Making My Christmas Lights Show Bigger and Brighter

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Each year I enjoy creating a large light show during the Christmas season, and every year, I also do what I can to make it bigger and better. The past couple of seasons, I’ve made some critical upgrades with help from friends. Below I’ll outline the work I’ve done to build my 2015 light show.

2014 Updates

Last year, I upgraded my programmable logic controller (PLC) to the latest and most powerful processor GE makes, the IC695CPE310. I also used Light-O-Rama sequence editor to develop my light sequences. This software enabled me to start doing sequences of large arrays.

For example, one song from last year was a 10 word by 25,000 word array. I used Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) and an OPC server to download the sequence to the PLC. It took over 15 hours per song to download. The long download time didn’t allow me time to tinker much with the sequences.

Finally, last year I noticed my poor 12 VDC, 10 amp power supply had a “not ok” light coming on, and so I had to replace it with a 12 VDC, 40 amp power supply.

2015 Updates

For 2015, there were several improvements made. First of all, I was able to obtain connectors from Thomas & Betts and Kirby Risk for my cables to the field boxes. This wasn’t so much to save time but to allow me to get more outputs to the field. It will also allow me to disconnect and reconnect the cable from the enclosures in about five minutes. This upgrade will save me over 50 hours next year. Terminating the I/O from the field was always a major pain.

Control panel connectors

Figure 1 – New Connectors on Main Panel

Junction box and cables

Figure 2 – New junction boxes wire to Lights

With the new connectors and cables, I have more control over the lights. For instance, each one of the 60 candy canes in my display can be turned off individually, as well as the fan of the garage which consists of 21 strands of lights. The use of the new cables used a lot more outputs than last year, and as a result, I have miles of wire and cable in this display.

The other upgrade was changing the field box from a PLC with an Ethernet module to a NIU module, which, for you Allen Bradley guys, is the same as a com module on a point I/O rack. Again, this was made possible by a donation of an IC693NIU004 from PDF Supply, who sells new and used PLC I/O cards. This new module enables my program to be much simpler, and communications to the remote rack to be faster; it’s about 5 milliseconds.

Main controls cabinet

Figure 3 – Main Enclosure with all upgrades

Additional controls panel for Christmas lights show

Figure 4 – Sub panel with new connectors and com module

I also added a new sign this year. All the time and effort to put light show together will hopefully aid in gathering donations for a great organization, the Navy and Marine Corp. Relief Fund. Bastian Controls was gracious enough to purchase the sign, and then I bought the frame for it. This sign should last for years, and allow me to use a hobby of mine to raise funds for a good cause.

Donations go to Navy & Marine Corp Relief Fund

Figure 5 – New Sign: All donations go to Navy & Marine Corp. Relief Fund

The last upgrade I made this year was going from DDE to socket communications. With a demo of Ingear GE drivers, my friend, John, was able to write an app that converted the Light-O-Rama sequence output to an array and send it to the PLC. What used to take 15 hours, now takes less than a minute for arrays three times the size. The one sequence for all “I want for Christmas” consists of an array of 20 words by 89,000 words. This was a great improvement.

Thank you

I would like to thank the following for their help and support!

  • Brett Hall of Thomas and Betts – Connectors
  • Brian Stuerzenberger of Neff Engineering – Reduced Price 80/20 Frame
  • INGEARDRIVERS – Providing extra extended demo period for their drivers
  • Bastian Solutions – Paying for new sign
  • Bastian Solutions Marketing – Designing the graphics on the sign, and filming the display. Special thanks to Andrew W. Jones and Kevin J. Capodice for coming at midnight to film the display
  • Contour Hardening Inc. – Loaning me a knock to punch the holes for connectors
  • Vadim Gitman and Bastian Solutions panel shop technicians – helping with cables and terminal boxes
  • John Snider – wrote the TimmyLights Application
  • Mark Harmeson – helping set up the display
  • Alisha Maynard – Programming the sequence for Christmas Sarajevo 1224

This year, the display was up and running on the 7th of December—a record for me. I also avoided all the freezing weather, which this winter has been easier to do, but a great benefit nonetheless!

Finally, I would like to end with my favorite quote that is especially relevant here, “At GE, we bring good things to life!

Happy holidays and enjoy the show!!

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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