Tips for Firing Up Your Own Fourth of July Fireworks


If you're considering declaring yourself independent of municipal fireworks displays this weekend and sending up a few red, glaring rockets of your own, question number two on your mind should be "How can I get the most bang for my buck?" To aid you in that quest, we've consulted with the fireworks pros for advice.

But yes, cost should be the second question on your mind: First, you need to know precisely what your explosive options are in your corner of the land of the free. Because the law on fireworks is highly variable, depending on your state, county, and even town.

Perhaps it's one of the few up-sides to the downturn: The number of states where people can purchase consumer fireworks is growing, as states see legalizing them as a potential way to raise a bit more in sales taxes. Last year, Rhode Island joined the majority of states that allow consumer fireworks, as did Arizona. And in New York, a bill is on the governor's desk that could lift the ban on consumer fireworks, under certain circumstances. Meanwhile, Massachusetts this year introduced legislation to open its doors to the sale of consumer fireworks.

The fireworks industry generated $952 million in revenues last year, with 67% coming from consumer fireworks sales, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. And while some states only allow individuals to buy sparklers and novelty items such as smoke balls and "snakes," in a majority, the sale of 1.4G fireworks, more commonly known as consumer fireworks, is legal.

In approximately half of these 1.4G states, a majority of counties allow the private use of fireworks, but only ground-based items like fountains and spinners are legal. In the other states, certain aerial fireworks can also be used.

Fireworks chart
Fireworks chart

Size Isn't Everything

"The size of the package doesn't relate to the size of the effect," says Ralph Apel, spokesman and former president of the National Council on Fireworks Safety. "You may have a big item that emits only sparks or a small item that can do 20 or 30 effects."

An "effect" is a single task, like shooting out a particular color of sparks, or launching a green strobe that explodes into a star pattern, for example. Wondering what a given firework will do? Just read the effects label, says Apel. It should include such information as how high a firework will shoot into the air, the type of effects it will perform, or colors it will emit.

How to Keep Your Budget From Exploding

"I've seen some packages of fireworks that sell for $800 to $900 and take four men to carry out of the store," says Apel. But for the casual Fourth of July fireworks user, the cost doesn't have to explode through the roof.

"There are a lot of variety packs, so people don't have to buy a lot of single items. Often, these packs are marked, 'buy one, get one free,' " says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA). "Fireworks are available for every budget. Some families spend several hundred dollars and some spend $30 or $40 for a handful of cones [fireworks] and some sparklers."

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Generally, purchasing those pre-packaged assortments is cheaper than buying the same fireworks individually, Heckman notes. She suggested consumers review APA's states listings to learn about the regulations surrounding fireworks in their particular area and also check out websites of retailers such as Phantom Fireworks and TNT Fireworks to see their product videos before buying.

Consumers looking to stretch out their firework viewing time may want to compare fountains versus aerial fireworks for the best value. Fountains, or cone fireworks, tend to last approximately one to four minutes and are relatively inexpensive, says Jerry Bostocky, vice president of sales for Phantom Fireworks, which, with roughly 13% of the market, is one of the nation's largest consumer fireworks companies. Below is a video of Phantom's New York Harbor ground-based fountain:

Phantom's Apache Firedance, for example, runs three and a half minutes and costs $14.99. That breaks down to about $4.27 per minute. Compare that with Phantom's 500-gram aerial repeater fireworks, or "cakes," often used by consumers as finale displays, which tend to cost anywhere from $60 to $200 and typically run for about a minute.

But cakes are hot sellers and many consumers want some form of finale to their fireworks show, regardless of the time-to-cost ratio. So, in selecting a cake, you may want to compare the effects-to-cost ratio.

For example, Phantom's500-gram Golden Pyra-Fusion cake costs $59.99 for its two effects - translating into approximately $30 per shot. Meanwhile, Phantom's more expensive Komodo 3000 cake, which has 119 shots and costs approximately $200, comes out to roughly $1.68 per shot. A peek at the Komodo follows in the video below:

"Multi-tube cakes are the most popular. People can light one fuse and it does everything," Heckman says. "Some cakes have 24 shots, 60 shots, 100 shots. It's usually used as a finale and it's very safe."

Phantom's top sellers in the 500-gram category include Untamed Retribution, with 16 shots for $89.99, or nearly $5.63 per shot; Thunder Mountain, with 33 shots for $109.99, or nearly $3.34 per effect; and the Komodo 3000 which comes in at $1.68 per shot.

Combustible Choreography

For consumers seeking to create a scaled-down version of a professional display fireworks show, the key is in the planning.

Apel recommends appointing a single person to be the designated shooter and to develop a sequence of how the fireworks should be ignited, after taking into consideration the various effects that each firework offers.

In some cases, consumers may want to stage their show to increase in height and brilliance with each firework, or instead to alternate between various effects. And if you want to truly imitate the pros, try choreographing the fireworks to music.

Headed Out

Consumers opting to let someone else deliver the big bang effect on Fourth of July nonetheless will have to put a bit of time, effort and possibly some gas into getting to a nearby display, even if the fireworks show itself is free.

Then there's the weather. And if you're facing a cloudy night on July 4, -- or, if like me, you live in an area prone to fog -- pyrotechnic experts offer this advice.

"Cloud cover is usually not a problem because the [firework] shells don't go high enough into the clouds," says Mike Tockstein, an independent pyrotechnic shooter from Southern California and operator of the Pyrotechnic Innovations online training site. "Fireworks usually go up only 300 to 600 feet. Fog, however, is a different thing."

Tockstein noted that Fourth of July fun seekers will usually know about an hour before the show whether its worth it or not to head out. And given that fireworks displays typically last 15 to 20 minutes, Tockstein says onlookers should have little to fear about fog rolling in and ruining a show once they are there.

"A show in San Francisco may get washed out every five years," says Jim Souza, who heads up Pyro Spectaculars in Rialto, Calif. "But there's usually other things going on like music, food and entertainment. It's a fun time for family and friends to get together and for everyone it maybe worth taking a chance."