The Changing Light of Christmas Future
Incandescents, LEDs, RGB, pixels, smart, dumb. Please stop!
Christmas decorating is something that we all enjoy doing. Well, most of us enjoy it at some point or another. The long hours, the tedious time sequencing, setting up the display, fixing lights that stop working… Okay, somewhere in there is the enjoyment. After all, it’s why we do it right? But lately, there is has been a large change in lighting and it needs to be addressed. This is the pixel and RGB lighting.
What are Pixels and RGB?
Pixels and RGB lighting are something that really aren’t new but is to the decorating community. With these lights, I have found that there are many things that can be done impossible with more traditional lighting.
Here are a few things that are different
- Colors – one color LEDs and incandescent lights are designed to be one color and cannot change color. This is where the RGB lights have the advantage. Think of each light as a color palette that can change to be any color. If I want red, green, blue, pink, purple, orange or any other color I can make that happen. With one color LEDs or other lights, this isn’t possible
- More Uses – I have found that pixels and RGB lighting have more uses within decorating. They can be used to make larger display elements like matrixes or digital signs, singing faces that aren’t limited to wireframes, and really cool looking mega trees.
More uses for these lights mean more creativity and unlimited potential. I have found that I see more and more people thinking outside the proverbial box to come up with more uses for these than I ever did with one color LED’s or incandescent lights. This is because people are seeing more useful things than before.
Advantages of Pixels
There are advantages of using pixels when it comes to elements and entire displays. One of the biggest is the amount of power used. Generally speaking, I have found that by using pixels in which each individual light is controlled, I actually use less electricity. This is because even more lights aren’t on at the same time or they are doing something else more frequently. We all know that the electric bill is something that can be dreaded when January comes so using less is always a big thing.
Another advantage is less need for extension cords. By changing my display two years ago to adapt for some simple RGB lighting, I dropped about a third of all my wiring that I had used previously. In talking with some who have made a larger conversion than me, they have seen over half of their needs for extension cords diminish. If you have a large display (my own never got above 128 channels before switching to RGB), you know firsthand how hard it can be to deal with all of the extension cords.
Disadvantages of Pixels
The biggest drawback to pixels is the fact that they look physically different than other lighting. They have come out with covers that look like C7’s and C9’s, which helps, but for the traditionalists, this still doesn’t make amends. Pixels are usually brighter and just have a different design than your regular lights.
Another disadvantage is how much time it can take to sequence or program pixels. For those who know how long it takes to sequence or program regular channels, this could be a nightmare. For every channel that is setup, there are three channels for RGB: one for Red, one for Green, one for Blue, so it adds up quickly when putting things together. If I put a line of eight mini trees together and had 50 pixels on each tree, that would be 150 channels just on one tree. Multiply that by eight, and well, it’s a lot. Thankfully there are programs out there than can make it easier to sequence these.
Smart or Dumb Strings
A thing that I have been asked about a number of times is what makes a smart string a smart string and not a dumb string. A smart string is setup so that each individual bulb can change independently of other bulbs any color depending on the instructions. So, this means that on a string of 50 you can have 50 different colors going at one time. Or you can group them into smaller groups to make it easier if you want. The Light-O-Rama Cosmic Color Ribbon is a smart string (or in this case a smart ribbon).
A dumb string is just like a smart string except that it cannot change every single bulb any color. The entire string will change any color, but the whole string will be the same color. This string takes three channels but only for the entire string, not like the smart string where it takes three channels per bulb.
Trials and Tribulations
When I first got into working with RGB lighting and pixels, I had a general idea of what they could do but not a working understanding. As time progressed I have been able to see what they are capable of doing through clients of mine and also talking to many on the forums. The videos that people have come out with showcasing their displays that use pixels are outstanding. Many things that are being done would not have been possible even three years ago.
An area that has been up for debate is the 5 volts or 12 volts low voltage DC requirements. This is something that I have seen debated many times and it’s trivial in the long run. What works for one person, might not work for the next. Every decorator including myself should use what they feel is best for them. There is no right or wrong and that is a nice thing about decorating. Depending on what you’re trying to build, you might end up using 5 VDC ribbons and 12 VDC strings.
Another thing that I found is that if one of these pixels stops working or doesn’t work right, it can be very easy to cut it out and put a new one in. Always having extra pixels on hand just for this purpose. The best way to do this is to cut out the pixel that isn’t working, then use a soldering iron to splice in a new one. Use heat shrink tubing to cover the wires. I found this out with one that I was testing and well, that string didn’t work much after that.
When it comes to pixels, it can be something that seems to be a challenge. New lights, new controllers, new programming… It was never said to be easy. But it is the way decorating is changing, and with an ever growing want and need to be at the forefront of lighting technology, this is appealing to many.
For me, it came down to efficiency. Setting up the display takes hours and I wanted to make it so that it wasn’t a long arduous project. I switched over elements and the house to RGB and with the reduction in wiring, lights, and overall headaches, setup time was drastically reduced.
2014 will be a year we see many people making the really big switch to some form of pixel or RGB lighting technology. With everything that can be done, has been done and has yet to be seen, I know that I will be excited to see what people come up with. Be creative, use pixels wisely and may you decorate now and for the future!
This article was included in the September 2014 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Lyman Rate