The Full "How To" Manual for EL (Electroluminescent) Wire

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Introduction: The Full "How To" Manual for EL (Electroluminescent) Wire

Disclaimer : This is my First Instructable. I appreciate any constructive criticism and helpful advice. Now any of you who just ramble on about “I’m just in it for the money” or “You misspelled instruction” or “He’s trying to control the world” just leave me be and we'll be just fine. (Ok, the World Domination may be true.)

Now I don’t claim to know that I am the end all knowledge on EL wire but I have done my research before I bought anything, plus, I have compiled what it’s made of, what makes it work, some history, and helpful tips to help you out. So let's get started.

Step 1: What Is EL Wire?

Electroluminescent wire (often abbreviated to EL wire) is a thin copper wire coated in phosphor, which glows when an alternating current is applied to it. It can be used in a wide variety of applications- vehicle and/or structure decoration, safety and emergency lighting, toys, clothing etc - much as rope light or Christmas lights are often used. Unlike these types of strand lights, EL wire is not a series of points but produces a 360 degree unbroken line of visible light. Its thin diameter makes it flexible and ideal for use in a variety of applications such as clothing or costumes.

EL wire's construction consists of five major components. First is a solid-copper wire core. This core is coated with phosphor. A very fine wire is spiral-wound around the phosphor-coated copper core. This fine wire is electrically isolated from the copper core. Surrounding this 'sandwich' of copper core, phosphor, and fine copper wire is a clear PVC sleeve. Finally, surrounding this thin, clear PVC sleeve is another clear, colored translucent, or fluorescent PVC sleeve.

An electric potential of approximately 90 - 120 volts at about 1000 Hz is applied between the copper core wire and the fine wire that surrounds the phosphor coated copper core. The wire can be modelled as a coaxial capacitor with about 1 nF of capacitance per foot, and the rapid charging and discharging of this capacitor excites the phosphor to emit light. The colors of light that can be produced efficiently by phosphors are limited, so many types of wire use an additional fluorescent organic dye in the clear PVC sleeve to produce the final result. These organic dyes produce colors like red and purple when excited by the blue-green light of the core.


Thanks to Wikipedia and Electronics Warehouse for information.
(Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EL_wire )

Step 2: Let's Build Something!!

I am not going to instruct you to build a "device". Instead I am going to show you how to work with EL wire. (Uses for EL projects will be listed on last step.) Okay, first you will need tools:

Tools:
Solder Gun
Wire Cutter / Stripper
Shears
Heat source (Flame, Heat gun, 5 alarm chili fart)

Supplies:
EL wire - any amount you need for your project (I suggest that you add 10% extra just to make sure you have enough)
Power pack - several internet shops sells cheap inverters
Srink wrap - Several different diameters as well as lengths
solder
copper sheet
connectors

Lastly, you need a place a to work with good lighting. I also would have liked to have a third hand (device with clips and a magnifer).

Step 3: Time to Run the Wire

After gathering your supplies, it’s time to give them something to do. Most inverter/power supplies I found online all had a connector on them. Most shops also supply the male connector for the power supply but not all. Take one side (doesn’t matter which side) and strip the PVC sleeve off.

*** Don’t cut through the Angel Wire ***

I would suggest using an exacto knife but it is not required. You can start ½ inch from the end but until you become skilled with EL soldering, it would be easier to start about an inch in. (I did that - the slop can be cut off later). Spread the angel wire apart for later. Next you will need to remove the phosphorous layer around the copper wire. This is the where the wire cutters come in. Place the wire in the cutter and avoid cutting the wire “skin” off the phosphor layer.

*** Warning: Don’t remove the phosphor with your teeth. There are many types of phosphor. Some are toxic, most are luminescent. This can make you sick (plus it made my mouth taste funny all day. Learn from my errors!) ***

Now you should have a something that looks like the picture.

Step 4: "Scotty, I've Got to Have More POWER!!!"

Here is the exciting part! You need to solder one copper wire to a connector wire and the other copper wire to the other connector wore. I suggest running the angel wire to the “taller” of the two. I wrapped them around a couple of times to insure a good mechanical bond. (Now you'll see why I said you need a little extra for sloppage.)  After both wires are connected take a piece shrink wrap and place it over the exposed wires and heat it up. Keep the flame from touching the srink wrap.

Now plug it into the power pack and see it glow!

Step 5: Better, Bigger, Badder

In researching EL wire for this guide, I came across an interesting technique. Almost every reference never mentioned “daisy chaining” different colors from one power source. While most people mention running separate source (feeding) lines for each EL, I questioned why not run them all off one source? After a brief experiment (see second picture, where a Red, White, Blue EL could be used in series for a flag), I concluded that either way will work: chaining them together will cause less source voltage drop (parallel currents add, which is harder to supply), but the longer the total length of EL wires, the less bright they'll all be off the same source. Also, chaining will make stiffer connecting points that can break easier with movement. So this technique should be use with a more stationary project.

And here we go. On top of the listed item in step 2 you will need:

Copper tape (or copper sheeting with an adhesive backing)

More shrink wrap

And tons of patience

Step 6: Better, Bigger, Badder

For those who missed last step:

On top of the items listed in step 2, you will need:

Copper tape (or copper sheeting with an adhesive backing)

More shrink wrap 

And tons of patience

First you need to prep all the EL wires striping them of both the PVC as well as the phosphor coating. Solder one wire to another. Shrink wrap the connection and making sure that you cover all of the exposed copper wire and heat. Next the you cut the copper sheet into a small strips. Now here you can have some freedom with connection, You can wrap the copper around the PVC of one wire or you can wrap it around the shrink wrap or you can lay the strip along one side of the shrink wrap. I choose the laying method to allow better contact point for the angel wires. After placing the copper solder the angel wires of both EL’s to the copper.

***Soldering should be done quickly to avoid melting the shrink wrap or the adhesive on the copper sheet.***

You can do this separately or how I did it was placing all four wires laying flat on the copper sheet and then soldering them at the same time. After allow the solder to cool (couple of seconds should do it) wrap it with shrink wrap heat and there is your finished product.

You can do the process many time with different lengths of EL as displayed. I have read online that 50ft of EL wire can be powered by a single AAA battery, but I wonder about that.

I hope you found this a helpful guide to the wonderful world of EL wires and found it quite illuminating. (Sorry I had say it.) Please see the last page for further ideas, last minute insights and other EL links.

Step 7: Fleeting Thoughts

Several extra bits I would like to share.

First, all my EL wire was purchased from thatscoolwire.com. They have several great deals as well as cheap sample kits and a 20ft grab bag offer that was most helpful. (See pics.)

Second, a warning: if you play with the bare connections, even though it is only 1.5 volts, it will still give you a nice little shock. (I was adjusting the shrink wrap while the circuit was live.)

Lastly, I think this "Dasiy chain" would also work if, instead of soldering the wires, you added a connector which would allow you to change up the color order at will. I think an SBA connector would do the job. I may continue experimenting with it and will post any findings.

Topic Items - Reference

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EL_wire

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electroluminescent

Suppliers

thatscoolwire.com

http://www.elwire.com/

http://elbestbuy.com/

http://www.coolneon.com/

http://fiberopticproducts.com/El_wire.htm

www.elwirepros.com/

www.coolight.com/Default.asp?Redirected=Y

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    58 Discussions

    Your guide looks good, and I was following along pretty well until I got absolutely baffled by this instruction:

    "You need to solder one copper wire to a connector wire and the other copper wire to the other connector wire."

    *Every* wire I'm looking at is copper, and I don't know which one is "one" and which was is "the other". There's one copper core wire (stripped of phosphor), two angel wires (steel?), and two copper connector wires from the power supply.

    Thanks for the guide, hoping to try the later steps soon!

    Since EL wire runs off of AC, is there anything stopping it from just being plugged in directly? If I'm not planning on having it be mobile, is there any good reason to convert from AC to DC back to AC? And could it be turned on and off with a TRIAC? Not for dimming purposes, but to simply turn it on or off?

    1 reply

    Fairly certain that EL wire needs a *much* higher frequency than 60Hz to produce the visible effect. My EL power supply operates at ~1000Hz.

    A 9V batter is DC. EL Wire requires AC current. You can get an inverter by looking up 'el wire' on ebay

    No problem. DC is a constant voltage. So, 9v is 9v. AC alternates between 110 and -110 at a rate of 60 times per second. It is this alternation of current that causes the wire to glow. In fact, up to a point, the glow or brightness increases as you increase the Frequency (is changing from 60 to 1000 hz). Some circuitry works with DC voltage, some with AC voltage -- this just happens to be one of the AC gadgets. An inverter, from eBay or some other place, will allow you to run the EL wire from a 9 volt battery by converting the DC to the required AC voltage and frequency. Some of the inverters include flashing circuitry so read the descriptions carefully before you buy.

    Since EL wire runs off of AC, is there anything stopping it from just being plugged in directly? If I'm not planning on having it be mobile, is there any good reason to convert from AC to DC back to AC? And could it be turned on and off with a TRIAC? Not for dimming purposes, but to simply turn it on or off?

    Very nice instructable, thanks for showing us.

    How can we give proper time delay to each wire?

    Where did you get those connectors. I've been searching for the same type but keep striking out.

    Just some clarification regarding parallel vs series. There are actually three ways to hook multiple strands up to one supply(inverter).
    1. Parallel end to end....in which the core of the second is connected to the end of the core of the first and angel hairs of second connected to the end of the angel hairs of first. This is the way to connect them end to end. There is no series end to end. Parallel rules apply here
    2. Parallel side by side....in which all strands have their cores and angel hairs connected to supply. All cores connected together and all angel hairs connected together. Parallel rules apply here
    3. Series side by side....in which the cores of some strands would connect to angel hairs of other strands. like putting batteries in series the + and - of the ones in the middle connect together. Only two strands would connect directly to supply. This is the only way series rules would apply.

    They are. His logic is close, but a little off base. If you run them in series, you'll experience a voltage drop across each one, meaning that there will be less current running through each wire and will be slightly dimmer.

    here are some pictures that might make your instructable a bit clearer

    http://www.neonstring.com/index.php?tasket=solder

    Is it my imagination, or does each successive length of EL wire show dimmer than the previous one?

    1 reply

    Could you list a few of these Internet shops that sell inverters?