Welcome to my step by step guide on how to make an amazing Christmas light display! I will guide you through all of the steps from planning to pressing start. Let's get started!
Step 1: Intro and Thinking Ahead
First off if you are reading this in October or lator in the year I recommend that you don't do your awesome display until the next year, But you should start your work Now. First thing that you will need is the lights, lots of lights! Now if you are buying lots of lights as you will be doing the cost adds up fast so you will most likely want to start small the first year with just one or two controllers and buy as much of your lights on sale as you can. I have much experance in this and can help out by recommending the best places to shop.
Step 2: Putting Your Ideas on Paper
So you have decided to make a display? Congrats! It will be an awesome and highly rewarding project. The first step will be planning out what you want your display to look like. Give yourself some time and sketch out your house and front yard or where the display will be located, next think to yourself If I could have anything I wanted what would it look like? then sketch that down with as much detail as possible, you can come back later but it is better to get your ideas on paper first. It doesn't need to look good, just good enough for you to understand. Then you need to make a list of lights and other items that you will need, once you have that done you can move ahead to the next step.
Step 3: Shopping on Sale
I have been doing this for about 5 years with the budget of a 11-16 year old which as you can imagine is not much so I have lots of experience with this. First off wait until the after Christmas sales to buy the bulk of your display, it's better to buy too much when it's on sale then to need to go back the next year and get it at full price.
First off let's talk about the basic types of lights C7 C9 and "mini" (the type most put on their tree) C7's and C9's are the big type about 2"-3" tall and can be translucent or ceramic (the type of coating), in most cases they are best used on roof lines , but that's not there only use, Be Creative! C7's and C9's can be bought just about anywhere with good quality results, but be aware that they can come in verous colors and patterns so you will most likely want to stick to one stoor.
Next, color "mini" bulbs, this is where I have a little less experience as I tend to work in white , but STAY AWAY FROM WALMART at all costs for these I have lots of problems with them from Wal-Mart, about 1 in 4 boxes don't work and the color on most of the bulbs will be chipping out of the box , if you want some white shining through you can go with them though just remember to get a "Light Fixer Pro (tm)" which I will talk more about later.
White mini lights on the other hand are good about anywhere, but if you have a Lowe's near you wait until the second week or so into the year and they will go to 75% off and be about $0.89 per box, at my Lowe's they tend to have dozens of these left but yours may very.
on other classic is icicle lights or the dangly lights that are normally seen hanging off roof lines they can come in many colors but are most commonly found In white. I have appease liked these but they come in very short sections for the price. Do your best to shop aground.
Next up is "wireframe" props these are the angles, deer, Santa's, etc. that fold up into small boxes to pack away. I have had much success with these everywhere so shop around for the style that you like and think will work good any go with it.
One of my personal favorites is spotlights to light up the front of your house, they take up almost no space but can make a big impact . I always get mine from home depot just from personal preference. you will need the outdoor rated 100W type, trust me you need the bright ones. If they are not with the Christmas lights look in the normal lighting sale. you will also need waterproof bases , these should be somewhere in with the Christmas lights.
Next up is verrous other items, starting with Light up candy canes. light up candy canes are awesome for lining sidewalks and driveways but use them for anything that you can think of! They are sold just about everywhere but I prefer the ones from Wal-Mart the most, they look good sleaze work and stand up to cold quite well and if you find out that one broke during the summer they are quick and cheap to replace. For light hooks, clips, and stakes I have always gone with Wal-Mart as the ones that they stock are cheap work very well and are near indestructible, drive over it with a truck and it will still be good as new.
now to talk about inflatables. DON'T BUY THEM! This is because they need constant power to stay inflated and that would mean that the lights would always be on. You can try to hack them but normally it's not worth the effort.
Other items that I recommend would include the "Light Fixer Pro (tm)" and the light stick. For these items I always wait until everything goes 75% off as these item well very nice to have are not necessarily needed.
For any other items shop around and see who has what look at what they have set up, and don't be afraid to open a box to have a closer look (assuming you can close it back up just as easy).
But above all CHECK BACK OFTEN as stock can vary from store to store and place to place , the stores I have near me might just have a tendency to overstock, or yours might understock.
The last photo is my biggest haul from last year, With one of the worst photo of me ever :P (b.t.w. I am a guy :P)
Step 4: Key Terms Explaned
I'm going to try to explain a few different common terms in a simple to understand way. You might not ever here any of these but if you do you will be prepared.
Channel: One group set or individual item that can be individually controlled to be turned on off or set to a certain level
Controller: One unit used to "Control" lights, motors, button, inputs or other items
RJ45 or CAT5, 5e, 6, 6a, 7, etc.: A cable that is normally used in computer networking that is used to communicate between controllers
RJ11, 12, 9: A cable known for its use in phone lines that can be used to connect between the controlling computer and the first controller
Pixel: a LED item such as an individual bulb or spotlight
"Dumb" Pixels: A strip or strand of pixels that can only be one color throughout the entire length.
"Smart" Pixels: A set of pixels normally in a strip or strand that can be individually addressed (controlled) so that each pixel can be a different unique color
Step 5: Decideing on Light Controllers
For my personal display I use Light-O-Rama products as they are simple, widely used and they have Amazing customer support. I have had to contact them but they were fast to respond friendly and when we found out that I killed a chip they sent me a new one FAST and free of charge. If you get a DIY kit that you solder yourself they will even help you troubleshoot your mistakes! I have never herd anything bad about them so that is what I use.
Light-O-Rama Light controllers come in only a 16 channel model. ~EDIT they now offer 4 channel models but for the price the 16 channel models are worth it
Another popular choice is Renard Plus, this is a light controller that is very cheap but can not be used with the Light-O-Rama software, another drawback is that you must source or find the parts all on your own, and apart from community support there is little to no customer support.
Renard Plus controllers come in various sizes from 8 to 24 channels
The choice is upto you but as you are a beginner I would recommend that you stick to Light-O-Rama controllers for now.
Step 6: Extension Cords, Extension Cords, Extension Cords,
Yes this is important enough to have its own step! You need to decide how many extention cords you will need then buy 3 or 4 more then that otherwise you will need to make more trips then you want. For extention cords it is hard to find them on sale sometimes you can find holaday labled extension cords that will go on sale with the lights but those sell out fast.
You will need 16/2 outdoor, grounded extention cords. I alwase get the 25' ones as they are just about the right size for me . Depending on the location of your controller(s) and the speed of your lights you may want 15' or 50' extension cords.
As for the actual number and lengths you will need to figure that out on your own as the best choice and quanity can very a large ammount.
You will need enough to reach from each group or "channel" of lights to the controller(s) and heavy duty cords to reach from the controller to your power outlet.
The extention cords in the last photo is how many I need for just TWO controllers, and thats not evan all of them!!
Step 7: We Need More Power Scottie!
One thing to keep in mind if you are using incandescent lights is your power usage! It is possible to overload your circuit, I myself have added 3 circuits to my house to supply power. I HIGHLY recommend getting a Kill-a-watt meter from home depot to keep track of how many amps you are using. For the controllers that I will be demonstrating with you can only have a max of 8.2 amps per channel and 15 amps per 1/2 controller (channels 1-8 and 9-16) and I would recommend not putting more than a 15 amps per circuit. Remember that all of your outside sockets are most likely on only one circuit.
Step 8: Time to Get the Controller(s)!!
so by now you've learned about getting your lights, extension cords, and getting enough power supplied, now we're going to talk about controllers. controllers are as they say controllers they control the lights flashing on and off but unless you get certain models you will still need to connect them to a computer to get them to work the controllers will control the lights but the computer will control the controllers :-P. In reality it's not all that complicated.
For this guide I will be covering the Light-O-Rama CTB16PC controller. It must be plugged into a controlled network to work as it cannot have the songs programmed onto them, but they are the cheapest and easiest because of this.
The CTB16PC controllers are at the Light-O-Rama store. You can pick the option best for you, you can get them at verous levels of assembly for matching prices, if you are willing to solder your own you can get the kit and save up to $70 over a completely assembled one, I go with the one that you just need to plugin the cords and you are ready to go, as it is a good match between price and effort.
For the choices I would recommend you get the:
"Plastic Enclosure and Strain Relief" which is the plastic box which is very durable and weather resistant
Proper voltage for your country
"USA 30 Amp(dual)" for the power supply cord as it is only $3 more than the 15A option and it give you more options later on as you might not just use it for christmas, and even if you do it is better to have the versatility then $3
"16 Dangle Set" in your country's socket type. You can use your own output cords but that can be hard, just go with them :)
It is your choice to go with the "Cat5 Cable" or not and the length BUT you will need a cable going between your controller and your PC or Director box
Give it a week for your controller to show up.
Step 9: Software
For the software I would recommend "Showtime Sequencing Suite 4" or whatever the current version is when you are reading this from the Light-O-Rama store. To find the version that is best for you use this table, the most important thing to look out for is the number of supported controllers, other than that any of them will work. Just get the one you need for now you can always upgrade later and they will only charge the difference between the two versions, so it wont cost any extra, plus your license will only be good for so many updates to the software, but when you upgrade that will renew.
You can try the software before you buy it by downloading the demo, then when you buy it, just use the activation code, no reinstall necessary.
As for how to use it, there is so many features it would need its own instructables, but it is very easy to use, I am going to recommend you to go to the Light-O-Rama tutorials.
If you want to use the Renard controllers you will need to use Vixon. Vixen is the open source that works with the Renard controllers. Like the controllers themselves they don't have much direct customer support
Step 10: How to Setup the Network of Controllers
You can setup the controllers in any way that you can possibly imagine! But let's start simple and add more later on. Lets start of talking about image 1
1) on the part labeled 1 is as you can see your computer. Your computer is what will control the lights in this (and most) setups. To play sound the computer just outputs it in the headphone jack (2) (We will talk about sound delivery methods lator). To send the signal to the controller the computer outputs over USB into the adapter (3) and will then continue over a CAT-5e cable or phone cable. You WILL need a cable connecting between the computer controlling your lights and the first controller! After you hook up the other end of the wire to the first controller (4) you can just use the second connector to hook it upto the next controller and then to the next and so forth (5)
This is the simplest method and the one most used, the drawbacks are that you need a computer constantly running and a wire connected between the controller and it the first controller. The advantages of this are that it is the cheapest and overall simplest method.
I use this method because it is cheap and easy plus our house has a built in CAT-5 network so I just plug the computer into the jack in the wall and at the central connection area connect the wire to another port in the house and that one is near the controller.
Image 2, 3, 4, and 6 are just more complicated setups that use RGB lights
Image 5 works the same way except the computer is replaced with a small controller box that is ran off an SD card (2) and has an input button setup (4) This has the advantages of not needing a computer plugged in and no cord running down your hall and out the door, with the disadvantage of a higher overall price.
Image 9) In this method you will use a computer to run everything with the advantage of wireless connections between the computer and groups of controllers
Images 7 and 8 are more complex examples that I am not going to cover in this guide but are no too much harder to implement
Step 11: Sound and How?
As this guide is one to sequence your christmas lights, most people will want to sequence them to their favorite Christmas music and you will need a way to share this music with your audience. There is two main ways both with there own advantages and drawbacks;
The Good; To start off with, Your neighbors won't hate you because of music blasting through the neighborhood, and it easy to people too here through there cars stereo with very good audio quality, it is also VERY easy to implement as all you need to do is plug it into the wall and into your computer.
The Bad; FM Transmission is heavily regulated by the freaking FCC, in most locations, to comply with the lay you cannot broadcast a unlicensed station more than 150 FT. This will vary by location, and this causes many people that go this route to ignore this law (Not recommended) which can land, you in the unlikely location that someone that cares finds out, with an $11,000 fine and up to several months in a county prison (damn government :P) so you must choose wisely. Mos walk by visitors wont be able to listen to is as they probably won't have a FM receiving device on them.
The Good; No FCC to tell you what to do! This is good for a neighborhood with lots of walk by viewers as you don't need a FM receiver, they can just listen into the music.
The Bad; Some neighbors may be opposed to you playing music outside your house, and if you are in an area with a neighborhood association then you could get in trouble with that, or by local laws, under some sort of a public nuisance, or disturbance of the peace law or some similar legislation. EVERYTHING must be waterproofed! This can be challenging, and if you get lots of snow you will need to be able to keep the speakers unburied. You will also need some sort of system to amplify the music.
The final choice is upto you, but pick wisely.
Step 12: Be Creative Build Your Own
You don't need to buy everything pre built, some of the best parts of displays are hand made! Some examples are "Leaping Arches" and "Mega Trees" but there are dozens more
For these I would like to tell you how to make them but they could have an instructables all on there own and this will already be long enough so I will refer you to this very good YouTube video on the subject. Cutting of the end and adding your own wire is a entirely optional step.
Mega Trees are complex things, look around there are plenty of guides. I hope to make an instructables for them soon so keep an eye out.
Step 13: Plug It All in and Press Go!!
At this point you have all of your needed supplies, this is the home stretch!! Now is the time to hang up all of your decorations. Once they are up and to your liking you will need to run a power cord from each group of lights to the nearest controller and plug it into its own channel.Then plug the controllers main inputs into a power source, and hook them together with the CAT 5 cable, and lastly connect it all to your controlling device whether that be your computer or a Light-O-Rama director unit.
I will not go into all of the details of the Light-O-Rama software as that could have its own instructables (or maybe 5) but I will say that it is very easy to start with, and as you get more experience you can lookin to some of its more advanced features. Refer to their demos for more details on this topic.
Now press go and watch your lights in utter amazement thinking How the heck did I do that????? And injoy it to its fullest!
Step 14: Resources
If this is all way to overwelming to you there is plenty of resources from Light-O-Rama's own community fourm at http://forums.lightorama.com/ and many Facebook groups if that is more your thing. or you could just google it. But if you need more help feel free to comment just below and Thanks For Reading!