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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Should you buy a "Light Keeper Pro" light test tool?

 

I received the following message this past year I think is worth posting because it may interest others as well as the sender.

 

Albert,

 

I have a problem that I'm hoping you can help with. I read your description of how light sockets and bulb leads can tarnish on pre-lit trees. We have that problem with our tree. All of our lights worked last season but this year there are three different strings of lights not working on our tree. The plates inside the sockets are no longer shiny. They are very dark and so are the leads on the bulbs. Taking the bulbs out one-by-one and putting them back in again has not helped so far. I was wondering if the “test box” you mention in your article is the same thing as the “Light Keeper Pro” tool I see advertised. If you think that device would fix my problem, I would buy it as the alternative seems to be the very labor intensive job of completely re-stringing the tree or cleaning each bulb and socket individually.

 

Joe

 

Joe,

 

I should tell you right away that I don’t use the Light Keeper Pro because I have the commercial light test box you mentioned instead. The retail price of this box is so high that I don’t imagine very many people would choose to buy one. The Light Keeper Pro price on the other hand is under $25.00. These two products are similar, but not the same. The commercial box produces an output current for as long as you press the test button, but the Light Keeper Pro produces only a short pulse of current when you squeeze the trigger. The Light Keeper has a fitting so you can plug a socket in the dark segment you want to fix directly into it, but the commercial box does not. Both products have an outlet built into them so you can plug a string of lights directly into them. Use this feature of the Light Keeper Pro for garlands, etc., when the dark segment is hard to reach.

 

I read the materials and instructions available on the Light Keeper Pro website. I also read the consumer reviews I found on the Home Depot website. The reviews were mostly favorable. The Light Keeper Pro website has a “how it works” section that didn’t satisfy my curiosity. It says that the unit generates a “shaped charge,” but I have no idea what that means. The closest analog for it I can think of is a manual gas igniter for a barbeque. Pushing a button produces a momentary surge of current sufficient to make a spark to ignite the gas.

 

There is another plausible explanation besides tarnish for a run of lights being out after taking them out of storage. The filament inside a bulb can break due perhaps to rough handling. The doping chemical will not be burned off the shunt when the current is off so that the bulb is burned out in a sense and the string will not light. Turning the power back on will not produce a hot surge of current sufficient to clean the dope off the shunt. Under normal conditions the current is not strong enough to pass through a treated shunt, filament or no filament.

 

Light bulb burn out is a violent event. The current is strong enough to jump the gap that develops when the tungsten filament breaks. Whereas the filament is engineered to balance current with resistance to create light, a spark across an open gap has no engineering at all. Its arc represents a surge of current sufficient to vaporize the filament creating the distinctive soot-like deposit on the inside of the glass and strong enough to burn the doping chemical off the shunt.

 

I believe that the Light Keeper Pro also produces a spark that is strong enough to burn off the doping chemical. It isn’t clear how many bulbs it can clean with one pull of the trigger. The documentation tells me that I might have to fire it up to thirty times to turn on a light segment. It might be clearing both shunts and tarnish, but tarnish or other sources for resistance do not exist in the Light Keeper documentation. I think that it is safe to say that the unit cleans a light segment a little bit at a time until it works or you give up. It cannot find empty sockets, open circuits due to broken bulbs and cut wires, etc. Since the spark has a very short duration a person is not likely to detect it jumping over one of these obstructions unless the room is pitch dark so he might see the flash if it is in his line of sight and he happens to be looking in the right direction. I don’t know whether you would hear the spark or not. This is asking for an awful lot of coincidence to get right!

 

The procedure I recommend is to first plug in the whole tree. The light segments that don’t work will appear to be a series of three or four adjacent branches. Since lights are wound on from one branch to the next some of the dark branches may not be on the same row as the others. When more than one segment is out it can be difficult to tell which one is which. Now systematically go through the dark branches to find and replace as many burned out bulbs as you can. I mean the bulbs that have a black coating inside them. Look for empty sockets and broken bulbs as you go.

 

This brings me to the question you asked in the first place, namely, is the Light Keeper Pro worth buying? I will tell you “Yes” because it is impossible to know whether the problem at hand is something the unit might fix easily, and commercial test boxes are difficult to find and very expensive.

 

There is an exception, however. The lights on your tree may be designed in such a way that if a bulb falls out of a string it will stay lit just the same. I am familiar with two designs that accomplish this purpose. One uses an electronic fitting in the base of each socket to conduct current when it is empty, and the other has tiny blades that look a little like leaf springs built underneath the plates in the sides of the sockets. The bulbs in this second design have a plastic blade that goes down between the contacts inside the socket to hold them apart to make the current go through the bulb. If a bulb falls out of its socket the contacts close to keep electricity flowing through the string just the same. The Light Keeper Pro will not work with either of these designs.

 

Remove a bulb from a dark segment and plug its socket into the Light Keeper Pro. Leave the main current on and work the trigger for up to thirty times or until the segment comes on. You must locate certain problems such as the ones I mentioned earlier by careful inspection of the entire segment. Some problems such as bulbs with pigtails broken off are really hard to track down, even with the commercial box. These things sometimes show up as intermittent problems you can find by wiggling the branches and sockets with your fingers until you figure out what is wrong. Replace all the unlit bulbs you find with new ones once you get the segment to light.

 

In any event these tools are capable of fixing lighting problems but not diagnosing them. I hope I have helped you in some small way.

 

Yours truly,

 

Albert

12:36 am pst

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

This marks the end of the 2009 Christmas season.

 

I had the good fortune to shape trees for the sets for two popular TV shows. I already wrote about the Ellen Degeneres show set, and on December 13th, I shaped trees for the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. A few days later, on the 16th, I helped put the trees from the Ellen set away.

 

One tree I repaired this year was notable because someone decorated it without shaping it first. It was covered with picks, ornaments and garland in the way a designer would like, but the branches looked a little like long feather dusters attached to a steel pole by their handles. I didn’t say anything for fear of putting off my customer, but I do wish she could have had the foresight to have called me first!

 

I repaired several light sets, including one of my own, using the special light test box I have. I have heard several explanations for the need for this treatment, but the one that makes the most sense to me is my own. It seems to be a surprise to learn that metal can oxidize or tarnish even in the close, confined quarters Christmas decorations get while in storage. I believe I have already written about the tiny copper leads attached to ordinary incandescent light bulbs. The contact area between the copper lead and the tiny plates that line the walls of the socket is where tarnishing does the most harm. The cumulative effect of tarnish build up is that the string won’t light. The test box cleans these contacts saving the trouble of reseating all the bulbs by removing them and putting them all back again.

 

I did repair an old Silvestri angel set someone told me had great sentimental value. This reminded me of my own comments about the garland my father gave me. There were only ten bulbs in the whole set making it very difficult to find replacements for them. Happily I was able to find these bulbs to the great satisfaction of my customer.

 

Christmas has now past. I wish for everyone who finds this blog to have the personal pleasure that comes from having a merry Christmas both in memory for the one just past and for many more to come.

 

Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

 

Albert

12:07 am pst

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ellen Degeneres’ “Twelve Days of Christmas” is airing now

 

Ellen Degeneres has established herself as an outstanding comedienne and talk show hostess. She likes giving presents to the people in the audience during the tapings of her television show. Every year during Christmas she has a special giveaway promotion where the prizes are fabulous – really over the top. Warner Brothers started taping this special series of programs called the “Twelve Days of Christmas” last Wednesday, the 2nd, and the first show aired the next day, Thursday. Audience members received approximately $2,000 worth of electronic gear each on the first day alone. Their booty included games, GPS systems, phones and a computer.

 

I was the artificial tree expert hired to make sure that the trees used on the Ellen set worked properly, were erected properly, and were shaped professionally to look their best for Ellen and the public. The producers use Balsam Hill artificial trees on the Ellen set. Balsam Hill makes one of the finest lines of artificial tree for the holidays on the market today. The trees chosen for Ellen all have molded PE (polyethylene) twigs with realistic needles Balsam Hill calls its “True Needle” styling. These trees have thorough engineering and well-crafted features such as a wire in every twig and a lighting system that will not go out even if a bulb falls completely out of its socket.

 

Chauncy, an Arborist, assisted me in shaping the 12’ Vermont White Spruce tree on the set. After following my instructions for a little while, he told me that we were making the twigs show the effects of ‘positive phototropism,’ that is, they looked like they had grown toward the Sun as they would have on a live tree. Ellen uses living plants and trees on her set except for the holidays, and Chauncy provides excellent support for her by keeping them all trim and healthy even though they are kept indoors on a television stage instead of a greenhouse environment.

 

There are nine more days of Christmas left for you to see Ellen’s set for yourself. Decoration hides much of the work that goes into shaping an artificial tree, but without a well-shaped frame to build upon, the ornaments wouldn’t look right. Why not take a few moments to see the show or tape it for later if for no other reason than to see professional Christmas trees done right? It airs at 4:00PM every weekday on NBC channel 4 here in Los Angeles.

 

What I did for Ellen Degeneres I can do for you, too! Please don’t hesitate to call or click “Contact Us” for an appointment if you live within my service area.

 

Albert Richardson

12:31 am pst

Holiday Garland Makes a Nice Addition to Your Decor

 

We like to hang a string of artificial garland under a beam that goes across our living room. My Father gave us our first string of garland years ago. It is not especially full, and it has a string of musical lights in it. Isn’t this the nature of many cherished Christmas possessions? The love and care they get is a way of honoring their source, more than their intrinsic value. Connections. Who can say that connections don’t matter? Anyway, we have continued to decorate using artificial garland with a pleasing result.

 

Pieces of evergreen garland need shaping, too. I usually flatten my garland at the end of the season for storage to get as compact a package as possible. I cannot show it again this way. Brand new garland is not packaged for immediate display, either. Shaping the garland restores its full three dimensional character for hanging. Sophisticated installations add ornaments and floral picks, etc. to the shaped garland to give a professional finish for a festive look.

 

Albert Richardson

11:11 pm pst

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Artificial Trees on Carpets

 

This has nothing to do with Aladdin. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Whereas Aladdin's magic flying carpet gave him the ability to go wherever he wanted, tree stand legs caught in floor carpeting won’t move at all. But there are some good reasons to move a tree even just a little, to get the space balance in your room just right, for example.

 

Only the very heaviest objects can compress carpeting and the padding underneath to the point that they don’t float on top of it even a little. Average artificial trees are not so heavy. A support underneath the tree stand helps distribute the weight of the tree to preventing it from rocking. The support also makes it easier to straighten the tree because it insures that none of the feet sink into the carpet more than others. If you want to lift a leg of your stand just a little to put a shim under it you will not like finding it bogged down in the carpeting.

 

A word of caution: Artificial tree stands are made of steel tubing and rods welded together. You must be careful not to pull on them too hard for fear of breaking them apart. You cannot lift a tree off the floor by pulling up on one leg, but with someone to help push the trunk away from you from the middle, you can lift the weight off two legs to make an adjustment. The idea is to use the tree itself as a lever to rock the tree back on two legs to free the other two.

 

The obvious thing to do is to have something on hand to put under the tree stand when you first set it up so you can turn, move and prop up you tree as needed. A plywood disk 36” in diameter for the average tree works wonders. ½” thick plywood is sufficient. Use ¾” for tree 8 ½’ tall or higher and make the disk bigger, too. 42” diameter should do. Masonite and thin plywood might be too flimsy, but you can do no worse than to try out the materials on hand if the alternative is to go out to buy something. Make sure there are no rough spots under the disk that could get snagged in your carpeting.

 

A round tree support is better than a square one because round takes less room, and square corners get in the way. Round supports are also easier to hide under tree skirts.

 

This leads up to suggestion #2 which is to use small pieces of very heavy cardboard under the feet on your tree stand. I cut up the ends of a cat litter box to make 6” squares. This box has two heavy layers of corrugated cardboard glued together. My tree is heavy enough to push down into the surface of the cardboard a little, but it will not punch all the way through it. Costco gets extremely heavy boxes for produce that should work well. These pads do not distribute the overall weight of the tree in the same way as a solid disk does, but they are enough to allow you to control your tree on a carpet.

 

All-in-all, a little planning will insure that you have the ability to make the adjustments you need in setting your tree up to make it perfect for the whole season.

 

Albert Richardson

11:55 pm pst

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Don’t wait to replace burned out Christmas lights

 

Every once in a while you will notice that one of the tiny light bulbs on your tree has burned out. This is such a small event in our everyday lives that it might be simply overlooked, after all, the other lights still work.

 

Each light bulb on your tree carries part of the electrical load needed to keep things working smoothly. My article from a few days ago mentioned a tiny wire inside the bulb called a “shunt” that conducts electricity through the bulb after the filament burns out. The filament uses electricity to make light, and the shunt does not. The shunt transfers the bulb’s fair share of the work to be done lighting your tree to all the other bulbs on the string.

 

Burned out bulbs make the working bulbs in a string just a little brighter than before. This might seem like a good thing except for the fact that bulbs are manufactured to use an equal share of all the electricity they get when they all work. Bulbs that are brighter than before because of burn-out are actually having their lives shortened due to the stress electrical overload places on them. Each bulb that burns out makes it more likely that you will have to replace another one, too.

 

If you notice than part of your tree is really bright compared to the rest of it then there’s no time to waste. Possibly a third of the bulbs on the bright string have already burned out. Considering that most trees use strings of fifty bulbs each for lighting and some use thirty-five bulb strings, you have a big job ahead of you to get things right again.

 

Perhaps it’s time to call for help. The difficulty with asking a question such as, “How hard can it be?,” is that once you have lured yourself into a project you are going to find out! If you are in my service area, please don’t even consider doing this job yourself. Simply use the “Contact Us” page to get expert assistance.

 

Albert Richardson

8:19 am pst

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Replacement bulbs for Christmas lights

 

It might occur to you that after going to all the trouble to get a bad mini-light bulb out of a string you should have some good replacement bulbs on hand. Strings of lights typically have a small packet with perhaps five replacement bulbs in it, but these are easily misplaced. You have no idea how hard it is to find replacement bulbs and fuses for holiday lights until you look for them. I have clear and multi-color 2.5v bulbs on hand for both GKI-Bethlehem Lighting and Santa’s Own lights. I suspect that Santa’s Own and TruTip are two faces for the same company. At any rate, please feel free to use the “Contact Us” page to get information on having fresh bulbs shipped to you.

9:45 am pst

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Artificial trees make a great addition to the holidays

 

Someone making their holiday preparations now might be considering how to get six weeks of pleasure out of a decorative tree. Live trees begin dying the minute they are cut at the tree farm. It doesn’t take but a few days for the tree to show signs of drying out whether anyone buys it off the lot or not. You can set artificial Christmas trees up early in the season and leave them up for the whole time.

 

We always added special preparations to our tree water to extend the life of our trees, but the truth is that live trees only take up fresh water for a little while. Actually our pets drink most of the tree water. They think that a giant basin of tasty chemical-laden water has been put down for them to love and enjoy. My wife, a perpetual skeptic, is convinced that no matter how big the manufacturer prints the words, “SAFE – Will not harm humans or pets,” on a package of tree preserver, it will kill pets just the same. Chinese ingredients, I suppose. I covered the end of a cardboard box with wrapping paper to make it look like a present I put over the tree basin to hide it. This worked pretty well. It dressed up the appearance of the tree and it kept the animals out.

 

The tree dried up anyway. I think all the decorations hide the true condition of the dry, brittle tree underneath. Whereas artificial trees are made of materials treated to resist fire, live trees are not. You will find reports of house fires involving dry trees during the Holiday season every year here in the US. Nobody wants to be forced out of his house because of an accidental fire.

 

Live trees don’t look like forest trees any more than artificial trees do. We are surrounded with images of perfect cone-shaped trees we see every day during the holidays. It’s natural to think trees really look like this, after all some of the ones used in landscaping really do. We don’t see the tending and trimming these trees get to keep them looking good. We don’t see the tending and trimming farm-grown live holiday trees get to make them look good either. That is, until we get to the tree lot to pick one out. Clearly a tree farm isn’t a natural forest… How can something so simple be so hard?

 

… and expensive! Live tree prices start at about $60 usd for a small one and go up from there. This amounts to approximately a third of the cost of an artificial tree. Naturally many different factors contribute to the actual price you pay for any tree, but an important consideration especially today is whether the value you receive justifies the money you spend.

 

Artificial trees give you outstanding value because they last so long. Whereas you have no choice but to buy a new live tree each year, an artificial tree lasts for a minimum of several years. Some of my customers have had their trees for ten years or more.

 

Artificial trees give you outstanding value because you have a great selection of size and style to choose from. Each manufacturer produces many tree models. There are full trees and slender ones, flocked trees and green ones, trees with natural branches and trees with artistic colors and shapes designers might want for special settings. Molded polyethylene (PE) greenery is making an appearance now as people want something that looks more real than the twisted blunt cut polyvinyl chloride (PVC) we have seen for so long. Many trees are made to be commercial grade by incorporating strong steel rods for branches and reinforced wire twigs. These trees easily carry the weight of your heaviest ornaments.

 

Artificial trees give you outstanding value because they are made to appear uniform from all sides. How often have you brought home a live tree to find yourself positioning it “good side out” to hide some gap, flat spot or other defect? Artificial trees look the same from all angles.

 

Artificial trees give you outstanding value because the majority of them have lights put on at the factory. You can typically choose between clear and multi-colored lights on general-purpose trees, with special effects such as frosted bulbs used for flocked trees for soft snowy lighting. These lights are long lasting and only require you to replace burned out bulbs when you find them.

 

All-in-all your biggest obstacle to buying an artificial tree is the strong sentimental attachment to real trees found in so much holiday imagery. The actual experience of buying live trees falls short of many peoples' expectations. Take a look at artificial trees this year. Many stores set up their display trees to look like a forest, and to the delight of all, they have a wonderful selection of other holiday decorations to boot! Teachable moments sometimes backfire, and so I’m reluctant to encourage you to use a family tree shopping trip to make a first-hand demonstration of value gained in exchange for money earned. Nevertheless, you can do far worse than to buy an artificial tree this year.

 

Albert Richardson

 
4:00 pm pst

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Replacing Christmas Tree Light Bulbs:

 

How many elves does it take to change a light bulb on a Christmas tree? The good news is that just about any of them can do it, but the bad news for us is that we’re not elves!

 

Incandescent Christmas tree light bulbs are made from tiny glass tubes mounted in a plastic base called a “husk” or shell. This husk is then pushed into a plastic socket which is permanently attached to the wires that make up a string of lights. The challenge for elves and humans alike is how to remove the husk from its socket with a minimum amount of damage and frustration.

 

You just pull it out, don’t you? Well… Not exactly. There is no fancy engineering holding the glass tubes and their husks together. The tube is simply pushed into a hole down the middle of the husk. There are two tiny wires at the base of the tube that are wrapped around the sides of the husk to conduct electricity. These wires keep the tube from falling out of the husk altogether. You are likely to pull the tube out of the husk by pulling on it very hard. If this should happen you will still have to solve the problem of how to get the husk out of the socket.  Even if the tube doesn’t come out completely, you may very well break the tiny wires attached to it that conduct electricity to make it light.

 

Two things never to do: First, never grab onto the glass tube with pliers or any other tool you think might work to pull it out. You are likely to break the glass. Although the glass pieces are quite small, there is some chance of getting cut on one. Everyone replaces bulbs with the strings lit, don’t they? How else can you see which ones are bad? When you break the glass tube through mishandling it there is a slight chance of getting a mild electrical shock from the exposed wires that were inside the bulb.

 

Second, never twist the tube in the husk. Some tubes are flattened at the bottom to make them more difficult to twist, others aren’t. Twisting the tube will only twist the wires attached to it together. This creates an electrical short out of sight underneath the tube. Believe it or not, mini bulbs have a short circuit built into them that is designed to take effect when the filament burns out. When you look at the wires inside a mini light bulb, you will likely see a tiny silver line next to the glass ball that holds the filament support wires apart. This silver line is actually a wire called a “shunt” that has a chemical coating on it to keep electricity out of it. When the filament burns out there is a small surge of electricity strong enough to burn the chemical coating off the shunt allowing it to carry the current though the bulb. This is the explanation behind the claim that “if one bulb goes out, the string will stay lit.”

 

As in the case of simply pulling on the tube, twisting it can break the wires attached to it. This can lead to a frustrating dead bulb hunt if you did not intent to remove a tube you had been twisting. A broken wire underneath a bulb will cause the whole string to go out because the current is interrupted before it reaches a shunt to direct it on the next bulb. Keep in mind that all of the bulbs in the string are now out, and if you did not mark the bulbs you twisted as you went along, you now have no idea which one is bad. The break is inside the husk making it difficult to spot even after you remove the bulb from its socket. You now have to test every bulb in the string to find the ones that don’t work. If you are in the service area for my Artificial Tree Repair Service, this is a good time to call for help. My special test equipment greatly helps solve this problem.

 

Albert Richardson

3:51 pm pst

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Artificial Trees Use Special Stands

Only the smallest artificial trees have slots molded in their trunks for inserting the brackets used to support them. Other artificial trees use steel tubes as trunks. These are generally 1 1/4" in diameter. Some brands have points formed at the very bottom of the tree and others don't. These trees have separate stands made just for holding artificial trees.

Stands made for living trees are typically designed to hold them straight with some kind of spike or bolt fastened in the bottom. Some stands have a bolt that is strong enough to hold the tree with no other bracket, and others use an upper bracket, typically a ring of some sort, which serves as a collar to allow some adjustment for straightening the tree. These stands do not work very well for artificial trees. The artificial tree trunk is too small for the bolts in the collar design to reach them in some models. What is more, the bolts, spikes and points put in living tree stands are designed to work in natural tree wood, and have nothing to hold onto when used with a steel pole.

In short, the simplest and easiest stand to use with an artificial tree is one made for artificial trees. The center of these stands is a steel tube that is slightly larger than the tree trunk itself.

There will probably be two or three screws at the top of the stand to hold it to the tree. Do not over-tighten these screws! People mistakenly think that these screws straighten the tree all by themselves, but you can actually crush the tree trunk with them. They do allow a very slight adjustment for overall tree straightening, but the best way to compensate for an uneven floor is to put small blocks under the feet of the stand. I cut off pieces of an ordinary paint paddle to make shims.

If you know that your stand broke last year, now is the time to find a replacement. Thanksgiving, 2009, is still over a week away, but there is little time left for shopping and shipping to order another one. Many "big-box" stores do not have replacements for the plain stands that come with the trees they sell. If you find out that your stand is misplaced or broken only a week before Christmas you are in for a shopping nightmare!

Making a new stand is well within the grasp of someone with ordinary woodworking skills. It only requires you to make a 30" disk out of plywood for an average size tree, and bore a hole about 1/16" larger than the diameter of your tree trunk in a block of 4x4 lumber. The block should be about 8" long. Bolt it to the disk through the bottom with lag bolts to hold it securely. It might be possible to use galvanized or PVC pipe to make a neck you would attach to the disk with a flange instead. Use 1/4-20 thumbscrews to hold the tree in place for this design. Make the necessary adjustments to protect your floor and compensate for the size of your tree. A very large tree, for example, requires more support than a small one. A 9 1/2' flocked tree from one company weighs approximately 105 lbs and a 7 1/2' green tree from the same company weighs approximately 67 lbs. The newer PE trees with molded greenery weigh a lot more than the same size tree made with twisted wire PVC needles. (Molded needles look nearly real and PVC needles look cut off and choppy.) This project can be done in one evening if you already have the resources and materials on hand.

Albert Richardson

12:13 pm pst

2012.01.01 | 2009.12.01 | 2009.11.01

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Articles and comments found here reflect the opinions and attitudes of the commentators only. Items having questionable content and items unrelated to the repair and servicing of artificial trees may be edited or removed.

As seen on TV during the 2009-2012 Holiday Seasons:
The Ellen Degeneres set and The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brian set
 
Albert Richardson * 1976 Laurelwood Ct * Thousand Oaks, CA * USA * 91362
Phone: (805) 217-7473