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Advice for a Happy -- and Safe -- Holiday

Here are a few tidbits of holiday savvy that we hope will save you loads of heartache as you shop for this year's freshly cut tree. Keep in mind that we like freshly cut trees, but we also suggest that you consider a live tree and a synthetic one as well.

No matter how often you have put up a tree it is important to read this list.

A real tree should not lose green needles when you tap it on the ground. Hold it upright and slam the trunk on the ground. Loose needles mean the tree is already drying out. Not a good thing.

Be sure to cut at least one inch off the trunk just before you put it into the tree stand. If you are distracted and don't get it into the water within a few minutes, make another slice. The cut begins to seal with sap almost immediately after it has been cut. This procedure will help the tree absorb water. A well watered tree will stay fresher longer.

Leave the tree outside until you are ready to decorate. The air in your home is heated and will begin to dry the tree out.

The tree stand that you use should hold at least one gallon of water. If you sliced off the bottom of the trunk and placed it in the water you will notice that the tree will absorb about a quart of water before you go to bed. A 6-foot tall tree will use about a gallon of water every two days.

If you really want to keep your tree moist and safe, add a commercial preservative with the water. And, make sure to check the water level every day. If the water is completely absorbed and the stand goes dry, the base of the tree will then seal up and watering after that point will not be as effective.

If possible, it is wise to secure your tree with wire to keep it from tipping. The finest wire is all that is needed and normally wont be seen by most people. High tensile fishing line also can be used.

Keep your tree away from all sources of heat such as floor heaters and fireplaces. Use only UL-listed lights. The one thing you don't want is an electrical fire. And please, don't use more than three strands linked together -- ever. Miniature lights, which have cool-burning bulbs, are safer to use because they wont dry the tree out and they will save you money by using less energy.

Turn off the Christmas lights before you go to bed, or if you leave your home. Even low voltage, low energy lights can start a fire.

Never use candles, even on artificial trees. Raw flames are a definite no-no.

Finally, dispose of your tree properly. Contact your local disposal company if you aren't notified in advance of what to do.

When we suggested that candles should not be used in a Christmas tree we didn't mean to suggest that they shouldn't be used at all. Candles can be a great mantle or table decoration on a cold holiday evening. However, we do suggest a few precautions when working with and enjoying open flames:

When using candles, place them a safe distance from combustibles.

Be sure to mount candles in sturdy containers. Remember, hot wax burns.

It is absolutely necessary to extinguish candles before going to bed or before leaving the house.

Stay on the ball when you use your fireplace. The ashes should always be put into a metal container until cold ice cold!

Be sure to have a fire extinguisher ready and handy. Before the holiday season begins, make sure that the pressure is up to snuff and that the date hasn't expired.

Think safety outside too. Remember, water and electricity dot mix.

Use only outdoor lights outside your home. They may not be perfect but they are much safer than interior lights would be. Examine light strings each and every year. Look really close and discard the ones that are worn or tattered.

Fasten each bulb securely and be sure to point each socket facing downward. This will help to avoid unnecessary moisture build-up.

Just as with indoor lights, never connect more than three strands of lights together and never use indoor extension cords outside.

It really is important to keep outdoor electrical connectors above ground and out of puddles and snow.

And whatever you do, remember to unplug the light string before replacing a bulb. Wrap a plastic bag around each electrical connection and tie the ends with Teflon tape.

You cant be careful enough when connecting light strands.

And, that's all there is to it for a safe and happy holiday season.

Holiday Storage

Every year we struggle to find where we put last year's holiday decorations—ornaments, garlands, candles, wreaths and table decorations.

Finding them always is a challenge.

Did we put the lights in the attic or under the floor? Were the wreaths in with the garland or was the garland in the boxes with the lights? We tried labeling the boxes once. That was a mistake—three years later nothing was as marked.

Recently, we were flying home from a hardware convention in Chicago. As passengers, we were a captive audience. There in the seat pouch was an airline sales catalogue. Soon we got to the holiday section and to pages that dealt with holiday decoration storage. What a find! There was an ornament box, a wreath box, a wreath bag and even a bag large enough to hold an artificial tree. That's when our wheels started turning. How did these differ from our old storage containers? And how could they help? Well, the answers were right there, and the thought of storing this year's decorations became exciting.

A few years ago, our items for the holidays were not stored in an organized fashion. Every box was a different size and large items like garlands and wreaths went into big black trash bags. The bags were ideal for keeping the dust off the decorations, but they were flimsy and didn't hold up over several seasons. Every bag and box had to be opened and the contents laid out and sorted before any decorating could begin. What wasn't used had to be put away again.

We then came up with an idea we thought to be the solution—hard plastic flip-top containers, all the same size and color. We labeled their contents and stacked them neatly where we could find room. The next year or two wasn't too bad, but as time went by, the labels on the boxes and the contents of the boxes no longer matched.

In the airline catalog, we discovered a group of storage products that were decoration specific. Wreath boxes for wreaths—no more black plastic bags; ornament boxes with two levels of divided storage; a gigantic bag for our small artificial tree and garland; and a large flat bag for our very large wreath.

We continue to use our flip-top plastic boxes for many items, but adding a few new separate pieces helps make things easier to store and find. Now our garland goes in large zipper storage bags that are duffel-like. Our ornaments go into red and white ornament boxes that have separators—two deep. Hexagonal boxes are superb for protecting our wreaths. One of the problems we used to have with wreaths was that they would often get damaged in plastic bags, and, if we used a box big enough to hold the wreath, it took up too much room. The hex-shaped wreath box is sturdy and storage-friendly. We folded back part of the horizontal center separator in the ornament box so that we had a place for dolls and statues. It works well. The figurines are protected head to toe, and we don't have to use nearly as much tissue to protect them. Here's what we ended up with:

  • We made H-shaped spools out of quarter-inch plywood (hard board also works) for our strings of lights, making sure to mark which string goes where—on the string and the holder. They prevent the lights from becoming tangled and can be custom made to fit both the lights and your favorite container.
  • Odd-sized items are stored in flip-top hard plastic boxes (we like the clear kind), but labeling will work if you are careful when putting things away.
  • All our small statues, dolls and ornaments go into special ornament storage boxes. The sleeves protect everything.
  • Our large garland and trees go into special zipper bags that won't wear out every year and are fitted with grips for easy handling.
  • Our wreaths now are securely protected in rigid boxes that are big enough for them, but not so big that they waste precious storage space. This is a real step up from garbage bags.
  • Our big wreath goes in a special large, square flat bag that has carrying handles which double as hanging straps.

So, we've found a few additional ways to make storing our decorations easier and less time consuming. Now things won't be difficult to find.

For information on these items and more, go to and discover convenience. In the long run you will save money.

Brrrracing for Winter

Depending upon where you live, home heating costs are projected to rise anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent this winter. This is especially devastating news for seniors and those on fixed incomes who are already having a difficult time making ends meet.

The good news is that you don't have to succumb to either high utility costs or poor living conditions if you are willing to make a few cost-effective energy saving improvements that will pay big dividends.

Install a setback thermostat: Do you heat your home all day when you're away or all night while you're sleeping? Are you a slave to your thermostat? Do you make several adjustments throughout the day and night to attempt to manage utility costs? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you need a setback or "programmable" thermostat.

Quite simply, a setback thermostat is a thermostat on a time clock. The setback thermostat is designed to automatically bring the heat up in the morning and then lower the temperature during the day when your family is off to work or school. Later in the day, this "smart" thermostat will raise the temperature just in time for your return home and until bedtime when it will drop the temperature while you're snug under the covers -- until it repeats its cycle.

There are both analog and digital models depending upon the features and programming desired. The simplest models offer a single program, the same routine seven days per week. More complex models offer up to 28 programs -- four per day, seven days per week. If you don't have a setback thermostat, install one. You can save up to 20 percent on your heating and cooling costs.

Look for holes in your house and fill them: An electrician runs conduit for a new appliance through the siding in your home; the cable guy drills a hole in the wall to run cable into a room in your home; the plumber drills a hole in an exterior wall. These are some of the obvious examples of holes in your house that may be allowing precious energy to escape. There are other less obvious examples such as at the base or top of walls where plumbing pipes and electrical wires make their way into attics, crawl spaces and basements.

Thanks to expanding polyurethane spray foam that's available in a can, you can simply spray a little foam into the gap and it immediately expands to permanently seal the hole. We refer to it as "home maintenance in a can."

Although polyurethane foam is great stuff for large gaps, caulk is best used for narrow cracks.

Seal windows and doors: Test a window or door for energy leaks by holding a lighted candle near all joints and connections. If the candle flickers, you have an air leak. Narrow gaps and cracks around windows and doors are best filled using caulk. The kind of caulk to use depends on the area being caulked. Glass, metal, wood, plastic, and other surfaces respond differently to caulk. Read the manufacturers label carefully before making your purchase.

Add insulation: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, adding insulation is one of the most cost-effective means of saving energy and improving comfort. And when it comes to insulation, the attic is the best place to begin.

You may think that your attic is well-insulated because you remember seeing some of that furry stuff up there last time you peeked into the attic to store your holiday decorations. The truth is that if you haven't had an energy audit in the last 10 years, the insulation may not be thick enough (R-value) or, for older homes, the material may be compacted, which greatly reduces its efficiency.

Many local utility companies will perform a free home energy audit that will offer information on where and how much insulation your home may need. In addition to the attic, exterior walls and floors are prime candidates for insulation upgrades.

Use fluorescent lights: Have you visited the light bulb section of your local hardware store or home center lately? If you haven't, you are in for a real surprise. The selection of compact fluorescent light bulbs now rivals that of its incandescent counterpart. There are energy saving fluorescent lights for virtually every place an incandescent bulb can be used.

They are available in the size and shape of a traditional incandescent bulb; there are spots; recess down lights and "rings" especially suited for kitchens and baths. Compact fluorescent lights cost more up front, but last 10 times longer, produce less heat and use less energy. In the long run, fluorescent lights go a long way to save energy and lower utility bills.

Lower your water heater temperature: According to the Department of Energy, a temperature of 120 degrees at the tap is adequate for most household chores with a minimal danger of scalding and maximum energy efficiency.

However, that is the temperature at the tap, not in the tank. Tank temperature should be not be less than 130 degrees to prevent bacterial growth that can lead to illnesses. The only appliance that requires hotter water is the dishwasher, with a recommended temperature of 140 degrees or higher for proper disinfection and cleaning.

Since most dishwashers pre-heat the water to the proper temperature, lowering the setting of your water heater will have no effect. However, if you have turned the pre-heating function of your dishwasher off, you should turn it back on. Alternatively, it may be time to retire your old gas-guzzling water heater and replace it with a new tankless water heater. A tankless water heater will cost more to purchase and install than a traditional tank type unit, but in the long run will save lots of energy and add immeasurably to comfort and convenience.

Use your washer and dryer at night: Many utility companies will offer reduced energy rates during off-peak hours.

Change your furnace filter: The fundamental purpose of a filter is to keep the interior workings of the furnace clean and operating efficiently. Conversely, when a filter becomes clogged it makes the furnace motor work harder, reduces efficiency and wastes energy. Get the best bang for your filter buck by buying better filters and checking them often.

Use low-flow water restrictors: A low-flow water restrictor reduces the flow of water but still gives you a comfortable shower. Many water companies will provide low-flow restrictors for free or a nominal charge. They are easy to install and, in addition to saving energy on heating water, as an added bonus they will lower your water bill.

Don't be an energy "victim" this winter. Take control by saving energy.