2003 Blog

I have been keeping a “running log” of design ideas for the year’s display.  Here is the log for the 2003 display.  It was updated throughout the season, until the end of the lighting season.

1/8/03:  The after-Christmas sales were pretty good this year– but reportedly not as good as in other parts of the country.  We picked up several thousand lights in different solid colors, additional icicle lights, and one new yard display.

My major goal for 2003 is to introduce true computer control to the display.  This has been postponed for a couple of seasons due mainly to time constraints.  I made some strides in this direction last year, so I’m confident that I’ll be able to take things to fruition this year.

The real question is exactly how we will computerize the display.  Frankly I’m not interested in simply flashing each set of lights in the display — I like the look of a full display, and want the computer control to enhance the static elements.  In last year’s log I talked about making a small “grove” of dancing trees, made out of tomato cages with several different colors of lights on them.  I’ve recently been toying with the idea of adding one large single tree, with many channels which could be animated.  I’m currently leaning toward the large tree, with the possibility of adding the smaller trees in a future year for additional animation effects.

We’ve made great progress in getting our 2002 display down and packed away.  We have all the major displays packed, and about 1/2 of the remaining lights down.  I’m not in any huge hurry to get the rest down, and will work during any warmer spells we get this winter.

Much more to come throughout the year!

1/16/03:  Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, it’s been COLD!  Temps down below zero for much of the past week.  I refuse to take any lights down in these conditions!!  We got a dusting of snow the other day, and we turned on the icicle lights for the night to celebrate.  These lights are the only lights still connected– and I can turn them on/off with an X10 remote.  Besides the icicles, we have about 2000 more lights to go down– mainly on our fence and in one tree.  Then I have to finish packing everything away.

As far as next year’s display planning goes, I’m probably going to take a break for a few months and catch up on some non-Christmas projects stacking up in our new home.  Usually by May or June, I start dabbling on projects again.  I’ll still report back here regularly with any progress.

1/24/03:  It’s still been insanely cold — our thermometer registered -17° the other night.  Needless to say I haven’t gotten any more lights down yet.  I’ve still been mentally brewing some ideas for computer control for this year…

2/22/03:  Well, it warmed up for a few days, and today it’s really cold again.  I still have stacks of lights to put away in the garage, as well as quite a few outdoors yet.  Spring will bring many projects in the lawn so I really don’t want to wait much longer.

The only Christmas display planning that I’ve done is related to a conference being held this August in Nashville.  It’s called the Planet Christmas Lighting Symposium, and will bring together some folks I’ve communicated with on that forum for years, as well as some new folks I don’t know at all– all for the purpose of building better displays.  Cathy and I will be attending and vacationing in the area after the conference.

I’m still planning a large computerized addition to the display this year.  In order to do this, I’ll need to figure out how to run at least one additional circuit out to our “main yard”.  I maxed out the conduit running around the house last year, and don’t want to run another, so this could present a challenge.  Oh well– I’m used to challenges <grin>.

3/7/03:  Well, it’s now official, not only will Cathy and I be attending the PLUS conference (mentioned above) but I’ll be teaching two sessions!  This should be fun and interesting.  I haven’t done any teaching since grad school in early 1996!

3/27/03:  Well the weather cooperated for a short time, and we have virtually all of the lights down now.  But several hundred still need to be tested, and thousands more need to be put away.  Today, I ordered a new high voltage tester from Design Specialties.  This will hopefully greatly help out in the debugging of these remaining strings.  I’ve also been exploring ideas for the “huge animated tree” mentioned in an earlier posting.  My current thoughts are to create this around a flagpole, which would be up all year (and used to fly a flag as usual the rest of the year).  Still working out the details on this one, so stay tuned.  I also ordered another batch of electronic supplies so hopefully I’ll be able to start dabbling with some circuits again sometime soon.

4/28/03:  Most of the lights are tested and stacked to put away, I just have been concentrating on many other non-Christmas projects.  The Design Specialties tester has worked very well — it’s going to come in VERY handy over the years.  I also have ordered a telescoping flagpole which I hope to be the centerpiece of a large display element incorporating computer control and a relatively large (for me) number of channels.  More to come over the next seven months (wow that seems short!)

5/20/03:  The telescoping flagpole has arrived and we installed it.  It looks great out front!  I’ve also been working on plans to turn the pole into a computer-controlled Christmas tree for next season.  To start documenting progress on this exciting addition to our display, I created a page for this tree, which I’ve tentatively dubbed the Mega-Tree!

7/6/03:  I figured I’d better check in since it’s been awhile.  Honestly, with all the projects we’ve been working on (right now the storage shed is the big one), I’ve had very little time to work on the display, although I always check in the Planet Christmas chat room and keep ideas brewing on the back burner.  The PLUS conference in Nashville is less than a month away — how exciting!  I’m still planning on the Mega-Tree, with its synchronized FM broadcast,  to be the highlight and primary addition to the display this year. I’ve also purchased some items from Mark Obermiller’s display, which unfortunately will not be continuing.  Although I never saw Mark’s display in person, his use of the display as a “Christmas Lights Ministry” was an inspiration to me, and we’ve communicated via email over the past few years.  If things work out, we’ll be driving to Indiana to pick up a HUGE “Remember Jesus” sign that was part of his display as well.

8/14/03:  Well, it’s amazing how time flies.  The biggest update at this time is that the PLUS conference in Nashville was amazing!  Cathy and I flew down for the weekend, and had about a day and a half to do sightseeing in the area as well  But the conference itself was amazing!  Over 100 folks from all over the USA and even Canada were there — many of them folks I’ve been chatting with in the PlanetChristmas chatroom for years.  I taught 2 sections of a class, and attended about a dozen classes on topic ranging from computer control of lighting to building cool displays to easing your setup and teardown.  But the best fringe-benefit is that I’m now pumped up to work on our display!  Fortunately we finished building the storage shed so that’s one huge project off of my list.

I’ve been experimenting with the Mega-Tree some more and have added comments to that page.  As I’ve said earlier in this log, this is planned to be the highlight of this year’s display.  I will be adding more power to the garage and yard, including a couple of circuits on a post near our pond, which will also be convenient for our fountain during the summer.  As for computer control, I still haven’t settled on an absolute solution, but I’m very interested in a product called Light-O-Rama that was demonstrated at the PLUS.  This is a software and hardware solution with some really nice features, including dimming and a very nice user interface.  It also promises to add the ability to control custom hardware via a plug-in interface in the future, which would allow me to still do some tinkering with Atmel AVR microcontroller projects.  But for now, time is of the essence, and this product line is supposed to be priced very competitively, so I’m watching it closely for any announcements.

We also hit a Menards summer closeout sale the other day and picked up a few little elements for the display, including a butterfly.  I figure folks won’t mind seeing a pretty butterfly in the cold Minnesota December!

8/18/03:  Work has started on adding more power to the garage and yard.  A subpanel has been installed in the garage, which will be used to provide the new power.  This will almost double our power capacity over last year.  Two circuits will be run to a post near the pond, providing for more convenient power access for many of the displays.

8/27/03:  I spent some time making light strings for the Mega Tree tonight.  You can click the link to see how these are made.  Actually, I need 10 of these and have only two made, but now that I have the concept down the task will be straightforward.  I have done a bit more work on the power project but it has basically stalled for the last week.  I’m looking forward to having the additional power in the garage, and of course the yard for the display itself.

9/12/03:  More developments:  the Light-O-Rama demo has been released, and I have been busy playing with it and creating my first sequence.  I am about 99% sure we will be using this technology to computerize our display this year.  I’m still trying to finish the garage/yard wiring project — it’s been going slowly as I haven’t dedicated a lot of time to it as of late, but it is progressing.  My next task is to dig the trench to get power to the post near the pond.  I actually started this tonight — it’s slow going but hopefully I can get it done tomorrow.

On or vacation, we picked up the huge “Remember Jesus” sign mentioned above.  I plan on placing it near our Peanuts Nativity Pageant to remind folks of the Reason for the Season (and our display).

I’ve also been working more on creating the light strings for our Mega Tree.  I created 12 more “spliced” strings last night.  Once these get braided into four “super strings” I’ll have 6 of the 10 “super strings” completed.  Yippie!  I read last year’s log today to see how I was doing at this time last year.  We got a late start last year due to our move, and reading that log, I’m amazed that we got as much done as we did (we finished the Peanuts Nativity Pageant just a week before the lights went on).  Anyway, it made me feel better that I’m not too far behind!  For my own benefit, I’ll list some of the major things that  need to be done:

  • Finish the garage/yard wiring project.  I’d say I’m well over halfway done with this, and could have it done with a few more evenings of work, plus a weekend day to do the outdoor trench
  • Work on finalizing musical sequences, and creating Light-O-Rama sequences for them.
  • Make a “radio show” out of the LOR sequences.  I also will probably create a “lights off” sequence for when the display is not active (for this I may save time and use last year’s radio show, perhaps with some modifications such as updating the announced number of lights).
  • Buy Light-O-Rama circuit boards, and create weatherproof modules for them.
  • I’m considering a computer-controlled variation on our icicle lights.  If I decide to do this, I need to modify all of our existing icicle lights, plus the new ones I bought after Christmas last year to put them all the way around the house
  • Finish work on the Mega Tree — this means finalizing the PVC tree bottom, and work out details with supporting the lights on our flagpole.
  • We bought a cute plywood sculpture pattern at the PLUS conference.  I’d love to have it made for this year.
  • Put up all the lights!Last year’s light count was 15,000+ lights.  Our Mega Tree alone will add 4,500 more, not counting the tree topper and strobe.  The Remember Jesus sign (made out of rope light) will add a large number of lights as well.  Plus if we do the icicle light change mentioned above, this will add several more thousand lights.  We will have well over 20,000 lights this year, perhaps approaching 25,000.  I’ve never been one to “go for the numbers”, in fact, I try to keep numbers reasonable both for setup/teardown time and for power consumption.  However, computer control will allow us to run more lights for the same amount of power, so our display will keep growing.  Displays like the Mega Tree will also be modularized so that setup and teardown isn’t so bad (once the display is built the first time).

9/14/03:  I got a ton of work done on the electrical work to get more power to the yard and garage.  Of course this isn’t strictly a Christmas project, but we were close to maxing out our power last year (even with the 3 circuits I added) so this will be important.  We dug a trench, buried a couple of cables about 80′ in length, and installed a post (about 2′ high) which will hold 2 X-10 “super socket” outlets.  The outlet boxes are installed on the post, I just need to wire the outlets.  And in the garage, I completed a ton of wiring tonight:  Two of the new circuits are completely wired, and the new garage subpanel is completely wired.  The other two circuits will be completed soon — including two quad outlets in the garage and a 2-circuit quad outdoors.  I also need to fill in the trench, and finish connecting the subpanel to our existing panel (bye bye unused dryer circuit).  It will be VERY nice to have this power project done — and when we’re finished I’ll have 100A available in the garage and east side of the yard!  There is currently 20A additional available on the west side of the house, which I am debating adding an additional 20A to (there are very few lights on the actual west side of the yard, but this is what powers the displays directly in front of our home, like the Peanuts Nativity Pageant.  All said and done, we’ll have 120-140A available for Christmas displays!  And no, I don’t plan on using it all this year– I’m hoping this holds us for awhile!

9/23/03:  I’m happy to report the power project is done!  But not without a semi-major setback:  we had to completely redig the trench to the pond power post!  When I got everything wired and tested things out, everything worked great except for the two circuits going to this post– they kept tripping the GFI’s.  In troubleshooting I was able to eliminate all parts of that circuit as the problem except for — you guessed it, the actual buried underground cable.    Our first “trench” wasn’t really a trench at all, I used a technique that was recommended to me in alt.home.repair:  cutting a deep slit, spreading it out, then pushing the two cables in with a piece of PVC water pipe, marked with the correct depth.  Somehow, we must have nicked both of the cables or something and it caused a fault to ground and the GFI’s didn’t like it at all.  So we ended up digging a proper trench (all by hand), buying new cables, and redoing the wiring for this part of the project.  We then had a mess of a yard to deal with, and just finished the “reconstructive surgery” tonight.

Also tonight, Cathy and I worked on making more “super strings” of lights for the Mega Tree.  We now have 6 of the 10 “super strings” completely finished and ready to roll.  I have created an additional two 150-strings of the reds.  I still need to create two more red 150-strings, and 4 more of the green and gold, then create 4 more “super strings”  I also want to do some trials with the flagpole — these lights are starting to get heavy.

9/28/03:  We did our first live tests with the Mega Tree tonight.  With 60% of the “super strings” on the pole, we hoisted it up to full height to see how the pole would handle the weight.  So far, I have no worries, but we’ll see once we get all 4500 lights, plus the topper, on there!  I do plan on guying the pole in 4 different directions to help support it in windy conditions.  The Mega Tree Page has been updated with some pictures from this test.

10/6/03:  October already!  This is the month I typically start putting stuff outside (usually just lights in trees).  Simply AMAZING that the year has gone this quick.

Well sometimes you try things and have success, but sometimes you fail with the original concept and have to regroup.  I mentioned above that I was working on a concept of computer-controlled icicle lights.  What this concept involved was this:  Each 150-light string of icicle lights is really three 50-strings hardwired together.  I had planned on separating these strings, attaching them to new, thicker wiring, and arranging them so that every 4 (or six) 50-strings were on different channels, similar to chase light strings, only with 50-bulb groups rather than single bulbs.  Alas, I had Cathy help me with some prototypes tonight, and while the concept is sound, the labor involved is extreme.  I simply don’t have the time, nor the patience, to do dozens of these strings when it took us several hours to do a single one tonight.  Of course the first one always takes the longest, but it still is way too time-consuming.

So now I’m back to the drawing board.  What I hoped to do was have some cool chase effects around the house.  Now I’m thinking about doing the same thing, but in 150-light groups (full icicle light strings).  This would be much simpler as I’d just have to get 4 or 6 channels of power around the roof and plug the strings in.  As of tonight, this is the strategy I’m perusing.

I’m also continuing work on finding music for the show (I’ve just found some GREAT rock Christmas tunes) and working on sequencing as well.

In other news, I’m seriously considering a new domain name for the Christmas portion of FischersPlace.com.  It’s not that I don’t like the domain name — in fact, FischersPlace.com will remain active for the “family” portion of our website.  It’s just that so many folks want to spell it without the ‘c’ in Fischer.  Since we use this website to promote the Gospel and hope that folks viewing our display will go to the website to learn more about Christ, I want to make sure they actually find it.  In addition, on our radio soundtrack, it’s extremely clunky to say “visit us at FischersPlace.com — that’s F I S CEEEE H E R…”   Unfortunately, FishersPlace.com (without the ‘c’) is taken, so I need to come up with something unique.

10/22/03:  My how time flies when you’re busy.  We’ve still been tackling some major un-Christmas-related projects which has been sapping my time.  But I will be starting to put lights outside in the next week or so.

Tonight I decided to add the last 20-amp circuit mentioned in the 9/14 entry above, which will allow more convenient power for the displays directly in front of our home.  This gives us a grand total of 140A of dedicated Christmas-light power this year!  We’ll only be using a fraction of it, but it’s nice to have some breathing room rather than maxing everything out and worrying about overloads.

The Light-O-Rama product has been delayed a couple of times, and I’m still waiting for the final release.  So far I’m not worried, because I’m not really ready for it yet anyway.  High on the “to-do” list is figuring out the computerized icicle lights, finishing the Mega-Tree base and lights, and starting setup.

11/3/03:  Oh boy do I feel behind the ball right now!  October was way too nice weather-wise, and I just couldn’t bring myself to hang up lights.  Now I’m seriously regretting it as it’s cold and snowy outside.  And we have not a single light or display element out yet!  Hopefully we’ll get a nice day soon and I can take a day or two off of work to catch up.

The Light-O-Rama store opened last Thursday, and we now have the final software in our hands, and the hardware is on its way.  Very exciting stuff!  Work on the Mega Tree is down to just finalizing the base, and finishing the last 4 super strings, which are about 80% complete.

Also of note is our new domain name — this website is now at PlymouthLights.com!  This will make the website easier to remember, and much easier to announce on our FM soundtrack.  Nobody can ever spell Fischer right anyway…

We also picked up a really cool inflatable Snoopy and doghouse which I’m very excited about!

Mainly for my own good, here’s the major projects left to do this year:

  • Set everything up!
  • Finalize icicle light control circuitry
  • Make Light-O-Rama enclosures.
  • Finish the Mega-Tree’s super strings and finalize the base.
  • Figure out a sound system for the FM soundtrack
  • Finalize and finish sequencing the show
  • Do voiceovers for show
  • Create strobe light control circuit

Here’s what’s probably notgoing to happen for this year:

  • The cute plywood sculpture pattern at the PLUS conference, mentioned above

It sounds like a lot of work, but I think it’s doable, and I seem to work best under deadline pressure!

11/7/03:  We put out some of the icicle lights the other night — that’s our first and only work on the actual set up of the display so far.  But in other great news, our Light-O-Rama boards came last night!  I am already about 95% done with making the three enclosures for them.  I also made a “sync box” for our new strobelight which will allow LOR to control it with great precision.  Tomorrow we hope to get a lot more lights up outside!

11/13/03:  Progress continues at a frenzied pace.  We spent most of last weekend putting up lights, and I took the day off of work on Tuesday, which saw temps near the low 60’s, to get many more lights up.  All of our computer controllers are wired, tested, and ready to go, other than a little caulk to help ensure weatherproofing.  The “critical items” are now the sequencing of the show (including voice overs) and finalizing the remaining control wiring.  Oh yeah, and finishing setting it all up!

11/22/03:  We’ve been so busy with setup and projects that I haven’t checked in here lately.  Here’s the current status:  Virtually all of the display is up (there’s a few small things to do yet).  Most of the display is wired, as of today.  Sequencing the lights is nearing completion– six songs are currently sequenced.  I’d love to have 7 or 8 by “lights on”.  The Light-O-Rama boxes are installed, but I’m having problems with my communications cabling.  This will hopefully be corrected in a day or two.  We tested the Mega-Treewith a laptop outside and it’s gonna be COOL — and we saw it without all the icicle lights, candy canes, and Remember Jesus sign animated, which will happen once the control cabling is working.

Remaining projects:

  • Finish setup of final few items
  • Fix broken triac box for Merry Christmas Sign tree (it died somehow)
  • Finish sequencing
  • Finish audio “spots” for show — we hired a voice talent to do our spots — they sound GREAT.  I need to mix them with music and sequence them to the lights.  I’m getting together with my brother Mike tomorrow at his home studio to accomplish this
  • Figure out a sound system for the FM soundtrack — it will probably be some hidden boom boxes set to our FM frequency.
  • Update our website

The good news is — I think we’re gonna make it.

11/30/03:  WE MADE IT!!  Well, almost anyway.  Everything is up and running tonight.  There are a few projects remaining, most notably setting up some speakers and updating this website.  But everything else is done!  We had some issues with high winds tonight that caused some havoc, including blowing down one of our FM 103.3 signs.  This will need to be replaced tomorrow.  I also took a hard fall off the ladder tonight — ouch!  I’m very surprised I didn’t break my elbow, which hit the driveway hard.

12/02/03:  Everything is operating very well.  The winds have died down (for now) and we got a couple of speakers set up outside.  I hope to add a few more before the end of the season – -that way we can keep everything at a low volume (so as not to disturb the neighborhood) but still let the display be heard.  The computer-control aspects adds a great new dimension to the display, and I love to go out and just watch it!

12/06/03:  The display has been working very well a minor glitch yesterday.  one of the connections in a cable used for the computer control went bad.  We noticed it about 15 minutes after the show should have started.  I got up on the roof (where the connection is) and got it working.  We then had to go to a Christmas party, and came back and the animated parts were out again.  I hope they weren’t out very long…  I once again wiggled the connections, and got it working until the show ended.  This morning I noticed the control boxes were reporting a communication failure again — ACK!  I replaced the entire cable with the bad connection and the show is once again running.

Yesterday we got some press in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Since the article ran yesterday, and it was a Friday, I felt bad that the animated parts of the show may have been down some or most of the evening.  The paper made a big deal about our computer control so folks may have wondered what it was all about.

I also decided to run the show until 10:45 on Friday and Saturday night for now.  We ran until 10:30 on all nights last year — I scaled back to 10:15 this year since we get very little traffic after 10:00pm.  But last night there were folks here at 10:15 when the lights went out so I turned them back on and reprogrammed the computer to go a little later on these nights.  We’ll see how that goes.

Traffic to this website is way up from last year, even before the Star Tribune published our URL.  If this pace continues, we’ll surpass our December 2002 bandwith in just a few days.

12/21/03:  Christmas is very close now!  And traffic by our display has been very steady, even heavy at times.  Folks are finding the radio program and staying for several songs at least, which makes all the time spent sequencing the lights seem worthwhile ;-).  Tonight being a Sunday, the lights were scheduled to go out at 10:15 — we still had lots of cars at that time so I quickly overrode the program to keep them going until 10:45.  There were still cars right up to that time, but there was a gap then so I shut things down manually.  I now need to decide whether I should increase the show time for the week of Christmas — we’ll see…

The after-Christmas sales have already started at Menards and Target.  We picked up several thousand more mini lights, and several hundred feet of rope light.  We are already thinking ahead to Display 2004.  There will, of course, be a log like this one for 2004 once the 2003 season is over and I’ll elaborate more on what I’m thinking at that time.  It will definitely involve more circuits of computer control.

1/1/04:  Happy New Year!  Today is our final night of for our 2003 display.  It’s always sad to see the yard go dark, but it’s been a phenomenal season this year, we are already looking forward to the 2004 display and have some ideas for some great additions!

Our computer control worked very well this year and will certainly be expanded for next year’s display.  We got some press for the first time this year, both with the Holiday Lights book and the Star Tribune article which helped more folks find the display.

Now it’s time for tear-down and storage of the display, which always proves to be a bit tedious.  As part of that process, all lights get tested and burned-out lights will be replaced, which adds to the tedium but makes setup go much more smoothly next year.


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