Two controller types are available based on the type of power needed; Alternating Current (AC) controllers and Direct Current (DC)/DMX controllers. This section will describe the basic structure and functionality of each type.
AC Light Controllers – These control AC lights.
DC Light Controllers – These control pixels and are called DMX (or E1.31) controllers.
Both incandescent and traditional LED lights are powered by alternating current (AC) and require AC controllers. The primary AC controller provider, to my knowledge, is Light-O-Rama. These controllers are pretty straight forward with 16 AC outputs into which you can plug AC lights. The controller provides for On, Off and Fade up/down capabilities.
Update 08.09.20 - We purchased a new AC controller that receives it's commands via a DMX network. I'll share more information about this after I've had a chance to play with it a bit. For more information check out Pixel2Things.com.
Pixels that are powered by direct current (DC) and require DMX (Digital Multiplex) signals to operate require a specific type of controller that can meet these needs.
Key components of the controller:
Network Inputs – Since the controlling signals are transmitted via ethernet, typically using a CAT5 (category 5) cable, an RJ45 connector is required to receive the cable. Some of the newer controllers have two connectors to permit daisy-chaining controllers.
DC Power Inputs – Since a power supply is needed to produce the DC power needed by the controller and lights, these inputs allow you to provide the power to the controller. The number of inputs is related to how many SPI outputs are available on the controller.
SPI Outputs – The SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) outputs are the connection point for the lights that are to be controlled.
Status/Config/Test Interface – Many controllers offer a physical interface on the board that can be used to configure the outputs as well as to test the lights directly from the controller. A web interface is usually also available but this interface permits the troubleshooting of lights without the introduction of another software layer.
While there are many different vendors for each of the controller types, we’ve identified three key players:
Light-O-Rama - We use the following products:
For AC controllers we use LOR's 16 channel controllers
We also use their Cosmic Color Bulbs and Cosmic Color Pixels which come with their proprietary controllers
HolidayCoro (Preferred) - We use the following products:
AlphaPix 4 - Four port DMX controller
AlphaPix 16 - Sixteen port DMX controller
AlphaPix FLEX - Up to 48 port DMX controller with long range functionality
They sell quality DMX controllers, but we do not use them because of their support model. Please refer to our How We Select a Seller/Vendor information for an explanation.
Because DMX controllers are typically a computer board, they require other components and a waterproof box to prepare them to control lights.
The diagram shows a sample construction of the components for a four-output controller. The components include:
The Controller Board
A Power Supply Unit (PSU) – The PSU converts the AC power to the DC power that the controller and lights use. Note: The PSUs used for controlling pixels are called Switching PSUs because they are responsive to the power request from the controller/pixels and switch up/down to meet the request.
An AC Power Cord – This supplies the power to the power supply.
Wires to provide the DC power from the PSU to the controller board
A CAT5 Cable - This is to provide the ethernet connection to the controller
Pigtails - These make the outputs available for lights – One end of the pigtail is wires that attach to the outputs on the controller board, the other end has a waterproof connector that hangs outside the box. Note: The corresponding pigtail will be attached to the lights. Connecting then two pigtails makes the connection between the controller and the lights.
A Waterproof enclosure (box) – Any waterproof box can be used but keep in mind that you will need to drill holes to allow the components listed above to connect through the box. Many people use plastic ammo boxes. There are two primary boxes that we use: The Cable Guard CG-1500 and for larger boxes the HC-2500 (available from Holiday Coro). Both of these enclosures have door and are sized well for light controllers and their needed accessories. Holiday Coro also sells adapter plates top make installation of the controller components easier.
Content for this section is under development.
The term network is used here to describe the infrastructure used to get control signals from the show computer to the light controllers. Since we use both Light-O-Rama (LOR) controllers and DMX controllers, I’ll describe both types of networks.
LOR Serial Network
The LOR controllers use a proprietary serial network that requires a USB dongle to communicate between the show computer and the LOR controllers. Since LOR controllers support daisy-chaining, a single dongle can run many controllers. The number of LOR networks is equal to the number of dongles used. If performance is an issue, multiple dongles can be used to distribute the amount of data being sent to a specific network. Because we use LOR Cosmic Color devices, which increase the data volume, we run two LOR dingles/networks to provide a better network response time.
DMX Ethernet Network
Since the DC controllers use a standard DMX (E1.31) protocol over ethernet, the DMX network uses the ethernet jack on the show computer to communicate with the DC/DMX controllers. Because each controller must have a dedicated CAT5 cable from the show computer, we use multiple ethernet switches to provide the connectivity. Many of the new controllers (e.g., the AlphaPix Flex) now offer a built-in switch to allow daisy-chaining of ethernet devices.
Sample Network Configuration
The diagram shows a sample network configuration using both LOR AC controllers and DC/DMX controllers as follows:
The show computer is placed in the garage. The show spans a yard that is split into left and right by a driveway.
One DMX Ethernet network using a switch to split the network to the left and right sides of the yard.
On the left side of the yard, an additional ethernet switch to allow a single CAT5 cable from the garage to then be split into two cables to the separate DMX controllers. On the right side of the yard, a switch is not required because one of the DMX controllers
provided a built-in switch.
Two LOR dongles, one each attached to separate USB ports on the show computer, are used to provide two LOR networks. LOR network #1 handles two daisy-chained controllers in the left side of the yard. LOR network #2 handles two daisy-chained controllers in the right side of the yard.
I've seen a lot of discussions on the forums for how to protect controllers, and their related technology, out in the yard. Our solution to the problem is what we call "controller stations" and the information below explains what we mean by that term. We have stations that house from one to four controllers, the example is a two controller station.
A station is constructed from 1/2 inch exterior grade plywood and mounted on a T-Post. The station is placed behind something or off to the side so as not to obscure the lights. Because we use dark covers, they are virtually invisible at night. We have found this approach to be very successful at keeping things dry even in hurricane force winds (with a cable tie through an eyelet to keep the cover from blowing off).
Controller Station - Back View
This image shows the back of a station with the following components:
A Power Strip - This provides switched A/C power to all components at the station. Every station has one of these.
A Network Switch - One station on each side of our yard has a switch. A Cat5 cable from a switch in the garage provides a breakout point to all controllers on that side of the yard.
A Rainproof PSU - One of the controllers at this station is configured to use this PSU.
Note: The station shown uses a single T-Post. If the station has excessive weight, like one of ours with two Light-O-Rama Commercial controllers, we use two T-Posts on the sides instead on one centered.
Controller Station - Covered
Because not everything at the station is in a waterproof enclosure (e.g., the NW Switch), we provide a cover for the entire station.
We create our covers using Tarps that we purchase at places like Big Lots/Ollie's. We get large ones and then cut them to fit the specific station size.
We assemble the cut tarp material with Gorilla Tape (inside and outside). These tend to last about two seasons and then we replace them with new ones.