Guide to Buying the Best Fireworks

If you'd rather avoid the crowds and traffic, or if you're hosting a barbecue and want to provide some after-dinner entertainment, you might think about buying the best fireworks.

Before you get started, however, make sure they're legal where you live. Don't assume that police will look the other way. They won't if a neighbor complains about your fireworks, and you'll forfeit the ability to make a homeowners' insurance claim if you set your garage on fire in a state where fireworks aren't legal. Some states spend the weeks leading up to the Fourth patrolling highways near the borders, looking to catch people transporting fireworks. If you get caught after buying fireworks when you shouldn't, you're facing fines and perhaps jail time.

Choosing Fireworks
You'll need to do some background research before you buy. Start off by looking at the broad categories of fireworks and what they do.

Firecrackers are the most common fireworks. When they're lit, they let out a loud bang, which is called a report. Firecrackers are commonly sold in packs of 12 or in bandolier-style strips. Both types have a main fuse that will set all the firecrackers off when lit. Ladyfingers are miniature versions of firecrackers with a quieter report. Larger fireworks, such as M-80s and Cherry Bombs, are illegal in most states and should be avoided, as their powerful explosions can cause damage and injury.

Jumping jacks and spinners are fireworks that use a stream of sparks to propel them across the ground or through the air. Although these fireworks are small in size, their behavior is unpredictable, and they're the most likely fireworks to cause fires or injury when used in a small area. Sunflowers, satellites and ground blooms are part of this group of fireworks, and all of these should be used only in a large, flat area with a diameter of 30 feet or more.

Fountains emit a shower of sparks and sometimes whistle or fire reports from a base on the ground. If you don't have much room, these fireworks are a good choice for small spaces, as most don't fire more than 10 feet into the air.

Rockets range from bottle rockets with a single report to large fireworks with multicolored displays. You may not be able to buy rockets. Many states that have legalized fireworks maintain a ban on rockets because of their unpredictable flight paths. Large rockets should be used only in an open area free of trees and power lines, such as a beach or lakefront. Bottle rockets can be safely used in most areas as long as the fireworks are launched from a tube pointed away from onlookers, trees and buildings.

Repeaters, also known as cakes, are a series of tubes linked by a main fuse. Essentially, they're a fireworks display in a single package, ranging from little cubes to large boxes. Barrels are a type of repeater housed in a plastic barrel instead of a paper wrapper.

There's a lot of variation with repeaters and size doesn't mean much with these fireworks. Some small repeaters can shoot 30 feet in the air; some of the largest have only a few shots. It's a good idea to ask the dealer questions about specific repeaters, or to see if video of the fireworks in action is available. Most repeaters are smaller versions of the fireworks you'll see in a professional display.

Pinwheels are nailed to a stick that is planted in the ground and spin in place. Some of these fireworks have dramatic effects and burn for two minutes or more. Fireworks like these are a good call if you have a small space.

Roman candles fire a series of shots from a cardboard tube, either flaming balls or exploding flaming balls. It's best to stick these fireworks in the ground and aim them away from the audience.

Tubes are the closest thing to professional grade that you'll see. Each tube contains a single shot that fires high into the air and explodes in a willow, brocade, peony or similar pattern. Mortars are a variation that pack several shells with a single reusable tube. You'll also find several tube fireworks grouped together on a single base, allowing you to have a small display from a single fuse. Tubes should be used only in wide open areas, as they're among the most powerful fireworks available.

Parachutes are a type of tube that sends small parachutes into the air. These float down, carrying a flaming ball. Like jumping jacks, these fireworks are very unpredictable, especially in windy conditions, and should be used only in wide open areas.

Building a Fireworks Display
Know the size of the area where you'll be setting off the fireworks and whether there are overhead obstacles. Trees, power lines and nearby houses are all potential problems. For the largest fireworks, you want an area that's open in at least a 30-foot radius on all sides or a waterfront location where you can aim toward the water.

Fireworks that deliver noise, height and bright colors will get you the most audience response. Small whistling fountains, fish and bee effects and colorful fountains are a great way to begin. Firecrackers and Roman candles don't add much to a display, so use them before the main fireworks display to set the stage.

Remember comfort and variety. Pinwheels provide a great change of pace and ease the neck strain on those who've been looking up at fireworks. Set a distance from your display area, pinwheels can be used to keep your audience engaged while you set up other fireworks.

A few tubes will add a dramatic impact to your fireworks display. Close the firework show with two or three repeaters. Repeaters aren't as dramatic as tubes, but they fire several shots, making for an exciting finale.

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