Learn More – Do It Yourself

Are you interested in learning more about how we do this? Are you wanting to start your own lights display?  Below is a lot of information we have learned over the years to hopefully help you get started!

 

A few critical questions to ask yourself that will drive your approach:

  1. Are you going to use “traditional” lights or RGB pixels? (I started with traditional and slowly have added pixels)
  2. Do you have ample power supply/fuses to safely run all of the lights? Every box of lights in stores typically has the amps/watts used per strand
    • If you plan on using a lot of lights, you may want to consider switching to all LED which draws substantially less power
  3. Are you looking to go the DIY route or more “pre-packaged” approach for synchronization software/hardware?

 

My biggest advise is start small and grow gradually. Biting off more than you can chew could potentially take some of the fun away.

 

Included is a lot of technical take aways, things I have learned and links to where to buy supplies (about half of what is below) but please do not be overwhelmed.  This hobby can be as simple or complicated as you would like.

 

Type of Light
As you know, “Traditional” Christmas lights can be bought just about anywhere.  In terms of big box stores, I have found Target Philips brand, Home Depot Home Accents and Walmart GE brand lights dependable.  The absolutely worst type of light to buy in my experience is the Walmart Holiday Time….avoid at all costs.  I have spent far more time fixing those strands than any other type.

 

Check with your local power utility provider as some provide a rebate for LED Christmas lights that are Energy Star (my previous utility rebated 50% of the cost per strand up to a certain dollar limit).  We have saved a significant amount of money through that rebate and have saved the utility company money through less energy usage.

 

If you are interested in going the RGB (multi-color) route, I recommend using Ray Wu who is the contact for a company in China.  There are domestic suppliers but generally they are substantially more expensive for the same product imported from China.  There are different form factors of RGB lights which are explained in this video.  I like to use the “bullet” style as it is water tight and easy to work with/tougher.  The video is a great starting point for learning the RGB world (more on hardware below).   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_hXlKCt11s&feature=youtu.be&list=UUnoQp–VbYcZfHu5gBIcenw

 

In terms of Ray Wu lights, there is one specific light type I recommend and have not had issues with (aside from a light or two here and there) as some type of lights were flaky. I always just message him via email as he gives better prices than what is posted on the website (ray@rita-light.com). Soldering may be necessary occasionally if a one light at the beginning of the strand burns out.   Also, I always order a 10% extra buffer as it can take weeks for a replacement to arrive and cost a lot (international shipping).

 

 

Power Supply
You will want to look at the entire “power chain” from the breaker, plug, wires, etc to discover what the lowest allowed amperage is.  This will ensure you do not overload the wires and cause a fire.  Most wires and plugs have the max safe amps listed on the coating or framing. Since I use all LED I use two breakers (one for RGB and the other for traditional).
To estimate the operation cost or the cost savings between LED and non-LED, I use this tool

 

 

 

Pre-packaged Approach
Not sure if you are into DIY or more out of the package, but the most common “pre-packaged” software/hardware solution that I have seen is Light-O-Rama.  In my opinion it is overpriced but sometimes the cost is worth the convenience. http://www1.lightorama.com/.

 

 

Traditional Light DIY
If you are more into DIY and are willing to build your own light controllers, the most common software package I have seen is Vixen which is a group of folks that develop the software for free. http://www.vixenlights.com/.

 

In terms of the hardware, you would build your own boxes for the controllers.  To build a controller box, I think this video does a great job. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhTmnH5szcY
Closed Player Box for Traditional Lights

Personally I designed my boxes before that video was out there and made mine water tight with waterproof electrical outlets, a PVC enclosure and 24 plugs/relays (they sit in the yard).  There are cheaper ways to build but with Minnesota winters I try to make it as water tight as possible.

For the Raspberry Pis, the GPIO map can be found here.   If you go my route of having 3 relay boards, you have to connect the “ground” wire between the two boards otherwise there will be instability.
Traditional Light Controller Supply List
Inside Traditional Lights Player Box w/ 24 outlets

Then I take an eight foot 2×4, cut it up in four pieces and built a frame out of it with the photo of the exterior of the assembled box shown. Below that is the guts/inside of one of these traditional boxes.  The only small nuance is that our relays are mechanical (blue) per the link above and not the black ones.

Software Comment
I actually programmed my own system for show development (it is a website) and operation (Arch Linux Python) so I don’t have an opinion on Vixen, Light-O-Rama or others.  At this point my software package isn’t quite ready to make open source for others as I am still working through some kinks and it is too complicated yet.

 

 

RGB DIY
I assembled my own enclosures for RGB controllers.   Honestly RGB world was confusing to me at first due to the complexity/vocabulary.  High level summary:
  • RGB – Red, Green, Blue as there are three individual lights in “one”
  • Pixel/Node – The actual light itself (with the the 3 lights red/green/blue and computer chip)
  • Null Pixel – An RGB light that doesn’t light up, simply re-generates the signal and voltage
  • 12v vs 5v – The voltage level of the power supply.   I prefer 12v as it can travel longer distances.  Once you choose a voltage level, stick with that level. Make sure to pay attention when buying lights they are the right voltage
  • Universe – This has to due to communication method.  Each “Universe”  can handle 512 channels but each pixel/node requires 3 channels.   Long story short, each Universe can handle up to 170 individually addressable lights.
  • DMX – This is the “language” standard that pixels talk to each other
  • Controller – The device that converts the sequence to the right “phrasing” for the lights.
  • Power Injection – You have another cord providing just power in between strands.  A “y” cable can be used in between.
-You cannot run a wire longer than 15 ft without a null pixel (loss of power data).
Hardware for RGB Box
Hardware for RGB Lights
If doing power injection

 

Misc

 

There are other explanations out there (which this one is more targeted at engineers): http://www.billporter.info/2017/01/07/the-engineers-guide-to-diy-computer-controlled-holiday-lights/

 

Any questions feel free to send us a note on the “Contact Us” page with a link at the top of the website.