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!
When 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:
- 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
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!
I 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.
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.
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.
Since 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.
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.
Once you are happy with the fit, you can lock them down by using a screwdriver to tighten the wings.
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.
This 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.
[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.
Next, 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.
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:
- 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.
- Cut the wire at the mark that is essentially double the length you need
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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).
Here’s the technique I used to take the least amount of time.
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.
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.
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.
Once 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.
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.