Theater Techs, Please Read and Comment
January 10, 2012 1:46 PM   Subscribe

For Theater Tech Pros : Are these Christmas lights hanging behind a shim in a theater OK or not?

I am the safety person for my school district, and saw these in a high school theater. My concerns are as follows:

1. Something electrical on a batten which is not designed for electrical stuff (there are only 2 electrics other than the cyc lights, but still).

2. The use of household zipcords to connect these strings of lights.

3. Having these lights in contact with the fabric, which, at one time, may have been flame treated but there is presently no tag to that effect.

4. I have no idea how they get electricity up to the string. I assume with an extension cord.

The administrator had no idea who did this, or why. It might be a chruch group that rents the theater on Sundays, but whoever has it this way, well my concerns are above. If there is a reader here with extensive experience in theater tech, could you let me know what you would do?

(The counterweight system is only a few years old and there was evidence of some misuse already, so my degree of confidence in this school's program is not very high, anyway.)
posted by Danf to Technology (15 answers total)
Those look like LED lights to me. If that's the case, number 3 isn't much of an issue. LED lights do not produce anywhere near the amount of heat that regular bulbs do.

You can buy LED Christmas lights and touch them with your bare fingers even if they've been running for hours.
posted by royalsong at 1:54 PM on January 10, 2012

Lots of connections, though, with cheapo zip cords. I know that the bulbs are not hot, but any short in one of the cords, which contacting fabric, might not be good news.
posted by Danf at 1:56 PM on January 10, 2012

Yeah, it's the multiple household extension cords and the way the lights are (somewhat) taped to that shim that worry me most; but even if those *are* LED lights, it's still not a good idea to have them right up against the fabric. And at least one of those strands looks somewhat frayed just below where it meets one of the extension cords.

I hate to be the Grinch, but considering it's a school? Safety first, last and always.

(not an electrician; just worked in lots of older theaters over the years.)
posted by easily confused at 2:09 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and one more thing: just about every extension cord says not to plug multiple cords into each other, and most strings of lights states the maximum of how many it would be safe to connect. And that brings up the electrical outlet itself: how many cords and splitters are there per outlet, and are those outlets overloaded?
posted by easily confused at 2:13 PM on January 10, 2012

They are hanging behind a "scrim."

Household extensions are not up to code. That opens the producer to liability he or she would not have if using proper stage wiring.
posted by leafwoman at 2:18 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are the lights UL listed? Then they shouldn't burn anything (incandescent or LED), think about how many lights you put on your Christmas tree every year w/o burning the house down.

Why does it matter how they're attached? Duct tape, gaffer's tape, zip ties, paper clips - as long as it doesn't cut the wires and supports the lights, it's all good.

The biggest worry is the extension cords - you need the appropriate size (gauge) of cord to handle the amperage of the lights. Count up all the light strings, look at their power rating, and make sure you're not exceeding the cord (or outlet) max amperage.

A quick and dirty check - feel the cord. If it's warm, you've probably exceeded it's rating ;)

Really, most all of the fear from burning the house down with christmas lights came from the old, large incandescent bulbs (those really were hot to the touch!) and from bubble lights (and too many lights on the same outlet). Those modern, mini-lights you show are quite safe.

Of course, I'm no theater person nor OSHA/code official, so I'm sure that in a public setting there are much stricter regulations. But in general, there's nothing here that sets off my common-sense alarms.
posted by jpeacock at 2:21 PM on January 10, 2012

They are hanging behind a "scrim."

Thank you. Getting the lingo right is over half the battle when talking to theater people about the questionable stuff they do. You are right.

Whenever I write up a report, I go to this in order to get the terminology correct.
posted by Danf at 2:23 PM on January 10, 2012

For me the biggest concern is the fabric. If it is not tagged as fire retarded then you have to assume that it is not and the use of flammable fabric in a theatre, particularly on stage, is a Very Big Deal. If that catches and you discover it is not treated you can't be left standing there saying "well I thought it was fine". In short if it's not tagged, don't use it.

The electrics look like a mess and very amateurish, but are probably less of a concern. I wouldn't be happy with them looking like that in a theatre I was working in though.

There are not too many issues with using a non-lx bar for lx, if done properly. It's common enough.

Disclaimer: I have worked theatre, including professionally, on and off for nearly 15 years, but I've never worked in the US. I don't know what standards or codes you have to conform to for LX gear (there is no differentiation between household and commercial electrical gear here, for single phase anyway). I'm willing to bet I'm right on the fire rating stuff though.
posted by deadwax at 2:27 PM on January 10, 2012

It's a scrim, not a shim. A shim is a small piece of wood or something, used for leveling. A scrim is a "generic term for open weave fabrics used as backdrops and translucent drops. Types of scrim include sharkstooth, filled sharkstooth, bobbinette and gauze." (Backstage Handbook, Paul Carter, 1994)

Many many many theaters have no permanent electrics, but use regular system pipes with cables run to them. I've worked in most of the theaters in San Francisco, and only one has permanent electric pipes. Number 4 is not a concern, assuming that the cable was run safely.

Lots of theaters use zipcord. I don't know where you're located, but I do know it's illegal where I'm located. Commonly done, but illegal.

The fire marshal here requires either tags on the softgoods or paperwork on file stating either that something is IFR or the last treatment date.

How I'd make this safer: I'd put the lights on a pipe just upstage of the scrim, if you have the space. It's not strictly necessary, though. Instead of the janky mishmash of zipcord and cubetaps that the current users have got going, I'd run a multiple receptacle extension cord (Lex Products makes the E-String, plenty of other companies make a similar product) along the pipe, and drop the lights down from that. I'd either find the paperwork relating to the last time your scrim was fireproofed, or take the scrim down and send it out to get re-treated.
posted by mollymayhem at 2:33 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Drop me a memail with your address if you want a copy of Glerum's Stage Rigging Handbook. I have a second copy. It tells you pretty much everything you every wanted to know about the safe operation of a conterweight system. It has been my text in several classes.
posted by mollymayhem at 2:45 PM on January 10, 2012

mollymayhem - I have Glerum's book and took his rigging class. . .and sent you a memail :-)
posted by Danf at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2012

Yeah, just become friendly with the fire marshal staff in the local fire department and bring one of them over to look at it and chat about it. It's the local fire code that's important, right? Or are you thinking of something else?
posted by exphysicist345 at 3:06 PM on January 10, 2012

The deputy fire marshal is sort of at my beck and call (it's taken a long time to get there). So, yeah. But I just want to find out what pros think about this and mollymayhem, easily confused, and others have helped a lot.

Up to now, I was against putting any electric stuff on non-electric pipes but my mind is more open now.
posted by Danf at 3:57 PM on January 10, 2012

Why does it matter how they're attached? Duct tape, gaffer's tape, zip ties, paper clips - as long as it doesn't cut the wires and supports the lights, it's all good.

You can damage the wire to the point where it's a hazard without visibly cutting or damaging it. Extension cords, christmas lights, or any flexible wire isn't solid but many small wires braided together. If you pinch, crimp, or damage enough of the wires in the braid the cord will get hot at that point (fewer wires for current to flow through = more current flowing through the wires available = more heat). This is especially true in Christmas lights where the wires aren't that thick to begin with, less in appliance extensions cords, and even less in heavy duty extension cords.

Ever read the warnings on extension cords and notice the prohibition of running them through doorways? If the door accidentally slams shut and pinches the chord, there's your fire hazard.

People get out these zip ties and pull them as tight as they can. I would never secure a string of lights this way without leaving it loose enough for the cord to move.
posted by sbutler at 4:50 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Messy wiring is easy to get knocked around and cause problems. I pulled up a rug in an office to find that the wire to the calculator was down to copper. LED lights might do better connected to one another, instead of using a bunch of extension cords. IANAE(lectrician). Now's the time to pick up LED icicle lights, which might be able to replace the whole mess.
posted by theora55 at 5:07 PM on January 10, 2012

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