1]: http://www.landscapelightingworld.com/ “outdoor lights”