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The Christmas trees that hang on Main Street in Ekalaka, Mont., get an efficiency makeover in the woodworking shop of SECO Member Services Representative Marlene Waterland. (Photo by Southeast Electric Cooperative, Inc.)

Efficient lighting makes SECO’s holiday brighter

Southeast Electric Cooperative, Inc., (SECO) is giving its home town of Ekalaka, Mont., the gift of energy efficiency this Christmas season.

Time for a change

For almost 30 years, SECO linemen have been hanging 15 sturdy little Christmas trees on the lamp posts of Main Street. As well made as the decorations are, the harsh Montana winds have taken their toll. By 2012, many light sockets had shorted out; the shiny, tinsel garland had been stripped from the metal frames and the holly berries had become holey or fallen off altogether. Marlene Waterland, SECO member services representative, felt it was time to give Ekalaka’s Christmas decorations a facelift and improve their efficiency in the process.

The inspiration struck last winter as Waterland was on her way to an elementary school where she had placed one of Western’s Equipment Loan Program lighting displays. Program Manager Gary Hoffmann had sent some new light bulbs for the display, including an LED C-9 .49-watt decorative light to compare to an old-fashioned 7-watt Christmas tree light. Waterland stopped at the town clerk’s office to discuss an unrelated issue, and talk soon turned to the different types of light bulbs. From there, it was a short hop to the old holiday decorations and how they might be upgraded. 

Waterland and Town Clerk Lisa Jourdan approached the Chamber of Commerce with a plan to select new decorations and raise money to pay for the project. “We began working in January, because it was going to take 11 months to get the job done,” said Waterland.

Reuse, don’t replace

Selecting the new decorations was the first order of business, but that quickly turned into a “recycling” project, Waterland recalled. “Not only were the new trees really expensive, they were flimsy compared to the old one,” she explained. “Our little trees are well-made and part of Ekalaka’s tradition, so we went shopping for replacement parts instead.”

Waterland and Jourdan found what they were looking for at Northern Lights Display in Eden Prairie, Minn. For a cost of about $3,750, or $250 per tree, the trees could go from 18 lights to 25 lights, with shiny new garland supplementing the wire-bound green and gold garland. The wind-battered red garland that wrapped the tree trunks is being replaced with brown donor plaques.

Community pitches in

Raising money for the decoration retrofit in a small community where many residents are on a fixed income was not as hard as it might sound. Putting an article in the local newspaper and knocking on a few doors did the trick, Waterland insisted. Bill stuffers were not an option, since SECO members read their own meters, fill out coupons and send in their payments. “We have the best members in the world,” she declared.

There is no denying that Ekalaka residents and businesses wholeheartedly supported the project. Individuals or groups contributing $200 to the project could get a Christmas greeting or memorial message of their choice printed on the trunk plaque. Each of the 15 trees bears a message. Donations continued to come in after the cost of the replacement decorations was covered, so SECO teamed up with Sagebrush Service Club to order new lights for the town’s big tree, as well. This holiday season, the tree in Perso Park on Main Street will be decked with 10 strings of 50 sparkling LED lights.

SECO’s elves

Ordering parts and assembling the trees proved to be a bit more challenging than expected. “We got gold garland by mistake, and it was cut to the wrong size,” Waterland admitted. “It was a shock when we opened the box, but once we put the garland on a tree, we were pleased with how good it looked, so that worked out after all.”

With the help of their husbands, Waterland and Jourdan have been busily redecorating the old tree frames with new lights and garland. In the woodworking shop on Waterland’s ranch, the two families are diligently battening down the new decorations with tape, zip ties, hog rings and wire to make sure they withstand the wind. “We keep going back and adding more fasteners,” said Waterland. “Just to be sure.”

The women are pleased with their handiwork and are looking forward to the Friday after Thanksgiving when the new decorations go up. “We won’t really know how the trees look until then,” Waterland said. “That’s when our members will let us know what they think, and that’s what really counts.”

Not just pretty lights

The verdict is likely to be positive, based on the reaction of students and seniors who have seen the decorative LED lights on the lighting displays. “They are always amazed at how much light the bulbs give off using less electricity,” observed Waterland, adding that she has reminded SECO members about the retrofit’s energy-saving aspect throughout the project.

With strings of 25 .49-watt lights replacing 18 7-watt lights, each new tree will use 90 percent less electricity to give off more festive light. The big Christmas tree on Main Street will be using about a quarter of the electricity as it has in previous seasons, too. That’s good news for a winter-peaking utility like SECO.

Another advantage Waterland pointed out is that the efficient lighting won’t be as likely to trip circuit breakers. “We’ve had problems with blowing fuses in the past,” she said. “You just don’t want to be changing fuses in the middle of a blizzard.”

Of course, when it comes to Christmas, practical considerations tend to take a back seat to holiday spirit. But Waterland is confident that the new improved trees will meet that requirement. “Now that we are done with rebuilding our decorations, we can hardly wait to see how lovely our Main Street will look this year,” she said.

Western wishes Southeast Electric Power Cooperative, Inc., and all our customers shiny, happy and energy-efficient holidays!





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