How to Choose the Best Outdoor String Lights

Few products instantly transform mundane backyards into spaces that are fun, relaxing, cozy and festive. But that's exactly what the best outdoor string lights do.

By Frank Skinner | Updated Apr 2, 2021

There's a reason they are so popular. In fact, outdoor patio lights are so popular it can be a little overwhelming to figure out which options are best for you and the space you want to light up.

You can find entry level patio string lights in almost every mass retail store but the selection is extremely limited to a few options. These sets are engineered to be the least expensive because that is a primary goal for mass retail products. For those on a tight budget, this is a good place to start looking. But, you get what you pay for and this guide is intended to give you tips on what to look for in choosing the best outdoor string lights -- whether you buy them from Christmas Lights, Etc or not!

How to Choose The Best Outdoor String Lights for Your Project

What makes the best outdoor string lights?

  • Are the string lights durable and safe when used outside?
  • Are the bulbs removable so they can be replaced or customized when needed?
  • Will the lights look good over time?
  • What makes one string light more durable and safe than another?

We'll let this customer picture speak for us. It's an outdoor string light set that unfortunately had a tree fall through it -- all over a rock surface. These lights were Wintergreen Lighting FlexFilament G50 LED Shatterproof bulbs -- and remarkably, not a single bulb broke. We're not implying that everyone will be this lucky in a situation like this, but it certainly helped that this customer started with an outdoor string light set designed to be more durable and safe from the outset. Typically, the least expensive outdoor string light sets with smaller globe shaped bulbs come with glass. If you're on a budget, that could be a good option for you, but had this customer been using glass bulbs, it's highly likely that every bulb would have been shattered. What would you choose?

Identifying light sets with outdoor rated, shatterproof bulbs is our #1 recommended place to start. If you do find a light set style you like that does have glass bulbs, all is not lost. Many higher-end outdoor string light sets do include glass bulbs because of the aesthetic and optical qualities unique to glass and the light source, especially with larger bulbs. That's ok, but know there's a tradeoff. Glass can be ok for outdoor string lights, but it's simply more prone to breaking. If you live in an area with a lot of bad weather, wind, or trees that can damage your lights, consider shatterproof options first.

Hot vs Cool Patio Bulbs

Another safety consideration with outdoor patio lights is heat. Incandescent string light bulbs get hot to the touch within seconds. Most LED bulbs do not. Look for bulb features like "cool to the touch" in your next set. You may say that outdoor string lights are commonly used overhead and are out of reach for most people so getting burnt by a bulb may be very limited. That's fair. But when trees, leaves, pine needles, or other natural debris touch hot bulbs, there's a higher chance burning could occur.

If you want to avoid the heat risks, cool to the touch bulbs are a solid consideration. The added benefit of cool to the touch LED bulbs is that they also use 80-90% less energy than incandescent bulbs.

LED Bulbs are Cool To The Touch & Safer For Outdoor Use
LED Bulbs are Cool To The Touch

What exactly is a stringer?

The unsung hero of backyard string lights is the stringer itself. The stringer is the electrical string of sockets that bulbs get inserted into and there are several types. What makes one stringer better than another? Well, professional light installers use commercial grade stringers that are often hard to find in mass retail because of the cost. Christmas Lights, Etc only sells commercial grade stringers, for example. Commercial grade stringers come with specified insulation types to suit different environmental needs for heat, cold and weathering. Many commercial grade outdoor stringers can also be connected end to end and they come in a variety of sizes and lengths, which means there's far more options for you to get precisely what you need for your space rather than being locked into a common size that's easier for mass retailers to produce.

Are the bulbs removable so they can be replaced or customized when needed?

Many entry-level patio light sets are actually faux outdoor string lights. They look like they have normal bulbs but they often are bulbs that are hardwired to the string, which means they cannot be replaced if they burn out. This type of light set is easier to produce because it is often a "mini light" set with bigger bulb lenses placed over the light source to give the illusion of bigger outdoor string lights. If you have a small space like a balcony where you only need a small light set, this could be a cost effective option for you. However, if your display area is larger, you'll likely be immediately underwhelmed with less light output from these faux patio lights. They simply don't put off as much light as a typical standalone bulb. The best outdoor string light sets with fully replaceable bulbs gives you the control to make it look exactly how you want, or change it whenever you want. If you like color themes for holidays or backyard events, the ability to swap bulbs out is a big plus.

Hardwired
Hardwired "Mini Light" Patio Bulb
Removable Patio Light Bulb
Removable Patio Light Bulb

Will the lights look good over time?

Lights made with the least expensive materials don't last as long. If a light burns out and it is not replaceable, you're stuck with dark spots or you have to replace the entire string. Getting outdoor string lights with replaceable bulbs eliminates that scenario immediately. Light output and color quality are also important to many people. Look for light sets that include references to Kelvin temperature ratings for different shades of white. Or, in the case of colored outdoor string light, look for bulbs that have infused color rather than a color coating. Color coating is cheaper to make, but the coating will eventually chip, crack or fade. Infused color bulbs have color injected throughout the entire bulb lens, which means the color cannot chip, crack or fade away like cheaper surface-coated bulbs.

Wire Gauge and Insulation

The best outdoor light strings typically have 18 to 16 gauge wire, with the 16 gauge sets made for heavier duty use. Wire gauge refers to the diameter of the copper within the light string and the SMALLER the number, the BIGGER the gauge, which can be confusing. Good outdoor string lights also include an insulated coating, commonly referred to as SPT1, SPT2 or SJTW. These references help to identify the thickness of the wire insulation. SJTW light strings are rated for heavy outdoor use and are especially recommended for use cases that use a lot of power or for longer-term outdoor lighting where weathering is a concern. If you're shopping for outdoor string lights and you see that they are 22 or 24 gauge, it is most likely a "mini light" set that has been re-created as faux patio lights. Again, if you're on a budget and only need a small set of lights, this could be a good option for you. But, if you're looking for the best outdoor string lights that have more durability, longevity and quality, consider sets that are 18 gauge or larger.

Patio Light String Insulation Types
Patio Light String Insulation Types

Hanging Grommets

Larger outdoor string lights often are designed to hold household size (E26 base) bulbs. Bigger stringers and bigger bulbs carry more weight. If you're hanging lights across a large space consider outdoor string lights with hanging grommets. The hanging grommet is a machine-cut hole within a rubber brace above each light. You can thread a support wire, also called a guy or guide wire, through each of these holes to help bear the weight, if needed.

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