Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Have Seen The Lights

Since it is nearly the end of February we (i.e. Mrs Stevie) decided it was time to take down the Christmas Tree.

Years ago we had invested in a very nice artificial tree with pre-installed lights. You take it out of the box, you unfold the branches and arrange them "realistically" and you plug it in. There's an optional "festoon with as much crap as the legs will stand without collapsing" phase which Mrs Stevie is a great fan of, but essentially that is it. No driving all over Christendom trying to find a tree without great big holes in the foliage, no mucking about trying to find a way to prop it up, no sticky pine goo everywhere and most importantly, no waking up the next day to the sight of a propped-up tree skeleton surrounded by a sea of fragrant and impossible-to-vacuum-out-of-the-carpet needles.

I mentioned last year how I had replaced a very large number of lamps in one section of the tree, and how over the Christmas period I was witness to chain-blowing lamp syndrome as the short-when-blown mechanism of each lamp functioned as intended, possibly for the first time in the history of the lamp design. This happens because as each lamp shorts out there is a little more voltage applied to the rest of the string, which shortens the life of the remaining bulbs. Each blown lamp makes matters worse.

Usually this isn't much of a problem because the mechanism is notoriously unreliable, and given to the well-known "one goes out, they all go out" effect. I'm currently working on a theory that this is due to the extremes of temperature the lights undergo when hung outside. However, this theory fails to take into account the fact that everyone has experienced the effect in self-strung lamps that have never been outside the house after the seal on the box they came in was broken. Turning off an entire string of lamps saves the rest of the bulbs at the cost of removing years of life from whoever it is that gets delegated to get the bloody things working again.

I had insisted that before the tree get crammed back in its box1 that I would replace all the bebuggeréd lamps, and Monday being a holiday in New York and me getting the day off, I decided that that would be the ideal time. Next time I'll just go an lie down on the railway tracks2 and save myself the angst.

I had done some post Xmas snooping for el-cheapo light strings which could be raided for spare lamps3 but there were none to be had because the world is currently in the process of stampeding into the era of LED Xmas lights. I therefore was reduced to ferreting around in my Olde Lyte Collection and found four strings of colored lights I'd forgotten I had, that dated from before we owned this house. Dirty, yes, but a quick test showed that twentymumble years on they were still in perfect condition, light-production-wise so they were fit for purpose. They also gave me pause because since microprocessors became dirt-cheap light strings have featured a control box that delivers 20-odd patterns of flashing, none of them ideal and most of them annoying. Thank Azathoth only the neighbors have to see the things. These lights, however, had a control box with a knob on it that adjusted the speed and nothing else. The light would "march" along the string at varying speeds or stay lit and that was it. Perfect for twinkling effects.

So perfect I didn't want to junk them any more.

I had an inner argument with myself for a few minutes and decided to compromise. I would strip out the lights as planned, but keep the wiring harness so I could use it for driving twinkling netlights later on.

In no time at all I had removed and washed the bulbs and classified them by color, and so it was that I had 75-ish lamps for tree-lamp replacements yesterday.

First job was to pull the tree apart so I could work on each section. During this I knocked over a side-table with the remains of The Stevieling's lunch on it and got yelled at. I was forced to endure an harangue on a trumped-up charge of clumsiness before I could start work, but I tuned most of it out so I can't recall the details. Then I began changing the blown bulbs for good ones.

This involves the usual process of finding a good string and removing one bulb (which for maximum enjoyment should then be lost so you can waste hours searching for the bulb and, more importantly, the unique fitting it is mounted in and without which the whole tree is so much junk). This will be the test instrument. Then you remove each dead bulb, testing it by plugging it into the good string to confirm it is blown. Assuming it is dead, you pull the bulb from the fitting, insert a replacement bulb4, trim the wires to length and bend them over the base of the fitting, test the result to confirm it is still a working bulb and plug it back into the place the blown bulb came from.

Eventually the string I was working on would burst into magnificent radiance as I finally found the one bulb that had failed to short itself properly, which would speed the process by not requiring me to test each bulb from that point on. This was important because I ended up replacing well over 50 bulbs5, most of them in that one string that was so troublesome over Christmas. It turned out that, as I suspected, there were clusters of bulbs hidden deep in the tree which had blown and which I couldn't see to replace and therefore my intra-Xmas repairs were already overloaded from the get-go.

I eventually finished up and we loaded the thing into its box and then the three of us paraded out to the garage to attempt putting it back in the storage loft. This involved me steering it into the proper place some seven feet above ground while the womenfolk pushed and heaved. It used to be that Mrs Stevie steered while I pushed, but I figured out who was getting the better half of that job a couple of years ago and suggested we swap so she wouldn't be hurt if the box fell from the shelf during loading.

The threat is real enough; it's just that after watching my savings evaporate in the financial crisis, my house disintegrate at each puff of wind and my health depart for a better deal in some teenager's body, I no longer view death by archived Xmas Tree as a particularly bad thing.

  1. And for some reason we can never remember how we got the bally thing in the box the year before and have to go through lengthy trial fits that erode everyone's post-holiday joie de vivre and induce the usual Tax Return Season Rage
  2. I'm told death by hypothermia is not that unpleasant, and the steel rails will conduct the cold nicely. The danger of being run over by a train is minimal these days
  3. For reasons that escape me it is often cheaper to purchase a string of 150 lights, strip them out and junk the wiring harness than to buy loose bulbs. This, to me, indicates an economy wildly out of contact with the real world, but I'm told I am stupid by just about everyone I raise the issue with, and you can't argue with facts like that.
  4. Getting the wires into the holes in the base of the fitting is a lengthy process worth a posting on its own, but I'll omit it for brevity, just remarking that it depleted the reservoir of Class Two Words of Power considerably over the course of the afternoon
  5. Lest you doubt this, I still have the swollen fingers to prove it

No comments: