Imagine being in a lift or dangling by a rope from a precipice dozens of feet in the air, with bitter gales needling falling snow onto a now-numb face, frozen fingers trying to manipulate intricate and sometimes finicky wires charged with electricity.
It's "light duty" only in the most literal sense, and that's why more people each year are taking a shine to paying companies a little silver and gold to install Christmas lights at their homes.
Some businesses in Utah and elsewhere — sometimes part of large franchises, sometimes small shops — do it hour after hour, day after day, for sums ranging from pocket change to tens of thousands of dollars. They've seen the industry grow light-years recently.
"Back in the '60s and '70s, we all lived in nice, small ranch homes and ramblers, and it was easy for the husband to get out there and hang lights. It wasn't that big of a deal," said Vance Brand, who owns Christmas Light Professionals of Salt Lake City with his brother, Ryan.
"Now there are homes on the east bench in Draper that have 50-foot drops. Park City, it's the same thing. We're actually using lifts and not ladders to reach these eaves, and it gets absolutely crazy for anybody to try to tackle that stuff by themselves."
"There is a learning curve, and then you can't be afraid of heights," said John Lundwall, owner of X Light Co. of Salem. His work has even called for an 80-foot boom for stringing lights atop huge trees — not a job for lightweights. "And when you're up 80 feet, it feels like 300," he said.
Many light installation companies are franchises — popular with lawn-care professionals looking to make a little green during the winter. Christmas Decor, with eight reps in Utah among 375 in 48 states and Canada, is an example. The company has been around since 1986 and does about 85 percent of its 40,000 installations at homes — a business sector growing by 7,000 to 10,000 homes a year for the company, based in Lubbock, Texas.
Brand is a licensed electrician whose company has been installing holiday lights for 16 years, from dim beginnings to the bright present.
"The first year I did this I was just in college and somebody said, 'Hey, could you put up our lights?' I said, 'Sure.' But the next year, I went door to door and nobody else was interested. I did maybe three houses that year. The next year, I did a couple of fliers and went to malls and maybe had eight or nine customers. In 1995, I thought about selling the business, but it's blossomed since about 1996 and every year it doubles."
Christmas Light Professionals is expecting to handle 300 jobs during this month and next.
Nature's Care Holiday Lighting of Sandy is a lawn and tree company most of the year and has seen holiday decor duties rise from eight or 10 jobs about five years ago to an expected 40 this year.
"We've been getting a lot of calls," said manager Tom Rowley. "We've gotten more calls in what we call the 'pre-season,' calling us before we start advertising, than ever before."
X Light (xlightcompany.com), whose portfolio includes mostly commercial lighting projects, nonetheless figures to do several dozen homes this year, according to Lundwall. That means 300 to 400 trees, ranging from 10 feet to 80 feet tall.
"It is growing. This is my 13th year in business. When I started, I was aware of only two in Utah doing it, but now I don't go two days without running into another company doing it," he said.
"A lot of landscape companies are getting into it, a lot of college kids trying to pay their winter semester tuition. . . . There is a lot more competition, a lot more people having it done."
Plenty of options
Customers who have seen the light have a lot of options — the types of lights, their locations, other decor such as wreaths and garland. Some companies light up trees outside or even inside. Some own and are responsible for storing all the decorations and charge only for labor. Some have customers buy the lights through the company, but the customer stores the decorations and pays only for installation in subsequent years.
Nature's Care has had one customer seeking only pink lights. One small job, costing $56, entails only the placement of a 48-inch lighted wreath on a home's peak. But some face sticker shock when Rowley illuminates them about the price "because they have no idea what it costs."
"They don't understand it's very labor-intensive. I can't string them up for what it costs to buy them. It's mostly the labor they're paying for."
The cost is anywhere from $200 to $400 for the average job. Christmas Light Professionals' smallest duty, costing $40, is a string of lights on a flat eave "that takes me about 10 minutes to do," Brand said. The largest job costs $15,000.
"That's a big house, but not a mansion," he said. "But we're doing 40 to 50 trees, and every one of them looks like they're from Temple Square. I've put 10,000 lights on a tree before. A tree that's a 10-foot pine tree can cost more than the whole eave of a house if it's done like Temple Square. It's more labor-intensive."
Lundwall's customers typically like lights — often icicle lights — along the rooflines, plus lights on trees and bushes.
"I have a couple of homes where there's a four- to five-man crew working a week or week-and-a-half to do one home," Lundwall said. "It's a huge project. A lot of homes, you can work three or four hours and leave because it's just the front of the roofline. Different people have different wants, needs and pocketbooks."
Brand notes that a company crew can finish a job in an hour and a half "which would take one guy who didn't know what he's doing all day to do." But in addition to efficiency, customers often have safety on their minds.
"It's easy to get people killed doing this," Brand said. "I've seen people standing on roofs, in the snow, and they're 40 feet off the ground. I've been doing this for 16 years, and I wouldn't do that."
Ask holiday lighting professionals about their typical customer, and one of the first words out of their mouths will be "she."
"We're doing things for people they don't want to do themselves, and I've had more wives calling me saying, 'I don't want my husband up on the roof again. I'm afraid he will fall,' " Rowley said.
"Most have a husband who is working a lot and doesn't have the time to do it, or it's a husband and wife who both work and neither have time to do it. It's a matter of time and safety."
Rowley said some customers handle everything but the roof work, leaving that to his company.
Brand said his typical customer is a woman in her mid-30s who wants her young children to have lights to enjoy but can't get her husband to do the work.
"The majority are young families," he said. "What really helps is families that like to 'chase the Joneses.' Everybody on the block has gotten it done, and they're going to get it done, too."
Rowley said some have children who are embarrassed that they were the only folks on the block who didn't have their house all aglow the previous year. "And they're like, 'Dad, put some lights up!' We get a lot of that," he said.
Janet Christensen figures to spend about $400 this year having Christmas Light Professionals do her Avenues home. It's her first year there, after averaging about $900 a year dressing up a home in Emigration Canyon.
Her main reason for outsourcing? Pretty succinct: "A husband that doesn't want to," she said.
But she also notes that the cost includes taking the lights down, plus the expertise in getting something special.
"They do a really good job," she said. "The thing that's good is they can come up with a good pattern, for one thing. They can really do a nice job of looking at a house and deciding what would look good and what lights would look good where, rather than somebody just going out there and just sticking up some lights.
"And if they need lights, Vance keeps a pretty good supply in his truck, so you're not running back and forth to the store and trying to figure out what lights you need. And if they don't work, he comes back and fixes them. There's nothing worse than going back and forth to the store when it's busy around Christmas and replacing the lights and getting up and down on the ladder."
Michelle DeYoung's Draper home is getting a $1,200 holiday light makeover this season. She wanted to avoid the hassles of problematic lights and likes being able to switch colors — red and white this year, maybe green and white or purple and white next year.
"There are a lot of reasons why you do things for Christmas," DeYoung said. "You just want it all to be so lovely and stress-free as possible. When you have the means to do so, it's just nice to have someone come and put the lights up rather than stress your husband with, 'The lights aren't up. It's Thanksgiving. There's snow on the roof,' and suddenly you're worried about safety.
"It just kind of depends on where you are in your life. You finally get to the point where the 'stress-free' is more important than the economy."
DeYoung said some neighbors have Temple Square-like displays, leading to a little pressure to do "something nice" during the holidays.
"But that's true in home ownership, no matter what. If all the yards look nice, you want yours to look nice. It's just part of owning a home and wanting it to be a good representation of you," she said.
But some representations can be, if not gaudy, certainly glittery. Rowley once worked in Denver, where a customer spent $20,000 on her holiday lighting installation. "It's just insane what some people are willing to spend," he said.
The typical Christmas Decor job costs about $1,500, although some are as low as $200, according to Brandon Stephens, marketing director for the company, whose Web site is www.christmasdecor.net. But at least two last year cost $50,000 each. Yes, 50 . . . thousand . . . dollars. Each. For Christmas lights.
"I think what's happened is that people's time has become more and more valuable," Stephens said. "You look at outsourcing services, and 20 to 25 years ago, not many people had their lawn mowed by someone else. Now their time is so valuable, they start hiring out people to do things — not to mention that you might not get the results you want if you do it yourself."
That's not uncommon for people doing such a job only once a year, he said.
Nature's Care's top customer spends about $4,000 for work that takes about three days to finish. Christmas Light Professionals' big spender's wallet is $15,000 lighter. X Light's minimum is $250, but a couple of customers spend upwards of $10,000 "to have every gable, roofline and window lit," Lundwall said. "They've got a dozen deciduous trees lit like Temple Square, and some people have gazebos."
And while those customers are great for the bottom line, the installers tend to not make light of spending such a wad of cash on luminescent luxury that makes holidays both merry and especially bright.
"My thoughts are, it's somebody who really enjoys the holidays," Brand said, and if that's their way of getting the Christmas spirit, more power to them.
"Most people that spend that kind of money and have that kind of home usually do a lot of entertaining," Rowley said. "They're having parties, and they usually want them up before Thanksgiving and won't want them taken down until well after New Years. They want to get the most out of them."
Lundwall said spending $10,000 to $12,000 on holiday lights may seem outrageous, but those customers probably have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on landscaping and tens of thousands maintaining their property, "so spending 10 grand on lights is just part of the yearly budget."
"When you're making a million dollars a month, people think of money differently than the way you and I think about it. I have some clients, they have big family parties, big family reunions, people flying in for Christmas, and they want their house and yard festive because they take pictures and have their family holiday there.
"They obviously have the money and they're thrilled, and I'm thrilled to do it. If they have the money, what can you say? It becomes a focal point of the holidays for the family to come and visit. It beats packing everyone in the car and running them down to Temple Square."
But don't expect Brand's home to look like Temple Square, thanks to his breakneck schedule the next few weeks.
"People say all the time, 'Your house must be pretty nice.' But when I get home, I'm pretty tired, so I don't do my own house," he said.
"I never have. One year, I did a tree out front, but during the season I'm working from 7 a.m. to sometimes 11 or midnight every day. I might have a Sunday with a little free time and my wife may say, 'Hey, go out and put up some lights,' but I just want to sleep."