Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced decorator, it’s a lot of work to get geared up to start the display setup process. The purpose of this article is to help make that process go a little bit smoother and improve your processes just a little bit.
I have learned from the best and brightest at the PlanetChristmas forums and have used that knowledge base to come up with lots of great ideas that help us design, build, setup and tear down our display the most efficiently way possible. At our Belardo Lights display in San Diego, we like to say that we’re building lifetime memories for our family and yours. It’s exciting to be a part of the community and to get such an outpouring of support for our display and our Autism Research cause through the National Foundation for Autism Research. We plan on creating new display items and setting up for many years to come.
So, having said that, in the style of the mighty David Letterman…Ladies and Gentlemen….Here is today’s Top 10 list…The category today, from the home office in San Diego, is the Top 10 list for improving your display setup.
Number Ten – Test controllers and check addresses
Nothing will stop your display from working properly quicker than a controller that is not processing commands correctly. That’s a headache you don’t need during setup “crunch time” just before light up. Using a laptop with the appropriate USB adapter, go through your controllers one at a time to make sure that they respond and that the address is set correctly. If you need to update the firmware on any controllers, this would be a great time to do that as well. Depen
ding on your setup, it may also be helpful to make and attach controller address and location labels that will help you place your controllers during setup.
Number Nine – Use Vampire plugs and bulk wire
If you’re buying orange extension cords at the big box store, even if they are on sale, there is a better way! It’s hard to match store-bought cord length to exactly what you need in the display and that extra cord can be a challenge to hide, move and store at the end of the season. Check out the PlanetChristmas vendors for Vampire plugs and bulk wire product offerings. The way it works is you cut a piece of wire the exact length you need from the spool and then crimp the vampire connectors on the ends. They’re called vampire plugs because of the way that the pins on the plug “bite” into the wire to make the electrical connections. They’re lightweight, inexpensive and easy to make and store. The wire and connectors come in two types: SPT1 and SPT2. The copper wire inside each type is the same size, but the thicker insulation on the SPT2 type allows it to be rated for 10 amps instead of the 7 amp rating for the SPT1 product. Make a decision about which type is good for your needs and stick with that type for all the parts you purchase.
You’ll need to purchase “plugs” for the controller end of the wire and “receptacles” for the decoration end of the wire. They make receptacles that only attach to the end of the wire and special “pass-through” receptacles that can be installed in the middle of the wire. Those are good for connecting several items to one long piece of wire. A pair of channel lock pliers is the best tool I’ve used to slide the tops on the vampire plugs.
As someone who uses a lot of plugs and wire, I think others would agree with me when I advise you to buy double the wire you think you will need to purchase that first year and then add another roll onto your order for good measure. You can never have too much wire or vampire plugs in stock as you approach setup “crunch time”.
I also use a Sharpie pen to write a unique number on each cord I build and then keep a list of all the numbers and what decorations they go with. By referring to the list during setup, I know that the wire that goes from a shrub to a particular controller is wire number 43 and the length will be just right.
We store the finished vampire plug wires in bins numerically so they are easy to retrieve during display setup. It takes a little more time to put them away at the end of the season, but it makes display setup SO much easier. We can retrieve wires from the bins for a particular decoration in just a few minutes. It’s a major timesaver when you are the absolute busiest during the decorating season.
Number Eight – Who can live without Cable Ties?
The person who invented the cable tie should be put into the inventor’s Hall of Fame! These are probably one of the most useful things to decorate your pocket or tool belt during setup. They can be used for EVERYTHING in your display and every serious decoration should be very familiar with this product. I buy them in 1,000 count bags and use them in the display to tie down wires, anchor decorations on the roof, provide strain relief, you name it…cable ties are awesome!
I usually keep 2 or 3 different sizes on hand, depending on the job. Short cable ties are good for making decorations such as mini trees, medium ties are great for bundling wires and the longer ties are great for anchoring decorations outdoors. They are commonly available in clear or black, as well as Holiday colors if you prefer those. Beware of cheaper imported ties that sometimes break or don’t hold properly! I would recommend that you try out a few from a particular vendor for quality before you make a purchase of thousands and then stick with that vendor. Another helpful tip for cable ties: You can use them to provide strain relief on your outdoor controllers for the cat5 data cable connections. If you trip on that cat5 cable during setup or teardown, you could pull the RJ45 socket on the controller right off the circuit board. Saved by the mighty Cable Tie!
Number Seven – Have spares of all important items on hand
The display is set up, you’ve done a little testing and the time is now for full display light up. There is a crowd outside and even a local TV news crew and the appointed hour is at hand. You enable the show and then go outside to enjoy the lights. As the lights dance, your ears and your neighbors tell you that there is no audio coming through the outdoor speakers! What to do?
Upon further investigation and troubleshooting, you finally realize that your stereo receiver has quit working. Of course, without skipping a beat, you immediately replace it with your spare and except for the few minutes it takes to swap out, your show is saved! Murphy’s law is alive and well with our displays, but keeping spares on hand for your major display components is a great way to show Murphy who the boss really is!
Number Six – Keep water out of your connections
It seems like one of the biggest questions newbie decorators have is how to prevent their controllers from shutting down under moist operating conditions. This usually happens when a decorator puts a lot of their electrical connections right on the ground, or in the wet grass. Then, once some moisture comes along, these wet connections can be responsible for tripping GFCI outlets and shutting off power to your controllers and display. Electrical tape usually doesn’t work to keep moisture out; in fact, just the opposite occurs. If connections are taped, the moisture usually finds a way in and then gets trapped by the tape. What to do?
There are several ways to keep connections from getting wet. Small stakes can be used in the wet grass, for example, at connection points and then those electrical connections can be lifted off the ground and secured with cable ties. Or small plastic containers with lids on top can be used to house electrical connections, perhaps with holes in the bottom or sides of the boxes to route cabling. Or small plastic bags can be used to cover the tops of electrical connections. As you can see, there are several ways to combat wet electrical connections.
Number Five – You do number your storage bins, don’t you?
How any times have you torn your display storage bins apart, looking for that one elusive item? After spending a couple of hours, you still can’t find the bin that has those spare green bulbs? I think all of us have experienced that at one point. Here’s another idea to help keep your display items organized so that you can find anything in 10 minutes or less. Tape a unique number on the outside of all your storage bins and store the bins so the numbers are facing out. After you’re done tearing down the display and putting items back in the bins, make a list of what is in each numbered bin and keep it to use throughout the year and for next year’s setup to easily help find items quickly. Bonus suggestion: You can carry this idea even further by putting a colored dot next to the number to indicate that this box contains display elements or decorations and that bin goes right outside into the display for setup. Bins without dots contain display setup items such as cable ties, spare parts, etc. and those stay in the garage.
Number Four – Keep track of controller and channel current draw
A simple spreadsheet that tracks and sums up your current consumption by controller will help you balance your loads as you plug in controllers during setup and avoid overloading controllers and circuits. I keep a detailed spreadsheet with all of that information, as well as the wire number for each decoration and which controller/channel it plugs into. We call it “the sheet”, even though it is many pages long. During the setup process, we have 2 or 3 copies of “the sheet” to refer to (out in the display, in the garage, by the wire bins, etc.) and they help to keep us organized. The sheet is also a great place to document display notes, as they can be kept to refer to in the future. I have a binder with old copies of “the sheet” that we refer to if a question comes up about how we did something the year before.
Number Three – Put a guestbook out in your display
Okay, not so much a suggestion about setup, but a great idea for maximizing your display impact and creating a lasting document that chronicles the meaning of your display across your many hundreds and thousands of visitors each year. We have put a 3-ring binder guestbook in our display by the mailbox on a small lit podium for several years now. It is the greatest thing, because we receive so much positive feedback from our guests about the display and what it means to them. One of our announcements even directs people over to the guestbook in case they haven’t seen it. People from all over the world write the most touching comments in our book and at times it really brings tears to my eyes.
Over the course of the lighting season, I reload the guestbook every evening and collect about 500 pages of comments. We post some of the best comments on our website and read them periodically during the off-season. It is a sure-fire way to add a large dose of motivation when you need it to get started on some new decorations for the display.
Number Two – Take lots of photos during setup
I’m sure everyone takes photos of their displays once the lights are running, trying to capture the essence of the decorations and the lights and if you’re lucky, perhaps the magic that your displays brings to your visitors (especially the kids). But this suggestion involves taking a lot of photos in the daylight as you set up the display that will be used to document the layout and the exact location of your display elements for next year. You can take photos of a measuring tape between your display items if that will help you visualize the locations the following year.
Focus those photos on the ground in and around your display items…How far apart are those mini trees? Exactly where do those blow molds go? Where should I pound those stakes for the trees? How far from the driveway or sidewalk are those arches? The photos don’t have to be pretty; you just want to document the physical aspect of the display setup.
When you’re done, save them in a particular directory of the display computer. That way, when you start setting up the display next year, browse through the photos and re-familiarize yourself with the locations of the display elements. Don’t rely on your memory from the year before; document your display quickly and easily through photos. It wouldn’t hurt to save the photos on another computer as well, just in case something happens to your display computer.
And…the Number One thing for improving display setup – Pace yourself…Slow down…Enjoy the display setup….Be safe….
Most of us are in this hobby to have a good time and make the Holidays special for our families and others that come to visit the display.
Setting up the display should be fun, so start early and pace yourself to avoid the last minute crunch. Get your family involved and make some of those memories BEFORE the lights come on. I find that I look forward to the setup almost as much as when the lights are on, because it allows me to experience some special time with family members and my son.
Know your limits and stay safe during setup. And backup your sequences!!!
Have a great Holiday Lighting Season!!!!
This article was included in the December 2013 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Randy Schimka