29 March 2013

Customer Projects Using HolidayCoro LED Lighting

While HolidayCoro is focused on the Holiday Lighting community, we often have customers that use our products in different ways.  Here are two customer provided projects that we thought were interesting:

Chris K at Club UV in Nashville, TN used 280 of our rectangle RGB modules and ten of our 3 channel DMX controllers to spice up the exterior and interior of their night club:

Outside the Club

Inside at the bar

Landscape Lighting Conversion

Casey H of Crowley, TX used our Square RGB dumb lights to replace the original lights used in his landscape lighting system.  Here is how he describes the project:

We have Malibu landscape lights (aluminum fixtures) around our home for security lighting and this past Christmas I wanted to include them in the light show.  I retrofitted them with the square RGB modules you sell.  The one on the left is the 20W version that Malibu offers, the one on the right is the 50W version.  I used one module in the 20W and two in the 50W after gutting the 12V halogen reflector, socket and wiring. 


The 20W has a 2 ½” 6x32 machine screw through the module with a backing nut.  There is a think block of aluminum at the back of the fixture that I drilled and tapped for the screw.  If you do this, be careful to avoid drilling through the back of the fixture.  On the 50W I cut a piece of wood that is a light press fit in the housing and simply used the two sided tape to hold them in place.  Obviously the 50W was gutted as well.

For control, I am using a Lightorama DC controller and that gives me 5 RGB channels.  http://store.lightorama.com/cmdedcca2.html  The DC controller can operate stand alone and I have set up some sequences for running the lights.  One of the options for the stand alone operation is to have the sequence start on power up, and I am powering the power supply (the HolidayCoro 45W) from a time clock.  During show season, I put it on the network and the landscape lights become another element in the show.

For wiring, I used sprinkler control cable since it is designed for direct burial.  I used 18AWG wire to avoid voltage drop issues.  The longest run is about 125’.  The one drawback to sprinkler cable is it is stiff.  Definitely not something I would utilize on the lawn for a show display, but for this project it fit the bit nicely.

Before the RGB conversion, the landscape lights were drawing 490W from a Malibu 600W power supply.  I do not have all of the fixtures converted to RGB yet, but at this point I have all of the lights on the front and side of the house running from that single 45W power supply.  Here are a couple of pictures from this evening.  Since it is Valentine’s Day, I went red slowly fading to pink and back.  Normally I have the color set static to a yellowish white.

Thanks guys for taking the time to share your projects with us at HolidayCoro.com!

If you are thinking of mounting lights on your house year round, also take a look at our blog entry on this topic.

27 March 2013

So you're thinking of mounting RGB lights on your house permanently?

As people move more and more in RGB lighting, a common next step is consider permanently mounting RGB lighting as opposed to just putting up RGB lights on a temporary, seasonal basis.  This is a logical conclusion - RGB lights are smaller and thus making them easy to conceal under soffits and with the wide range of color output, it makes them a good match for all kinds of seasons - Valentines day, Fourth of July, St. Patricks Day and of course Halloween and Christmas.  In between those seasons, of course they can also be used as just general landscape lighting.

There are some items to consider when considering permanently mounting RGB lights and hardware to your house year round:
  • Reliability of RGB Lights - The reality of RGB lighting for the seasonal decorator is that most of it is produced with cost as a major driver.  When a vendor (and thus the manufacturer) is being pressed to produce a product as cheaply as possible, quality usually suffers.  Where this often shows up is in long term reliability of the product.  It can be a variety of factors:
    • Non UV and heat resistant plastics and potting compounds.  For example, in our testing over the years, we have found some RGB strip will turn nearly completely brown as a result of just high levels of heat exposure - such as what you will find when storing items in attics.
    • Lower quality materials for LEDs.  These can be LEDs that are not as tolerant of voltages outside their normal range of operation or LEDs that are damaged as a result of UV exposure.
    • Often wiring used to connect RGB items will degrade over long term exposure to heat and UV.
  • Weather proofing of Power Supplies and Controllers - LED lights require DC power and as such, you will need a AC to DC power supply.  Factor this into your design so that the power supply is properly waterproof but still receives sufficient cooling.  Another factor is to ensure that you are below your rated power supply output - over taxing a power supply beyond its rated capacity will likely result in early failure of the power supply.  Another factor is the waterproofing of the controller.  Often pixel controllers are required to be located close (~10-15ft) of the LED lights they control, so allow for a waterproof mounting location.
  • Controlling Lights - A common issue when using RGB lights in an off-season, such as for landscape lighting, is how to provide control for the device when it isn't being run by a animation application.  Some controllers feature built-in sequences or solid color outputs that allow you to "flip a switch" and change over from DMX control to a single color output.  Check with your vendor to see what options their controller has for output when not connected with a DMX signal source.
  • Legal and Building Codes - This varies widely but be aware that installations will often involve high power AC wiring - which is controlled by building codes.  Wiring, such as SPT cord which maybe "ok" for a one month installation could degrade or not be sufficiently wear resistant for a year round installation.  This could result in a catastrophic event (fire, electrocution) for which you can be responsible.  Check with your local city or building code enforcement office to determine what the requirements are for permanent installation of lighting and/or power wires.
  • Environment Ranges - If you live in an area where extremes of either UV exposure or heat/cold exist, consider the materials used in the items you intend to use.  When a manufacturer designs a product, often they can choose between an electrical parts and materials that handles 0F to 130F to or -40F to 170F (as an example) and if the manufacturer is cutting costs, they will go with the lower cost part which often has the reduced temperature operating range.  So, look for a vendor that is listing specific ranges that the product is designed for and ensure those match your intended environment.
When working with your vendor for parts for your display that you intend to use year round, here are some areas you should be on the lookout for:
  • Warranty - Does the warranty have exclusions for year round installation?  Has the vendor been around awhile and do you expect them to be around if you need to make a claim during the warranty period?  Be very wary of any vendor outside the US, especially in China that offers a warranty - your warranty period usually expires at the same time your credit card charge back window expires.
  • Reliability - Has the vendor actually tested the product you will be purchasing either in accelerated testing?  This is often a very expensive process that few vendors go through.
  • Certification - Does the vendor have UL certification their products? While this doesn't ensure quality, it does show that a vendor is willing to invest in their products enough to have them tested though the expensive UL process.  CE certification means pretty much nothing as it is a voluntary certification.  If the product is sourced/purchase directly from China, assume that any certification is bogus until verified.
  • Intelligent design - What do the connectors look like?  Is this part of a larger system that is well thought out?  It is often clear when a vendor or manufacturer has gone the extra mile.

20 March 2013

The LOR ShowDirector and DMX

NOTE:  This article was updated on 08-Sept-2015.

A number of our customers currently have heavy investments in LOR controllers, hardware and software and they want to be able to re-use as much of this hardware as possible.  We've talked about using LOR controllers mixed with DMX controllers here on this blog post but this blog post is more specific to one group of products that LOR sells - the ShowTime directors.  The ShowTime director has been around for years and it was introduced during a period of time when people didn't want to dedicate an expensive ($500+) PC to do the task of running their display for the season.  It was much cheaper than a PC at the time, running about $150 or less (it now sells for $130) and it solved a very real problem. 

How a ShowTime director works is you sequence your shows in LOR S3/S4, then saved those completed sequences, along with the audio file, onto an SD memory card and put the card into the "director".  Then you just plugged your LOR (as opposed to DMX) network cable into the unit and it would start your shows at the scheduled time.

Fast forward to 2015 - PC's are insanely cheap - you can pickup NEW PC's for under $300 and used PCs can be found just about anywhere for next to nothing (CraigsList, eBay, the Computer Guy at work, Goodwill, friends, etc.)  So now one of the major reasons for purchasing a "dedicated" PC for your show is pretty much gone and given that even the cheapest PC is more than fast enough, the issue of having a "powerful PC" is no longer the case.

There are now two major issues with a ShowDirector - DMX and the rise of E1.31 as a common pixel protocol:

  • DMX (RS485 Based)
    Another issue has now appeared that puts yet another nail in the coffin of the ShowDirector - DMX.  Given that generic and DIY DMX controllers are generally half or even less the price of given LOR controllers, experienced LOR customers are moving more and more toward the standards based DMX protocol.  The problem?  The ShowDirectors don't work with any DMX...mostly.  So, you can't use E.131 (DMX over Ethernet) or standard DMX dongles with the ShowDirector units.  So, this means you can only output the LOR protocol and not DMX and this locks you into LOR only controllers.  There is also another issue - the standard ShowTime mini can only output to one network (about 700-800 LOR channels) and the G3-MP3 director at $270 can output to only two LOR networks.  So, if you start loading up your display with large amounts of pixels, you are still limited.
  • E1.31 (Ethernet Based)
    Nearly all new pixel based items are based on E1.31 and thus Ethernet.  As such, this requires a completely different system of control. Since E1.31 uses Ethernet which is completely different from RS485 based LOR or DMX protocols, it isn't possible to run this new protocol from the Director.
This said, there are some reasons why you would want to use a ShowDirector - if you are running a commercial show and don't have a good/secure location for a PC (mall, outdoor locations), if you don't have the ability to run wires to the network from where the PC is located, need the ability to have external triggers (this is also possible on PCs) or if you run a 100% LOR controller network.  We should also mention that it is possible to use a ShowDirector with another LOR item - the iDMX1000 - so you come out of the ShowDirector with LOR protocol and into the iDMX1000 which coverts it over to DMX.  We do not recommend, except in very rare cases, the use of an iDMX1000 protocol converter as it is nearly always cheaper, much easier and more flexible to use other solutions.

So, to conclude, if you are using LOR and DMX devices (E1.31 or RS-485 based) on your network, just buy that cheap PC, put on a copy of LOR S3/S4 (it's licenced for this) and run your show from that PC.  It will not only often be cheaper but you'll have the ability to easily tweak your show schedule (flip it on for people who came late, turn it on for testing before the regular show starts), easily tweak your sequences that have issues, perform testing (xLights and others), run audio enhancers (such as Breakaway) and if you want to switch to other sequencing applications (LightShow Pro, Vixen, HLS, etc) you only need install the software.


No free rides - Cheap isn't free when it comes to RGB

Fairly often, HolidayCoro receives questions from customers looking for how they can add RGB / Pixels / DMX to their display.  In the majority of cases, the customer is new to these technologies.  There are a few options here:
  • DIY - Spend weeks or months pouring over forum posts, videos, blogs and other information spread, literally, all over the Internet
  • Ready 2 Run - Purchase a pre-packaged solution from a vendor
  • Custom - Work with an integrator/vendor to custom build a solution
So, let's break down these options and look at the pros and cons to each.

DIY - The Do It Yourself option is, without a doubt, the least financially expensive option - assuming the customer is fully educated on all their options before purchasing.  A customer that has spent the time to investigate all the options can properly select between all the different features, vendors, lights, wiring, power and software available in the market.  Because the customer knows their own display requirements, they are able to select the most applicable products and software to meet their needs.  They also are usually able to determine which vendors can provide them with the best options, pricing and quality.  There is also a cost and that cost is in the time that a customer needs to invest into spending, literally, weeks or months reading and educating themselves.  It can also get costly if insufficient time is spent prior to making purchases, with purchases of hardware that can't ultimately used.  Another major advantage for DIY customers is that during the process of learning "how" RGB works, they are better prepared for technical problems as they come up down the road.

Ready 2 Run - For customers that are looking for a simple "drop in" solution, a small number of vendors sell package solutions (also see our article on Package Solutions).  The advantage to these solutions is that they are usually a complete package - controller, power supply, lights and sometimes software.  Since these solutions are a known for the vendor selling them, it is easier for them to support should you have a problem.  The downfall of this route is that often these Ready 2 Run solutions don't exactly meet the customers requirements - sometimes this isn't an issue and sometimes it is.  Another downfall is that in nearly all cases, this solution is 30 to 100% more expensive than a DIY solution.  The additional upside is that the customer doesn't really have to fully understand what they are doing to implement the solution.

Custom - A small number of vendors (including HolidayCoro) offer custom solutions.  This is basically the DIY solution without the requirement that the customer fully understand the solution.  The vendor collects all the requirements, including ones the customer may not be aware of and through a process of refinement, uses their knowledge to narrow down all the solutions to those that meet the customers requirements.  So, the customer gets exactly (with a good vendor) the right solution for their display requirements but without the need to know the vast number of issues and solutions to arrive at the best solution.

HolidayCoro primarily focuses on the DIY market - our best customer is an educated customer and hence why on HolidayCoro.com you will find an amazing quantity of videos, articles and other educational information (see or Knowledge Base and Blog), not just on our products but on general concepts and designs - more than any other vendor.  We also offer a number of Off The Shelf solutions. We also offer custom solutions (products and  designs) for customers that have limits on the amount of time they can dedicate towards finding the best solution for their display needs.

Let us know if HolidayCoro can help you with your project.


19 March 2013

Outlining Your House in RGB Lights - A Primer

While looking through all the great videos on YouTube showing houses outlined with RGB lights you may have wondered what is involved in getting those working on your own house.  The following video provides the basic process to accomplishing this and the two different methods that are possible.  Please be aware that this video only provides "generic" information as each vendors controllers and lights have specific requirements for power, protocols, lengths of run, controllers and other settings that affect the ultimate design.

We'd be happy to answer additional questions below in the comments section but please be aware that we are unable to provide vendor specific recommendations.


UPDATE:  See our detailed post on how to design and construct a design like this:  http://blog.holidaycoro.com/2013/04/outlining-your-house-in-rgb-lights.html

18 March 2013

Can Light-O-Rama (LOR) Controllers be used with DMX Controllers?

A common question we get at HolidayCoro is from customers that would like to "extend" their LOR controllers to also control DMX controllers, such as the DMX controllers we sell.  First, a little background - both Light-O-Rama and DMX controllers use the signalling interface called RS-485 which we have covered here on our blog and on our Knowledge Base.  This is somewhat akin to two humans that can both talk to each other using their voices, as opposed to a human and a cat where there is no hope of any meaningful interchange of communications.  So, since both DMX and the LOR protocols run "over" RS-485 that means we already have the largest issue solved if we want LOR and DMX controllers to "talk" to each other, though one or the other controllers will need to "speak" the others language/protocol which is running over the RS-485 connection.

LOR controller owners are lucky (excluding some really old LOR controllers) because their controllers are bilingual and they can understand not only the LOR protocol but also the DMX protocol.  When an LOR controller is first powered on, the controller listens on the RS-485 line for which protocol is being spoken - LOR or DMX and then the controller adjusts and starts talking that protocol.  Now that doesn't mean that the LOR controller can talk both protocols at the same time - it can only talk one protocol at a time once it is powered up.  So, this means that you have to pick one of the two protocols but not both - mostly.  From one output "dongle" you can only output one protocol (the LOR dongles can output DMX and the LOR protocol) but if you are using LOR S3, you can output both protocols on two different dongles at the same time.  So your options if you want to mix DMX controllers into your existing LOR network are:
  • Using an existing E1.31 Controller - If you have or will have an AlphaPix or EasyLights pixel controller, these controllers have RS485 DMX outputs that can be used to drive RS485 based DMX controllers.  See this knowledge base article.
  • One dongle outputting only DMX - In this arrangement, you will run your LOR controllers in DMX mode when you are running your show.  DMX controllers can be attached to your exisiting LOR controllers by making a cross over cable (LOR and DMX use different CAT5 pins for data output.)  This method does require the cross over cable(s) and does require adjustment to your sequences to change from the LOR to DMX protocol method of addressing individual channels.
  • Two dongles - one with DMX, one with LOR - In this arrangement, you will leave your exisiting sequences alone and you will run two networks with seperate cables - one from each dongle and the two networks will not mix.  This method does not require changes to your exisiting LOR sequences or remembering to use the right cross over cables but does require the addition of a second dongle, such as the ActiDongle ($49.)  This is the easiest method if you already have a large LOR setup and just want to add in some DMX controllers to your display. 
Which option you choose really depends on how much adjustment you want to make if you have exisiting LOR sequences as each sequence will need to be adjusted to map from the Controller/Channel system used for addressing in LOR's protocol to the Channel address used in DMX and this can sometimes be a little complex.  If you have just one LOR controller and plan to move only towards DMX controllers in the future, you may find it easier to just talk DMX as opposed to the mixed network.

Additional information:
  • For detailed information on interoperation of DMX controllers with LOR controllers, see our Knowledge Base:  http://www.holidaycoro.com/kb_results.asp?ID=117 
  • For information on how to wire up DMX to LOR crossover cables, see our Knowledge Base.
  • The above does not apply to LOR wireless links, only wired connections. 
  • To use DMX with LOR S3, you will require the purchase of S3 Advanced edition. 
  • We do not recommend the use of the iDMX-1000 LOR-to-DMX protocol converter unless you have a very specific need for it.
  • For information on how to map DMX addresses on LOR controllers, see this LOR document.


10 March 2013

HolidayCoro Wants Your Sequences!

We at HolidayCoro are really good at the technical stuff but what were are not good at is sequencing.  So, nearly all the sequences we offer for our products come from you - the customer.  We are always amazed at how great some people are with sequences that really make a design of our pop and it's those exact sequences that we'd like to offer to our customers. 

Why would you want to partner with HolidayCoro to licence your sequence? 
  • We either purchase out-right your sequence (royalty free) for a one-time payment or licence your sequence and pay you four times a year, a portion of the sequence sale price.  In 2012, we paid out thousands and thousands in licencing payments alone. 
  • There isn't anything you need to do other than to just send us the sequence - we clean it up (remove any additional channels not required for the product (product specific sequences), produce videos, sell and support customers with questions.
  • We include your name (optional) in the sequence so you retain credit for your great work.
  • We control distribution though our customer specific downloads.
What are we looking for in sequences?
  • A high level of quality in the sequences.  If it is for a singing product (monsters, pumpkin, Santa, etc), the timing needs to be very tight and aligned with the audio/song.
  • While we post a video rendering of the sequence, we also find that it is helpful for customers to also have a "real world" video showing what it looks like when performed in a production display.  So, if you have a YouTube or Vimeo video that shows that song in your own display - all the better.
  • The sequence must be a sole creation of your own and it also cannot be a cut-n-paste of other peoples sequence(s).  During the period that we are marketing your sequence (if licenced), the sequence cannot be provided for download free or for sale by any other vendor.
  • Sequences need to be in the LOR S3 format.  We have chosen this format as it can be converted into other popular sequencing applications (LightShow Pro, Vixen, etc.)
  • We look for two major groups of sequences:
    • Product Specific Sequences - These are sequences designed to work directly with a specific HolidayCoro product.
    • Base Sequences - These are sequences that don't work with a specific product but instead are a starting point for others to modify to fit their displays.  These sequences can be simple or complex (thousands of channels).  In nearly all cases, we need a video showing the sequence "in action" on your display so people can visualize the quality of the sequence.
So, if you have a sequence you'd be interested in having HolidayCoro purchase or licence, please shoot us an email with the details (video links, song name, product target, etc) and we'll get started on it!



We received feedback from Jim M who we re-sell sequences for and here is his testimonial:

"My wife and I became interested is holiday decorating a few years ago.  We incorporated computer controlled lighting in 2012.  While there were many places to buy sequences from, we chose Holidaycoro.com.  The main reason was that we knew we would want to sequence our own songs.  While this isn't terribly difficult, we specifically eyed Holidaycoro because they include a template to produce your own sequences.  This was just the head start we needed to be on our way to making our own.  We figured out the software very quickly and created a number of sequences.  We sent them off to David and he had them posted for sale within a matter of hours.  Everything from sales, support and advertising is handled by HolidayCoro.  All we had to do was create the sequences.  Every quarter HolidayCoro mails out a check with our profits.  It cannot be any easier.  There are other routes if you choose to sell your own sequences; however, none of them make it as easy as Holidaycoro.com has.  Since they are well respected and trusted in the holiday lighting community, your sequences will sell.  It is an extremely fair distribution model and HolidayCoro runs it very efficiently.  We are already looking at creating new sequences for 2013."

08 March 2013

The Good, Bad and the Future: Pixel Nodes

Channel Letter Sign with 8mm Pixel Nodes

8mm Tri-Color RGB Node with 12mm Case

First, a little background on the 8mm, tri-color LED node.  For anyone that has been to Asia (mainly China), you'll notice that they have many signs produced that use these nodes.  These signs are what we would, in the US, call Channel Letter signs.  In the US, we normally have channel letter sign that has an acrylic face with sheet metal sides and back that form a box, which is then illuminated with either neon (older) or LED modules (newer).  This channel letter design in the US produces a smooth clean, single color letter. 

While China also has the same type of channel letter signs, they also have the same sign but instead of an acrylic face they again use sheet metal for the face.  In that sheet metal they then punch ~12mm holes.  In these holes they install either dumb or intelligent RGB nodes.  This creates a sign that can be addressed either as a matrix (intelligent pixels) or just as a single color (dumb).  This type of sign design is nearly non-existent in the US currently.  So, why does this matter?  Well, this explains first why the physical case of nodes are generally 12mm in diameter.  It also explains why the little "fingers" that are on the side of the nodes are only about 1/16 of an inch between the top and bottom - they are design to fit into thin gauge sheet metal and pretty much nothing else. 

Here is the problem - they often are not exactly the same diameter, either from a single vendor, even within a single string or very often from vendor to vendor.  So you might have nodes with diameters of .40", .42", .44", .46" and so on.  So, if you want to make, say, a scrolling matrix panel (see sample panel video we've produced for a customer to the right) with pixel nodes. 

What we found is that when we produced these panels from ABS plastic, a hard, stiff plastic sheet, they would hold perfectly but only if you cut the hole with .01-.02" of the actual diameter of the node.  Any more and the node would either fall out or would be wonky and not point straight out.  Any less and it was impossible to get the node in at all - in fact many people had to use lubricant just to get some of the nodes in a string into the holes (which were all exactly the same diameter).  So, it was clear that if we wanted to sell a product that would hold and mount RGB nodes from any vendor, that we would need a different method of mounting them. 

At first this seems simple - just find some plastic that can hold them, right?  Well, it turns out that isn't the case.  In holding pixel nodes, you have a number of factors to consider:
  • They need to be held tightly so as not to point different directions, causing different levels of light output.
  • The material needs to be able to "adjust" to slightly different sized nodes from different vendors.
  • The material needs to stand up to UV and a wide range of temperatures (-20 to 130f).
  • The material needs to be at a cost point that the final product is reasonably priced.
  • The material needs to be strong enough to handle 5-15 pounds of nodes.
  • The material needs to be strong enough when mounted to a frame or other material to resist tearing, sagging, stretching or failing in high wind loads.
  • And finally the material needs to be easy to machine on our CNC equipment.
It's a tall order and that's why we've yet to offer a "standard", non-custom mounting frame.  So, starting in February, we spent countless hours researching the tens of thousands of materials out there that could be a possible match for the magical material so we can bring products based on nodes to you.  As of March 8th, 2013, we have narrowed the field down to two companies that make very specialized plastics that meet our needs and we are working with them to produce and test the plastics that we hope will solve this problem.  We hope to have material in the April/May time frame after testing is completed and products shortly there after.
So, what do we plan to produce with this magical plastic?  Well that's a good question.  We know that lots of you out there want a method of creating a simple scrolling matrix screen like what is shown in the video above, so that's a pretty much no-brainier - we'll offer complete kits to build exactly that. 

We also plan to offer a mini-tree that also holds the nodes and is curved like a circular tree with the nodes "studded" through out - this would be offered as a dumb and smart mini-tree kit.

As is often the case, once we have a starter product, often customers are the source of some of the best ideas out there that we could never imagine.  So, if you have ideas for a product that incorporates RGB nodes, smart or dumb, feel free to email us or leave feedback below on the blog.

29-Mar-2013 - Update:  We have released the matrix panel here:  http://www.holidaycoro.com/Pixel-Matrix-Mounting-p/265.htm

Why won't everyone just agree on some standards already!

Over the past several years, there has been an explosion in the quantity of RGB items.  In general this has been great and opens an entirely new world to Holiday Lighting people - but it's not all roses.  Why?  Well, there are a number of issues that still exist because there are just about zero standards for RGB.  Here are some examples of "grey" areas:
  • Terminology - What exactly is a node - is it the 8mm tricolor LED or one RGB light in a string irregardless of it's physical form factor?  What is exactly a pixel - is an individually controlled RGB light or is it just a light that is RGB?
  • Wiring standards - Why does one vendor use black for "common anode" and another uses yellow?  Why does one vendor use blue for the data signal and another vendor uses yellow?
  • Interconnect / Plugs - What about wiring with waterproof connectors - what is the dimensions and pin outs?  There are half a dozen different methods for wiring DMX + Power over CAT5 alone. 
  • Pixel protocols - What is better 2801, 6803, 1804?
  • Voltages - Is 5v better than 12v for RGB lights?
  • DMX output - Is E1.31 better or is using just a straight dongle for DMX output?
  • Dimensions - Modules, nodes, strip and other forms of RGB lighting often come in varying dimensions.  Heck, even some vendors vary it from production run to production run.  The days of a standard mini light or C7/C9 seem to be over!  Is the spacing on a string going to be 3", 3.5" or maybe it will vary in the same string.
What does this mean for you?  First, it means you'll need to work a little harder and completely understand the pros and cons for each product or solution.  It also makes it hard to compare and contrast one vendor to another as there are no specific standards for products. 
When I produced the widely viewed RGB video series in 2010, I struggled over a number of issues, namely what terminology to use and with the assistance of a number of prompent people at the time. We were able to produce a naming solution that is now documented in our Knowledge Base.  While our terms might be the same or different than other vendors, we try to make it as clear as possible what we are refering to throughout our website and product descriptions.
I'd like to hear from you (see below) what your frustrations have been while navigating the world of RGB and what suggestions you might have for vendors to make it easier for you to understand this new world.

Single Vendor Systems or Off-The-Shelf Parts for RGB Lighting?

Customers ask us from time to time - what can I buy to make this work or what should I buy to make my house look like this one in the video?  There are two schools of thought on this subject, both listed below along with their pros and cons:
  • Go with a single vendor, fully integrated "system"
    • PROs
      • Single vendor (sometimes this may include software, such as the case with LOR) for all hardware.
      • Usually is, for the most part, plug-n-play.
      • You don't often need to fully understand what you are doing or how the system works, lowering the amount of time you need to invest to understand how to get it working.
    • CONs
      • In nearly all cases, you will pay more for a single, integrated "system" than one that is produced from "off-the-shelf" parts.
      • These systems often lock you into a specific protocol, wiring standard, voltage or other limit.
      • You'll need to force a vendor specific product to perform a function that it isn't optimally designed for.
      • You may lack the neccessary skills at a critical time (Oct-Dec) when there is an unexpected problem and an overloaded vendor can't dedicate the time to solve your specific issue.
  • Go with off-the-shelf parts and mix and match items
    • PROs
      • Nearly always the lowest cost.
      • Able to select "best of breed" products for each project /element / prop.
      • You built it so you know how it works and how to fix it if it breaks - you'll be the one able to answer the questions on the forum, not the otherway around.
    • CONs
      • Requires much more understanding (time) and learning to successfully select and build the solution.
      • May require learning new skills (soldering, use of electrical test equipement).
We at HolidayCoro believe in the latter - yes, there is a higher learning curve but we believe the time interested in understanding "why" and what solution best meets your needs is time well spent - this is one of the reasons you won't really find any "preassembled" products in our store. 

We also may refer customers to another vendor because that vendor has a "best in breed" solution or product that we don't sell so that you'll get the best possible solution for your project.  And in an effort to reduce that time to understand which products you need and how to assemble and build them we do our best to publish videos and documents on exactly how to build your project and of course, you can always contact us via phone, email or our CRM system for support to get your project completed.

HolidayCoro wants to be your partner in helping you develop your skills while at the same time delivering the best solution for your needs, even if it isn't ours, so that your display is exactly the way you want it.


DMX & LOR Protocols and RS-485

I'm a firm believer in understanding "why" something does what it does and what effect those systems have on performance and reliability.  It is only when a person understands the underlying systems and processes that the "mystery" of why issues occur can be understood.  One area of confusion I see with customers comes up over and over and that is the relationship that the DMX and LOR protocols have with RS-485.  First, lets start with some basics:
  • Both DMX and the LOR controllers use a protocol for communicating between a PC (usually) and a controller (AC or DC) to make lights turn on or off at a specific time.  A protocol is nothing more than a definition of how two systems talk with each other - another example of a protocol would be TCP/IP or even the English language - it is nothing more than a set of rules that both parties/controllers agree on.
    • DMX Protocol:  The DMX protocol was defined in the early 1990's by the theatrical lighting community and is codified in a specific standard usually called DMX512 or E1.11.
    • LOR Protocol:  The LOR protocol was designed by Dan at Light-o-Rama in the late 1990's.  This protocol is unique to LOR and for the most part is not publicly used by other controller vendors.  The reason this protocol was created instead of using the existing DMX protocol was because of it's need to run very slowly (19,200 kb/s) compared to DMX's 250,000 kb/s as a result of a need to run on cheap, poor quality flat telephone cable (this is why you have a phone jack on an LOR controller.)
  • Both DMX and the LOR protocols run "over" RS-485.  RS-485 is a signalling protocol that defines the physical and electrical nature of the way each system will talk with each other.  Examples of this would be the Ethernet standard or how the letters of the English language are written.  RS-485 doesn't concern itself with what protocol is running over RS-485 but simply how the controllers interact at the physical and electrical levels.  This is why you can use a LOR "dongle" and output either the LOR or DMX protocols because the dongle is nothing more than a RS-485 output device - it is the software (LOR S3) that defines the protocol that is going out over the RS-485 connection.
There are some pros and cons to both the LOR and DMX protocols and we've covered those in previous presentations.  What is more important than the protocol (DMX, LOR) is RS-485 - this is where I see the majority of confusion, misunderstanding and problems.  Here are some common questions and answers to issues surrounding RS-485:
  • You can't "Tee" or split DMX/LOR signals
    • Again, this doesn't have anything to do with DMX or LOR - splitting a signal from an output dongle does have everything to do with RS-485.  On LOR controllers, there are two RJ45 plugs (excluding the one for telephone wire) for CAT5 cable.  You'll notice that there isn't really an "in" and "out" - why?  Because it doesn't matter.  As the signal comes from the output dongle to the first controller, then to the second and so on, all that is happening is that each controller is "tapped" or "tee'd" off a single data line.  Each controller simply listens to all the data on that RS-485 data line and waits for data that indicates that it should do something (dim, shimmer, etc).  This is the exact same with DMX controllers (in most cases) - the difference on DMX controllers being that some of them have XLR plugs which have a different connection for input vs output but in MOST cases, the controller is just connected to the wire.  (Yes there are some repeating/regeneration controllers but that is often the exception than the rule.)
  • Have you seen DMX controllers that only have only an input but no output?  Have you wondered if you need to split the signal to each one or have a separate output dongle for each one? 
    • Since there really isn't an input and output for the signal in most cases, all you need for a controller to work is to "tee" the controller off of the data line.  That could be that each controller is just manually soldered to each input and then the cable continues on to the next controller or by using a passive CAT5 splitter/tee.  So, if you have a controller that only has an input, it's not a problem - just split the signal outside of the controller as opposed to running the signal into the controller and then back out.  This is the same method we use on most HolidayCoro DMX controllers.
  • I hear there is a limit to how many DMX controllers you can hookup to a single DMX output dongle.
    • It depends.  Remember here that what really is at play is RS-485, not DMX.  So DMX doesn't limit you at all to how many controllers you can have hooked up to a single dongle - RS-485 limits you.  What are those limits - well it is a number of factors:
      • Power output of dongle - The RS-485 standard allows up to 19 volts of power for signal (-7 to +12).  So, the more voltage that is used for the signal output, the better.  This is somewhat like the difference between just yelling at someone a long distance away or using a bull horn - clearly the more powerful and amplified signal using the bull horn will go much feature and be much clearer to the recipient and will also be able to more easily overcome any background noise.  While the RS-485 standard allows up to 19 volts, nearly all USB based devices are limited to the USB voltages - about 5v.  Why does this matter?  Two reasons - noise and power loss - see below for more details.
      • Length and gauge of signal cable - Since cable itself induces loss, as your cable length increases or the gauge of the cable rises (see our blog entry on cable sizes and lengths), the overall strength of the signal also drops.  Lower power means there is a lower signal to noise ratio and you start to experience problems.
      • Type of cable - When selecting wiring for RGB elements, you have lots of choices out there.  Excluding the gauge of the cable, the other major factor of cable selection is how the cable is constructed.  There are two basic methods - twisted and non-twisted.  Why does this matter?  Twisted pairs of wires inherently does a much better job of rejecting EMI (noise) - this is the reason that all CAT5 cables are designed with twisted pairs of wires.  If you selected a cable (alarm wire, SPT cable, etc) without a twisted pair for the data signal, you risk greater EMI interference over straight cable.
      • Number of devices - Each controller exerts a "load" on the RS-485 line.  This basically means that as each new controller is added to the RS-485 line, it "sucks" some of the signal off, reducing the overall voltage on the line.  Once you get too many on the line and the voltage drops too much, the controllers are unable to determine the actual signal from any noise on the line.  So, how many can you put on a line?  It depends the the RS-485 chip used in the controller, some less efficient chips might limit you to 30 controllers, some might limit you to 100+ controllers on a single line.  How can you tell if you have too many controllers on the line?  Checkout this video article that shows about 50+ controllers connected to a single DMX output dongle.  You'll see that the only real way to know where you are pushing up against a limit is if you have the proper diagnostic equipment - namely a scope.  This is why we sell our pocket scope - so you can determine exactly what the RS-485 signal quality looks like.  We recommend this article by Maxim, the company that produces 485 chips if you would like in-depth details.
      • Termination - While "technically" all RS-485 connections should be terminated with a resistor, the reality is that it is often not needed and in fact, LOR doesn't even terminate their controllers due to the inherent design of their system (slow speeds and forced bus connections/tapping.)   When and where you need termination mainly varies based on the wiring scheme (serial/bus, long taps, location of output dongle on the line, etc) - the best place for technical details on the do's and dont's of termination is in the Maxim article.  You can also watch our video showing a real world lighting display, over a scope, showing what effects adding or removing a terminator will do to the signal.  Be aware that termination is no free ride and won't fix a bad network design.  Terminators are resistors and as a result, the "suck up" and reduce the level of signal - so while it might clean up the signal, you might end up with too little signal to make a difference.
With all this said, the vast majority of networks are simple and even when improperly constructed with the wrong wire, bad termination, long taps and other errors, RS-485 (and thus DMX and LOR) still continues to work.  Why?  Because RS-485 was designed just for this - to work in environments like factories with bad wiring, lots of EMI and long runs of cable.  When you really need to be concerned about these issues is when you get dozens of controllers, over long lengths of cable and with bad cables or connections.  If you are one of those people, we *highly* recommend getting a scope because without one, you'll only be guessing as to what the quality of your network is or where a problem might exist.

I welcome your feedback or suggestions below.


07 March 2013

A Technical Guide to (RGB) Wire Selection

With the advent of RGB lighting, there is a need to now carry power over wires that are different than those the community has used in the past for AC based power - namely SPT1 and SPT2 cords.  There are a variety of factors to consider when determining the type of wire you want to use for wiring RGB lighting - whether it is for smart/pixels or basic/dumb lighting:
  • What is the amount of current required for the lights?
  • What are the conditions the wire will be used in or with? (water, UV exposure, temperature range, how much flex will it be exposed to)
  • Cost - not only for the wire itself but also the connectors used with it.
  • Availability
  • Easy of use (soldering, crimping, etc)
Current Carrying Capacity
First, lets start off with the most important function of any wire - it's ability to carry power.  The primary method of expressing power carrying ability of a wire is in amps.  But...you need to look at the voltage also.  For example, a wire rated to carry 1 amp of power (it doesn't matter is the power is DC or AC):
  • 1 amp at 5 volts is 5 watts (Current  or amps * Voltage = Watts)
  • 1 amp at 12 volts is 12 watts
  • 1 amp at 120 volts 120 watts
So, as you can see, the actual power (watts) a wire can carry varies based on it's voltage (this is part of the reason some people choose 12v RGB lights over 5v pixel lights).  This is the same reason that a high tension power wire for interstate power transfer is in the millions of volts - if the same, 1" diameter cable was at 120 volts as opposed to millions, it would have to be massively larger (in diameter) to carry the same amount of power.  So - volts matter.

So, how to do you know how much current (or amps) a wire can handle?  Well, it's complicated and at the end of this article we will show you the "real world" method to determine what wire you need to use.  There are a number of factors that go into the calculation - including material type (tin, aluminum, copper), design (stranded vs solid wire), the diameter of the wire (gauge or in the US, AWG), the temperature the wire is exposed to, how many wires are bundled together and the insulating material.  You can start with charts, such as this one that give you a rough idea of how much a SINGLE wire can carry - remember that there are always two wires required for AC and DC wiring systems.  When you look at a chart you want to find the AWG (American Wire Gauge) or gauge.  How do you know what gauge the cable is?  Well, it's complicated also for the following reasons:
  • Some vendors lie about the gauge of cable - this is very common for wiring sourced from China.  This is most common with wiring used in RGB lights. 
  • The charts most often assume you are using solid copper - the best possible (short of gold and silver) conductor of power but often due to cost reasons, you may have tin wire plated in copper or aluminum wire plated in copper or some other variation, which renders the tables invalid.
So, we would always recommend looking closely at the cable and then measuring the cable diameter with a micrometer if you have them.  If you are using CAT5 cable or other cable purchased in the US on a roll, it's usually safe to trust the AWG listing.  So, now you have your wire gauge, say, 18 gauge or AWG.  So, we look up on the table for 18 AWG and find that it can handle 16 amps per wire for "chassis wiring" or 2.3 amps for "power transmission".  Those are some pretty big differences - why is that?  Again, the difference is due to the use of the cable, insulation and other factors. 
Conditions The Wire is Used In
There is no one perfect wire because the conditions that each project it is used in vary.  For example, one person may be permanently installing lighting onto their house and does not have intentions to remove it.  In that case, issues of UV exposure (which breaks down the insulation on the cable) and temperature exposure become important factors.  In this case you might also consider using a solid wire as opposed to a stranded wire as there will not be much future movement (and thus breakage) of the wire.  For installations in very cold regions, the insulation material is an important consideration as common insulation's are made from vinyl which doesn't function well in low temperatures.

So, when selecting cable, consider how the cable will be used and select a cable that meets those specific environmental issues.

Cable Cost
Of course a big factor in cable selection is cost.  The major cost in any cable is the wire, which is most often copper.  You don't want to select a cable that has conductors that are too thin and thus unable to carry sufficient current but you don't want to have overkill as this results in higher costs, heavier cable and often less flexibility.  Also keep in mind that cable cost is also a function of the quality of the insulation, so if you cheap out on a cable that doesn't have UV resistance and the cable has to be replaced after two seasons (along with all the associated soldering and connections), you may not have saved that much in the long term.

There is always a "right" cable for every need out there in the market, though often those "special" cables are so expensive that the "right" cable can't be used.  So after determining what gauge and insulation that is required, see what vendors carry that cable.  Often moving to a more "standard" cable, such as in the case of CAT5, results in many more vendors, greater competition and as a result, lower costs and higher availability.  So, don't rule out a cable that is close to the specs you need.

Ease of Use
This is one of the least considered factors in cable selection.  Easy of use includes a variety of issues, such as:
  • Can the cable be purchased with pre-attached and tested connectors?  This is common with CAT5 and SPT cables which are standardized in wiring, color and design. 
  • How easy is it to attach connectors?  Some wire can be very hard to work with due to the small gauge, multiple layers of insulation, strain reliefs or other factors.  Having to attach connectors to each cable, correctly (to prevent possible mis-wiring related damage) can often take a considerable period of time depending on the number of cables you need.
  • What types of connectors can be used and do they meet your needs?  CAT5, for example, is ubiquitous and has many types of splitters / combiners, connectors (female / male, etc), waterproof and non-waterproof and more.  If your design calls for direct attached cable, such as screw terminals, is the wire strong enough to handle multiple screw downs on it?
  • Connector costs is one of the biggest factors.  Usually in most systems you will have a connector based system for hooking up elements as they are, in the Holiday Lighting world, temporary in nature.  So, while a spool of cable might be cheap up front, if it requires expensive connectors, the overall cost of that connection method goes up and the connectors could be more expensive than the cable itself.  Be sure to think end-to-end on what you need from your connector - does it need to be waterproof or just water resistant?  Does it matter if the connection is water resistant at all (such as the case with SPT cord.)  Don't spend money on waterproofing connections that don't benefit from it.
The Real World Example
So, I've discussed a variety of the issues you should consider on how to select a wire or more specifically, a wiring "system" - how does this work in the real world?

Let's say that you want to hookup four flood lights to a single controller.  We will be using 100ft of cable between the power supply and each flood, resulting in a total of 500ft of cable between the start (power supply/controller) and the last flood.  What cable do you need and what factors would you consider?  They are:
  • What is the power consumption of the flood?  Well, maybe the vendor says this is a "10 Watt" flood.  What does that mean?  Does the flood REALLY use a total of 10 Watts?  Well, don't trust your vendor - get our your multi-meter / VOM and actually measure the current draw of the single flood.  We have an article on our Knowledge Base that describes this process and here is a video that you can follow to learn how to do it:

    After you have the actual power consumption of a single flood, you can then determine the overall power draw.  So, lets say that the flood actually did consume 10 watts of power or .833 amps at 12 volts or a total of 2.5 amps at 12v DC for all four floods.
  • Knowing the current consumption of the flood lights is just part of the equation - now you need to determine the power consumption of the cable itself.  Wait...what?  Yes, the wire itself uses the same power that is used to power your lights.  Think about a water hose - if you hook a few 100ft sections of water hose together, you'll end up with a pretty low water "pressure" (aka voltage) at the end of the hoses, compared to the pressure coming directly out of the faucet.  The same applies to your power supply - if you have a power supply that provides exactly 2.5 amps of power at 12v DC, you will need even more power just to replace the losses from the cable itself. 
  • So, what do you do?  You have two options, you can choose to waste the power by using a thinner wire (wire diameter/thickness goes down as the gauge goes up) and just purchase a larger power supply to "over come" the losses in the cable (up to a point) OR you could purchase a lower gauge wire (thicker) that more efficiently carries the power and results in few losses.  This is why when you look at the wire gauge table, you will notice that there is a rating that references "ohms per ...".  Ohms is a measurement of the resistance that the cable puts up against the power flowing through it.  Of course as you can imagine, a smaller diameter cable will have a higher ohms per foot rating than a thicker, larger diameter cable. 
  • So, what do you do with this ohms per whatever rating?  Let's take an 18 AWG wire - it has about 6.3 ohms of resistance per 1000 feet or 3.15 ohms per 500 feet - the amount of cable we will be using in this example.  So, we will put these values through an ohms law calculator and we come up with a number of .48 watts.  That means for each wire (we need two) we will loose .48 watts or about 1 watt total for the entire length of the cable pair.  As such, we would then need to add the 1 watt of power consumption from the cable to the total power consumption of the floods (40 watts) for a total of 41 watts. 
  • So, say you have a larger power supply, maybe 100 watts and you wanted to reduce your wiring costs and use 24 gauge wire - could that work?  Let's see.  24 AWG looses about 25 ohms per 500 feet for a total loss (per pair of wires) of 5.7 watts, plus the 40 watts for the floods, for a total of 45.7 watts - so you are good to go - right?  Nope.  24 AWG can carry about .6 amps per wire, for a total of 1.2 amps of power carrying capacity per pair or about 14.4 watts total.  So, 24 AWG is out because it just isn't large enough. 
  • But wait!  What if you were using CAT5 which ccommonly uses, eight, 24 gauge wires.  If you use two wires for the DMX signal, that leaves you with six, 24 AWG wires - is this enough?  The total current carry capacity of the six wires is 3.6 amps or 43 watts.  That's a little tight for four, 10 watt floods, so what losses does the cable have over 500 feet of cable?  Again, it has a loss of 5.7 watts per pair or about 17 watts total.  Add the 17 watts to the 40 watts and you have 57 watts which is "iffy" on a cable designed for about 43 watts at 500 feet. 
  • So, what if you use it anyway?  Will something bad happen?  It depends.  The more overloaded the wire is, the higher its resistance will become, so where there is some head room, there isn't a free ride here.  What will occur is that you'll end up wasting power (about 15-20 watts) that you would otherwise have not wasted...but maybe the CAT5 cable was much cheaper than the purchase of the 18 gauge cable and that difference was much greater than the cost of the lost power (and the larger power supply to provide that power).
  • Here is a simple test - take a VOM or multi-meter and measure the voltage at the power output from the power supply and then take a second measurement at the end of the cable, with all items turned on with full output (white for RGB lights) and compare the voltages.  Let's say you start off with 12.5v at the power supply, you may end up with 10v at the end.  Is that bad?  Well, it depends on your controller and lights.  You *might* notice a drop in light output on the 4th flood verses the 1st flood or you may not - it all depends.  Some controllers will have no problem running on that 10v, some others may not be able to handle that drop.  This is most common on pixel strings where you can see 50%+ voltage drops.
So, after all that you can see that there is no one single "best" answer as to what wire you should use or how many items you can put on a length of wire - there are a number of factors to consider and what we always recommend doing is using the math and ohms law as a starting point, building your design and then testing voltages and power consumption of the devices to determine if the cable is overloaded or has too large of a power drop.

Feel free to post additional questions on the feedback section.


The Pixels are Coming!

HolidayCoro's involvement with RGB and Pixels goes back to late 2009 and 2010 when we started researching what options were out there with respect to a move from AC based lighting and controllers to a DC based system.  We really felt that it didn't make lots of sense to make devices (after the move from incandescents to LED light strings) that are naively DC, work on high powered AC controllers - not only from a waste standpoint but also from a safety standpoint.

During 2010 we literally ordered thousands and thousands of dollars worth of random items from China in an effort to narrow down products and solutions that would be a good fit for our Holiday Lighting field. (You can watch our 3.5 hours of videos that provide extensive information on RGB lighting products, controllers and wiring which was a result of this testing.)  With the efforts of a number of other really smart people in Australia and the US, we were able to pull off our 2,227 channel display, which at the time of a "large" display of ~500 channels, was quite a feat - not only with hardware (E131, pixels, DC DMX controllers, etc) but also software (we were responsible for 50% of the logged bug reports in Lightshow Pro in 2010). 

(Video from 2010 showing our 2,277 Channel RGB/Pixel Display)

We added basic/dumb DMX products to our product offerings in 2011 to great success, as people could see from even the limited number of RGB/Pixel displays from 2010 that there was a lot of value in moving from AC to DC based lighting systems.  While many customers used our DMX controllers and lights to build their own props and elements, the main driver for us was to provide a single source of products for building our coro based items.

We watched closely in 2012 where the market was going and added additional basic/dumb RGB lighting options but decided that the market, products and quality had not matured enough to offer pixel based solutions to our customers even though we sold some items that required customer supplied pixel hardware.

At the end of 2012 we looked closely at the market and worked with our suppliers to bring supported and reliable RGB products to our customers in 2013.  So, expect to see lots of great new pixel hardware and products that take advantage of the benefits that pixels have to offer in 2013!


06 March 2013

Real Time @ HolidayCoro.com

Over the last several years, HolidayCoro has strived to give back to the Holiday Lighting community from it's research and knowledge of a variety of different aspects.  We've presented at conferences and written articles on our website, for magazines and on the forums and we hope to continue that tradition here on our new blog. 

As a result of the real-time feedback of questions and ideas we get from our customers, we have a very rich source of materials and hope to be able to provide information not only to individual customers as we do now through our Customer Relationship Managment (CRM) system but also to spread that knowledge to other customers and non-customers with the same questions. 

We also have many ideas presented to us from our many great customers but we have to make selective decisions on which products to develop and bring to market and through our blog we hope to be able to solicit more real-time feedback from customers on what you'd like to see us focus our efforts on.

If you have suggestions for blog topics, you can always provide us feedback on our website.