Americans are sending 2020 out in a blaze of Christmas-light glory. Compared to last year, they’ve already spent between 10% and 20% more on holiday décor, including lights. They started installing outdoor lights, erecting inflatable snowmen, and building tracks for tiny trains in early November. By Thanksgiving, they’d trimmed their Christmas trees and double-wrapped the branches with strings of white and multicolored bulbs.

Many of these Americans are still working from home during the pandemic, which means the holiday decorations at a lot of US households have been using electricity 24/7 for more than a month. Will Americans get burned when their utility bills are due?

By now, average consumers understand the cost-saving benefits of LEDs over incandescents. But even the most energy-efficient bulbs will use more energy if you run them for more hours. For various light displays, figures 1 and 2 compare energy usage and monthly costs for incandescent lights versus LEDs.

Figure 1: Typical energy usage and costs for standard incandescent and LED holiday lights

This table shows how much more energy typical incandescent holiday light features consume than their LEDs equivalents. We assumed six hours of use every day to account for the additional time people are spending at home during the pandemic. We applied an average electricity rate of $0.13 per kilowatt-hour.
Item Watts Cost per month
Note: Assumes 6 hours of daily use at $0.13 per kilowatt-hour. © E Source
1 incandescent wreath 21 $0.50
1 LED wreath 4 $0.09
1,000 incandescent mini lights 408 $9.67
1,000 LED mini lights 69 $1.63
300 C9 incandescent bulbs 2,100 $49.86
300 C9 LED bulbs 29 $0.69

Figure 2: Typical energy usage and costs for minimal, moderate, and major incandescent and LED holiday displays

These tables show how much more energy incandescent holiday light displays consume than LED displays. We assumed six hours of use every day to account for the additional time people are spending at home during the pandemic. We applied an average electricity rate of $0.13 per kilowatt-hour.
Typical energy usage and costs for minimal incandescent and LED holiday light displays
Item Watts (incandescent) Watts (LED)
Note: Assumes 6 hours of daily use at $0.13 per kilowatt-hour. © E Source
1 wreath 21 4
1 garland 42 4
10 strings 408 48
2 outdoor decorations 164 38
Total 635 ($15.08/month) 94 ($2.23/month)
Typical energy usage and costs for moderate incandescent and LED holiday light displays
Item Watts (incandescent) Watts (LED)
1 wreath 63 14
500-foot C9 string on roof 3,500 480
200-foot C9 string in yard 1,400 192
30 strings for wrapping 2 trees 1,224 144
15 strings for walkway trees 612 72
Total 6,799 ($161.41/month) 902 ($21.41/month)
Typical energy usage and costs for major incandescent and LED holiday light displays
Item Watts (incandescent) Watts (LED)
95 icicle lights 6,056 458
800-foot C9 string on roof 5,600 768
500-foot C9 string in yard 3,500 480
15 strings for walkway trees 612 72
10 strings for 1 light tree 408 48
30 strings for wrapping 2 trees 1,224 144
150-foot spool of rope light 378 120
5 motifs 554 277
Total 18,332 ($435.23/month) 2,367 ($56.20/month)

Set up LED holiday lighting programs now for brighter days in 2021

But what will happen to all these Christmas lights when 2020 gets sucked into the black hole where it belongs? We expect that in January and February 2021, people will recycle or trade in some of their older lights rather than store them in their basements or attics. It’s a good time for your utility to update or implement an LED holiday lighting program.

Using the Measure Insights tool, which compiles and indexes information found in demand-side management technical reference manuals (TRMs) for 251 technologies across states, provinces, and regions, we found guidelines for LED holiday lighting programs in 6 of the 33 TRMs we track:

  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Pennsylvania

Some programs offer incentives that customers can redeem in the store when they’re buying their LED lights. Others include holiday LEDs in energy-efficiency kits or give them away during promotional campaigns. Still others allow customers to drop off their old incandescent lights in exchange for new LEDs.

When we dug into the details of the measures, we found a lot of variation in effective useful life (EUL), or the amount of time a piece of energy-efficient equipment is expected to last. The longer the EUL, the more savings the equipment will provide. Turns out that Pennsylvania and Michigan are the most optimistic about LED EULs, while Hawaii and California are more scroogey:

  • California: 5 years
  • Hawaii: 5 years
  • Illinois: 7 years
  • Michigan: 10 years
  • Minnesota: 8 years
  • Pennsylvania: 10 years

We also found that the average cost of a string of LEDs is between $12 and $22, and energy savings vary. The California TRM estimates that a 17-foot-by-25-foot string of C7 LED bulbs will save 4.2 kilowatt-hours (kWh) over its incandescent counterpart. The Pennsylvania TRM estimates that a 50-bulb string of LEDs will save 41.4 kWh over the equivalent incandescent string. There are also non-energy benefits related to LEDs: They last longer, they’re brighter, they have less heat buildup—making them safer to use indoors and on live trees—and they’re more durable because they use a plastic covering over the diode instead of a glass bulb.

Bid auld lang syne to 2020 by setting up light-recycling drop-offs

It’s not too late to set up lighting recycling stations. Rochester Public Utilities will keep its recycling center open until January 29, 2021. Clermont County in Ohio will accept unwanted Christmas lights until February 1, 2021 (figure 3). Thoughtful about COVID-19 restrictions, local utilities like Turlock Irrigation District in Northern California designated a window of time for residents to take part in its Holiday LED Light Exchange program in person at two area hardware stores. Municipalities such as the City of West Chicago in Illinois set up recycling bins in public buildings around the area for residents to drop off their used holiday lights. West Chicago will run its Holiday Lights Recycling program until January 17, 2021.

Figure 3: Organizations are keeping their light-recycling sites open into early 2021

RPU and Clermont County in Ohio encorage customers to drop off their unwanted Christmas lights after the holidays.
Promotional content showing a green recycling container and Christmas lights. Text says Don't throw away old holiday lights. Recycle them! RPU will recycle all of your old holiday light strands for free! It's easy - just bring your old strands of lights into the RPU Service Center loggy (4000 East River Road NE) and drop them in the bins designated for holiday light recycling. Available through January 29, 2021.
Promotional content showing Christmas lights. Text says Recycle your holiday lights. November 1 - February 1. A list of drop-off locations includes Shor Park, Pierce Township Administrative Office, Clermont County Sil and Water Conservation District, Clermont County Water Resources, and Cincinnati Nature Center. Supporters' logos appear at the bottom of the post.

Contributing Authors

Content strategist, Portfolio and New Product Strategy

Joy Herbers researches, writes, and edits reports across all E Source services. As the company’s content strategist, she leads...