Introduction: Beginner's Guide to Start an EL Wire Project

Are you looking to make an awesome light display for Christmas or need a light suit for Halloween? This tutorial is here for you to start your creative designs with EL wire. Electroluminescent (EL) wire is a stiff wire copper core that is coated with phosphor and then with a protective PVC sheath. To make it glow, an AC (alternative current) signal is applied to it and the phosphor reacts to the electricity. Since all of this is contained, it makes EL wires cool to the touch, water resistant and low in cost. It is ideal for costuming, decoration, accent lighting, safety vests, signs, etc. The following steps will show beginners who are just starting their EL projects how to put together the electronics. It will go over how to program the EL wires using the Arduino Uno, configure the EL Arduino Shield, solder and make the correct connections of each components.

**Warning: Be careful when soldering by wearing safety gloves and keeping the soldering away from exposed skin as much as possible.

Note: This tutorial is not written by a professional but someone who did their own EL light suit project and wanted to show how they created their EL system.

Step 1: Materials List

Main EL System:

  • Arduino Uno
    • Microcontroller that can be uploaded with a program to control the EL wires
  • EL Wire
  • EL Arduino Shield (EL Escudo Dos)
    • Regulates the proper AC voltage to the EL wire strands and connects on top of the Arduino board
  • EL 12v Inverter
    • EL wires need high AC voltage and thus this inverter converts the DC input to AC output for the EL shield
  • Breakaway Straight Headers
    • To connect the EL Arduino Shield to the Arduino Uno
  • Jumper JST Wires
    • To connect the EL wire and inverter to the EL shield
  • Copper Tape
    • To create connections from EL wire to other wires
  • Electrical Tape
    • Secure the exposed wire connections
  • 12v Battery Source
    • 8 AA Batteries for Portability
    • To power the arduino, the el shield and up to 8 EL wire strands
  • Red and Black 30 Gauge Wire
    • Optional to connect different EL wires together

Tools Used:

  • Solder Wire
    • Metal with a low melting point that is used to form the electrical connections
  • Soldering Iron
    • To melt the solder wire and can be dangerous
  • Wire Stripper
    • Used to strip the outer layer of a wire to make connections
    • The recommended stripper has multiple settings because of the precision needed
  • USB B Cable
    • To connect the Uno to a computer for uploading a program or script
    • Should come with the Arduino Uno
  • Arduino IDE
    • The environment to write and upload the program

Step 2: EL Arduino Shield Configuration

EL Escudo Duos Shield

  • The recommended EL Arduino Shield comes without the headers that are needed to connect it to the Arduino Uno. Thus, it is important for when you are soldering the breakaway pins, they should be straight like the photo above so that there is less chance of accidental connection between the pins. Here is a great soldering tutorial for soldering rookies.

  • Caution: Soldering Iron has a recommended temperature setting to be around 600 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, so be careful when making connections.

  • Also since we are going to use up to 12 volts, the SJ1 solder jumper that is located under the "C" in the "Caution High Voltage" will need to be closed by placing a blob of solder to bypass the voltage regulator that limits the amount of power that will go to the inverter that we will talk about in the next step.

Step 3: 12V Inverter Configuration

The 12V Inverter was chosen for this tutorial because it is assumed that the beginner is going to use all the 8 available ports on the EL Escudo Duo for their EL project. From Sparkfun, the 12V inverter comes with a barrel plug connection for the DC input which is great when getting power from a 12V wall-wart but that is not what we want. Thus, configuration is needed to make it usable because we want to power both the Arduino Uno and the El Escudo Dos shield through one source.

  • Using the wire stripper, cut off the barrel plug near the end to leave a good amount of the cable left to use.
  • Then strip the black layer to expose the red and black wires as seen in the photo above.
  • One at a time, strip away the outer layer to reveal the copper strands, you will solder these strands to the respective color of a Jumper JST cable.
  • After making sure the solder is cool, wrap the connection with electrical tape. The tape will secure the connection while preventing electrical shock.
  • To connect to the EL Escudo Dos, we want the cable that you just solder to connect to the "DC To Inverter" port and the other to the "AC From Inverter" port. If needed, you can label each wire for its purpose. It is very important to keep them known because you can cause damage to the system if switched.

Step 4: Connecting EL Wire to the Shield

The EL Wire can come in two ways, with the Jumper JST cable attached to directly plug into the EL Escudo Dos or it has the 2 pin that connects to its own inverter like the blue wire above.

  • To change out the 2 pin for the Jumper JST, you will cut off the 2 pin head, then separate the two black cables.
  • Just like with the inverter's barrel plug in the previous step, strip each wire to expose the strands to solder to a jumper JST cable and it does not matter which cable to what.
  • Let the solder cool and wrap it with electrical tape. Another option is heat shrink wrap to cover the connection.
  • You will test the connection with the EL system in Step 6.

Step 5: EL Wire to Another Wire

This step will show how to connect an EL wire to another wire like in the pictures above. It is recommend that you practice on some scrap EL wire that you are not going to use on your final design until you are confident in making a successful connection a few times.

  • Hold onto the end of the EL wire of your choice, use the recommended precision wire stripper and strip about 1 inch off the first colored PCV sleeve with the 30 AWG setting. You will see the clear protective layer where underneath the two copper strands are wrapped around the phosphor coating.
  • This will be the hardest step so far because when you try to strip off the clear layer, you have to make sure that you don't damage the two copper strands. If you do it correctly, it will look like second picture above. So using the 24 AWG or 26 AWG setting on the wire stripper, carefully strip away 1/2 inch of the clear layer.
  • With that done, we move onto the phosphor end. To expose the copper core that is needed, scrape away the phosphor coating using the wire stripper while being careful not to cut it.
  • There are two ways you can go from here:
    • EL wire to EL wire
      • With the four copper strands, twist them together and solder around that connection. Again with the two copper cores do the same but making sure that the strands and the cores do not touch. If touching, the circuit will short and the wires will not glow. Using electrical tape, tape around the individual soldered parts then together.
    • EL wire to transitioning cables (ex. black and red gauge wires)
      • After making sure that the two copper strands are there, cut a 3/4 inch piece of copper tape and wrap it once around the clear layer that is left. Have the copper strands lay on the copper tape like the third picture and place some solder to make sure they do not move. Wrap the remaining copper tape around.
      • Then gauge wires are each soldered to the copper tape and the copper core end the like fourth and fifth picture. Also with electrical tape, make sure that the copper core and tape do not touch.
      • You can do the same connection to the same transitioning cables to another piece of EL wire.

Step 6: What to Do Now?

You now have all the parts to put together the EL system, what to do now? Well we need to test all the parts to make sure the ports respond correctly to the program in the way we expect.

Note: Don't expect everything to work the first time when putting it together. Be patience about it and you will get the results you want.

  • First, write a test Arduino script to test all the components. The one given above builds upon the example of a blinking LED since the EL Escudo Dos uses the digital pins on the Arduino Uno to receive input. Each EL port responds to the digital pins 2 to 9 and it will go through each port one at a time and makes the wire to blink in a cycle.
  • With the script done, now it is time to assemble the system for testing. Upload your script to the Arduino Uno and make sure it uploaded correctly with no errors. Reminder to always have the power off when connecting EL wires, the inverter and EL Escudo Dos to the Arduino Uno.
  • Align the pins of the EL Escudo Dos to the Arduino Uno with the EL ports on the digital pins side and push down until you feel that all the pins are touching.
  • Plug in the 12V inverter with the switch turned OFF in the correct order.
  • If you have 8 separate EL wires ready, you can test all the ports at the same time. Since the ports are new, if you want to get the cable out, use the wire stripper.
  • After making sure that all the components are connected correctly, plug in your 12V battery source into the Arduino Uno.
  • Be careful when switching the inverter to ON, high AC current will start to go to the EL Escudo Dos. Hit reset on the Arduino Uno to start the script over and your EL wires should start going through the blinking loop. If all goes well, you will see 8 wires blinking one at a time. If not, follow these troubleshooting steps:
    • EL wire not blinking?
      • Check the soldering connection of the JST cable to EL wire.
        • If squeezing or turning the point makes the EL wire flicker, that means that you will need to redo the connection. Go back to Step 4.
      • Check the soldering connection of the EL wire to EL wire.
        • Like the above step, if there is a short, you will have to redo the soldering connection.
      • Check the soldering on the 12V inverter.
      • Turn off the inverter and unplug the power source. Then check the pin connections of the EL Escudo Dos.
        • Make sure that the pins are not bridged by the solder on the board, that can cause a port to not function correctly.
        • The pins should fit snugly into Arduino, if not, those are not long enough but that should not be a problem with the recommended pins listed.
  • Now, if you are able to fix all the problems and got a working EL system, you are ready to move on. Thanks for reading this tutorial and I hope that it was helpful for you to start your EL project. I will update this document periodically if I feel that there a better technique to make the connections or add other steps. Thanks again.
  • Also I added a video of my light suits that were programmed to music from a past performance. Enjoy