How LED lighting is making every Christmas a Clark Griswold Christmas

Christmas Vacation’s Clark Griswold would be in his glory with the quality and number of holiday light shows, indoor and outdoor, in communities across Alberta.

LED displays are seasonal fixtures at the Edmonton and Calgary zoos, the Castrol Racetrack south of Edmonton, the Calgary Stampede grounds and at greenhouses and exhibition halls in the province. 

Glow Gardens, a light display at the Edmonton Expo Centre, contains more than a million lights, says show general manager Shannon Van Norman.

The company behind Glow Gardens started with one display two years ago and now has events in 10 cities in three countries.

What makes the displays possible is the power of LED lights.

“It’s a lot different than it was years ago when you couldn’t afford to do this,” Van Norman says. “Your power bill would be insane.” 

As spokesperson Maddie Twomey puts it: “The truth is, the food trucks outside of Glow use twice as much power as the lights do.”

Take a tour of this massive indoor light show drawing crowds to the Edmonton Expo Centre. 0:55

For more from Glow Gardens you can catch Our Edmonton Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC TV and live on the CBC GEM app. 

The “virtual explosion” of LED light shows are a result of the “simplicity of the manufacturing of [LEDs], the energy efficiency and the fact it has an extremely long lamp life,” says Victor Keith, owner of Edmonton-based Design 21, which specializes in LED lighting. 

“We didn’t see these festivals 20 years ago because we couldn’t afford them, because of the cost associated with traditional incandescent lights. But now, because power consumption is so low, people can put on these festivals,” Keith says.

A new product called ribbon or tape lights is becoming popular with homeowners, he says.

LED Ribbon technology as installed on an Edmonton area home. (Victor Keith)

“We’re doing an awful lot of lighting residentially, people using it as a permanent Christmas light on the outside of their home. It installs on the fascia right under your gutter, and it’s in a perfect straight line.”

An app controls and changes colours, which can be left white outside the holiday season, he says. 

While not cheap at $15/foot, a house could easily run you $1,500, people choose them rather than go up and down a ladder each year, Keith said.

Alberta Electric System Operator estimates 1.5 million households in Alberta hang outdoor lights during holiday season.

That will drive up electricity use in the province in December by about 83 MW, a number that is dropping each year as more people turn to LED lighting, the AESO says.

A string of LED lights uses about five watts of power, while an incandescent string uses about 40 watts.

LED lights sparkles at the Glow Gardens on at the Edmonton Expo Centre. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Still, all that lighting may be contributing to another problem, says Christopher Kyba, an expert on light pollution. 

“The really exciting thing about LEDs is it’s actually possible to produce a very small amount of light with them and that means you can do things that you never did before,” says Kyba, who studied at the University of Alberta and now works in Germany at the Research Centre for Geosciences. 

“We had thought with the introduction of LEDs — because you can direct them more carefully — we had hoped that we might see decreases in what the satellites sees, but instead we saw these increases,” he says.

Kyba’s advice? Be mindful of what you’re lighting up and reserve the “sparkle” for special occasions. 

“When we light a space all the time, it becomes very everyday,” he says. “The reason that lights in the holidays are so exciting is because they are only there for that short period.”

Lighting in December is also less disruptive to wildlife as there are few insects active or birds migrating, Kyba says.

Used correctly, festive light increases safety, visibility and creates an “invitation” during long, dark winters, says Isla Tanaka, planner for Edmonton’s Wintercity initiative, which encourages residents to embrace winter.

A new lighting installation highlights the architecture and history of the Rossdale Power Plant in Edmonton. (City of Edmonton)

Projects like the Victoria Park Iceway skating trail, Silver Skate Festival and the lighting up of heritage buildings like the Rossdale Power Plant use LED lighting to bring joy, she says. 

“With our changing climate we can’t always rely on snow, or on cold but we can rely on darkness, it’s the one thing we can guarantee, so lighting is a very powerful tool,” Tanaka says.

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