Saturday, Jun 29 2013 12:30 PM

How not to blow your budget: Our fireworks buyers guide

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    By Photo courtesy of David Dickstein

    Consumer fireworks don't burst in the air, but TNT's Opening Show comes close from ground level.

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  2. 2 of 2

    By Photo courtesy of David Dickstein

    Fireworks-selling nonprofit groups will be banking on booming business in Bakersfield starting July 1.

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BY DAVID DICKSTEIN Contributing writer

The rise of an emerging middle class is good news for Chinese workers -- and bad news for American fireworks consumers. The cost of being patriotic, if being patriotic means lighting up a bunch of Chinese-made fireworks, is exploding this year.

"With many non-firework employment opportunities now in the fireworks region (of China), Apple subsidiaries especially, the younger generation really doesn't want to work in a fireworks factory, so factories keep upping the pay to attract employees," said Ryne Conder, Central Valley regional manager for Phantom Fireworks.

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When can I buy fireworks?

Bakersfield and most cities in the county allow the sale and use of state-approved consumer fireworks starting Monday, extending through July 4. Stands in Wasco and Delano began selling fireworks Friday.

Adding to the sticker shock is the rising cost of the raw materials used to make fireworks and the weakness of the dollar against the yuan. Plus, China's emerging middle class is increasing fireworks production for the domestic market, resulting in fewer factories manufacturing for the United States, Conder said.

There's no sugar-coating it: Putting on a decent fireworks display these days costs around $150, plus tax. The good news is that most of the increase is in the showier, big-ticket fountains, not in the smaller items.

Yet even with prices creeping higher, the industry is expecting stronger sales this year, thanks to a little help from the calendar.

"Thursday is a great day for the 4th of July," said Cathy Castilone, vice president of American Promotional Events, the wholesale distributor for state-approved TNT fireworks. "Many people take the next day off when the Fourth is on a Thursday."

Doing its share to keep prices down, Discount Fireworks Superstore, which has one stand in Bakersfield, is the lone reseller in California with a 500-gram fountain under $50. In fact, it's got two priced at $35. Both made the cut for our annual guide to the new state-approved fireworks, along with the best of the returning items.

Fireworks are listed by price and rated on a five-star scale for performance, duration, distinctiveness and overall comparative value.

New for 2013

That's Toxic (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $41.99: Black Cat must have added Red Bull to the composition of this vibrant and voracious bastion of stamina. It's a 2-year-old fountain that makes its California debut this season. 243 seconds. 4 stars

Game Time (TNT), $39.99: This rookie scores with intense crackle and wide-spreading sparks in the late innings, but the height and overall performance aren't powerful enough to hit it out of the park. 93 seconds. 3 stars

Haunted House (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $24.99: You won't get booed lighting this 2-year-old combo fountain novelty making its California debut this season. Packaging matches the name, but what's unexpected is a see-through interior that flickers at the halfway mark and at the end. Spirited sparks, too, including fish. 87 seconds. 4 stars

Phantom Phlash Phinish (Phantom), $18.99 -- Phantastic Phountain. Second-runner-up for "Best New Fountain" has strong duration, altitude, spread, titanium crackle and whistle. 108 seconds. 4 1/2 stars

Serenity (Phantom), $15.99: Noiseless fountain opens with lovely lava lamp-like lumps (thank you, nitrocellulose!) and peacefully pleases with seven colors and white chrysanthemums. 59 seconds. 4 stars

Phantom Spy-Ro-Mania (Phantom), $14.99 for two: A flickering fuse spirals around a tube of crackles and sparks, leading to a whistling tube sidecar that produces four deliciously irritating shrieks. Equivalent of TNT's lower-priced Spiral Lite ($5.99, 4 stars) that debuted in 2003 and was, itself, a copycat of Showtime's Around the World sold at Discount Fireworks Superstore ($4.75, 5 stars). 34 seconds. 3 stars.

Surfs Up (TNT), $10.99: Best New Fountain runner-up. Gorgeous globs lead to a wave of multiple effects. Some of the best and widest-spreading titanium rain and crackles for the price. Just about the only thing lacking is an apostrophe in the name. 58 seconds. 4 1/2 stars

Twilight Magic (Phantom), $9.99: Earns Best New Fountain honors for three exciting rotations of crackle-and-whistle and wide-spreading sparks at a comparatively super price. 57 seconds. 5 stars

Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe (Phantom), $9.99 for four: Sold as a set of four, these cutely named but lackluster fountains all emit chrysanthemums and crackle. Blink at the onset and you'll miss the pearl of blue, red, green or yellow that is the distinguishing feature. 42 seconds. 2 stars

Rainbow Rays (TNT), $5.99: Solid value-priced freshman delivers on height and crackle. Duration is one of the longest in the state at this price point. 56 seconds. 4 stars

Poopy Pooch (Phantom), $5.99 for two: It's all business with this scatological novelty that has an ash-producing snake pellet squeezing out of a cardboard dog's behind. Been sold by others for years under the name Poopy Puppy, but Phantom is the first to classy up California with this daytime item. They're sold in pairs, so if the first doesn't satisfy, there's always No. 2. Yeah, we went there. 22 seconds. 2 stars

Cheeky Fountain (TNT), $3.99: Colorful sparks, silvery rain and crackling stars gush out of what resembles a fun-labeled kid's juice box. Price is fair and so is the performance. 37 seconds. 3 stars

Recess (TNT), $3 -- Two whistles serve as the recess bell, and before playtime is over you're treated to fleeting, albeit impressive altitude, crackles, chrysanthemums and multiple colors. 24 seconds. 3 1/2 stars

Best of the Rest (4-5 stars)

Opening Show (TNT), $59.99: Budget permitting, last year's Best New Finale is a 500-gram must-have. The climax at the 2-minute mark is intense. Be no closer than 20 feet away for this one. 130 seconds.

Delirium (TNT), $49.99: Fan-shaped 500-gram fountain is pricy, but its intensity and beauty are stunning. 133 seconds.

Phantom Crown Jewel (Phantom), $49.99: Intense 500-gram display of white flowers, colored pearls, gold chrysanthemums and silver crackle. Packs a wallop, though that also reduces burn time. A note on price: This baby has gone up $20 from last year, a doozy of an increase, even though the cost is now on par with other 500-gram items. 82 seconds.

Wave with Pride (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $44.99: One of the best fountains ever made, this 500-gram sophomore from Black Cat has genuine red, white and blue, five-stage titanium whistles and a holy-cow finish that sounds like a roll of firecrackers going off. 122 seconds.

Quiet Riot (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $34.99: Size can often be deceiving in the fireworks business, but not with this 500-gram giant. A rainbow of colors, crackles and a boisterous finish make this brutish fountain from Showtime rock. 180 seconds.

Seventh Heaven (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $34.99: Measuring 16 inches, this is the tallest state-approved fountain and one of the best values for a 500-gram fountain. 240 seconds.

Peacock Tail Fan Fountain (Phantom), $34.99: Last season's Best New Fountain builds excitement with each dazzling stage. Works out to 65 cents per second, but still a must-have. 54 seconds.

Alpha Wolf (Phantom), $24.99: Green and purple droplets, gold shower and crackling stars finale are awesome. No whistles -- doesn't need them. 83 seconds.

American Spirit (TNT), $22.99 plus bonus: This fountain of red, white and bluish stars, gold showers and decent whistles and crackles makes the cut because it comes with the pleasing, 90-second Sizzler Fountain. 80 seconds.

O-Blivion (TNT), $19.99: This Lord of the Rings-shaped fountains emits multi-colored chrysanthemums with pine and impressive titanium crackles. 125 seconds.

Pyropalooza (TNT), $19.99: Excellent height, crackle and vivid hues -- a vivacious visual. 115 seconds.

Hasta La Vista Baby (Phantom), $19.99: Like color and hate whistles? Then this is a solid pick with a screech-free spectrum of fast-changing colors. 125 seconds.

Funky Monkey (Phantom), $19.99: This pyrotechnic primate features red pearls and a solid overall performance. 90 seconds.

King of Bling (Phantom), $18.99 for two: The crackles heard during the final third sound just like popping popcorn. Majestic chrysanthemums and whistle. Great value now that it's now a BOGO. 90 seconds.

High Tower (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $18.50: Gold, gold and more gold, plus wide-spreading crackling sparks are this Black Cat fountain's highpoints. 107 seconds.

Mad Dog (TNT), $17.99 for two (buy one-get one): More classic than rabic, this old dog spews amazing crackles, whistles and multi-color sparks. 80 seconds.

Firecracker Fountain (Phantom), $17.99 for two (buy one-get one): Lives up to its name with a remarkable crackling barrage alongside multi-colored pearls. 76 seconds.

Rainbow Fire (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $16.99: One of the best under $20, this often-overlooked Black Cat fountain has 18 stages and several piercing whistles. 109 seconds.

Phantom Night Owl (Phantom), $14.99: Phantom's only internally glowing fountain (eyes and mouth light up) has four loud screeches and an exciting overall performance. TNT discontinuing the similar-effected LOL Fountain makes this one even more unique. 65 seconds.

Night Treasure (TNT), $14.99: Looks like a fan fountain, and it is, albeit only for the final 22 seconds. Still quite impressive. 98 seconds.

Little Big Show (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $14: This Black Cat dynamo is true to its name. Lots of color and effects in this one-fountain show. 95 seconds.

Radiant (TNT), $10: Named Best New Fountain in 2011, this modern classic has a stunning performance for the price. Pushes the legal limit for spreading sparks and the fish effect is awesome. A must-buy. 93 seconds.

Luck of the Irish (TNT), $9.99: Still holding its own after a dozen years, this classic features gold and silver spray, red and green balls, crackles and four super-loud whistles. 75 seconds.

Lil Red Devil (TNT), $9.99 for two (buy one-get one): Packs plenty of heat for the size and price. Ends strong with wide-spreading titanium crackling sparks. 35 seconds.

Phantom Dragon Slayer (Phantom), $9.99 for two (buy one-get one): Got some white, blue and lemon chrysanthemums, rowdy crackles and red stars going on. 66 seconds.

Little Miss (TNT), $4.99: This value-priced opening act packs plenty of color plus silver rain and crackles. 47 seconds.

After Burner (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $3.99: Poor altitude is more than made up by a good duration for the price and nine effects, including decent crackle. 80 seconds.

Cool (Discount Fireworks Superstore), $3 for two (buy one-get one): Little dynamo from Showtime emits loud crackles, purple pearls and glittering gold and white sparks. Note: Equivalent to Phantom's Moondance ($4.99 for two) and TNT's Purple Rain , $5.99 for two). 45 seconds.

Package deals

From TNT: Perfect Show assortment ($99.99): two Lil Red Devils ($9.99 as a buy one-get one, lit together), two Radiants ($20, lit together as your finale), one Surfs Up ($10.99) and two three-packs of morning glories ($8.99 as a buy one-get one). Use your $10 off coupon received by joining the TNT Club in advance at www.tntfireworks.com.

From Phantom: Awestruck assortment ($119.99, includes morning glories and bonus Electrical Shock fountain with coupon available at stand): two King of Blings ($18.99 as a buy one-get one, lit together as your finale), one Twilight Magic ($9.99), one Mystical Magic (free with coupon received by joining the Phantomizer Fireworks Club in advance at www.fireworks.com).

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