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The JimOnLight Guide to Christmas Lights, Parts 1 to 5

It’s that time of year again, albeit maybe a little early…  there are lots of Canadians who are already rocking the Christmas lights, and by rocking I do mean there are lots of strands of LED Christmas lights all over the place in Toronto.

This is why it’s ABOUT TIME to publish the JimOnLight Guide to Christmas Lights again, by popular demand!!!

Part One:  CHRISTMAS LIGHTING HISTORY

Part One is geared towards sharing where Christmas Lighting got its start, including going WAY back to talk a bit about what actually happens in the sky around Christmas time (or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Flying Spaghetti Monster time, or whatever flavor of religion you pick for the Holidays)and how we’ve been dealing with it for a few thousand years.

Part Two:  MODERN LAMP TYPES AND SIZES

Part Two takes some of the most basic information about Christmas lighting – the light sources– and breaks them down for the reader to make it easy to understand and identify different kinds of Christmas Lights.  You know, for that moment when you have to pull the ball of lights out of the box in the garage and actually NOT burn your house down.

Part Three:  FORM FACTORS of CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Rain lights, curtain strands, cascades, and all kinds of other terms that mean something about the different arrays that Christmas lighting come in – Part Three of the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lighting is all about telling those arrays apart so you can get back inside and drink some Wassail!

Part Four:  CHRISTMAS LIGHT POWER AND SAFETY

This is an important one – Part Four talks about how NOT to get yourself dead while doing all of that Christmas light installation!

Part Five:  CHRISTMAS LIGHTING MATH

…not last, not least, and definitely not the end of the series, but perhaps one of my favorites!  A quick overview of some of the basic and important electrical equations that can help you make a little more sense out of the task of hanging Holiday Illumination!

Ok world, let’s be safe and sound out there, and I would say let’s not be tacky, but we all know that it will never ever happen at Christmas time!

The JimOnLight Guide to Christmas Lights, Parts 1-5

Back another year by popular demand and thousands of visits, the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights is here!  To break this down a bit and hopefully keep the five parts of the JimOnLight.com Guide to Christmas Lights:

Part One:  CHRISTMAS LIGHTING HISTORY

Part One is geared towards sharing where Christmas Lighting got its start, including going WAY back to talk a bit about what actually happens in the sky around Christmas time (or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Flying Spaghetti Monster time, or whatever flavor of religion you pick for the Holidays) and how we’ve been dealing with it for a few thousand years.

Part Two:  MODERN LAMP TYPES AND SIZES

Part Two takes some of the most basic information about Christmas lighting – the light sources – and breaks them down for the reader to make it easy to understand and identify different kinds of Christmas Lights.  You know, for that moment when you have to pull the ball of lights out of the box in the garage and actually NOT burn your house down.

Part Three:  FORM FACTORS of CHRISTMAS LIGHTS

Rain lights, curtain strands, cascades, and all kinds of other terms that mean something about the different arrays that Christmas lighting come in – Part Three of the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lighting is all about telling those arrays apart so you can get back inside and drink some Wassail!

Part Four:  CHRISTMAS LIGHT POWER AND SAFETY

This is an important one – Part Four talks about how NOT to get yourself dead while doing all of that Christmas light installation!

Part Five:  CHRISTMAS LIGHTING MATH

…not last, not least, and definitely not the end of the series, but perhaps one of my favorites!  A quick overview of some of the basic and important electrical equations that can help you make a little more sense out of the task of hanging Holiday Illumination!

Drop us a comment below if you like the JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights – we’re dedicated to bringing you the best!

A Happy Holidays Bit of Hilarity on JimOnLight!

We’re trying to make the Holidays as completely ridiculous as possible this year, so please enjoy our new especial all-the-way-from-Las Vegas Holiday-on-Crack background and twinkle-light-tastic JimOnLight.com logo!  We at JimOnLight.com and Light Associated Media, LLC feel that the holidays should be as jam packed with as much ridiculous as humanly possible – and not that Black Friday ridiculous, I mean RIDICULOUS ridiculous.  Nobody’s gonna shoot you in the face with lachrymatory agents in here, JimOnLight.com is a no-OC-and-CS-zone!  Well, Lumiere often likes to strut around the office showing everyone her anus, but really, who doesn’t?

I’m trying to find some Christmas-scented deodorant to really bring the smell of the Holidays home to roost, but so far all I can find is Eggnog flavor (weird) and Old Drunk Aunt Suze flavor (bourbon and Vicodin).

Yeah.  YEAH!

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights is BACK!

Oh yes, it is THAT TIME AGAIN, my friends!

It’s time for the JimOnLight.com Guide to Christmas Lights! This is the time of year when people dig out the crazy plastic Santas with sled and reindeer, the Frosty the Snowman yard art, and go to town getting all Clark W. Griswold all over their houses!

The JimOnLight.com Guide to Christmas Lights has been blessed with some pretty worldwide attention, having been read in 190 countries across the world.  We even got plagiarized by Gizmodo last year!  How crazy is THAT?!

I’ll be adding more parts this season – coming on Tuesday, November 30, I’ll post Part Five – Christmas Lighting MATH!  Until then, you can get caught up on the first four parts:

PART ONE:  The History of Christmas Lights

PART TWO:  Modern Christmas Light Lamp Types and Sizes

PART THREE:  Form Factors of Christmas Lights

PART FOUR:  Christmas Light Power and Safety

Stay tuned – more JimOnLight.com Guide to Christmas Lights parts coming up!

Christmas Lights in Perth, Australia

Christmas lighting is still in fashion, at least until the New Year, right?  We always took ours down sometime after the first of January, so take that as a hint, all of you “leave them up until April” people!

I saw an interesting post on CNN’s iReport site about a family in Perth (Australia) that has a massive Christmas lighting display – they also made a bunch of bread on it that they donated to a local children’s hospital.  This Christmas light display raised $22,000+ last year!  They’re shooting for $30,000 this year. (ps: I would have embedded the CNN video, except there was no way to turn off the autoplay feature – which would have annoyed you all. Cnn, don’t you want people to embed your videos?)

The creator is a guy named Kym Illman, the CEO of a company called Messages On Hold.  This beast is 176 channels of control, over 6 kilometers of cable, and 50,000 LEDs.  Watch this video of Kym Illman on Perth’s “Today” show:


Here is their display video – can you believe how much stuff is in that rig?!

Thanks, MoH!

Guitar Hero Christmas Lights Creator Speaks with JimOnLight.com!

ric-xmas-lights-jimonlight

After posting the article about Guitar Hero christmas lighting this morning, I was able to get ahold of the display’s designer to ask him some questions about how and what he did to have such a great display.  The designer’s name is Ric, and he was gracious enough to answer some questions I had about his work and his background.  I hope everyone enjoys the little interview I was able to get with Ric about his rig and his process.  Check it out!  Also check out the Light-O-Rama site for the control stuff mentioned in the article – very cool!


JimOnLight: Do you have a background in lighting? Your display and control is impressive – I am curious as to if you’re a professional or a hobbyist with some skill!

Ric: I’ve done some lighting, but most of my background is in media production and theatrical style illusions. The Christmas Light show is really more of a media presentation with lots of light edits in time with the music, made like a music video.

JimOnLight: How did you come about the idea of having such a large christmas light rig? Was there a muse or inspiration of some sort that led you to put it together?

Ric: I’ve always loved doing Holiday light displays, and years ago I experimented with simple sequencers. Eventually I was able to put together my first show using MIDI controlled dimmers and programmed it in Garage Band on a Mac laptop. The year after that I discovered Light-o-Rama kits and started building them. Each year more controllers get built and the shows get more elaborate.

JimOnLight: What types of lighting you use for your display? I assume that there are a mix of LED and incandescent lamps – can you give me some insight into your mix?

Ric: I’m starting to use LEDs more and more. I love the single color strings that punch through everything with dichroic style – single frequency light. Especially the blue and violet. LEDs switch on and off instantly allowing stunning music sync. I still have a lot of incandescent lights for the big white moments. I’m not happy with the white LEDs yet, the color temperatures are all over the map, even within a single string. There is a warmth to the white incancesdents that still can’t be matched with LEDs.

JimOnLight: Please tell me about your control system – we would love to have some insight! Are you using some kind of timecode (MIDI, SMPTE), or do you have something proprietary that you’ve created?

Ric: I started with MIDI, but quickly got frustrated with the limitations. Light-o-Rama controllers offer amazingly cheap cost per channel. I usually buy 16 channel kits for around $100. I experimented with some bank switching circuits to allow one board to control separate sets of lights, but that turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. To do the 09 xmas show I added three new controllers for a total of 7. LOR software is quite good, and has been able to handle everything I have come up with.

JimOnLight: Do you provide a way for your neighbors and passersby to listen to your inspiration music to your display?

Ric: The audio plays at a low level until around 9:00 for pedestrians. Any time the show is running, the audio is broadcast on a low power FM transmitter so people can listen in their cars as loud as they like.

JimOnLight: Something that everyone probably wants to know – how are your electricity bills?

Ric: Not bad at all! Compared to the last year we had a static display, the shows use about 75% less energy, mainly due to the fact that in a show any given light is off much more than it is on. Now with all the LEDs, power use is down even more.


Ric, thank you so much for your time!  Everyone should check out Ric’s youtube channel (he’s kumbaric on youtube) – he’s got videos galore and lots of skill!  Enjoy!

Guitar Hero Christmas Spectacular

I ran across this video where someone was making some amazing christmas lighting sequencing, and I was sitting here thinking to myself – I know that yard! Turns out that I wrote about this display a few weeks ago – and they uploaded another video.  Check out this Guitar Hero spectacular!

The funny thing is that they had another pretty awesome video that I wrote about – I want to know that control system!  Here’s the other video, just in case you missed it the first time:

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 4: Christmas Light Power and Safety

jimonlight-guide-christmas-lights

Part Four:
Christmas Lights Power and Safety

So now that you have learned about the history of christmas lights, learned about different christmas lamp types and different form factors, there’s two things that we’ve not considered: power (electricity) and control of the christmas light display.

These two things are usually taken for granted, which is understandable to a point – you plug them into an outlet, and they either turn on or blink, right?  Well, I guess. I, however, am an overachieving geeky nerd that enjoys making a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to the simplest technological tasks.

Did I just use “mountain out of a molehill?” Oh yeah, you better believe it.

This guide will deal with providing power to your christmas light display. However, there is the need for a small disclaimer regarding this topic, since it is potentially deadly and/or property damaging. So, that being said – if you electrocute yourself when you’re hanging your christmas lights, it’s not my fault regardless of whether you read this guide or not. Caveat Emptor, it ain’t my fault if you blow your house up, all that stuff.

Okay, now that the BS legal part of this is over, there are a couple of really, really important things you should heed warning to when you’re preparing to load-in your christmas lights:

  • Electricity can and will travel through you to get to its home, which is the ground. It won’t be good for you.
  • If you discover a loose wire when you’re hanging all of your christmas lights, do not touch the bare wires. Also, refrain from licking them or rubbing them on your neck. All of these are bad ideas.
  • Don’t use staples to hang your lights unless you have a guide for whatever stapler that you’re using that specifically shields the cable from the staples. Stapling into a strand of christmas lights will most likely short them out, creating a dangerous situation and more than likely a pain in your derriere.
  • An easy one to remember: water and christmas lights equals non-fun. There are outdoor rated christmas lights; if you’re putting them outdoors, make sure they have the UL rating and make sure they’re listed as water-proof lighting.
  • Last but not least, when you’re putting up christmas lghts, unless you live somewhere that has 60+ degree temperatures outside, it’s probably gonna be cold out. Hypothermia sucks, my friends. Bundle up, and make sure to take enough breaks when you’re out there christmas lighting your place up!

So, for those of you who do not know the ways to power your christmas lights or really anything about electricity at all, it’s pretty simple when you tear it down to the basic components – the christmas lights plug in to some place either in or around your house that is hooked up to the house’s power, and voila – the christmas lights turn on, you and your family go “wow,” and you go back inside to have some cocoa.

In a sense, that’s the bare bones sense of it. However, there are so many more things to consider – what happens when your lights burn out, for example?  What happens if you plug too many christmas light strands together? These things are all items that you’ll be better for when you learn the answers.  As far as wiring, there are typically two different ways that you’ll find your lights wired – series circuits and parallel circuits. Look at this diagram of a series christmas light circuit:

series-circuit-jimonlight

Series circuits are really easy to spot – they’re the strands that all go out when one lamp in the string is either blown or not seated properly in its base. The reason that this happens is that the connections into each christmas lamp are in a series – get it?  Electricity must pass through each lamp in order for the next to get energized. They’re all dependent on each other for the flow of electrons. In a series circuit of christmas lights, each lamp’s filament is the circuit bridge – so when one lamp goes out, all of the lamps might as well have gone out because there is no way for electricity to get across the one broken filament to power the rest of the lamps. See the issue?

In modern christmas light strands, something called a shunt is added to each lamp to overcome the failure of the lamp’s filament for the rest of the lamps. If the filament fails, instead of losing the entire strand of lamps, the shunt keeps the electricity flowing through the dead lamp below the broken filament. I have no idea how I did it, but I got a close-up of a shunt in a mini-size christmas lamp. Keep in mind this lamp is about the size of a pencil eraser:

shunt-closeup-jimonlight

Pretty neat, huh?

You might also notice that some strands of christmas lights come with two or three really tiny fuses, like these:

3a-fuses-jimonlight

You’ll also probably notice that the fuses go into the female end of the strand, like here:

female-plug-christmas-lights-jimonlight

These fuses are typically 3 amps on a 50-light strand. This is going to become important in the next guide post.

The other way that christmas lights are typically wired is called parallel wiring. Parallel wiring beats the problem of having all lamps out when one lamp goes out by making a common electrical point for all lamps. Check out this diagram:

parallel-circuit-jimonlight

You all probably know about parallel circuits, so I assume this is a moot point – but as you can see from the diagram, the electricity would flow even if one of the lamps were to go out. Since there is a continuous connection across ALL lamps on the hot and the common lines, there is no way that one lamp would make all of them go out.

Another excellent thing about parallel circuits is the amount of lamps you can put in the chain. Unlike series circuits which require the voltage of all lamps in the string to add up to your total supplied voltage, parallel strings only require that the actual wire handle the amount of electricity (current) going through. In a series set of 50, for example, all of the lamps must be 2.5 volts so that the total voltage across all lamps adds up to 120 volts.

Wait a minute, you might ask yourself – 50 x 2.5 doesn’t equal 120! 48 x 2.5 equals 120. You are right to question that equation – 50 is more of a round number than 48, and adding the two extra lamps in the series lowers the brightness so imperceptibly that we can’t tell the difference. Also, 50 is more than 48, and you’re inclined to buy two more lamps. That’s our nature!

Let’s just quickly recap:

  • keep warm when you’re out there hanging those christmas lights!
  • don’t lick exposed christmas light wire
  • electricity will kill you dead, so pay attention
  • water and electricity like each other as much as Dick Cheney and the ACLU

Next up on JimOnLight.com – Part Five: Christmas Light Math!

Stay tuned!

JimOnLight.com’s Guide to Christmas Lights, Part 3: Form Factors of Christmas Lights

jimonlight-guide-christmas-lights

Part Three:
Form Factor of Christmas Lights

Christmas lights typically come in more configurations than just a line of lamps connected with a plug and a connector – there are strands that are shaped like a net, there are strands that look like icicles, and others that are are just wacky. For example, other than a linear array of christmas lights, you can buy cascade (drape) lights, net (mesh) lights, icicle strands, curtain strands, and even strands of lights that come with a frame that looks like something significant. You know, significant – like a deer or fat Santa or Frosty or something.

You can use any of these form factors for anything your heart desires, really – there’s no hard fast rules on christmas lighting design, except for not getting yourself electrocuted and/or falling off the roof and getting dead.

First and foremost, the strand, string, or whatever you want to call a linear run of christmas lamps. It is, in effect, a string of point sources.  I won’t even bother posting a picture of them, as I would hope everyone knows what they look like. Okay, maybe I’ll post a picture. Here’s a string of LED G12 globes I just got from Philips:

g12-globe-linear-jimonlight

They’re a string of lights. Wrap em, sling em, stick them around a window, a tree, a bush, your friends – they’re christmas lights! Sometimes it’s fun just to stick some christmas lights in a glass vase and plug them in atop your desk or counter for decoration. Why not?

drape

Cascade strings (also called drape lights) always remind me of Austrian curtains, sort of – they have different layers that hang lower than others. They come in solid colors, a multicolor version, and a white or clear. Cascade lights can go in places like large windows, across the gutter hanging down, or an interesting usage I have seen in recent past was hanging them under the fullness of a large, round tree – it made the tree look as if it had a scallopy round skirt.

mesh-lights-jimonlight

Mesh lights (also called net lights) are just that – christmas lights wired in such a way that they resemble a net of sorts. I’ve seen them in all colors, multicolor, white, and a “smart net” kind of set, with a controller and the ability to individually function. Mesh lights are excellent for throwing over a round bush in your yard, small trees, and anywhere that you need to cover square footage with dimension.

icicle

Icicle lights, like in my crude little sketch above, are little “randomly” hung independent strings of lamps off of a support wire bundle. The randomness is usually in the form of a repeating pattern of five or six hanging strands, and you can usually install them in groups that look similarly random. Icicle lights can look interesting hanging off of the gutter in the front of the house, or in a-frame roofs, as the icicles will hang straight down. Don’t go overboard though!

curtain

Curtain lights (also called rain lights) are similar to icicle lights in the fact that they have independent strings. Curtain lights are all one length, come in single colors, multiple colors, and white. Same ideas apply with curtain lights as do icicle lights. I always wanted to wrap a large architectural column completely in curtain lights from the bottom, repeating the primary colors in layers up the column. I think that would look pretty cool, especially if you had independent control of each color!

Another form worthy of mention is rope lighting:

rope-lights

Rope lighting is, in my opinion, a really weird animal.  In itself, it is a string of light sources – but due to its construction and materials (like the light-transmitting plastic), it becomes a glowing structure with multiple point sources.  So, in comparison to a string of mini-lights on your house, the mini-light string will look like a string of points of light whereas a string of rope light has a tendency to look like a 1″ thick line of light with multiple sources in it.  It’s not bad if done correctly, but mixed in with other point sources, it has a tendency to look pretty gnarly.

Here’s a close-up of a rope light – obviously they have different outside dimensions and widths.  Notice the way that the plastic covering was faceted in the molding process:

rope-closeup

Go with rope lighting on its own if you decide to use it – my opinion is that mixing it with point source strands kind of looks funky.  Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, and if you figure out how to use them together, awesome!  It does have properties of light that are very unique, and in their own regard, stunning.  Rope light looks especially awesome when it gets covered with snow – like a glowing sheet of snow.

Also, it comes in really long lengths:

ropelights-roll

Amazon, funny enough, usually has ridiculous deals on christmas lighting, and usually something in each form (mesh, curtain, icicle, linear, cascades, rope lights), and you can usually get large quantities very quickly.  Also, you can certainly canvas the dollar stores, thrift shops, and places like Target for deals, but you’re not gonna find anything like that until after the holiday is over, usually.

Here’s a link to just a general LED christmas lights search on Amazon, and a link to a search for christmas lights sets.  There are several excellent manufacturers of christmas lighting in all form factors – Sylvania, General Electric, NOMA Christmas Lighting, the big guys – but there is a smaller scale supplier that I think rocks – Bethlehem Lighting, near where I grew up in Illinois.  There was always a large festival called the East Peoria Festival of Lights around the end of November each year, and this company supplied the lighting.  They also do commercial sized supply, which is something I’ve been meaning to write more about.

Commercial-scale christmas lighting supply?  I bet those christmas parties are out of this world!

Next up:  Part Four – Christmas Light Control Systems – stay tuned!