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Sanity Keeper

Thursday, 7 Dec 2006 | 9:44 AM ET

'Tis the season that we spend all this time and effort talking about Google, Apple, Microsoft, HP, videogames, what's hot in holiday electronics. But there's a gadget I used over the weekend that could change the world as we know it.

In the old days there was something magical about going out to get the holiday tree: whether you braved the weather and slaved away at cutting the tree down yourself (a better work-out than anything at 24-Hour Fitness), or picked out a winner at the tree-lot downtown. Nowadays, we pull our tree out of the garage and build it: Four large, heavy pieces that once assembled, tower 10 feet high, and when the "branches" are properly fluffed, six feet across. Better still, the tree comes pre-lit with more than 1,200 bright little bulbs. My wife Michelle found the tree, and when it's up, and decked, it may not be natural, but it is magical.

So this past Saturday, after assembling the tree, Michelle plugged it in and, HORROR, three branches wouldn't light. With a normal tree, you dismantle the lines and look for the blown bulb, but with a pre-lit tree, when the light-lines are intertwined with the branches themselves, looking for one bulb in that pine-needle stack, is, well, a needle in a haystack. Frustration. Panic! Michelle called the tree company Sunday morning and they told us about the LightKeeper. It should be renamed "Sanity"Keeper; "Marriage"Saver; Christmas Keeper!

We bought one at Lowes for $15, took it home, plugged in the offending light strand and it instantly turned on. We plugged in another strand and within a nano-second, dark became light and the tree was magical again. Lights that ended up in the trash were instantly transformed into sparkling beauty illuminating the keepsakes we'd been collecting and hanging for the last 10 years.

Wow!

The LightKeeper Pro comes from a company called Ulta-Lit Tree Company in Glenview, Ill. It looks like a little .38 revolver and comes loaded with the kind of "why didn't I think of that" technology that could save your holiday: An Audible Continuity Detector, a Fuse and Bulb Tester, and bulb puller. Say it with me: "Sanity"Keeper.

The company's website spells out exactly how the patented technology works: Most miniature holiday light strands blow out when a single bulb "shunt" fails, either because it blows out or because it gets cracked. The shunts sit at the base of the filament inside the bulb. When the bulb fails, it blocks the shunt and the electrical current that had been flowing through it. When that connection is lost, a big section of the strand goes dark since the whole line works only when electricity travels from one shunt to the next. When you plug your strand into the LightKeeper gun, you pull the trigger and it sends a shaped, electrical pulse through the defective bulb, clearing the shunt.

"To you and I it would feel like a click of static electricity. But to the lightbulb, it's like getting hit by a Mack truck," says Ulta-Kit president John DeCosmo.

Once the shunt is cleared, electricity passes through it, completing the circuit and re-lighting the entire strand. That one bulb can still be burnt out, but because electricity is passing through that pesky shunt, the rest of the strand is lit.

If that doesn't solve the problem, the LightKeeper also has a continuity/voltage detector. Using a chip inside the gun, the device can find where the flow of electricity stops through the lightstrand so you can pinpoint which bulb is causing you the problems. All electronic. All easy. And all within seconds.

The LightKeeper was invented by Rich Frederick of Roanoke, VA, who puts out 7,000 lights on his house every year. He holds the patent and Ulta-Kit is the exclusive licensee.

"I told him right away, you're on to something," DeCosmo tells me.

Ulta-Kit has already sold a more than a million of these LightKeeper Pros. Doesn't do advertising of any kind. No "As Seen on TV" stickers on its displays at Lowes, Ace Hardware, Home Depot and other retail outlets. It works, so it sells, says DeCosmo. And with pre-lit trees outselling the natural kind this year, he says a device like this one is more important now than ever. In the past, consumers would toss a non-working lightset because it was cheap and they'd just replace it. But that's harder to do when the pre-lit tree, snowman or mechanical reindeer cost $50 or more. Making his inexpensive light-saver the gift that keeps on giving!

So, why such attention on something seemingly so small? We get so bogged down in big-time tech: Intel's QuadCore microprocessors, the CELL chips inside the new Playstation 3, whether Apple will incorporate Bluetooth into new iPods, or whether the iPhone from Apple is coming soon. Blu-Ray, HD-DVD.

And then there's this: a high-tech solution to such a vexing, low-tech problem. And a classic case of a company listening to customer needs and coming up with a product that addresses them: Ulta-Lit is a leading manufacturer of pre-lit, pre-fab Christmas trees. The company probably got sick of panicked phone calls from customers worried they'd have to throw away the whole tree because of a single burnt bulb. The lightbulb went off over their heads! A company meeting an unmet market need. Go figure!

No word on whether Nobel plans to add a category; but maybe there's nobility in saving Christmas!

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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