Electricians are scaling walls, balancing on roofs and spending long hours in their workshops to get their cities ready for the holiday season.
In Kansas City, Mo., Broadway Electrical Construction Co. spends nine months stringing 75 miles of lights on the rooftops and towers of the Country Club Plaza, a Spanish-style outdoor shopping district. This Kansas City tradition dates back to 1925, when a maintenance man hung a simple string of lights above a doorway (See the December 2000 Project Watch).
In small towns and bustling cities nationwide, electricians are working around the clock to make the holidays special for their communities. The following article explores cities with a strong holiday tradition and a hardworking crew of electricians.
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH Lighting the way for the Olympics
Salt Lake City will be aglow with candles, luminaires and lights during the Winter Olympics.
“It is just spectacular,” said Gary Burgess, electronic technician for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. “Every year our electricians are putting in more electrical circuits for all these lights, especially this year with the Olympics. It's a beautiful place in the wintertime.”
Peter Lassig, head gardener, said Salt Lake City has one of the world's top 10 Christmas displays.
“We display tens of thousands of lights on three city blocks in downtown Salt Lake City Utah,” Lassig said. “We have the Christmas trees everywhere. Thirty-five acres of downtown Salt Lake City will be lit with floating candles, luminaries, tin cans full of lights and millions of lights in the trees.”
Salt Lake City's holiday lighting display began in 1963, when the editor from the Desert News teamed up with another promoter to fund a Christmas display outside of the LDS church headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City.
“They paid for it the first year and they liked it so much that the church began to do it from that point on,” Lassig said.
Lassig and about 10 members of his gardening and maintenance staff work on the lights from August until Thanksgiving. He said the electricians play a critical role in the lighting project.
“The electricians are the ones that make us righteous, keep us legal and make it possible for the lights to run,” Lassig said. “They have to seek out the energy load. They're also the ones that don't get any glory but they are doing the truly hard work. They have been tremendous.”
The staff sets up a variety of displays to illuminate Salt Lake City for the holiday season.
“We do all types of electrical displays, not only miniature lights, but we also do the conventional Christmas lights — the C7s and C9s — that some of us grew up with,” Lassig said. “We also do thousands of luminaries and harvest about 60 large Christmas trees out of the mountains and fill them with lights and put them inside the buildings.”
The staff formerly organized a public lighting ceremony, but now keeps it low key for safety reasons, Lassig said.
“It was dangerous because we would have about 50,000 people come. Old people, people with heart problems or children were at risk,” he said. “We don't make any hoopla right now.”
Because of the Winter Olympics, however, a lot of attention will be drawn to the lights, which will be turned on the first Friday after Thanksgiving and stay on until the end of February.
“I think you'll see a lot of our lights when the Olympics are here,” Burgess said. “I'm sure they'll have quite a few of their cameras down this way. It's going to be a challenge to maintain all the lights, but I think we can do it.”
Lassig, who has worked for LDS Temple for 46 years, expects 2002 to be a great year for the lights.
“We are getting ready for the Olympics and we are going to put on a wonderful show,” he said.
ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. Illuminating the oldest city in the nation
Holiday lights have been a tradition in St. Augustine since 1565, when Spanish colonists lit a white candle in their windowsills during the holidays.
Today, the celebration takes the form of the “Nights of Lights,” which runs from Nov. 17 through Jan. 31. One million lights illuminate the city's historic district, landmark lighthouse and beachfront during the 75-day festival.
The city of St. Augustine contracts with electricians from Carcaba Electric, who work closely with a special events lighting company named Angels in the Architecture on the Nights of Lights.
The Nights of Lights project covers five square miles of the city and takes about four-and-a-half months to complete. On Nov. 17, all the lights turn on at the flip of a switch during the official ceremony in St. Augustine's 436-year old town plaza.
“There are over two and a half million lights on in the five mile epicenter,” said Pier Fitts, director of sales and marketing for Angels in the Architecture. “Our two principals are entirely responsible for making sure that the electrical components are in place to allow the entire city to light up when the switch is flipped.”
The crew has to ensure that everything is in order before the lighting ceremony.
“The stress can get intense because we are responsible for the event coming off the first night,” Fitts said. “If something burns out during the 10-week period, we can go out and fix it and chances are that no one has even noticed. But if only half of the town comes on when the mayor hits the switch, we're in big trouble.”
Angels in the Architecture maintains the lights during the 10 weeks, takes down all the decorations and stores them for the next year. For the 2001 Nights of Lights, the company has added pole-mounted snowflakes on one of the main thoroughfares. Many of the historical properties and private merchants have also redone their lighting displays for the 2001 celebration.
“Our system requires that the properties replace their lights after five years,” Fitts said. “The end result is more consistent and coherent aesthetics for the city.”
Angels in the Architecture has met with Chamber of Commerce and tourism officials to find ways to expand the Nights of Lights celebration.
“The scope of the project and its electrical requirements will change as the project takes on new life in the upcoming years,” Fitts said.
Three days before the official lighting ceremony, Fitts said the electricians were busy getting everything ready.
“Though this immediate time is a veritable whirlwind of frenzied activity, we love this project and are so proud to be able to put on this show,” she said.
ROCKFORD, ILL. Powering a Christmas wonderland
IBEW Local #364 electricians help make the holiday season a little brighter in Rockford, Ill. by donating manhours to the Festival of Lights.
Tom Eschen, assistant business manager for Local #364, said the event in Sinnissippi Park has become one of the fastest-growing community events for the holidays.
“Cars are lined up waiting to go through the park,” he said. “It's something positive for the families and the community.”
Rockford, the second largest city in Illinois, began the event in 1989 with 11 displays. The Festival of Lights now has a variety of different displays, which are set up from Nov. 17 through Nov. 30. About 70 community groups, private citizens, churches, local businesses and political organizations set up their own displays.
“A cross section of the community puts in displays,” said Joseph Marino, public relations director for Project First Rate, Rockford, Ill. “We work with the electricians from Union Local #364, who have donated time and materials to provide us with the electricity and the plug-ins that we need.”
IBEW has become a cosponsor of the event, which begins on Dec. 9 and ends Dec. 26.
“If there's something that has to be done, we'll notify our members at our Union meeting, meet on a Saturday morning and work until we get it done,” he said. “We've had as many as 40 people working at one time.”
Each individual site supplies their own decorations, and the electricians provide power to the displays, which range from manger scenes to bears.
“They started out with just a few strings of lights and displays and now they are getting more and more professional,” Eschen said. “Some of them have plywood displays with lights on them and others have really elaborate displays that they've had made up by their company. It's quite a variety.”
Along with powering other displays, IBEW Local 364 has also set up its own site, which is surrounded by holiday decorations.
“We have a sign that was done with fiber optics and cost about $25,000,” Eschen said. “It promotes our association and us.”
Local IBEW Local #364 puts in permanent sites for the displays, which are each given a certain amount of amperage.
“The first year, there was no power set up so we ran all temporary wire to each of the displays,” Eschen said. “Most of the new sites that we've donated over the years have been turned into permanent sites. It depends on if they are expanding in an area.”
The festival has grown to the point where they are running out of room in Sinnissippi Park.
“Anytime in the past that they've wanted to add to the park where they hold the Festival of Lights, the Park District would pay for the material and we would donate the labor,” Eschen said. “This year, however, I don't know if they are expanding. They are running out of park.”
Thousands of floating candles will flicker in a reflection pool in downtown Salt Lake City for the holiday season.
The candles, however, are not candles at all, but rather electronic lights controlled by a microprocessor.
Gary Burgess, electronic technician for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, invented the low-voltage electronic candles as a way to illuminate the LDS Temple's stepfalls and waterfalls.
“I came up with some lights that actually float and mimic a real candle,” Burgess said. “They look like candles in the way they flicker. They work very well and are quite unique. Most people say you can't really mix water and electricity, but if done right, they can work without a problem.”
Lassig said Burgess got inspired to invent the electronic candle when the lights went underwater.
“In the process of trying to get them to be beautiful, we first put them on a saucer and then took the electric light and programmed it so it would flicker on and off like a candle,” he said. “Then the kids would fill it up with pennies and it would sink and the people would say, ‘Why is the candle still lit when it is underwater?’ It really did look like a candle. Then we decided to put it in a ball so you could throw a penny at it, but it wouldn't sink.”
Burgess invented the electronic floating candles in 1998 and now has a patent on his creation. He said the idea of a candle intrigued him, but he had to figure out how to protect it. Burgess came up with the idea of inventing a little bulb that would enclose the light, keep it afloat and keep the moisture out. The next quandary was trying to make the light look like a real candle.
“With a background in electronics, I thought, let's use a microprocessor and a technology called Pulse Width Modulation, which sends a pulse of voltage to each candle,” he said. “It makes it more efficient and operate a lot more smoothly.”
Burgess programmed the lights on six separate channels.
“You can have one flicker a little bit more differently than the others around it. It shows more independence because they are not all flickering at the same time. We are also using between five and six channels so in case there is a problem, you are not taking down the whole thing.”
The team at the LDS Temple will be maintaining 2,400 candles in three different locations.
“We have two sets of runnels that run parallel and on each side. There are 700 in each of those and 1,000 in a reflection pond, which is right in front of the LDS Temple,” he said. “It's really beautiful. You just have to see it.”
CHARLESTON, S.C. Designing lighting sculptures for the Holiday Festival of Lights
Three electricians work diligently in “Santa's Workshop” to design and create sculptures for the Holiday Festival of Lights in Charleston, S.C.
More than one million lights illuminate St. James Island County Park from Nov. 9 to Jan. 1. The three-mile drive-through lighting tour began in 1990 with 18 exhibits, which were all purchased from an out-of-state metal sculptor. Today, the festival features 125 displays, which are all created by Electrician Rich Raab and his team of electricians. Raab, who worked in the maintenance division of Charleston County Parks for 12 years, works year-round on the Holiday Festival of Lights, which has become a Charleston, S.C., tradition.
“We traditionally start the day after Labor Day,” said Raab, the supervisor for the Holiday Festival of Lights. “We shut down the water parks for the season and start getting geared up for the Holiday Festival of Lights.”
Raab and his crew create more than a dozen new displays each year for the Holiday Festival of Lights.
“For 12 years, we've been constantly upgrading electrical and trying to add new displays every year,” he said. “I try to keep a third of my thoughts geared toward Christmas since it is a Christmas tradition and another third themed toward Charleston to keep it unique to our area. The other third may not have anything to do with Charleston or Christmas, but will just be something that is cute, interesting or fun.”
This year, Raab designed one display with a patriotic theme.
“We did an American flag with a Liberty Bell,” he said. “I've wanted to do a flag for a few years, but Sept. 11 pushed me a little bit. Everyone seems to be patriotic right now.”
Raab browses newspapers, art magazines and graphic books for inspiration. Once he creates a design, he refines the image and then scans it into the computer. From there, with the assistance of a projector, he enlarges the design and reflects it on the floor of the light show maintenance building. He and his crew then chalk it out and bend the rebar by hand to fit the chalked outline. The designs are cut, arranged and welded into the final sculpture.
“We usually work on a piece that's 6 ft by 6 ft or 10 ft by 10 ft and then we'll weld that section together,” he said. “We'll build a frame for it if it is going to be freestanding or we'll put hooks on it if it's going to hang in a tree.”
The electricians then rub a two-part coal tar epoxy on the sculpture to keep it from rusting and attach the lights to the display.
“We buy the string of lights that come in 1,000-ft reels and get the sockets 3 in. on center or 6 in. on center,” Raab said. “Then we'll put the lights on the rebar with the zip ties.”
Each design takes between six and eight weeks to complete. Displays last about five years before they require reconditioning, repainting and rewiring. The bulbs, however, are changed regularly for the 125 displays.
“Our show runs for 60 nights,” Raab said. “In that time we are basically just maintaining the lights, keeping the bulbs burning and troubleshooting electrical problems.”
Raab said it takes his team two months to set up everything and another two months to take everything down and pack it up.
“The other six months we are designing and constructing new displays for the next year or upgrading electrical panels or putting in new power,” Raab said.
The Holiday Festival of Lights has the usual Santa, reindeer and snowflake designs, but the displays also depict Charleston landmarks. The largest of the displays is the Cooper River Bridge, which is 200 ft long, 30 ft high and contains 5,000 light bulbs. The event also features the St. Philip's Church and the Yorktown Aircraft Carrier as well as a golfing Santa and a sunbathing snowman.
Tom Eschen, assistant business agent for IBEW Local #364, advises electricians to use high-quality lighting equipment to save both time and money on holiday lighting projects.
“Some of them are good for about a season or two at the most and then you have to replace them,” Eschen said. You're better off using higher quality lighting decorations. Otherwise, you'll spend your whole winter working on them. I remember trying to fix a string of lights in 20 mph winds in about 20 below for the Festival of Lights.”
Eschen recommends using strings with larger bulbs for the displays.
“If you can use the C7 and C9, you have better luck than just those little tiny twinkle bulbs, where if one goes out, the whole line goes out.”