December 7, 2012

Christmas Light Shows: How It’s Done

How to have a Griswold Christmas minus the obnoxious house guests, bungled vacations and falling off the roof.

So you’re the guy (or lady) on the block with the nicest Christmas light set up? You like showing up your neighbors in the most Christmassy way possible? Well, why not make your lights dance and twinkle to your favorite song and watch them all turn to Grinches!

With less than twenty days ‘til Christmas, you may read this blog with next year in mind, but maybe you’re a genius and you’ll pull it off after reading this blog

After some research, it sounds easy enough, but keep in mind, you’ve got to be computer literate or else you’re already dead in the water. If that’s you, then maybe you can spend 2013 familiarizing yourself with that magical box people refer to as a computer, and next year for Christmas you can show up the neighbors.

For those of you that already have a leg up on the competition and can successfully operate a personal computer, the first thing you’ve got to do is decide how big you want your light show to be. If you’re a noob, don’t go nuts; you’ll probably turn yourself into a Grinch before you even begin to strike any envy in the neighbors.

Secondly, stock up on lights. If you’re new at this, you should go out to WalMart, Lowes, Home Depot, or some other nearby department stores to get your lights. They’re usually on sale right after Christmas, so you may not be doing this until next year anyhow.

Third, and most important, you’ve got to get your hands on a control system. You’ll need all the hardware that hooks up to your computer.

You can buy a system completely built, a kit, or a full-on do-it-yourself system. A fully built system will do what you need it to right out of the box, but it will cost significantly more. It will cost roughly $20 to $25 per channel. Now, you’ll have to do your own homework, but a fully built system can be purchased from online vendors such as Light-O-Rama or Wow Lights. Go for the completely built kit if you don’t know anything about electrical work, or don’t feel up to the task.

A kit is a little more hands-on. It will cost around $15 or so per channel. You’re paying extra with the complete kit because of the enclosure. Because it sounds easy enough to place an electronics board into an enclosure, this may be the kit for you if you’re looking to save a little money.

For the “Tim the Tool-Man Taylor” on the block, a DIY system is perfect for you. It costs around $5 per channel and up.

A system is basically made up of two components. A controller, which communicates with your computer, and solid-state relays (SSRs), which make the lights blink. SSRs can be bought or made yourself. If you choose to do it yourself, you’ll spend lots of time making your hardware, but you’ll save more money. Time is money though, so if you’re a handy man, try the DIY, if not, go for the complete system.

Now you’ve got to program it. This is the fun part. If you’ve got a family, a job, or any hobbies, throw those out the window. This is gonna take some serious time.

A few common sense tid-bits to keep in mind are, get some help. Don’t let your kids sleep til noon on the weekends; get them out there and let them be a part of it. Plan, plan, plan. One of my favorite professors told us that everything we do is 80% planning and 20% implementing.

Don’t blast the music through speakers, and for God’s sake, please don’t run the show all night every night. Of course you want to show your neighbors up in a friendly way, but if you bother them enough, chances are you’ll have a bigger headache to deal with than them. Police and Home Owners Associations top the list of potential problems, so check with them first, and keep your neighbors informed of your plans. (Not just to rub it in their face that your awesomeness will exceed theirs, but to clear it with them first)

Running the show nightly at 8:00pm, for example, is probably the best way to do it. Broadcast the music via an FM frequency, and again, check with the community leaders for the legalities. The last thing you’ll need is a “Christmas Vacation” to the county jail.

Also, make sure you’ve got enough power to run your lights. You’d be wise to avoid a short or a fire, both of which can be costly and dangerous.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here; it’s really not about spreading Christmas cheer, and you know it. It’s a competition just like everything else in life. Now go out there and bring home the gold, and maybe you’ll strike it big with YouTube fame!

Image Credit: Jiri Vaclavek / Shutterstock

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