Animated riverboats, swans, peacocks, butterflies, and even a fishing Santa Claus light up the night at the Memphis Zoo's annual SunTrust Zoo Lights display.
But while visitors delight in larger-than-life holiday displays, the zoo's carbon footprint is growing by the second.
The zoo estimates it uses about one million lights in its display. Like many smaller light displays, the Memphis Zoo uses mostly incandescent mini-lights because replacing the bulbs with more energy-efficient LED lights can be expensive.
According to an estimate by Memphis Light, Gas, & Water "Energy Doctor" Janice Smythe-Tune, it costs the zoo about $46 an hour to run the display at MLGW's commercial utility rate.
"With over a million lights at Zoo Lights, energy use is definitely a concern," said zoo CEO Chuck Brady. "We've started replacing older displays with new, more energy-efficient LED lights. Being a nonprofit, we're always looking for corporate sponsors to help fund the very expensive transition."
Zoo spokesperson Drew Smith estimates it cost the zoo about $1,000 to switch the grand tree near the zoo's entrance to LED lights this year.
Though initially expensive (a 25-foot strand can cost between $15 and $25), making the transition to LED lights pays off in the long run.
"LED lights have about 50,000 hours of life and use about 2.5 watts of electricity per strand," Smythe-Tune said. "That costs homeowners about a nickel per strand."
Compare that to round outdoor bulbs, which use about 125 watts per strand and cost $2.67 per strand for a month's usage at eight hours a day. Incandescent mini-lights, the most commonly used lights in outdoor displays, use about 0.4 watts and cost 88 cents per strand for the same time frame.
Midtown homeowner (and MLGW employee) Bill Bullock has been replacing incandescent lights with LED strands as his old lights burn out each year. He says the quality of LED lights has improved dramatically over the last several years.
"The first white LED lights we bought a few years ago have a blue tint to them," Bullock said. "But the new LED lights have a color that more closely resembles the traditional soft white light."
Each year, Wes Brown decorates the yard at his Midtown apartment with inflatable Santas, polar bears, penguins, and even a snowglobe. He runs an extension cord from his apartment to his 15 inflatable lawn ornaments, which are powered by small fans.
Smythe-Tune said energy usage from inflatables varies depending on their size. But the average 4-foot inflatable costs about $1.26 to power for eight hours a day. Brown's figures vary in height from 4 to 6 feet.
"Last year, my utility bill went up $45 to $50," Brown said. "It's worth it to me, because I love watching kids walk by and stare in amazement. People stop their cars and take pictures. Everyone in the neighborhood enjoys it."