Holiday LEDs

Holiday LED build

Christmas lights are fun, but what about other holidays? Wouldn’t it be cool to have pink lights for Valentine’s day, Green lights for St Patrick’s day, Paisleys for Easter, RWB for 4th of July, Lightning for Halloween, and Fall colors for Thanksgiving? Ya, that would be cool!

You could probably find a company to setup and install a system that would do all that for thousands of dollars, or you could do it yourself for a few hundred in about 20 hrs. And… be able to customize it for any other special day you’d like. Here’s how to do it:

First step is to plan out where you want lights. Get some measurements so you know how many lights you’ll need. My set up required 10 strings that are each about 16’ long. You’ll also need to identify a location for the power supply and wifi control chip. I put mine in a waterproof box near a power outlet.”

There are a lot of options for Individually Addressable LED Strips. I chose these 5v waterproof 2811s. They have 50 RBG LEDs per 5 meter strip. That’s one light about every 3 inches. To figure out how much power you’ll need you can figure 20mA for each LED. They really can draw up to 60mA each, but you won’t need that much power unless you turn every light on white with max brightness. For my setup I have 500 LEDs, at 20mA each that’s 10 amps. I bought a 60 amp 5v power supply just because it was about the same price as a 10 amp version, so why not have extra power, just in case I want to blind the neighbors. You’ll also need a waterproof box big enough to hold the power supply.”

There are also different options for controlling your lights. I think the best option is with Home Assistant. Home Assistant is an open source Smart Home hub. If you’re interested in this project you’d probably be pretty excited about the Smart Home concept and would enjoy some other Home Assistant based projects. Check out Ben at Bruhautomation. He’s like, a level 40 HA wizard. To get HA setup to control your lights you’ll need a raspberry pi with power supply, case, and a micro sd card, as well as the EPS wifi micro control board. I used the Wemos D1 mini. You’ll need some small gauge paired wire. You can get a breadboard and jumpers too, but that’s optional.

Everything I know about HA and setting up the wifi controller came from Ben. I’ve included links to the sections of the HA configuration.yaml file you’ll need and the arduino sketch for the wifi controller. Those are my modifications of files I got from Ben. You can make your own changes to add customized colors or automations. If you do add stuff please share. Someone else would likely benefit from it. Again, I recommend watching Ben’s video to see how to set up HA and load the sketch on the wifi board. I could attempt to explain how to do those things but I don’t think I’d do it better than he does it. So take a few minutes and go watch his video. PAUSE 

Welcome back; Now, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache if you set up your whole system and test it before you actually hang all the lights. I didn’t do that the first time, and I regretted it. Save yourself the pain and setup a thorough test before you start climbing ladders. I have 3 runs of lights. 2 runs are 3 stings long and the 3rd is 4 strings long. These LED strips are made to clip together nicely. Voltage drop with these lights can be a real problem. Each LED adds some resistance and the LEDs won’t function if the voltage gets too low. We’re only starting with 5v so we don’t have a lot to lose. To eliminate this problem run an extra pair of wire along with each string of lights to add a fresh source of 5v at the start of each string. The resistance in the wire is low enough that even over about 150’ I didn’t see an appreciable decrease, at least not enough to affect brightness of the LEDs. You can try not adding the extra wire, but if your LEDs at the end of the line look dim, its because you’ve lost too much voltage. You don’t need to do this for the last 5m string, and you also don’t need to boost the voltage of the data wire. The data wire gets a boost back to 3v at each LED so it can go on forever. The important thing to know about the data wire is that the distance between the wifi board and the first LED has to be very short. I had trouble when mine was longer than about 2’.  I suggest making it super short, so the first LED is right outside the waterproof box. You can run all your lights off one data pin. If you have different numbers of lights in different runs, like I do, just set your number of LEDs in the arduino sketch to the number of lights in the longest run. Mine is set to 200. Runs that have less than 200 LEDs can be connected to the same data pin and still work fine. It took a while for me to figure that out. At this point you’ll need to have Home Assistant all set up and the sketch loaded on your wifi board for full testing. HA has a nice iphone app, or you can just use your phone browser to access it. The UI scales nicely on mobile devices.”

I found a really nice way to mount these lights using this vinyl J-channel from Lowe’s. The LEDs are about 3” apart, so drill a (size) hole every 3” in the bottom of the channel. I cheated a little and 3d printed a jig. I’ve included a link to the stl for the jig incase anyone wants it. Once the holes are all drilled, spray paint the J-channel to match your house. Now you can get on the ladder and mount the waterproof box. I secured the power supply in the box with some metal strapping. Finally! Let’s get some lights hung! Start by inserting the wires in the box. Make sure you’ve got the correct end of the light string. There is an arrow indicating the direction the data travels. Next pop the lights into the holes in the channel and tuck the wires in as best you can. Use some (size) sheet metal screws to attach the J-channel to the house. When you need to change directions cut the J-channel with some strong scissors. Be smart about climbing on your roof or on a ladder. A trip to the ER is not included in the budget for this project.”

There you go! Pretty cool right?!  So for about $() and () hrs of work you get awesome lights for every holiday.  All the credit for this idea goes to my daughter Zoe. She was the one who said “Wouldn’t it be cool if we hung lights for other days besides Christmas). Thanks Zoe. You’re a genius.


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