Starting in 2013 we began to look at more modern LED lighting to add animation to our lighting displays. After looking into what was available we decided to use what are known as pixels. A pixel is a “light” that has 3 different LED’s in each one with a computer chip in each one to control the amount of light each of the 3 LEDs emits. By doing this we can create up to 16, 777, 216 different color combinations from each pixel. Each pixel can be different from the next one and can be changed at high rates of speed, multiple times per second. This is a big change from the traditional lights where the entire string was the same color and all we could do was dim all of them or turn them on and off. Now we can change them to suit our needs and can make the displays ever evolving by changing the sequence programming for them. They can be different at whatever rate we decide, can be one way one night different the next, can completely change them from one year to the next by just changing the sequence of them. This allows us to have evolving displays that do not have to be the same minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, year to year.
Some other benefits of this newer technology are they run on much lower voltages than the traditional lights. There are 2 styles, either 5 volts or 12 volts that we use. This lower voltage becomes much safer than in previous years. In the old style if a light was broken or missing there was a potential to have 120 volts exposed which could be hazardous to anyone. With the new ones, running at much lower voltages they are relatively harmless compared to what they used to be. Another benefit is they also draw even less power than the previous lights used. Even the traditional LED style lights used much more power as they ran off of 120 Volts and used resistors to control the voltage and current to make the LED’s work. Using these resistors they just dissipate the voltage and current as heat which essentially is just wasted power. They also turned on and off 60x per second, you could not see it with your naked eye but if you took a picture you may catch them at points where the light looks like it is off. The newer ones do not need these resistors as they operate at the lower voltages, they are operating on direct current so they stay on, which is why they look so much brighter. We also conserve even more power by not having them on all the time, as we sequence them they use less than their full power requirement which lowers their power consumption. So when on red only we use 1/3 of the power required, same with green and blue and many other colors where we only use a fraction of each of the 3 LEDs full power. The most power consuming color is white, which is the sum of all the colors, so this requires the red, green and blue LED to be on at full capacity.
We have been using these pixels on several new displays as well as revitalizing some of the older displays using this new technology. Presently we have about 60,000 of these in use. The big thing with using these new pixels is they are very time consuming to first install and get running, especially when using on older displays. It takes a lot of time to remove all of the old lighting, clean them up, paint them then install the pixels back on them. Once that is done someone has to sit there and “map” them all out on a model so we can properly light them up. Once that is done then we can sequence them to do what we want.
To control these we need specialized controller boards, these take the signals from a computer program and convert them to a signal that the pixels understand. We use controllers from a company called Sandevices, they develop and support the boards and are located in the US. The sequencing software is free software for doing this called XLights which again comes from the US and is designed built and supported by a group of volunteers. The sequencing software is where we program the lights to do what we want them to do, allows us to sync them to music or do anything we like. Once we have all of this together we use what is called a Raspberry Pi, which is a micro computer the size of a credit card. We load on the sequences, schedules and so forth on to this micro computer which then will send the signals to the light controller to make them run as we want them to. This part is a bit intimidating at first, but like anything takes some practice and time to get comfortable with it.