I know that I will draw the ire of many Christmas diehards when I say this, but I am fully on team artificial tree when it comes to my Christmas tree. Artificial Christmas trees aren’t just easy to set up, they also don’t shed pine needles, they last forever, and they don’t involve cutting down a living tree, which is nice. I love them. Of course, like most parents in the age of the internet, I’ve also seen the shock-value news stories: Christmas trees engulfed in flames, burning presents to a crisp after the dry needles caught fire under hot Christmas lights that were left plugged in just a little too long. But is this fiery problem exclusive to real trees? Can artificial Christmas trees catch fire, too?
Yes. They can. With enough heat anything can burn, and artificial trees are no different. But, they're a lot less likely to catch fire than a real tree. Unless your artificial tree has been recalled, which is something you can check on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website. Then your risk may be higher.
How do Christmas trees catch fire?
OK, some people probably still light their Christmas trees with actual candles. I'm sure it's gorgeous. But most folks are using electric lights. And they are the cause of most Christmas tree fires. No matter how dry it is, a real tree isn't going to just burst into flames. A fire needs a spark to start, and that spark usually comes from electricity in the lights that cover the tree.
Artificial trees are less likely to spark a flame, but they do have their own fire risks — especially if you keep them plugged in too long or don’t set them up properly. Electrical problems are the cause of one in four Christmas tree fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). There are electrical components built right into these trees to keep them illuminated, so it’s important to keep safety top-of-mind when one is in your home.
Why are artificial trees safer and less likely to catch fire?
Real trees are made of, well, wood. And needles, which, as any good camper knows, make great fire-starters. Needles and wood burn better when they’re dry, so you can reduce the risk of Christmas tree fires by keeping the tree watered. But, even if you keep it watered, Christmas trees are still fundamentally made of firewood.
Artificial trees are made of a variety of materials. PVC, a type of plastic, is a common main ingredient. This is often wrapped around a metal frame and then covered in lights, ornaments, and fake snow, which is often made of latex paint. Trees can also be made of metal or fiber optics. Some of these materials, like metals, aren't going to burn; others, like the PVC that most trees are made of, can catch fire.
When buying an artificial tree that is pre-wired with lights, look for the “UL” symbol: the letters “UL” in a circle, often located on the battery pack, safety tag, and/or product packaging. Underwriters Laboratories tests products for safety, including testing flammability. You’ve probably seen their symbol on hundreds of products and not even noticed it. Now that you know, you'll start noticing it on all kinds of things, from your toaster to your kids' battery-powered toys.
Many artificial trees are now coated in a flame-retardant coating or made from materials that are inherently resistant to igniting. If your artificial tree isn't yet coated, you can buy a spray and coat it yourself.
Yes, these coatings are also available for real trees. But then you have to remember to apply it each year. And decorating is already a lot of trouble, especially with small children. You can get an artificial tree with the flame-retardant coating already applied, so it’ll be safer (but not fireproof) for the first moment it enters your home.
The good news and the bad news is that some pre-lit artificial trees have been recalled, due to safety issues like exposed wiring, which could make them catch fire. It's bad because, well, fire. And it’s good, because someone is actually checking for these problems, so they can find a problem before it finds you.
So, whether you have an artificial or real tree, the most important thing is to pay attention to electrical safety. Here’s how to enjoy your Christmas tree in a fire-safe way:
- Don't plug too many things into one outlet.
- Don't connect too many strings of lights in a row; electrically, it's about the same as plugging them into the same outlet.
- Check the wiring for tears in the plastic insulation, especially after it's been stored all scrunched up.
- Don't let children or pets chew, tear, or otherwise damage the wires.
- Always unplug your tree at night.
- Check to make sure things stay plugged all the way in, as a half-plugged-in wire can be a big hazard, both for fires and electrocutions.
- Keep other flammable materials away, too. You don't want a hot bulb to ignite a piece of tissue paper.
- If you do choose a tree that's made mostly of metal, especially one with metal needles, check on how to safely light it — because that metal can conduct electricity, if any exposed wiring touches it.
Further perks of artificial trees
I’m certainly not here to convert you to the Church of Fake Trees, but I kind of am. Apart from being less of a fire hazard, there are a variety of other reasons to go artificial this year.
First, they’re convenient. Instead of lugging a real tree home, you can simply walk to your garage and grab it. Second, affordability. You can get a nice fake tree for $100 – even if you use it for only five years, that’s only $20 a year. Third, they’re prettier. Yes, I know this is a controversial opinion that will stir up a debate, but I’m not budging on this one. Natural trees inevitably have flaws, and it can be hard to find one that fits perfectly into your space. Fake trees are unnaturally perfect in all the right ways; they’re symmetrical, balanced, and perfectly fluffed. You can shop endless options until you find one that looks made for your home.
Flame retardant Christmas trees
An artificial tree is already less likely to catch fire than a real tree, but to bolster your confidence that your faux free won’t spark a flame, consider purchasing a flame-retardant Christmas tree. The artificial trees below are designed with safety in mind. Depending on the tree, they’re either made completely from an inherently flame-resistant material, like PVC, or coated with a substance that protects the tree’s materials from igniting. In short, they’ll smolder and melt if exposed to fire from an outside source, but won’t burst into flames.
While artificial trees can catch fire, they're a lot less likely to. Whichever kind of tree you pick, the most important thing is basic electrical safety.
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