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We're all looking to bring a little extra brightness into the end a difficult year. But no matter what holiday you celebrate, there's a chance you may find yourself tangling with Christmas string lights this season. Burned-out bulbs, strands that light up only halfway (or not at all), and let's not forget those knots.
You don't have to go too far down the internet rabbit hole on Christmas lights before encountering complicated electrical diagrams and DIY'ers offering tips on how to rewire your plugs. Fascinating? Yes. How I want to spend my December? No.
For those of us not quite as skilled in the electrical trade, here are some common problems with string lights and how to solve them.
Understanding incandescent vs. LED lights
Christmas lights can vary in color, length, shape, and wiring, but one of the most fundamental distinctions is incandescent versus LED.
Incandescent bulbs are gradually being phased out of our traditional light fixtures, but they still have some traction in Christmas lights. They tend to be the cheaper of the two options, though you may end up paying more in the long run due to shorter lifespans and higher electric bills.
LED lights are a little more expensive upfront, but will last far longer. Bargain-basement LED lights, or those produced several years ago, might suffer from a subtle but annoying flicker—almost like a visual vibration—which is a side-effect of cheap components. More premium (sometimes detailed in the specs as "full wave" or "full wave rectified") LED bulbs won't. Big box retail stores frequently have a sample already lit up for your inspection. But as many of us are avoiding in-person shopping this year, it may be safer to stick to brands you've heard of—GE and Philips, to name two—rather than gambling on something cheaper that won't last more than a season.
One bulb is out, but the rest of the string works
You’re in luck. This is the simplest fix, requiring you to simply swap out the bulb for a new one. Assuming your bulbs are removable — not hardwired, as some LED strings are — there should be spare bulbs in the original box. You might also consider buying a strand of matching lights solely as a source to pilfer extra bulbs.
Experts have an additional piece of advice here: If you have one or two burned-out bulbs on an otherwise functioning strand, don't ignore them. The remaining bulbs could be contending with excess voltage that shorten their lifespan.
If only half the strand is out...
If half a strand is working and the other half is not, you probably have a loose or broken bulb. Start with the first unlit bulb and work your way down, wiggling them to check for looseness. If it flickers, that's your cue to replace it. If not, you have the more tedious job of going down the row of unlit bulbs, one at a time, and swapping them for a known, good bulb until you find the culprit. You'll know it when the strand lights back up.
If the whole strand is out...
If you find yourself with a dead string of lights, a number of things could be wrong. First, try plugging it into another electrical outlet. If that's not the problem, it could be a loose or broken bulb. See the previous section for instructions.
The problem may also be a bad fuse. Most string lights have two tiny fuses inside the plug. Typically, a box of lights is also packaged with a replacement fuse or two.
To replace a fuse, take a small set of pliers or flathead screwdriver and slide open the cover. Then gently pop out the fuse and replace it with new ones. Slide the cover closed and plug it in. If you have only one extra fuse, try replacing them one at a time. If you need more than one, replacements are typically available at most hardware and craft stores during the holidays.
Specialty repair tools that might speed things up
Unless you're replacing a single burned-out bulb you can easily identify, hunting down the problem bulb that killed your whole strand is dull work.
A light tester, like the one from Light Keeper Pro, is relatively simple to operate and will save you a lot of time for only $20. Spare fuses and bulbs are also recommended — just make sure they correctly match the strand.
Dealing with non-removable bulbs
Some LED string lights have non-removable bulbs. Contrary to what you might think, this can be more of a boon than an inconvenience. In fact, it's a standard for commercial lighting due to their higher reliability and longer lifespan.
Even so, non-removable bulbs can eventually burn out or become damaged and take out the whole strand. For those cases, LED Keeper seems to be the tool of choice.
A tangled string of Christmas lights really is its own special brand of torture. Unless you've been practicing your escape routines, you could be at those knots for a long time. To make matters worse, vigorous tugging on the string will only further damage the bulbs.
Sorry to tell you now, but prevention really is the best medicine. Save yourself a headache next year by wrapping them around something like a piece of cardboard. Just cut a small slit to stick the electrical plug through, wrap your lights around, and then poke the other end through the same slit. Boom, you've just repurposed some cardboard and given yourself an early gift for the next holiday season.
David Kender is the editor in chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to fix a strand of Christmas lights