Blinky, Blinky

Info on my computer controlled Christmas lights.. There is a ton of info out there, this is just what I did.. where I bought my stuff, etc.

‘, ‘So, a few years ago, I was planning to do something with my Christmas lights. I purchased a bunch of MAC8N Triacs and MOC3032 opto\’s from Electronics Goldmine and then sat them on the shelf for two or three years.. I never got around to designing a PCB for them, didn\’t bother using someone elses, or etching someone elses design..

Last year, I had a 6 channel store bought controller.. This year, my neighbor a few houses down bought one as well. Of course, not to be matched, I pulled the components out and decided to revisit the project. I bought a dual printed circuit board from Radio Shack for $2 (that snaps into two boards) and wired one up. It was at this point that I realized how easy the circuit is and couldn\’t believe that I procrastinated this long just because of the PCBs.. Not cool.

With that said, I built 2 4channel boxes and hooked them directly to the parallel port. Using Vixen and the 8-line 595 plugin, I currently have all 8 channels lighting lights. Now, because I have a 6 channel one that plays music, and no way to sequence to that music, they just flash right now in a one minute sequence that loops. But, now being bitten by the computerized Christmas lights bug.. I\’m planning to go bigger next year.

Simple Overview (Computer/Grinch Controller/SSR\’s)

The parallel port on a computer has 8 data pins (as well as 4 control pins) that can be turned on and off using software. In my initial setup, which is the most basic version, I am hooking the SSR\’s directly to the computer. The basics of an SSR is taking the 5v output of the parallel port and using it to turn a “switch” on and off. In this case, the switch is a triac. To isolate the computer from the 110V AC flowing through the triac, we use a optocoupler. Because that word is to long for me, I\’ll be referring to it as an opto from now on. But, to break down it\’s job, it is basically a light on one side, and a photocell on the other. When you apply 5v to the light, it turns on. The photocell sees this and turns on the triac. This method is used to protect the computer from 110V feeding back into the parallel port.. not a bad idea, huh?

Now, because the parallel port only has 8 data pins, we can only turn 8 devices on and off at a time. To get around this “problem”, we add another circuit to “translate” our output into addresses. I\’ll try not to make it to complicated, but we basically send a number sequence out, the grinch takes these sequences and reads them as pins and turns them on and off. I guess I\’m not very good at explaining this, but it\’s a shift register that pushes the address out, and uses a timer to tell when to make the change (turn a pin on or off). This all happens in real time so we are able to control 64 channels from a single Grinch controller.

NOTE: When I was initially working with Vixen, I fought with getting it to work at all. After two days of fighting with it, I hopped on the FlashChat and was told that the “basic parallel” and “12-ch parallel” plugins didn\’t work, and to use the “8-line 595”, 1 ch per controller, and then check all 8 data lines. It worked and I was good to go.

The Hardware

Now, I\’m planning on running around 128 channels, so with that in mind, I have been ordering parts based off of this idea. A single Grinch will control 64 channels, but I have ordered enough chips (4 per Grinch) for three Grinches, or in my case, 2 Grinches and a spare set. Also, each box is planned to be a 2-gang box with the outlets separated, so each box will be 4 channels. (pretty much a standard in the community). I might make a couple different depending on the display to be run. For example, I might build an 8 channel box for an 8 channel light arch, instead of running two 4 channel boxes.. but I haven\’t got to that part yet.. so for now, everything is being purchased based on 4 channel boxes. This means, I will need a total of 16 boxes (16 x 4 = 64) per Grinch, or 32 boxes in total. Here is what I ordered so far:

32 x Steren 425-010 3AG Electrical Fuse Holder Panel Mount DIY @ $.38ea from

175 x MOC3032-M Optocoupler @ $.154ea from

48 x Perforated PC Board 1-3/4″ x 1-1/2″ @ $.38ea from

4 x Perforated PC Board 4-5/16″ x 3-1/8″ @ $1.20ea from

12 x MBI5027-GN 16bit driver @ $1.06ea from

128 x 180 ohm 1/8 watt resistors @ $3.50 per 100 from

128 x 330 ohm 1/8 watt resistors @ $3.50 per 100 from

Outlets are bought in boxes of 10 outlets for $3.30 from Home Depot (contractor packs) making them $.33 each.

Boxes were bought at a Super Wamart for $2.40/box, but I also found them online and ordered another 15 from @ $1.50ea

I was also buying the wall plates from Home Depot but had them for $.69ea so I ordered those as well.

Now, I only need 128 total of the optos, but since they were so cheap, I couldn\’t pass on buying a bunch extra. Same with the small perf boards.. If I decide to run a third Grinch, I\’ll have the PCBs for it.

At the same time, you\’ll notice that I need 128 resistors, but they come in packs of 100 for $3.50. So, you\’ll need to order two packs and have a lot left over. Being that I have this stuff laying around, I only needed to order 1 of each pack because I have 28 of each from other projects.

Also, if you have been researching this type of project, you will see that I purchased perf boards vs ordering custom made PCBs. After doing the research myself, and even looking into coop orders (where a bunch of people get together to order, to help offset the setup cost of a custom PCB run), the cost of a single SSR board is $2. If you look at the schematic for an SSR, it\’s so simple, I don\’t see the point is spending $2 on a board. In my example, it would cost me around $100 for 2 Grinches and 32 SSR PCBs.. and that is just the PCBs! I just ordered all the perf boards I will need for $31.05 and that includes $8.01 for shipping and 16 SSR boards more than I need.

So far, I have left out the triacs.


First, I want to mention this product that I just learned about this year. It makes me mad that I haven\’t already known about it, and even more mad that it isn\’t available in every store that sells Christmas lights. It\’s call thed the EZ Up FastTrax track system. You screw some buttons on the front of your house, clip your lights into the tracks, and then just snap the tracks onto your house. What normally takes me at least 20 minutes, takes about 2. I used to climb up on the house, slide plastic clips under the shingles, hand a set of white icicle lights, go a foot and do it again. Then, go back and add the blue icicle lights into the clips.

This year, I snapped both color icicle lights into the tracks in the warmth of my living room, went up on the roof and mounted the buttons, snapped the tracks in, and climbed down. Next year, I\’ll just climb up there, snap them in and I\’m done. They are a must for anyone doing the icicle lights along the roof. I\’m even thinking of using them around the windows and anywhere else I can think of. A guy at work turned me onto them because he uses the tray system that allows you to mount a tray onto your house, and then you can slide the lights up. For people with extremely high roofs, or a peak ontop of your roof that makes it hard to setup a ladder. AWESOME PRODUCT, MUST HAVE!

So far, I\’m planning on some light arches, mini trees, and possibly a mega tree. After chatting with Chilloutdocdoc on FlashChat, I think I\’m sold on the idea of running 16 channels with 3 colors (5 x red, 5 x blue, 5 x white + tree topper).

If I do build one, I\’ll try to post info on it here. Also with the others, as I\’m trying to avoid the tomato cage mini trees.

I\’ve ended up building hardware cloth mini trees. You can read more about those when I create the page just for them..

Oh.. and one last note.. I\’m way over 128 channels.. 🙁 What I\’ve learned from this, is you are better off making all your light displays before starting on the controllers and SSRs. I\’m wasting a lot of money in shipping because I have to order the same item again due to not having enough. Since I wasted $10 shipping the first time, I\’m having to waste another $10 shipping the second time. Not very smart, but it\’s easy to do, once you get started.

In progress