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Christmas lights laws (and how to stay legal)

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Christmas light laws are weird, but they exist. You can stay legal with your outdoor lights as long as you use common sense.

Homeowners get upset when they find out there are actual laws that ban certain types of outdoor Christmas lights. Older folks particularly get mad at this for the reasoning of, "It wasn't a problem before, so why is it a problem now?!"

Good question. I have answers.

Two things that exist today that didn't before

Two very specific light technologies are the reason why certain Christmas lights are banned. Complex animations and LED.

Originally, Christmas lights just lit up and didn't do anything else. Then the blinking Christmas light was introduced. After that, the "chase" animation, either with fixed speed or variable that you could set. After that came everything else with the complex animations. Animations in different directions, color changing, fading, programmable animations and so on.

Complex animations in Christmas lights started appearing like crazy once LED lighting became cheap to manufacture. LED strips are very easy to attach to a programming module, so of course you can go completely nuts with custom animations...

...but LED introduced a new problem. They are much brighter. Combine strings of LED lights together, and the overall light produced by them can actually be a safety hazard when used close to a public street.

Light Trespass

Okay, now we get into the legal stuff.

If you get busted for illegal Christmas lights, the law used will state you committed a light trespass. What that basically means if that if the lights you're using cross beyond the border of your property - especially if they shine on to the street and/or a neighbor's property - that's where the trespass occurs.

Before continuing, keep in mind older outdoor incandescent Christmas lights never had this problem. The lights had a dim but pleasant glow and never shined beyond a few feet of where they were. As for the LED, you can see even the smallest one at night from a significantly greater distance.

Yes, it's true that even tiny LEDs on a lighting strip can cause distracting reflections on the car windshield of somebody driving by your house. That's how bright LEDs are, even in tiny form.

How to stay legal with your outdoor Christmas lights

I'll present this question/answer style to make this as easy as possible.

Do your lights shine beyond the border of your property?

If the answer is yes, you can get busted for light trespass if your neighbor(s) or somebody driving by decides to report you. This is true whether there's a law written for light trespass where you live or not. Should somebody get a bug up their butt and call the cops, you will receive a visit and told to take your lights down.

Do your lights animate in any way?

If your outdoor lights "move" or even just blink, that can serve as a distraction to people driving by your property.

As crazy as this sounds, if for example you have red and blue lights that animate, some people are in fact stupid enough to mistake that as an emergency vehicle, even though your lights are in a tree.

Are your lights any color other than white?

Non-animated white outdoor lights that do not shine beyond your property border are permitted in all 50 US states as far as I know. Using this type of outdoor light (again, provided there are no light trespass issues) is truly the only way to stay 100% legal with your outdoor lighting.

Workarounds?

Again, using some common sense can save you from legal troubles with your outdoor Christmas lights.

Option 1. Don't use LED

Yes, incandescent does use more electricity than LED and there's no denying that. But it goes without saying that the slight extra you pay for the electric bill will be far cheaper than paying a fine for breaking a light trespass law.

Option 2. Use nature to dim the lights (if available)

What this means is that if you have trees and/or shrubs, they can act as natural barriers for light dimming. If for example you place LED string lights into a shrub, the leaves absorb most of the light. When installed that way, you can still see the lights at night easily without any light trespass issues.

Option 3. Install lights low to the ground

This basically means "not at car windshield height" (to be clear: car and not truck). The likelihood of someone reporting you for light trespass decreases if your lights are installed lower to the ground.

Option 4. Redirect the lights

Use fences, gutters, gates, awnings, posts or whatever you have for this lighting strategy. Placing lights so that the light is directed back towards your house instead of outward to the street or a neighbor's property always helps here. You'll still be able to see the lights from the road, but not so much that it would be a light trespass issue.

Option 5. Dimmable LED lights

White dimmable LED outdoor Christmas lights do exist. If you get string lights like this are white, set them to solid (meaning no animations and no blinking) and set to the lowest illumination setting, you're good to go.

Believe me when I say that even at the lowest illumination setting, you'll still be able to see these things at night very easily.

The easiest option is #1 noted above

Use non-animated incandescent plain white Christmas lights - which by the way do look nice because they look like little stars at night - and you're legal and good.

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