About Dirknerkle's Lights
Author's note: I apologize for not keeping this site up-to-date. All the information here is truly historical -- I hardly have any of the gear anymore that I talked about here. I've moved into much more sophisticated wireless equipment, most of which is of my own design. Be that as it may, I'll try to revisit this someday and fix it.
Dirknerkle is my nickname on many web sites, and in particular, www.diychristmas.org). It's a bit of a takeoff on the old Rowan and Martin show, Laugh-In where one of their frequent sketches included an interchange between two guys named Fred Farkle and Ferd Berfle. The names were just stupid-sounding -- I loved that and still chuckle at the thought of hearing them. 'Dirknerkle' was born one day after I had done something stupid (like all of us do from time to time) and I was trying to explain it to someone else in the context of what "Fred Farkle" might have done, but I garbled my words and out came "Dirknerkle" instead. It stuck. My real name is Dave Haberle. At least for now.
How I got here
I've always loved Christmas lights -- going back to as early as I can remember when my parents would let me actually touch them and hang them on the tree. That goes back to the early-1950s so that gives you an idea that I've been around for awhile... I have a varied background in a lot of areas, but throughout them all has been a keen interest in "gizmos." Because a computer is the ultimate gizmo (and I use them all the time), why not connect it to some other electronic circuitry and make it into a UBER-gizmo? One thing led to another and, well, here we are.
Soon after my wife and I built and moved our family into our present home (1990) I built some frames out of 1" PVC pipe that fit around the shutters/windows. I mounted 200 clear white Christmas mini-lights on each of them. For many years, our decoration was a simple, static display of all-clear white mini-lights and while it was extremely bright and made it easy to find our house in the neighborhood, it was boring. Our neighbors always enjoyed them, one saying, "Oh good, the Haberle's have their lights up. Now it's Christmas!" Some years I never got around to putting them up and I opted for taking the easy way out: "Awww, I'll just throw a couple nets of lights on the bushes and be done with it."
Then the amateur video of Carson Williams' display went viral in 2004. Somebody had emailed the video to me as an example of a "guy with too much time on his hands." I immediately knew how he did it: a home computer and some sort of electronic switching system. I was immediately hooked; I had to find out more; after all, here was a real example of my "UBER-gizmo!"
However, some family things happened that put everything on hold and then my partner and I bought the company and well, sometimes you have to put things on the back-burner for a long time. But I never forgot that video; I never lost the desire to learn more -- it stuck to me like Velcro on my brain. In mid-January 2008 after taking down my pitiful light display from Christmas 2007 I decided it was time to dig in. The business was almost paid for and was doing well, family issues had long since been resolved, and I had a few dollars available (well, at least when I opened my wallet, no moths flew out...) A few minutes later, I had found many Internet web sites related to Christmas light displays. I printed out everything I could find, read-up on electronic circuitry, looked at a photo of our house and started to pencil up some ideas. I soon built a home-brew 48-channel system using four Velleman USB digital experimenter interface boards, a CAT5 patch panel and some digital relays of my own design and in testing it worked really great (picture to right). So I said to myself, "Okay, this is good. I can do this. This will be fun again!" That year was indeed fun, and I have about a mile of cat5 cable to prove it!
So I read and studied some information about using a computer to control external devices, experimented with a few home-built circuits and discovered that the Velleman controller that I had developed was only the tip of the iceberg. In 2009 I found out there was a lot more out there -- much cooler equipment. I had to have it.
Since then, my original 48 channel home-brew Velleman rig has been was replaced multiple times with different controllers and concepts. At one point I had about 1300 discrete channels of which I really use only about 250. But along the way, I've learned not only how all this stuff works, but how to design them, etch my own circuit boards, build, repair and modify them, too. Now I have a complete on-line store (http://digwdf.com/store) with lots of original and very affordable products for blinky-flashy enthusiast. It's been a terrific ride -- the most continuously enjoyable hobby I've ever had. (Note: some of you may know me from my professional golf career. That was never a hobby -- that was a lifestyle. I don't play anymore, by the way -- too many neck and back surgeries and besides, I've been there and done that... Do I know Tiger Woods personally? No, I'm old enough to be his father. But I do know a lot of the old guys -- vintage Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Trevino, Player, etc... )
About the lights
2008-2009 saw about 10,000 lights in our display. All were the typical incandescent mini-lights that sell for about $2 per string of 100 lights. I didn't have to buy many because I had a lot left over from prior years as you can see by the box of neatly-balled lights in this photo. Wrapping them into a softball-sized ball is a great way to store them because not only don't they tangle, installing them is easy because you plug in the end plug and just unwind them as you hang them on trees, branches, etc. It's such an elegantly simple solution to storing light strings that after you do it the first time, you'll whack yourself in the head for not having thought of it before. This single plastic storage box can easily hold 64 strings of lights. Now instead of balls of lights, I make props out of PVC pipe, wire frames, wood and other materials and mount the strings directly onto them. I've found it's far easier to hang a prop that already has 400-600 lights on it than it is to re-string them every year and then ball them up again at takedown. Some things are only stringable (if that's a word...) such as bushes or other natural objects, so I still use single strings as well, just not as many. Also, most of my lights are now LEDs instead of the miniature incandescent variety. I really like the color of incans but they fade and realisitically need replacement every other year. LEDs don't have the same problem because they're encased inside a solid plastic lens. LEDs not only keep their color better, they take less electricity and last longer because they don't burn out -- at least not very often. My current display uses LEDs that were purchased about five years ago and they look just as bright now as they did when they were new.
About the Computer
No need to show a picture here -- you know what a typical home computer looks like. The one I use is different however insofar as it is used for only one thing: Christmas lights. It's not connected to the Internet or our home network and therefore, it doesn't have anti-virus software, word processors, email, or any other common software applications installed on it that typically bog computers down. Another computer I use is called the Raspberry Pi. The Pi is a small unit, about the size of a smartphone, costs only about $30 and uses the Linux operating system. It can completely run the show all by itself and it's one of my backup computers in case the main ones die.
About the Electronics
While the really technical information is here, suffice to say that back in 2009 my flagship controller was an Olsen 595. An Olsen 595 can control up to 64 individual channels of lights, and has several add-on options that extend its capability. In its native state, a 595 board can turn lights on and off extremely quickly -- much faster than the eye can discern. One of the add-ons I used with it was a Renard 595-Converter; it allowed controlling the 595 board so that the quick on/off capability operates so as to make it appear to gradually dim the light intensity all the way from 100% (full on) down to 1% (virtually off). This mades for a very nice effect instead of just either full-on or completely off. This photo shows two of thefour 595's I had (click the photo for an enlarged view) in full test mode with all channels "on." A common Olsen 595 installation is typically indoors and the many control cables (16 per 595 board!) run from the controller out into the yard to the remote electronic relays (called SSRs) which physically control the lights. However, I've solde most of the 595 gear and my one, lone 595 is relegated to inside the house and is used only to monitor what's going on outside -- it's connected to a panel of LEDs that mimic the layout of the house when viewed from the street.
Here's an example of an "SSR." The acronym stands for "solid state relay" and it's actually an electronic version of an on/off switch The computer sends a command to the light controller; the light controller decodes the command to determine which light is supposed to be acted on, and it sends the proper code to that respective SSR "switch." The SSR can accommodate 4 individual channels (hence the 4 different colored lights on this SSR) and the SSR then activates the proper "switch" that lets the electricity go to the light string. It's a very, very fast chain-reaction type of operation because electricity is, well, very, very fast! Some controller designs put both the control electronics and the SSR "power" electronics on the same circuit board. That's next...
Another controller in my system (still!) is the Renard SS24. An SS24 can control 24 channels and has all the electronics built-in that decode the computer's signals, translate them into the proper light controls and actually power the lights, too -- all in one instead of having a separate controller and SSR setup. This picture (click to enlarge) shows a completed SS24 in a watertight enclosure ready to install outside. I have only one of these 24-channel units anymore as I've replaced them all with controllers of my own design. Wayne James invented the Renard SS line of light controllers along with a fellow named Phil Short. Wayne lives in North Carolina; Phil lives in Minnesota. This picture also shows an additional gizmo that was made available to owners of Renard SS controllers in the fall of 2009: a plug-in wireless adapter called the Ren-W. It's the small gold-colored circuit board in the upper left of the picture and makes it possible to put the controller anywhere out in the yard or even across the street and control it wirelessly from the house, eliminating the normal control cable. I can take credit for the Ren-W -- I invented it in the fall of 2009 -- it's one of my contributions to this great hobby and all the wonderful friends who've helped me along the way. The Ren-W opened the door for effects and capabilities that cannot be easily done with a wired setup, so now my system is 100% wireless. I still use some cat5 wire though, but only about 30 feet of it to connect the computer to my main Ren-W transmitter which it outside.
One of the coolest developments in the hobby was the invention of the Renzilla controller. Ted Weist (another friend I've made through this hobby) and I collaborated on the design of this crazy, lunatic box that has 96 discrete channels built into it. That's the highest Renard channel count on one circuit board of the whole planet. http://digwdf.com/store/product.php?id_product=137 It can do some pretty amazing things -- and it can simultanesous control almost any kind of light you can imagine, all from the same controller. And, of course, like all the controllers I design, it can easily be made wireless by the use of a simple plug-in adapter. By the way, one of the goals of my store is to try to keep the cost of the hobby down, so comparatively speaking, our products are quite inexpensive. I believe in trying to give back to the hobby that has given me so much enjoyment.
There are other kinds of do-it-yourself controllers with different names such as the Renard-Plus, Grinch, Helix, FireGod, Lynx and more, all created by incredibly talented people who are just as "possessed" with this hobby as I have become.
This hobby, once started, is quite consuming... as in you'll think about it day and night, you'll try to come up with new ways to light your house, more lights here, more there, what if I hung some over the.... etc. If you want to get involved, you're virtually guaranteed to have just a fantastic time at it. But once you start, it's very, very hard to stop. Come to think of it, it's that an ideal hobby to have?
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