2008 Blog

It’s become a tradition over the years, that I keep a blog of design ideas for the year’s display.  Here is the blog for the 2008 display.

Ok, this is embarrassing.  Not only is the first post for the 2008 blog dated in July, but it’s actually September and I’m backdating it!  A few short years ago I literally planned the display most of 12 months of the year.  These days, with two small children, other activities and interests, etc. I find myself being able to dedicate less and less time to Christmas…  In some ways I think it’s healthy and means that the time I do spend with the Christmas display is more productive.  In any case, I still belong to several Christmas display communities on the web that I check messages with all year, so I’m never too far from thinking about the display, it’s just working on it sometimes takes a back seat to things like playing with my kids, doing projects around the house, etc.  And that’s not a bad thing…  The following few entries will be written as if I had written them on their actual date.  Once we get to 9/17, things are then current!

7/10/08:  A couple days ago, at the last possible minute, I decided to get in on the latest LOR sale, and purchase two new controllers. One of them is a standard 16-channel controller, similar to some of the controllers we already use, except this one I purchased as a kit, both to save a few bucks, and to give myself a little project (like I really need more work, but hey it might be fun, right?)  The other board I bought is a 16-channel “DC” board.  Unlike the other controllers, which plug into standard outlets and control standard lights, this one’s designed to take a DC voltage in, and control up to 16 DC outputs.  Not quite sure what I’m going to do with it, but it will probably involve LED spotlights.

Since this is my first post, I usually comment on teardown and after-Christmas shopping…  Since I’m actually writing this in mid September, teardown is a distant, bad memory.  Everything was buried under a thick layer of frozen ice/snow, and our primary teardown day (Jan 1) it was bitterly cold.  I broke a number of cords and control wires trying to get things up.  Other than that, I had things put away fairly smoothly, especially once I was able to get up on the roof and get the icicle lights down.  As for after Christmas shopping, I didn’t get too much.  I am slowly working on converting things over to LED’s — but they’re very expensive.  I picked up a few new LED wireframes to replace some of our older decorations.  Should look nice and help keep our power consumption down.

8/20/08:  Our new LOR controllers are here!  But August has been a terribly busy month– we’ve been on vacation for over a week, and been out of town several other weekends…  For now they’re sitting on the shelf…

9/1/08:  Labor Day Weekend!  In addition to a visit to the Minnesota State Fair, and the Minnesota Zoo, I managed to take some time to get the LOR controller kit I mentioned above soldered together.  I haven’t taken the time to test it out quite yet — maybe I’m too chicken!  But it’s nice to be making some actual (small) progress toward the display…

9/11/08:  I don’t think I’ll be buying kit controllers anymore. I barely did this time — it was only $10 or $15 more to buy it fully assembled and tested. But I was debating whether I needed to buy anything at all, and I thought it might be fun to try making the kit…  Tonight, I finally got around to testing the kit I built over Labor Day weekend.  The board powered up, the computer ‘discovered’ it, so far, so good!  But that was the end of the good, I soon discovered that while channels 9-16 worked great, channels 1-8 weren’t so great.  So half of my board is currently dead. I followed the LOR kit troubleshooting guide, and it’s still dead. Now I have no doubt that LOR will get this thing working, either over email, phone, or if I have to send the thing in. But I’m a little bummed that it didn’t just work outright, or at least that it would be something simple that I could figure out on my own.

So do I regret buying a kit? Well, tonight’s probably not the time to ask me — but I’d still lean toward ‘no’, I don’t regret it. It was fun putting it together. I learned a bit about how the boards work, and can say I built one “from scratch”.

But in the future I think I’ll spend the lousy $15 and get it working from the factory, like I always have before.

9/12/08:  Well, Dan at LOR sent me some good troubleshooting tips, and everything still checked out.  We both figured that since 1/2 the board was dead, it was one of the ‘common’ portions of that half of the board, not 8 separate mistakes.  But then I discovered my stupidity, and it’s a big mistake, or should I say 8 small mistakes: I failed to read the directions carefully enough to realize that for channels 1-8, the optoisolator chips (one per channel) install in the opposite orientation of channels 9-16. I’ve just emailed Dan at LOR to find out if I smoked all those optos or not. Either way, I have a lot of ‘fun’ work in front of me…

9/13/08:  Out of curiosity, I desoldered one of the opto’s, switched it to it’s proper configuration, and soldered it back.  That channel now works!  Good news, now I don’t have to worry about getting replacement parts from LOR (unless I break something desoldering the rest!)  Shortly after this experiment, Dan confirmed that the opto’s shouldn’t be damaged by placing them backwards…  Now only 7 more to go <sigh>…

9/16/08:  As of today, the board is now tested, working, and the heatsinks are installed. Sadly, it took me more time in “rework” than it did to build it the first time (even though I did it incorrectly, it wouldn’t have taken any longer just read the directions, check things off step by step, and do it correctly…)

These kits really aren’t hard — you just need to be able to follow details, and not let your mind get ahead of you!  Now I just got to get it in an enclosure. The cable company abandoned a really nice one on our house — I asked them if I could have it and they said “sure”. So now it’s mine, now that I removed it earlier this evening, cleared out their junk (abandoned, pre-VOIP cable phone stuff) and cleaned it up.  It should work great!

9/17/08:  Wow, the blog entries are (finally) coming fast and furious now!  Just 3 days ago I ordered some MR16 LED spot lights.  I’m hoping to be able to use these for some “color wash” effects on the house, controlled by my new DC controller I mentioned above.  I now need to come up with a DC power supply for these puppies — I have an old Dell one that should be fine, and early tests seem to indicate it should work great.  I then want to do some outside tests at night and see how things look.  Then I need to find a suitable enclosure for the power supply and the DC controller, as well as find some connectors to use to hook the spotlights to the controller box.  The idea is that there will be 4 banks of R,G,B spots which will hopefully help me make various different colors, and do color wipes, along the front of the house.  I have 4 additional DC channels at my disposal which, at this point, I’m not planning to use this year.

One thing that I didn’t yet mention above is that the other ‘normal’ 16-channel kit I assembled above will be used for our Merry Christmas sign.  It will replace the home-grown controller that a friend and I built back in 1999.  It served us well for nine seasons, but it was starting to bug me more and more that the Merry Christmas sign wasn’t synchronized to music like everything else is…  Also, the controller has a fluky quirk that about once a season, the microcontroller decides to go bezerk, I need to hook a laptop up to it (not an easy prospect, once it’s deployed outside) and reprogram the thing.  Having a standard LOR controller control this sign should be much, much nicer, even though that means I need to add those channels to my sequence files…  Since “Merry Christmas” only uses 14 channels, that means I have two more available to me.  Not sure what  I’ll do with them yet.  We have a dog wireframe that has two tails — I might remove the standalone controller that makes it ‘wag’ (doesn’t work well in the cold anyway) and hook those up to the remaining two channels.  He’s physically close to the Merry Christmas sign anyway, and it might be subtle-but-cool to have the dog wagging his tail to the music.  We shall see…  It’s sure nice to have enough channels that I can ‘waste’ them on something so subtle 🙂

9/28/08:  Been working a lot on getting the new LED wash lights built.  In the past week or so I’ve built 12 weatherproof holders for each of the LED spots, and today just finished assembling the last of the four R,G,B, banks.  Now I’m working on building a weatherproof enclosure for the LOR DC board which will control them, and I also have to finish building up the wiring harnesses which will connect the LED banks to the controller.  I also have to finalize where these will go outside, and if they will displace the current Light Flurries units we’ve used the past few years which make it look like it’s snowing on the front of the house.  If they do, I’m not sure where the Light Flurries will be moved to — they’re always popular with viewers.

11/8/08: Setup is now fully underway.  I don’t like putting the “big noticeable” stuff up this early yet, but we have many of the tree lights up, most of the roof work done, and I’ve unloaded a lot of the ‘big’ stuff from the attic, prepping and staging it so that it will go up quickly in a week or two.  I’m feeling good about setup, and behind with sequencing!

11/14/08: It won’t be long until the lightup, and since this isn’t my full-time job that means I need to get busy!  We went from having some very nice weather to having much less nice weather:  cold, wet, drizzly, snowy, whatever…  Some of the yard displays are now going up, and more will be this weekend, if I can stand being outside in the cold windchills predicted…  What happened to the 70’s we had just a week and a half or so ago??

11/18/08: Things are going up fast and furious.  I’d say we’re 80-90% “up”, but a much smaller percent is actually wired up right now, although I’m gaining on that too.  Our family has been hit by some sickness in the past day or two — so far I’ve avoided it, but am fearing the worst.  Tomorrow I took the day off to catch up out in the yard, as well as with sequencing, etc.  I may be in bed all day instead.  Ack…

11/30/08: After a TON of work the past few weeks (and a lot more week throughout the rest of the year), we are running a “test show” tonight, and things appear to be going well.  I’m still working out a few relatively minor wrinkles, but we should be ready to start tomorrow, if I don’t jinx myself by posting this!

12/5/08: Tonight was our first weekend night lit up.  We also got an inch or two of fluffy white snow, which definitely makes the display look more festive.  In fact, it was coming down pretty good the entire time the display was running, and stopped pretty much when the lights went out.  How did we pull that one off?  It’s a secret!  🙂  Hopefully I’ll get some pics up soon, and then some videos.

 A pretty nasty ice storm (rain all day, then temps dropping over 25 degrees in just a few hours) rendered the display offline for tonight.  I’ve been working on getting things back on track for tomorrow night.  Worst hit was our inflatables — the 4 big ones will carry on (albeit a little shabby looking) but for now the two small ones up front will not — they’re disconnected for now.  The problem is that they soaked up a lot of rain, and are now one big mass of frozen cloth.  Not terribly conducive to inflating, and those little guys don’t work that well even on a good day.  I’d like to just get rid of them but kids (including ours) love them…  Our LED flag also took a mild hit, but I have brought it inside, repaired it, and now just need to let it dry out and hang it out again.

12/30/08: This has been a tough year weather-wise.  It snowed something like 25 out of 30 days this December.  And we had two ice storms which really didn’t do the display any good.  The second one took out much of the display for the entire weekend after Christmas, sadly.  We’ve been back up and running the last 2 nights, and will be back for one more night tomorrow.  There’s been too many sections of lights going out this season as well — not sure why as in the past it seldom happens once things are running.

12/31/08: Happy New Year, everyone!  In a few minutes, the lights will shut down for the last time of the season.  As we have done for several years now, we went out as a family, “played” out in the display, took pictures of the boys, and set of some fireworks for the new year.  This year we even made a bonfire since it was a bit cold outside.  We had a lot of fun, but it’s a little bittersweet to see the yard go dark for another season.  But it’s time to put the display to bed.

All in all it’s been a great year.  We’ve had a number of folks express their appreciation for us doing the display.  While we certainly don’t do it for compliments, it’s nice to know that it’s appreciated.  It’s a lot of hard, often cold, work, expense, and since we have some vocal folks who don’t like it, sometimes it’s hard to remember that the vast majority of folks do.

Tomorrow will begin the ‘massive’ tear-down and storage effort.  Hopefully it will be productive and not too cold!

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