From the July 2009 edition of PlanetChristmas magazine. By Fred Garvin.
You’re ready to take the big step into computerizing your lights. There are almost too many options out there to choose from today. Typically you call a vendor, tell them what you want, pay a wad of hard earned money and soon everything is delivered to your door. Hook up some extension cords, plug the controllers into your computer and you’re good to go. For a 16 channel light controller board, the list pricing ranges from to $270 to $320. Quick math shows it breaks down to about $17-$20 per channel. It’s a good deal because everything is assembled, mounted in a weatherproof enclosure and is known to work (at least when it left the factory.) You still need some sequencing software and time to create your show, but it’s so worth it when you see the smiles on the faces of all the people watching your display.
There are other options to save money or give even more control of what your lights can do for your audience. If you’re an all around electronics fanatic, you can build the hardware from scratch and write the software to control everything. It’s actually quite fulfilling to see the end result but you have to be well grounded in electronics and not afraid of electricity or the bits and bytes of software. Checkout Hill Robertson’s www.ComputerChristmas.com for an active community that’s really into total control. The good news is your imagination is the only limitation. The bad news is when something isn’t working as planned you have no one to blame but yourself.
There’s now a hybrid approach where you can do some assembly work yourself and save considerable money. If you plan for your own computer to flash the lights connected to the controllers and never anticipate the controller to be smart enough to run standalone, buried deep in the Light-O-Rama web store is the PlanetChristmas CTB16PC controller that might be exactly what you need. There’s no doubt we’re a bit biased at PlanetChristmas with this particular product. It does just about everything the big boys do but costs less money.
First a quote directly from the www.Light-O-Rama.com website: “The members of PlanetChristmas became pioneers in animated displays, building their own home brew systems and starting a trend that has now brought joy to millions all over the world. The CTB16PC was designed with those pioneers in mind. People on a budget or who just like to build things can use the CTB16PC to create displays that will simply astound people.” OK. We’re impressed!
The PlanetChristmas CTB16PC 16 channel light controller won’t win any beauty contests. Depending on your needs it can cost anywhere from $100 to $250. A little more of the quick math shows that’s $6-$16 per channel. It’s not a huge difference from the full featured/fully assembled controllers but if you plan more than 16 light channels in the future, the cost savings can add up quickly.
For the record, we’re not here to tell you which controller configuration is best for your needs. Light-O-Rama offers many options from a build-it-yourself kit to something fully assembled and ready to plug in. It really boils down to how much time you want to invest to save some money.
If you know how to solder and have a few extra hours you can build a 16 channel Light-O-Rama CTB16PC light controller kit from scratch and save the most money. There are no fancy surface mount technology chips requiring special equipment and super-human eyeballs. Instead it’s soldering of basic components and the option to breathe fumes from the flux (not recommended by the medical community).
How big of a challenge is it to build a light controller from scratch? When you dump everything out on the table the 160 individual pieces can be a bit intimidating. The good news is most pieces are redundant (all 16 control channels are built the same way) and it really is hard to veer off course if you follow the detailed directions. The biggest challenge is making sure you put the right resistors in the right places but that’s not a big problem if you can read the color bands on the components. It’s actually pretty easy to get “in the grove” and build this board quickly. Light-O-Rama goes so far as to fix it for you free should you mess things up.
Anthony Vetrano lives in Houston and has built 16 of the CTB16PC boards to date. He had never soldered before his first kit arrived and says it was really very easy. The included diagrams and step by step instructions made for a very easy assembly. His big hint for the newbie: Solder all the components on the same page of the instructions at the same time. You can use the blue painters tape to hold the components to the board while soldering on the other side. What was Anthony’s only complaint? He would like to see a little more solder in the kit and some large color pictures of good and bad solder joints for the first time kit builder.
We also checked with Jeff Lambert and he has built seven of the CTB16PC boards with his son. He used it as a bonding experience and an electronics education. Jeff is proud of boasting that the satisfaction of taking all the pieces, building the kit and seeing it make the lights dance is very rewarding. He does wish there were full color assembly pages with matching color components since some parts vary in color and style from kit-to-kit. Jeff recommends a magnifying glass because it can be hard to read the numbers on some of the components. Jeff’s final bit of advice? It’s important to note that saving money should not be the main reason for building a kit if time is important. Building time is typically about four hours. When November comes around you need all the time you can get and sometimes it is easier to pay and have the units delivered prebuilt.
Here’s another valuable tidbit. Light-O-Rama gives you different options for a heat sink. Why worry about something as boring as a heat sink? Switching all your light circuits on and off does create heat that needs to be dissipated and heat is the big enemy in the electronics world. If you have any visions of switching lots of lights, invest the few extra dollars in the heavy duty heat sink and save yourself the grief later when you accidentally overload a circuit and melt something. Too many of us have been there, done that and have plenty of boring stories to share with anyone willing to listen.
Light-O-Rama also offers the PlanetChristmas CTB16PC fully assembled in a variety of configurations. You break that $200 price barrier but it’s still a pretty good deal. Keith Glover was the winner in the PlanetChristmas 2008 over-the-top decorating contest with his incredible displays in Bristol and Knoxville, Tennessee. He checked in and said: “… we have over 200 Light-O-Rama PlanetChristmas controllers and will probably buy over 100 more this year. They work perfectly for us. They have all the horsepower of the standard controllers without the features we don’t need. Used with a standard computer, they can perform every function necessary for our shows. After assessing our plans, the people at Light-O-Rama recommended them to us, consequently saving us thousands of dollars that we could have spent unnecessarily.”
Is the Light-O-Rama PlanetChristmas CTB16PC for you? If you don’t require the light controllers to be standalone and instead have a computer that can tell them what to do, the CTB16PC does make a lot of sense. You can save the most by building the kits from scratch but only if you have the time. If it’s late November, consider the fully assembled versions. Need more information on the CTB16PC?