Smart LED Pixel RGB House Outline

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About: the humble handyman

If you find yourself looking for lights somewhere between the off-the-shelf and the overly ambitious neighbor with thousands of lights synchronized to music then you've found yourself in my situation. However, diving into the world of smart pixel LEDs is a steep learning curve but take heart - you can do it!

Important pre-requisite information:

  • Cost compared to 'dumb' LED lights could be more expensive. From my experience the cost will add up when you need multiple controllers (~$100+ each) and/or power supplies ($25 each) and potentially additional cords ($10-$20).
  • You will need Ethernet connection to the controllers from a computer (or Raspberry Pi but only recommend the Pi solution if you have experience with them)
  • Careful planning is required for how many light strings can be connected because there is both a power and number limit depending on the type and voltage of light string.
  • You will need to use light sequencing software to turn the lights on/off. This will require a computer on the same network as the light controller. Ideal setups have the Ethernet plugged in directly to the computer and not on your home's network

For how things turned out on my house check out this short video

Step 1: Plan Your Layout

Measure & Calculate

The roof of my house measures 52 feet (624 inches) and the garage measures 25ft. The lights I picked (C9 bulb) came as 50 bulbs spaced either 4", 8" or 12". So I could have used:

  • 1 string of 12" spaced lights = 50 feet
  • 2 strings of 8" spaced lights but mounted every 6" = 50 feet
  • 3 strings of 4" spaced lights = 50 feet

The 'dumb' lights I was replacing were spaced about 6" so I went with 3 strings: 2 for the house roof line (50 ft) and 1 for the garage (25 ft). The strings were about 34 feet long each but since I spaced each light at 6" the lighted length was 25ft each.

I sort of lucked out with having simple roof lines that are nicely divisible for these strings but you can customize for your own needs including picking other light styles/types. It's worth noting there is a wealth of information on www.holidaycoro.com regarding what setup will work or not. If you want a deeper dive into any of these topics their How to Outline a House is thorough and complex, yet I highly recommend it.

Placement

You obviously need electricity but you will also need a hard-wired Ethernet connection (to each controller)!

Plan the location of the controller(s) / power supply(ies). I picked a location just above my garage where I could run the 100 lights across my house from a single connection and then the 50 lights across my garage in the opposite direction on a different output. In my opinion a lot of the placement is common sense.

The only tricky part is determining how many lights can be connected together in one line without 'injecting' power. The reason for injecting power is to ensure the color remains white and the signal reaches every bulb which is determined by the amount of power. There is another logical limit determined by the controller used and how many channels it can address: in my case that was 680 lights per output. Again Holiday Coro was a huge help getting started as they specified a table indicating the light limits with or without power injection.

Side Note: based on my research it seems possible that you could take a wi-fi enable Raspberry Pi and wire that to a light controller but the general consensus in the pixel light show community is that wi-fi may not have enough bandwidth and may adversely affect the light effects/timing. Speaking of Raspberry Pi there is an entire community / solution called Falcon Pi Player (FPP) where you can upload the show to a Pi and run it from the Pi instead of a computer. Most people only recommend the Pi solution if you have previous experience with it.

Step 2: Pick the Hardware

Like I said at the start, the biggest difference for Pixel RGB lights is the need for a controller. You'll find several brands but after considering the options and risk of piecing together incompatible pieces I went with the Holiday Coro pre-tested package.

For my needs I needed only 100 + 50 lights so 2-4 outputs was enough for my needs. You'll find controllers with 16 outputs but that is way overkill for a simple house outline - those are typically used for mega-trees or structures with thousands of lights. As I mentioned in the previous step, the number of lights that can run continuously depends on the type of light and especially the voltage: 5v or 12v.

It perhaps could go without saying but an enclosure for the controller and power supply is a wise idea to protect it from the elements (sun, rain, snow, etc.).

For reference the other manufacturer options with 4 outputs I considered were:

There are all sorts of smart / pixel lights so feel free to pick what suites your taste.

Step 3: Installation

Ethernet

I happened to have an existing hole through an exterior wall for a coax cable not in use so I used that and ran Ethernet up to the controller (about 15 ft). However I made it a little bit more complicated than that. First there is a length ~3ft of CAT5 Ethernet with one end terminated inside the house on a wall plate and the other end terminated with a standard RJ-45 connector which is then plugged into a female-to-female outdoor (weather-proof) Ethernet coupler. I did this so that in the off-season I wouldn't have a 20 ft Ethernet cable fished through the wall of my house and a substantial length of cable hanging outside. One note about the coupler is that the rubber washer is meant to split so that you can re-use a cable that already has connectors.

Power

Power came from the back of my house (standard 120V 15A outdoor outlet) via a 40 ft extension cord.

Lights

After years of using light clips on my gutters I opted to try a rail system I found online at https://www.holidaylightrail.com/. I was fed up with trying to perfectly space each light every year and I didn't feel like taking the time to make a DIY pipe (PVC?) mount with zip ties. Keep an eye on prices at Amazon since it seems it can range from $5 to $40+ per box. I'm quite happy so far with the rail kit and it fit perfectly onto my gutters (had to remove the gutter guard/covers).

With the rail kit you essentially secure each light to a 2 foot section of 'rail' and can easily measure or count the spaces between lights to get the perfect alignment. So I ended up with 25ft of lights connected to the rail as a bundle and snapped each onto the gutter from the on top the roof.

Enclosure

The enclosure with the controller and power supply I mounted between the main roof line and garage roof line such that it was less than 10 feet away from the starting light. I had to drill a couple holes in the back of the enclosure so I could hang it on some siding nails.

Step 4: Software

There are lots of options for lighting software. Light-o-rama and xLights seem to be the most popular. I choose Vixen because there is a web server and web UI that allows control of the lights. So for any device (laptop, phone, tablet) on my home's network I can get to their web UI and turn lights on/off, change the color, play any pre-created sequence or see what's currently playing. If that sort of functionality isn't important to you then I recommend xLights.

Depending on the software you pick there will be a fairly technical setup so the software knows how many lights are connected and on which output. I won't dive into that detail because there are tutorials and videos out there which would do a better job of explaining how to do that.

For Vixen check out http://www.vixenlights.com/vixen-3-documentation/s...

For xLights check out http://www.nutcracker123.com/wk/index.php?title=Se... and/or this video which I found very helpful

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    15 Discussions

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    loftyduckbgarrison1206

    Answer 6 months ago

    That information and related links are in step 3. ‘Holiday light rail’

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    BillyBobJimboBobmaddog571998

    Answer 6 months ago

    Like any hobby you can go small or go big. This appears to be somewhere in the middle. As others have said, controllers can range from $20 to control around 1000 pixels to a rPI with a hat for a couple thousand, all the way to a full controller that can handle 16,000 for around $350 all ready to go. The Pixels themselves go for around $0.30 a piece and normally come in strings of 50 so about $15 a string. These had the C9 covers so maybe that's why they were so much more. Go check out Xlights, Falcon Controller and Falcon Pi Player for some HW/SW options and also Canispater Christmas on YouTube for some good intro videos.

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    loftyduckmaddog571998

    Answer 6 months ago

    The 3 strings of 50 lights each + controller w/ enclosure + extension cord + Ethernet coupler (~$20) + wall plate (~$5) + Ethernet cord totaled to about $400.

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    allangee

    6 months ago on Step 4

    I've done pretty much the same thing but used 5V Christmas lights from a guy named Ray Wu on Amaz-on. I run them with an Arduino Mega 2560 (cheap) powered with an old computer PSU (free). Only real expense was the lights themselves.

    5 replies
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    loftyduckallangee

    Reply 6 months ago

    Cool! I talked to a few other guys that do this and it seems lots of people get lights from Ray Wu's store. I might do that in the future, but wasn't sure about compatibility and how long it would take to ship from China. I see now compatibility isn't too much of an issue as long as you match the voltage with the PSU & controller: 5v or 12v.

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    GreenMoonloftyduck

    Reply 6 months ago

    I have bought many neopixel reels from Ray Wu. Good quality and price.

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    allangeeloftyduck

    Reply 6 months ago

    I have my computer power supply sitting in the garage with the Arduino. For the lights along the garage, I tap into the 5 volt. Getting to the house lights is a longer run so (although it probably wasn't necessary) I ran 12 volts from the PSU to the house attic, where I step it down to 5 volts for the lights. Plus that splits the Amp load a little more. I had tried cheap LED strips from eekBay but they kept failing every time there was a temperature change (and one failed addressable LED means everything down line from it fails too). So far we've hit -20C and Ray Wu's are holding. This year I've mounted them temporarily to make sure they can handle our -35C (or colder). If they pass the test, they get mounted permanently and used all year long (green for St. Patrick's, pink for valentines, red/white for Canada Day, etc).

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    JohnW51allangee

    Reply 6 months ago

    Question: I can't find Ray Wu on Amazon. Are those LEDs still available? If so, could you provide a link please?

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    allangeeJohnW51

    Reply 6 months ago

    DERP! My mistake. Ray Wu is on Ali Express. Sorry for the confusion.

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    matt instr

    6 months ago

    If you're thinking about doing setting up pixels, I built a bunch of ESPixel Pop controllers this year for less than $10 each (Info/instructions: https://www.doityourselfchristmas.com/wiki/index.php?title=ESPixel_Stick_%26_ESPixel_Pops). They work over wifi so you just need to send power (12V or 5V depending on your lights) and connect them to a dedicated access point (grab that old router from the basement). I'm using 8 pixel pop controllers each with 50-150 pixels on it, a mix of 5V and 12V strings. Sequenced with xLights at 20FPS and then running the sequences from FPP on a Pi with no issues. The access point (an old Asus N66) shows around 150kb/s bandwidth so I think there is plenty of headroom to add more. Most of my strings are the 12V, 100 pixel WS2811 strings from Ray Wu on AliExpress but some are 5V, 50 pixel strings from random Amazon sellers.

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    JohnW51

    6 months ago

    VERY impressive! I've been dabbling with pixel strings but nothing this elaborate. I made a pumpkin for Halloween and used the same LED string for a Christmas star that I have hung between two huge trees in my front yard. Your project has inspired me to do more. :-)