At this time of year more than any other, families are buying up candles like hotcakes. If you've ever shopped for candles, you've undoubtedly noticed a huge price discrepancy among them - some are nearly $30, and some are a bargain-basement $1.99. That disparity would cause a knee-jerk reaction most of us to purchase the cheaper candle, but that's not always the smartest - or the safest - buy. In fact, cheap candles can place your home in jeopardy.

The quality of a candle is measured by a number of factors, most notably burn time. It's simple: The longer the burn time, the better the candle, in most cases. If you've ever purchased an inexpensive votive or pillar candle, you've noticed that you can burn them to the bottom or close to the bottom in the course of a single evening or two. That's not the case with higher-quality candles, which can burn for 100 hours or more. So what creates a longer burn time? In short, the quality of the wax. Cheaper candles also tend to smoke more, which is likely to trigger your smoke detector and leave black soot deposits on surrounding walls, mantels and other nearby surfaces in no time flat.

Walking away from a candle is a common mistake that all too many homeowners have committed, sometimes with tragic results. Candles can be a bit deceiving; while they provide a beautiful accent to any room, it only takes a split second - a brief phone call, a distracted parent or an unplanned nap -- for them to cause serious damage or even total destruction to your home. The soot damage referenced above pales by comparison to the damage incurred from a candle that topples from a candle holder placed on an uneven surface, or one that falls when a pet knocks it over. The vast majority of fires resulting from candle use are caused by consumer error.

While you're lighting up those candles this season, keep the following safety tips in mind:

  • Don't close the lid on burning candle or a candle that was recently extinguished and is still warm.
  • Make sure your candle is sitting on a heat-resistant surface.
  • Keep all candles out of reach of both children and pets.
  • Trim the wick before you relight a candle. The wick should be 1/8 inch or shorter. Burn the candle between four to six hours, if possible; this will help the candle to burn evenly and prevent a "crater" from forming in the middle of the candle. After six hours, extinguish your candle, "resnip" the wick, then light again. A wick that exceeds 1/8 inch in height experiences a buildup of carbon, and the candle begins to smoke and cause soot damage to surrounding surfaces.
  • Never continue to burn a candle that has burned to less than ½ inch in height. If your candle has burned to a puddle of wax at the bottom of the jar, extinguish the remaining flame immediately, and do not use the candle again.
  • Remove all flammable materials from the immediate area of the candle. An air conditioning vent or ceiling fan, for example, could cause an already tall flame to jump and ignite a nearby object.
  • Don't place your candle near an open window or drafty door; the flame will flicker and begin to smoke. If you can't avoid a draft, turn your candle periodically to
  • Clean all matches and snips of wick from the bottom of the jar; these materials are flammable.
  • Remove labels on candles before you burn them.
  • Make sure that your candle's container is the appropriate size. Holders either too large or too small are accidents waiting to happen.
  • Install smoke detectors in every room where you burn candles.
  • Avoid burning candles late at night, when there's a chance you might fall asleep and leave them unattended.

    When it comes to purchasing candles for your home this holiday season, you may consider spending a bit more than you'd originally planned, in exchange for a higher-quality, slower-burning candle. Even if you pay $30 for a candle, it remains an inexpensive way to create an inviting and festive atmosphere in your home. There's no need to give up what has become something of a national pastime among homeowners; but you do need to keep an eye on your candles, just as you would your fireplace. So let there be light ... with caution.

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