2015: A year without a Christmas light display

I’ve been doing animated musical Christmas displays for over 8 years.  This is my first year off in a while.  While I do think it’s important to take a break both physically and mentally from the work of putting up a display, it feels a little odd, and I miss the visitors that used to come by and visit us.

As for not decorating at all, i just couldn’t do it.  I HAD to put up some lights.  Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it, right?  Out current house in a large subdivision and many people have decorated this year.  It’s so festive, I needed to get some of my lights in storage so I could play along too.  I couldn’t do a whole lot as the front of the house and yard are pretty small.  I did break out a few controllers and decorated a little, just to keep in the spirit!  Maybe I’ll post some pictures once I’ve completed everything.

 

Christmas of 2014 is our last year before hiatus

Well, 2014 will be the last year we put up a Christmas display, at least for a year or two.  Our lives are changing and we now need to take a break from the time and work committment necessary to put on the kind of display we know everyone looks forward to every year.  A big thanks to everyone that encouraged us, to our patient and kind neighbors, and all the families that made this a Christmas tradition and made our holidays brighter in return!

We’ll run our program like normal this year and look forward to all the visitors.  Lights will be on until January 1st.  Come by and see us!

Lesson on Wind Strength

So, when I design new elements for my display, I’m very concious about the elements and what conditions my display will be subjected to in the central Indiana area.  We have a wide variety of weather during December that could be anything such as rain, snow, sub-zero temperatures, and high-winds.

Each element is given great thought about how it will stand up to these conditions, and I personally like to make sure I over-engineer things for that margin of safety.

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Well, this year I learned a good lesson.  We had incredibly high-winds for an extended period of time on January 26th, 2014 (It had been too cold to take the display down).  During the overnight hours, the wind actually pushed back this 200 lb structure around 20 feet and then turned it sideways to the wind.  The next gusts that came through, torqued the structure by twisting it and it collapsed with a loud cracking sound.   The whole thing was caught on my surveillance video.  It’s incredible the amount of force wind can put on things.  Fortunately, this was in the side yard by itself, so no one was hurt and it didn’t damage anything else in the display.

Originally, I had designed this sign with eye-hooks on the side that allowed it to be staked to the ground to anchor it in place, so that little cross-bracing was needed.  For the last two years, my thinking was that this structure was so big and heavy, that the stakes were unnecessary.   I was wrong.  The flat screen acted like a big paddle, directing the air, and “catching” during the gusts.

I’m still deciding whether I want to rebuild it, or go in a different direction for the projector screen.

 

UPDATE: I haven’t built a new one yet.  I repaired the broken legs and put it back together for our 2014 season.

DIY: RGB LED Spotlight Conversion

IMG_4405Project Background

Each year, I put out floodlights to help “Fill in” colors that wash onto our house.  I’ve always used the cheap, easily available, colored, 80-100 watt flood lights with simple holders.  These worked out OK, however there were some drawbacks.  One, they draw (comparatively) significant power.  Lots more power than the other sections of the display.  For example, in 2013 I had 8 total spotlights (5 green and 3 red) that work out to around 640 watts which equates to about 2.5 amps.  Secondly, if I have 5 areas to light, but wanted another color, I had to add another 5 lights for every new color.  This can end up taking up a lot of my display’s “energy budget”.  [For Red, Green, and Blue, I’d have to have 15 lights x 80 watts = 1200 watts or around 4 amps!]

Obviously, if you’re interested in saving energy in lighting, the first answer to explore would be LED lighting.  So, if you put in RGB LEDs into each spotlight, you’d only need 5 total, and use MUCH less energy.

My Project Parameters

For my needs, I wanted to be able to control the full RGB color for each floodlight, and have each floodlight be able to be independent from the others.  So for 4 spotlights, it requires 3 channels x 4 spotlights for a total of 12 channels.  I have a Light-o-Rama 16 channel DC controller board that I plan to use with this.  I could have taken the approach to “gang” together all 4 spotlights and only use 3 channels for all of them, but I prefer the option to be able to “chase” the spotlights, as well as having total flexibility to have each spotlight be a different color if desired.

Project Materials

  • Floodlight_4250$10 (On sale) – Sacrificial Shop Light
    • I used Harbor Freight’s Halogen Shop Light – Item No. 66433
    • I was only concerned about the case as I wanted to replace all the other parts, so whatever you can find at a good price.
  • Floodlight_4234$7/lot of 20 – RGB LED Modules
    • 5050 SMD RGB LED module, DC12V input, waterproof, 20 pcs a string
    • I’ve had great luck with Ray Wu’s Store
  • 4 conductor wire – 18-20 gauge
  • Optional: 4 circuit connector with receptacle and plug
    • This is for flexibility.  You may want to add this for easier connecting/unconnecting to the controller board instead of hard-wiring it directly to the controller
  • Misc. Tools: Cutters, Wire Stripper, heat shrink, soldering iron, etc.

Conversion Process

Step 1. Disassemble your sacrificial shop light.  Remove the bulb, the switch, and cord, as well as the metal reflector inside the light.  Save all pieces in case you can reuse any for this project, or some other project.

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Floodlight_4239Step 2. Measure the LEDs and see how many can fit into your shop light.  Mine fit 10 very snugly.  Things to consider are how these will be mounted, and how much light you’d like to see come out of this light.  I wanted as many LEDs packed in as possible, so mine sit up pretty high, closer to the glass front so I could use 10 modules.

Mounting the LED Modules

This section will depend on your needs, the size of the light housing, and how you want to organize the LEDs inside the light, among other things.

What I decided to do was to make a simple wooden base that I could attach the LED modules on and install into the housing.  Here was my process:

Floodlight_4235Measure and cut wooden bases that will fit inside the light housing.  I am making 4 lights, so I made a base for each one.

Floodlight_4236My modules came with convenient sticky tape already mounted on the back.

I reinforced the tape with a dab of hot glue to help hold the modules to the base and to each other.

Floodlight_4240Once everything was mounted on the base, and after a test fit, I soldered on a 4 conductor wire to the modules and covered with heat shrink for good measure.

Here are a few shots of a testing the colors of the assembled unit.
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Lights Down for 2013; Plans for 2014

Well, because of the constant snow and cold temperatures this winter, it took us until March 1st this year to get all of the lights down from the house and out of the yard and back in storage.  Here in central Indiana, we’ve had a near-record snowfall amount, so many things were buried and frozen to the ground until we could pry them out.

We are beginning our planning and building for 2014, which I believe will be a growing year for us.  Our 2013 musical show was very similar to our 2012 show with some minor differences and some shuffling around of some of the show elements, so it’s time to kick it up a notch.

For 2014, here are some of the ideas that are swimming around in our heads:

  • RGB Spotlights – Currently we only have red and green that all use 80-100 watts for each light.  We’ve purchased new LED lighting and are in the process of building our own lights.  Stay tuned for the “How-To” for this one.  Even I am curious how it will turn out.
  • A new character – I cant say much about this yet, as I’m still formulating what he’ll look like, and whether he’ll be a virtual character, or made up of lights.  Should be very cute though!
  • New Songs – I plan on choosing many new songs and beginning programming this summer.  As opposed to my typical way of getting the lights up and THEN start programming.
  • Lighting for our house outline – I’m looking into ways to outline our rooflines that are easy to install and maintain, and that give a clean neat appearance rather than draping and sagging.  Ideas are welcome!
  • More website upgrades and Christmas games!

Let me know if you have any other ideas or suggestions for our show!

DIY: Hanging Your Deer

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IMG_4218I used to store the deer for my display on the floor in my basement.  As the number of deer grew, along with more additions to my display, my floor space was sat a premium and was shrinking.  So looking around the basement for unused space, I found some available space up in the ceiling of my basement.

IMG_4219So, I created a hook that hooks onto the frame of the deer, and made a hook on the other end that hangs on the edge of the rafter.  To be able to do this , you’ll have to have these types of I-beam floor joints instead of the solid type.

 

9 Gauge Wire Ties To make the hooks, I found thick stiff wire that could support a good deal of weight.  I’ve gotten these from tie-down stakes that come with some inflatable displays that I no longer use, aluminum chain link hook ties, and even some straight larger-gauged wire.

 

 

IMG_4214IMG_4215This instructional is pretty simple.  I took the wire and made hooks on the both ends.  To make sure everything lines up, take a look at how the hook will hook onto the deer, and how the hook will hang on the joist.  Depending on how you’d like to hang your deer and the direction of your joists, you may need to bend one of the hooks at a 90 degree angle to the other.

Originally, I was concerned with the hook sliding off the joist so I sharpened the hook that went on the joist.  This however, was a poor idea for at least two reasons.  I found out it’s extra work to prepare, and that it’s really not necessary as the weight of the deer keeps it in place really well.  Second, the sharp point was pointing toward my hand while lifting the deer.  I found that the hook slides down in your hand while lifting a heavy deer (Very likely) and will stab your hand.

IMG_4216To hang the deer, it saves time if you find the balancing point of the deer.  They all vary depending on the size, if it has antlers, and if there is a motor in it.  I simply lift it at different points with one finger until I find the spot that balances well.

IMG_4217Then simply hook the deer at that point, jump on a ladder and hang it up on the edge of the joist.

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If you are prudent with how close you put them together, and even hang them from other deer that are already hanging, you can fit quite a few into a small space.  In this picture I put 8 deer into a small space in front of my crawlspace.

Hope this helps you gain some storage space!  Leave a comment below to let me know what you think or if you have other suggestions!

DIY: Cheap Controller Box

Note: I am not an electrician. Nor do I play one on TV. This tutorial is provided as-is with no warranty. If you don’t feel comfortable with wiring, hire an electrician!

DSC06228When you start getting into computer controlled Christmas lighting, you have a few choices when it comes to where you can locate your controller boards.  You can put them inside where it’s nice and dry, but you then have to run many, many cables out to each channel in your yard that you wish to control.  My preference, is to put the controllers out into the yard as close as possible to the lights they will be controlling.  However, this requires that you protect the board from the elements.  Which in my area can be any number of things, such as wind, rain, fog, snow, and sub-zero temperatures.

I found that the cheapest enclosure i could find that can stand up to those kind of conditions has been around for the long time.  Mailboxes!  I found really inexpensive plastic ones at my hardware store for $7.99 (at the time).  Here’s what I did to convert them into a custom controller box that have turned out to be my favorites.

Convert a Mailbox into a Controller Box

For a Light-0-Rama 16 channel controller board, I used the following materials:

  • Mailbox
  • Four two-outlet electrical boxes (with the wing attachments.  See pic below)
  • Eight outlets
  • Four Dual outlet covers with screws
  • Black and White 14 Gauge Electrical Cable (I used a spool)
  • Crimp-on connectors for your control board (if required)
  • Controller board

Prepping the Mailbox and Outlets

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Start by removing the flag.  Mine was held on by a simple plastic clip that simply slid over and snapped open releasing the plastic flag.  Of course I kept the flag.  Never know when that will come in handy!  🙂

DSC06422I filled in the hole with silicon to help keep water out.  You could use caulk, tape, pretty much anything you have to cover the hole.

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Next, you’ll need to get one of the outlet boxes you’ll be using so you can measure your cutout.  I use the outlet boxes that have the wings on them that rotate and lock when the screw is tightened.  This locks the box to the wall (or the mailbox in this case)

Note: I find its easier for me by punching out whatever hole is needed for the outlet wiring now, before the box is mounted in the mailbox.  I used the larger round hole on the back of the box.

Turn your mailbox over so the bottom is facing up.  If the top is round, like mine, you’ll probably want to figure out a way to steady the box so it’s doesn’t flop around.  I put a couple boards on either side to help steady it.

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I positioned all four boxes on at once so I could find the best location on the mailbox.  You’ll need to decide where the power cable will go IN to the box, as well as consideration for any the communications cables that need to go in and out of the box.   Light-o-Rama controllers have a network IN and network OUT. 

Lay the boxes on the bottom of the mailbox and trace around the sides.  I used a silver sharpie to help with visibility.

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DSC06240DSC06239Since the boxes have lots of tabs and things, make sure to only mark the width of the box portion, but not the tabs!  You’ll want this cutout to be pretty tight both in width and length.  You can always cut more off, but can’t add plastic back on if you make a mistake.  🙂

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Place (or wedge) the boxes into place to make sure the fit is snug.  If you need to use something like a razor knife to carefully take off more mailbox material until it fits snugly.

 

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Once you are happy with the fit, you can lock them down by using a screwdriver to tighten the wings.

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Now we need to prep the outlets.  Typical outlets feed power (HOT) to both the top and bottom female sockets.  But this would mean for 8 outlets we’d only have 8 channels.  With a simple modification to the outlet, we can separate the power feeds to the upper and lower sockets.  Look on the hot side of the outlet.  Typically this is the non-silver, or goldish looking side if it’s not labeled.  Look for the tab that is in between the two screws.

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DSC06247This tab is actually made to break off, if needed, by using a pair of needle-nose or small pliers and bending it up and down until it breaks.

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 [One reason this is done is when electricians want to make one socket respond to a light switch, while the other one is always live.  You probably have one of these in your house.]  Now we have to feed power individually to each socket, which is what we want for this project.

Note: Make sure to ONLY BREAK OFF THE HOT TAB for our purposes.  We want to keep the ground side’s tab on.
DSC06248Next, depending on your boxes and outlets, you may want to break off the “ears” at the top and bottom of each one to get the outlet to fit nicely on the box.

Find out by doing a test fit on the box and see if it’s going to help the fit.  Most likely it will be a good idea to go ahead and do it.

Wiring the Outlets

So now we need to run 16 wires.  One to each socket, and connect a common ground wire to each of the 8 outlets.  You may ask “Wait, why are there only 8 ground wires and 16 hot wires?”  Well, if we keep the ground tab on (from the previous section), the ground is the same for the top and bottom sockets.  We only separated the hot parts of the socket.

Hot Feed Wires

Each hot wire will have to be cut individually to length, because as you get farther away from the mailbox opening, the wire will have to get longer to get to the outlet.  Alternatively, you could cut all your wires to the longest length (the outlet furthest from the mailbox opening), and trim anything left over.  I’m cheap however, and don’t like wasting anything.  🙂  I’d rather spend a little more time and save materials.

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There are many ways to wire the box, but here is what i did.  I pulled wire from the outlet box inside through the mailbox, and out the front (where the door is) and left about 12″ past the opening.  Why?  Because I hook these wires up to my control board.  I’ve learned that it never hurts to be able to pull out your control board (powered off, of course) to check the status or troubleshoot.  This length was almost perfect to be able to pull out the board, but let it hang there, not touching anything, with full view of the board.

Also, instead of running a two individual hot wires for each outlet, I used this technique to save some time:

  1. When you pull the wire out, measure to length, keep pulling the wire out while you “Fold back” the wire like you would fold a blanket in half.
  2. Cut the wire at the mark that is essentially double the length you need
  3. Now you should have a length of wire that is double what you need, but since it’s folded in half, should be the correct length.
  4. Now you just have to feed one of the ends (I prefer the end with the bend in it instead of the two loose ends) down through the box, through the inside of the mailbox, and out the front.
  5. Cut the wire at the bend point (which is the halfway mark) to give you two perfect length wires already run.

Finish by stripping and attaching each power feed to each socket on the HOT side.  Typically, you should see black wires going to gold terminals.  I highly recommend labeling the wire on each end.  When you run it is the easiest time to do it.  I would recommend labeling the socket also.

Ground Feed

You’ll need to decide which way you’d like to wire these.  Whether to run one ground for each outlet (total of 8), to the front of the mailbox, OR you can run one common ground and loop it to each outlet.  I preferred running one common ground to keep the amount of wiring down (both in materials and space inside the mailbox).

Installing Outlets

Here’s the technique I used to take the least amount of time.

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Start with your first outlet (I started with the one farthest from the mailbox opening).  Attach your two black hot wires.

For your very first outlet, run your spool of white wire starting at the mailbox opening, through the mailbox, and up through the back of the box.  Strip the end and attach it to the ground side of the outlet as you normally would.

Now for your second outlet, start by attaching your next two black hot wires.  

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Measure how much white wire it will take to go from your first outlet over to the ground on your second outlet.  Should be just a few inches, but make sure you lay the wire out to make sure you have enough room and slack if needed later.  I stripped , but didn’t cut, the wire at that point by taking off the insulation for about an inch. 

Once you have the insulation off like this, you can then wrap this section around the ground terminal and tighten down.  Thus creating a loop.  Mount both outlets into the box by using the screws that came with the outlet.

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Now you simple repeat those steps for the next box.  First, attach your two black hot wires.  Then push up the white ground wire (folded) through the back of the box.  Strip back the insulation for about an inch, and wrap it around the ground terminal.  Repeat for the next outlet.

Keep repeating this until all the boxes are wired.

DSC06417Once the hard work is done, you simply need to attach the face plates, and caulk as desired around the edges to minimize moisture.

As I mentioned earlier, I also recommend labeling each socket and each hot wire to make attachment to the control board easier later.  This is also very handy during hookup in the fall.

 

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If you haven’t done so already, you should drill the holes for your power feed in and any holes for the communications cables.

That’s it!  You should have a controller box that doesn’t have a lot of cords dangling and keeps cords off the ground.  These have become one of my favorite boxes.  I made a version three of this concept that skipped the mailbox and went to a wood frame solution.

But wait, how did I mount that in my yard?  I didn’t just lay in on the ground, right?

I mounted it using metal fence stakes.   I’ll add another post about how I did that in the near future.  Let me know if you found this post helpful, or any other comments below.

New Web Site

Hi all.  We’ve moved once again after our latest provider started putting too many restrictions on our site and eventually just turned it off.  We should finally be in our final home and I’ll begin (once again) to start replacing all the content we had on here at one time.  Hopefully it will stay here this time.

 If you have any questions or would like to see specific content come back, let me know on our contact page.