How-To: Miscellaneous Tips
It would be quite arrogant of me to profess to be an expert at "blinky-flashy." I am most definitely not an expert. I have been a credentialed professional at other things, but certainly not this. I am just another enthusiastic Christmas light hobbyist who's willing to share techniques and ideas, most of which I have learned from others. So in a sense, I'm just passing them on. There are many fellow hobbyists for whom I hold great admiration and thanks -- none of whom I have never met face to face but all of whom have helped me solve electrical, electronic or other problems along my sojourn in this endeavor.
These tips are in no particular order, although they probably should be... Maybe someday I'll categorize them, but for now, they're more-or-less stream of consciousness topics that come to mind after nearly twelve months of rather intense planning, construction and implementation. And evaluation. You should always step back from what you've done and review it. It's a great way to learn.
You can never plan too much. Once you have a plan, stick to it, including the timeline.
More is not necessarily better. More is not necessarily quality, either. More is simply "more quantity." Always imagine that you can do more with less. This certainly applies to the number of lights you might put in your display, the number of channels you make, and even the number of displays you build. A carefully crafted display with an eye on quality will probably be more enjoyable to the viewer but even more importantly, you will rightfully take more pride in doing it.
Copying someone else's display idea is okay. If you do, call or email the person who gave you the idea and thank them. Copying is the greatest form of flattery there is.
Electricity hurts when you touch it. Always unplug, and then double-check to make sure you unplugged before touching anything remotely electrical. Do not, DO NOT take shortcuts here thinking that "just this once it'll be okay." Electricity doesn't often give second chances.
Make backups of everything you do on the computer. Be sure to date the backup so you know how current the data is that you're restoring should it become necessary.
Dedicate a computer to run your light show. Do not use the computer for anything other than your show. Don't connect it to the Internet or even to your home network -- then you don't have to clog it up with anti-virus and other security applications. Don't load or play any computer games on it. If you do these things, you'll have a computer that will run extremely efficiently and you won't believe how nice that will be.
If you develop a technique for doing something that saves you time, money or effort, be sure to share it with others.
Be careful to stick to your budget. It's incredibly easy to over-spend and the amount of money spent on just little things adds up very, very fast. Much of the money will be spent on infrastructure things -- tools, tape, wire, zip ties, other supplies, etc.
Whenever possible, buy in bulk. Resistors, for example, cost only about a dime each. But in lots of 100 or 100, they might cost only 2 cents. Zip ties can be purchased for as little as $15/1000. Buying them in bags of 100 is a horrible way to waste money.
When you buy parts, always buy extra. If a controller needs 24 optos or triacs, buy 30 of each instead.
Don't over engineer. If two zip ties solves a cabling problem, there's probably no need to add bolts, screws and tape as well. One coat of black spray paint over a PVC pipe is enough; you don't need three. If you're going to paint PVC, there's no reason you need to wipe off the printing on the pipe first.
The old adage, measure twice, cut once is surely true, especially with electrical and control cable.
Use good tools. They don't have to be top professional-grade, but a cheap network wiring crimper can create connectivity problems that are very hard to find and other cheap tools can actually be dangerous.
When building electronics, be sure to turn the board upside down and shake it a bit, in addition to checking it at least three times before you apply power.
Remove extra or splattered solder flux with alcohol and either an unused flux brush or Q-tip swabs.
Resist the urge to power up a freshly-soldered board "just to see if it works" unless the board really is done and you've checked your work very, very carefully.
If you get involved with any controllers that use a PIC or other microprocessor, buy a flash programmer for it. Consider it to be a necessary piece of equipment.
RTFM. If an operation, assembly or troubleshooting manual is available, USE IT FIRST. If it's available, don't bother somebody else about your problem because you'll get a reply that says "read the **** manual."
If you don't understand how to safely wire a common electrical outlet or wall switch, you have no business messing around with DIYC electrical gear until you do. Take a class as a local Home Depot or Lowe's -- they often provide them free. Or spend a couple bucks and take a class at a local vo-tech school. This tip could safe your life.
If you're not a licensed electrician, do not attempt to connect any sort of wiring to the main breaker box in your home. Not only is it extremely dangerous, it may violate your homeowner's insurance policy and if something bad were to happen, you could lose everything.
Wear rubber-soled shoes or boots when walking in the yard if the power is on. Better than that, you have to ask yourself why you'd be doing that anyway. Turn the power off if you need to adjust your display.
Hot-glue is an excellent way to seal a cat5 cable in an RN45 jack.
Silicon glue (or Goop, or other similar sealants) are excellent for waterproofing the edges and joints of any box you put outside that can get wet. Be sure to let it dry first.
If you put a waterproof box out in the yard where it can get wet, there's always the possibility that water vapor can condense on the inside an get you anyway. Be sure to put a couple small drain holes in the bottom of any box you put in the yard to keep any water from accumulating deep enough to get to the electronics.
Rabbits and squirrels may gnaw on electrical cables. If you have a lot of wildlife in your yard, consider putting a feeder in the back yard, well away from your electrical gear so they won't need to eat your equipment.
Cat5 cable gets brittle when it gets below freezing and bending it can snap interior cables. Once the cable is in, leave it alone.
Never use more than 80% of a circuit's rated maximum current. That means 16 amps on a 20 amp circuit or 12 amps on a 15 amp circuit. You need headroom "just in case."
Don't take low voltage DC current for granted. A shorted 5v wire carrying 1/2 amp can cause a fire, too.
Cat5 wire can carry low voltage current (<40v, and up to 1/2 amp) but never 120vac. It's just not safe.
Silicone fusion tape is an outstanding insulator. It fuses to itself in seconds for a perfect, waterproof bond and can handle extremely cold (-85F) and hot (500F) temperatures. Look for Gardner Bender (GB) # HTP-1010.
If you use a heat gun to help bend PVC, do it in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors. When heated, PVC gives off poisonous fumes.
Don't inhale soldering fumes. Solder in a well ventilated area where there's a gentle breeze blowing the fumes away from you. A used 12v PC cooling fan hooked up to a wall wart makes a pretty efficient bench fan.
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