Sunday, October 7, 2012

LED Light Bonanza!

Today's post is an excellent example of why I shouldn't be allowed on the interwebs without some form of supervision.  It is a seriously bad idea.  I know this, but somehow that doesn't seem to stop me.  The latest issue has been my lighting for Halloween.  It's probably more accurate to call it an ongoing issue, actually. I adore lighting but it's a real pain in the ass.

There are 2 main problems when it comes to lighting.  The first of which is that lighting is super important.  You can go all out on your decorations but, unless said decorations are all cutesy, they won't look awesome unless you get some ambiance going on.  Problem 2 is that lighting can get really expensive really fast.  How expensive is really up to the person decorating, but I have an unfortunate tendency to come up with ideas that take a ton of lights.

It is possible to get cheap, fun light bulbs but there are a number of problems involved.  You're probably thinking that normal (incandescent) light bulbs don't cost all that much, so what's the problem?  I could spout off a whole bunch of random information, but there really is no reason not to give you straight up facts.  I did a quick comparison for you using Home Depot's website so you can see what I mean.

Blue Incandescent- 25 W, 3000 hours, $3.17
Blue CFL- 13W, 8000 hours, $4.95

(Just a quick aside here, I recently found colored CFLs at Big Lots for $4 each and that seriously made my day.  I've never seen them that cheap before.)

Upon first glance, the incandescent looks like a great option and there was a time when they were the only choice.  There's just one problem.  A 25W light bulb puts out next to nothing in light. I'm not joking on that one either.  25 W bulbs are practically useless.  The CFL that draws 13W puts out about what you would expect from a 60W incandescent.  That's more than twice as much light!  It also means that you would have to buy 2 'normal' lights to match 1 CFL and, depending on the fixture layout, you would need more fixtures.  In the end the CFL wins out for superior illumination, bulb life, power consumption, AND price (once you consider that you would need 4 incandescents to get close to the light output over the same bulb life). All the wonderfulness about CFLs doesn't change that getting a bunch of them gets freaking expensive.  In order to outfit all the standard fixtures in my house with colored CFLs I need 16 of them.  16 lights at $5 a light is $80 worth of lights, and that's before sales tax.  It also doesn't count the 3 bulbs in my dining room that I can't change from 'normal' lights and the 5 arm lamp in my living room, both of which require candelabra bases on the bulbs.  You can get CFLs with candelabra bases but you can't yet also have them be dimmable, hence the dining room problem.  I do still have some colored incandescents from the days before colored CFLs, but I'm phasing them out as they die which is the only way to make that anything like affordable.

So yeah, lighting is a big deal.  I have the better part of a linen closet full of lighting options for Halloween and I know it's only going to get worse.  As this year's theme is more scifi than the usual haunted whatever I've been needing new lighting setups.  I only have blacklight and red CFLs as well as red LED lights, and scifi stuff goes better with blues and greens (argh!).  I've already ordered, and received, blacklight and blinky blue LEDs taking my total count of Floralytes up to 50 pieces.  I love me some Floralytes!  I would have a ton more if I could afford it.  Floralytes are AMAZING.  I get the submersible ones because they can be turned on and off, have replaceable batteries, and can be completely submerged.  They come in something like 9 colors, but my favorite source doesn't always stock them all.  Shameless plug:  I've been really happy with; they ship fast, sent me coupon codes, and gave me extra batteries as a free gift!  None of that solves my hallway problem, though.  The idea is to make my hallway look like a plastic tube like the kind you seen in any scifi flick involving some manner of outbreak (alternatively, think the plastic ramp thingy used to get to Magneto's cell in the X-Men movies).  Figuring out how to light that has been driving me bonkers.

At first I was thinking, just stick some green lights in the hall fixtures and call it good, but those are going to be within the tube.  One light is around the corner, but even so putting 2 green CFLs in that hallway will very probably light it up too much, especially with green (the green lights seem brighter, I don't know if they actually are or not because I don't own a light meter for some reason.  I should work on that...).  My next thought was to run ropelights down the bottom edges of the tubes but I ran into the overly expensive problem (you can buy them by the foot, but it will cost you.  More so if you want LED rope lights) AND the 'there's only one socket in the hallway' problem.  Yep, nice long L shaped hallway and it only has one outlet.  It could be worse though, my entry way has no sockets at all which has caused untold problems.  I'm not sure who designed my outlet layout but I do periodically wish that I could beat them within an inch of their life.  Granted, my house was built in '79 and there wasn't as much to plug in as there is today, but still!

My next idea was stickytacking my Floralytes to the walls and using them.  That would be cheaper than using rope lights, but a lot harder to deal with when it came to turning everything on.  I would either have to get the (very) expensive remote controlled Floralytes, yes they do exist, or manually turn on all the lights I had stuck to the walls.  Way too much work, that.  I had finally decided that either EL wire (EL stands for electroluminescent) or LED strings were probably going to be the way to go.  I was leaning toward the LED strings when I happened upon a YouTube video on DIY LED spotlights.  If you've been perusing StiltbeastStudios on YouTube, you may have found it already but if you haven't and you're interested you can find it here.

Now we get to the heart of why I shouldn't be let out without a keeper.  In a matter of minutes I had calculated out a rough estimate of what I might need to do my own DIY lighting down that hallway and I had been pondering getting a light meter.  The terrifying thing is that it is cheaper to buy all the parts I need to make my own lighting setup than it would be for me to get the 12 string LED set I was looking at.  The minimum making my own lights would save me is a bit over $10, which makes it surpass any of my coupon codes, and it will very likely be closer to $20-$30 savings once the house searching for parts was completed.

So, the plan is to position LED spotlights on the outside of the tunnel tube and put incandescent bulbs in the fixtures.  I was going to get blue incandescents but then I realized that I have a handful of black light incandescents already in the light cupboard.  They would be 25 watts in either case, but this way I don't have to buy more lights.  The effect should be suitably eerie, I'm hoping.

I got my LEDs ordered and picked up the tomato stake and wire to make the mini spots and sat down to get going on my lighting at long last (this has been in the works for months, I was just lazy about getting the LEDs ordered).  The trouble with projects you've put off for months is that bits go missing.  Like the massive amount of speaker wire that was discovered in my parents garage.  I know I have it but I'll be damned if I can find the thing.   No big deal, I thought, I'll just make the spots and spend some extra time looking for the wire.  HA!  Attempts at stripping the wires on the LEDs went badly.  They're really small wires, like less than 18-20 gauge which, incidentally, happens to be the smallest slot on my wire strippers.  There were several failed attempts to strip the wires before I gave up in favor of not mangling the LEDs beyond what would keep them usable   In all not a good weekend.

Happily the problem had a solution.  I went and got a new wire cutter/stripper and some more speaker wire.  I find the best way to find things that have gone missing is to replace them.  Anyway, having the right tools for the job made it sooooo much easier to get everything done.  In the time it took me to mangle 6 LEDs I was able to prep the remaining 34. Making the spots was super easy and then it was on to figuring out exactly how much speaker wire was needed to hook everything up.

After much wiring and changing and wiring again I finally had a set up that I liked.

I wired the lights in bunches of 4 or 5, depending on their position.  Then, instead of using the spotlight tubes, I taped a wire to each LED for positioning and hanging.  I had tried using the spots, but they constricted the light too much.  This way I got the full range that each LED could do.

I did a test run on them and then tidied up as much of the hanging wire as I could.  I had to get a bit creative when it came to plugging in the whole set up.  I didn't want there to be visible wires anywhere my guests would be as it would spoil the look.  That meant running the wires into my office where there is an outlet really close to the door.  Then the other problem.  I wanted to leave everything up once it was hung but Calliope absolutely adores chewing on wires.  The only thing that saved me is that I had been generous with the speaker wire.  I was able to hang the wires up and drop them down through the door to be plugged in.  Having the wires up high enough that Calliope couldn't reach them made it possible to leave everything up and out of the way.  It isn't terribly pretty, but it works.  The important thing is that the end result is awesome!

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