How-To: Planning Your Display

Do not underestimate the importance of (1) having a plan including a time-line for completion, (2) a budget, and (3) sticking to it. Remember, the only person that has an idea in mind of the final "look" of your light display is YOU. That means that most likely, YOU will have to do almost everything yourself. Oh sure, you may find another family member willing to help with some things (if you're lucky) but the odds are that won't happen.
Step 1: Dream. What do you want to light? Start by standing out in the front yard or street and just looking at your house. If you had lights, where would you put them? What colors would you use? Would you have clusters of color or everything one color? Would you want to be able to have everything show in multiple colors -- perhaps everything red, then everything green, etc. What structural elements of your house are prominent -- what stands out? How about the roof line, or gables, or shutters/windows? Tall or short shrubs; round or horizontal shrubs? Trees? Take a photo of your house and entire front yard; you may have to stand in your neighbor's yard across the street to get it all in. Take a picture from a couple houses away on either side of your house so you know what it looks like from those angles, too. Those give you sight angles for the sides of your house, additional roof lines, etc.

Step 2: Draw. Print several copies of your photos on 8-1/2 x 11 paper. The prints can be in color or B/W. Borrow some crayons from a son or daughter, or use marking pens, etc. and draw on the photos where you envision lights to be. Choose red, green, blue and yellow crayons or markers for starters because those are the most common colors manufacturers provide. Other common colors are hot pink, orange and clear white. Other colors (aqua, light pink, purple, etc.) may be available, but you'll be happier in the long run if you stick to the standard colors because they're easier to find in stores. Recognize that lights and light strings will burn out or break, and weather can be pretty hard on them: expect them to last maybe three seasons before they need replacement. You'll also discover that some colors will fade more than others. Blue, for instance is usually the first one to go. Then red, green and yellow is last. Clear white lights, of course, have no pigment to fade. Also remember that manufacturers make multi-colored strings of lights, too, and those can be very effective. A multi-color string is generally about 35% red, 35% green, and blue & yellow bring up the remainder at about 15% each.
Step 3: Calculate Number of Lights. Try to determine how many strings of lights you'll need. A typical string of 100 mini-lights is about 23' long. Mini-lights are the small, incandescent lights that have small filaments inside and cost $2-$3/box. If you're considering LED lights instead, a common length is about 18', contains 70 LEDs and costs about $10. Mini-lights get warm, can burn out and their color fades over time. LEDs do not get warm, generally don't burn out and do not lose their color. However, weather is just as hard on LED strings as mini-lights, and even though LEDs generally don't burn out, they don't really last much longer than mini-lights, either, because the weather is just as hard on the wires -- which break, crack, etc.

Step 4: Calculate Electrical Power. Consider that your lights will require electrical power. Possibly a LOT of it. Use your photos/drawings to identify where you'll plug them in. Here's where it gets a little tricky, because the amount of power needed by a string of lights depends on the string itself and the manufacturer. A typical string of 100 mini-lights will require about 1/3 amp of electricity. Put three of them end-to-end and that totals about 1 amp. A common household electric circuit can carry 15 amps of electrical current, or sometimes only 10 amps on older houses. But to be safe, you need to figure on only using 80% of the total capacity, because you want a little headroom for safety. That means that only 12 amps should be used on a 15-amp circuit (8 amps on a 10-amp circuit). Multiplying that out by the number of strings per amp (3) you'll get about 36 strings of mini-lights per house circuit. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but it's a pretty good, safe guideline to shoot for. So if you've decided you want to use 100 strings of lights, that means that you'll need three, 15-amp circuits to power your display. If you have three available, you're good to go. If you only have two circuits, then you'll have to cut back on the total number of strings and re-do your drawings.

The type of lights you use makes a difference: Some mini-lights take are designed to use only 1/6 amp per string, which means that the lower current requirement allows for twice as many lights per amp of current as the 1/3 amp strings do. In the example above, 100 strings of 1/6 amp lights would only require about 16 amps of current, so you could easily get by with as little as two, 10amp circuits, using 8amps from each one. LED lights take even less current -- as low as .05 amps per string, or 20 strings per amp. One hundred strings of LEDs in this case would take only 5 amps of current, and you'd need only one outlet to power your whole display!
Step 5: Budget. The lights are just part of the expense, of course, but it's easy to factor them out. One hundred strings at $2.49 will set you back $249. The same hundred strings if LEDs could easily be $1,000. Counts up fast, doesn't it? Another expense is extension cords. You'll need a lot of them. A lot of DIYC members buy them by in cases of 48. Others buy spools of bulk lamp cord (called SP1 or SP2 wire) , cut them to the lengths they need and attach their own plugs/ends. Whatever you decide to do, factor it into your budget. Also consider that you're going to need a way to "control" these lights and make them blink when you want, so you need to budget for enough light controllers for your display. Here's where it gets a little murky because different controllers operate so differently yet they all do essentially the same thing: turn lights on and off. Some can do it slowly (gradual fading up or dimming down) while others are strictly all on or all off. The best way to determine how many controllers you need is to look at your photo/drawings and decide how many separate elements make up your display. Some elements may have 5 or 6 strings of lights that you want to control as a unit (such as a bush or mini tree) while others might have only 1 string of lights (across the garage roof, for example). In some cases you might want to control a single light independently from all the others, kind of like the "star" on the top of a tree. So you need to group your strings of lights into what are called "channels" because when you turn on a "channel," you're essentially turning on all the lights that are connected to that channel. Once you count up the total number of channels, double it and that's a pretty fair way to estimate the total number of controller channels you'll need. In our example of 100 strings of lights, imagine that we decided we needed 32 channels. Allow about $5 per channel for your budget. So with 32 channels, you'd spend about $160 in electronic controllers.

If you're just putting lights on existing bushes, trees, your house, etc. and are not planning to build any additional props, then you're almost done. However, if you're planning to erect a mega tree, or build a dozen mini trees or other displays, then you have those material costs to factor in, too.

Lastly, you should also budget for incidentals. Extra wire, cat5 control wire, tape, screws, tools, band aids (you'll need them) all add up. And it will total a LOT more than you think because you'll find yourself driving to the store for a roll of this.... a box of that.... etc. If you have even a modest display, plan on $250 to be safe. I know it sounds like a ridiculously high number, but believe me, it adds up fast.

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