How to Design the Controls for a Holiday Lights Display and Lessons Learned

Written By: Tim Maynard

Another holiday lights season has come and gone, and although it was a success, it wasn’t without a few issues. After last season, my daughter made a simple request: put lights on the roof. This, like any controls project, seemed simple, but upon further review, was anything but–which is often the case with controls projects, big or small.

As I started to look at my options and analyze my setup from 2012–which had essentially been unchanged since 2011–I realized I had no way to expand my controls setup at all. My PLC rack was full, and my cabinet was full, which in turn started a snowball rolling down Mount Everest. It was then that I realized I needed to completely replace my control system, so I started searching for a new cabinet that would allow me the space I needed and wouldn’t break the bank.

What I found was a 60” x 49” x 12” disconnect enclosure on eBay for $350. I also found a smaller enclosure from the Kirby Risk discount section that was 24” x 42” x 12”. It had been ordered by accident, so I was able to get it for $50. I had both of these enclosures in hand by April.

I dropped off the enclosure to be repaired, which was my first mistake. I didn’t follow the progress of it, and in September, the repair shop still hadn’t done anything to it. Lesson #1: Always check the progress of your suppliers.

Once I had the enclosures in hand, it was now time to pick lights for the roof and decide how I wanted to control them. I searched for a while and settled upon LED strips that I could get for a reasonable price and change their colors easily. They came in rolls of 5 meters, ran on 12 volts, and had three sinking inputs to select colors.

I ordered one strip and tested it. Lesson #2: Always test first. So with this info in hand, I inventoried all my extensive GE 90-30 I/O (input/output) that I had on hand and proceeded to my favorite place, eBay, and procured the extra I/O needed. My total cost came out to be $369.95.

Controls cabinet A

Controls cabinet A

Controls cabinet B

Controls cabinet B

I also ordered 19 more 5 meter LED strips to split into various lengths for the roof, so there went another $300 dollars. Lesson #3: Make a budget and follow it! With everything in hand, I proceeded to design the cabinets on paper at first, but upon further review, I realized this undertaking was so great, it required a set of CAD prints. Here is a link to view my CAD drawings to help you understand the scope of the lighting display.

As I realized the size of this project and the work needed, it brought about lesson #4: Budget time appropriately and make sure you have enough time to complete the project. In the end, it took almost a month of work to complete. By the time the cabinets were repaired, the controls elements added, and everything installed, it was the first week of December, and when I finished most of the lighting display it was December 7.

The final display was fully complete on December 13, but I was $1,000 dollars over budget and 2 weeks late. So when you start a project, realize there are many consequences to your design decisions and balance those with what is possible, or you could find yourself over budget and a behind on your deadline as l did this year. But as you can see below, it all worked out nicely in the end.

My thanks go out to Bastian Automation, Bastian Controls, Mark Harmeson, and Brendan Nusbaum for helping me complete my 2013 lights display.

Roof lights

Roof lights going up!

Christmas lights

Setup almost complete.

Tim is a senior controls engineer at Bastian Solutions. He is a graduate of Purdue University and a former US Marine.

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