A: Uhh...Good question! What started out as two wrapped Magnolia trees in 1995 has grown every year since. It began to get serious when Dave noticed icicles in a high-end catalog in 1996. After doing some quick math, and determining that it would cost over $2000.00 to buy the needed amount from the catalog, Dave said "I can make these myself!". He created a prototype, received approval from the "Tacky Committee" (see below) and started production. After that it became a case of "Hey Dave! What are you going to do next year??".
The bottom line is: We enjoy doing it for the community. We receive great emails from people, some of which can make a person a little misty... Check out the Sparks page for artwork that used our display as inspiration. Sneaking outside and mingling with the crowd gives us inspiration (and sometimes constructive criticism). There is no better feeling than hearing a hard to impress 8 year old say "Whoa!!". And finally, we do it for the food drive which raised over $54,000 in 2009 to help feed the hungry in the South Bay.
Q: What is the "Tacky Committee"?
A: The overall goal of our display is to be tasteful. Whenever Dave or Andy comes up with an idea, it has to be approved by the "Tacky Committee". The "Tacky Committee" is comprised of two members (our wives). It is their job to determine if the idea for the new addition will be tacky or tasteful. Sometimes, a prototype of the idea has to be constructed to demonstrate the idea. Other times, we get an immediate "thumbs down". So far, the "Tacky Committee" has done an admirable job of keeping us in line (except for the year that I snuck in a fog machine... And then there was the laser...).
Q: How many lights?
A: Over 88,000 for and 275 channels for 2010. This is the most ever, but we never turn all the lights on at the same time. Our bushes are layered with whites, reds, blues, and greens. We never turn on all four at once. A breakdown can be found on the Statistics page.
Q: What is the electricity bill?
A: Each house is pulling approx. 40 amps when the all the elements of the display are on. But since we are now using digital control, our bill is quite a bit less because all of the lights are not on all of the time. We also put the display in "power saving mode from 10-11 pm on weekdays. Our guess is that it adds about $200-300 to Andy's bill..... But now Dave's house is solar powered with a PV system that was originally sized to break-even over the year with the Christmas Display included! Now that we are incorporating LEDs, we ended up with a $350 surplus of electricity after our 2nd year "true-up" date in August, so we can now say that the display is 100% solar powered! More info on our Solar Site.
2007 - It turns out our "Power Saving" mode from previous years was actually using more power than the normal playlist because the lights were on all the time (minus icicles, etc.) We have a new "Power Saving" mode this year that we think looks better and should use less power. All LOR controlled lights slowly ramp and fade giving the display a constant color changing effect.
2008 - LEDs and efficient programming have made the display even more efficient. Our rule this year is that each song has to use less power than last year. And remember, we added 10,000 lights!
2010 - Our icicles are now LED's. Huge power savings!
Q: How do you control the lights with the music?
A: We upgraded our display to 100% Light-O-Rama in 2007. That means no more Digital output cards and solid state relays, and we can now use a power saving laptop to run the display. Another advantage of the laptop is that if we have a power failure that lasts less than the battery life, the Xmas display will start on time without a reboot (built in UPS). Using Light-O-Rama software, we can play a song (mp3 or wav format) and click the mouse when we want the lights to do something. Once we have it the way we like it, we save the data to the disk and we can play the song and the lights through LOR. It takes about 2 hours to program a simple song. It can be over 20 hours to program a complex one. In order for LOR to control the lights, we ran over 1,000 feet of CAT 5 network cable from the laptop to the different light elements. The cable connects to 20 LOR controllers that are distributed throughout the yards.
Q: What do you do with burned out strings?
A: We fix them! We NEVER discard a string because of a failure. People say, "Yeah, but they only cost $3.00 per string!". We say, "It's not the money, it's the principle!". The only time we sacrifice a string is when we run out of spare replacement bulbs. Over the years, Dave has developed special tools and techniques for debugging and repairing strings. In 2004 we bought the "Blue Box". This box costs $125 in the off season and $200 during the holiday season. It only works with miniature light strings that have 50 bulbs in series (this covers most string types). You plug in a string, hit the big red button and 75% of the time, the segment comes back to life (except for the dead bulb(s) which are then easy to spot) The other 25% of the time, pressing the red button will cause a electrical arc where the short is and you can zero in on the sound to find the dead bulb. Since we are not sure how it works, we are going with obvious answer: MAGIC!!! Naturally I had to open it up and there is some pretty strange stuff in there. But I digress. The Blue Box has saved us hundreds of hours and a lot of frustration. See the links page for the website that we bought it from. We do occasionally throw out colored strings because the paint has faded or chipped. On hand made items like the globes, we paint the bulbs with stained glass paint when they begin to fade.
2010 - It is more difficult to fix LEDs strings. Fortunately, they rarely fail. When a single bulb goes out we solder in a new one. If a string dies, we have to throw it away.
Q: How many hours does it take to complete the Display?
A: We have no idea. A lot. We are kind of scared to keep track. In 2002, Dave started working on the new computer controls in March. He put in a few hours a week up until "crunch time" (when the Xmas stuff shows up at OSH). At this point we start pulling stuff out of storage and begin checking lights (it's amazing how many burn out from Jan. - Nov.) After Halloween, we start doing things outside. Power and computer lines are run, and bushes and trees are wrapped. Also, during this time, Dave is programming the new songs. The real work starts on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving when the hydraulic lift arrives. We then go solid until we are done. Thanksgiving night is the first test of the major stuff. Friday night is the "dress rehearsal" and Saturday night is Opening Night. Some data points: Each magnolia tree takes about 8 hours. The rear tree takes about 4 hours. Putting up the icicles is 2-3 hours per house. Laying all the power and low voltage control lines (including water-proofing and debugging) takes about 15 hours. Wrapping a streetlight is a two man job minimum (three is better) and that takes about 1 hour per light. Repairing and hanging the garland lights in Andy's birch trees takes about 3 hours.
Actually, we start working in March. That's when we start throwing ideas around. We schedule a Tacky Committee meeting (pizza and beer) in early April to get approval and finalize the new designs. Then we start ordering parts and materials, building new elements and converting and reprogramming all the songs up until it's time to start putting it up.
2007 - We had to order LED's from China for the American Flag, order 8 LOR controller kits, and then build the flag, build the kits, and Andy had to build new globes which also required ordering 8 special 3 RPM motors with a "slip-ring" type power feedthrough. We started putting up the display on Nov. 1 and finished the day before Thanksgiving.
2008 - Decisions for the 2008 season were made on the second to last day of the 2007 season. Dave had to calculate controller and LED requirements and then find a vendor to purchase the lights from. Our order was placed in March and we received the lights in early August. We also had to procure and build seven new LOR controllers, build the strobe lights, mini trees and arches prior to putting up the display. We started putting up the display on Nov. 1 and finished on Nov. 28th.
Q: Do you pay people to put up your display?
A: No. We pride ourselves on it being a family and friends project.
2010 - Due to some extenuating circumstances with both families, we did pay a local handyman to wrap our trees.....
Q: How many people work on putting up the display?
A: It's mainly Dave Andy and Kelsey with some help from family and friends. In 2010, we had extra help from neighbor Marilyn Lee, Andy's co-worker Terri and her two daughters and brother-in-law Wes Sanders. Thank you!
Q: How long does it take to program a song?
A: It varies from approximately 2 hours for the simple songs to over 20 hours for the complex songs (like "Christmas Eve Sarajevo").
2007 - LOR just released new software a week before our Opening Night. As a former Software Manager I knew enough to stay very far away from that stuff for 2007. I haven't even downloaded it yet. But.... There are HUGE enhancements, improvements, etc. in LOR II, so our programming time should go down in 2008. Managing a 40 song playlist is a lot of work. Each year the configuration of each song changes as we add (and remove) channels. First we have to manually convert each song to get it back to the state that it previously was in, then we have to enhance each one with the new features that we have added. We had the basic configuration figured out in June, but I still haven't completely finished all the enhancements. This year we added 5 songs and dropped 7. See the new stuff page for more details on the songs.
2008 - Yes, LOR II was a huge help, once we got our minds wrapped around the new method of defining what a "timing" is.
Q: How many bulb do you replace each year?
A: In 2003, we replaced 629 bulbs prior to Opening Night. That's approximately 1.2% of our 54,000 lights. At that rate, we will have replaced all of the bulbs by 2086..... We replaced 716 bulbs in 2004. 747 in 2005. A trend? We hope not. 2006 - 514 bulbs! The trend has been reversed! 2007 - 434 bulbs. 2008 - 531 (75,000 lights). The additions of LED's should keep these numbers going down.
Q: Do you make everything, or buy it?
A: We try to make most things. That's half the fun! The following lighting elements are hand made: The Mega Tree, Icicles, rotating globes, American Flag II, Star over Severns' house, streetlight bundles of red and white, rock candy arches, mini-trees, strobes on the street lights, radio station sign/snow flurry housing, festival lights on the Severns privet tree. We buy the reindeer.
Q: Do you really follow the "No more than 3 strings connected end-to-end" rule?
A: Yes! The math doesn't lie. Each light string pulls between .3 and .4 amps. The fuses are 2 amp. At 4 strings, your factor of safety (FS) is nearly gone. Any extra load and..... ZZZZZap! Connect 5 strings and you're toast. This also means don't plug more than 30 strings to one 13 amp extension cord. Rule of thumb: If the power cord begins to feel warm, back off a few strings and get some more power from another circuit. You can plug many strings together at the plug end, just not end to end. If all the plugs are stacked, the additional load is traveling through the power cord and not the individual light strings. If you're really going crazy with lots of strings, you should buy a current clamp that will tell you exactly how many amps you are pulling through a given circuit. I got mine at Fry's for about $80. You can also buy a Watts Up? or a Kill-a-watt. These are also good for measuring power around the house to find the "Smoking Gun".
I have noticed that the LED strings (sometimes just 50 bulbs) say the same thing about no more than three. Their fuses are the same 2 amp fused that regular bulbs use. The power per string varies by color (blue and white take more power), but I measured that I could connect over 20 strings end to end and still be under the load of 3 incandescent strings connected together. So I threw that rule out the window when I connected 15 blue LED strings end to end to do the Reindeer Pond this year.
Q: Is Dave really such a Geek that he synchronizes the Xmas computer to an Atomic Clock server so the display starts at EXACTLY 5:30 pm every night?
2008 - We now run a Pre-Show that starts at 5:14 (there is a reason for that). But that means that the last song of the Pre-Show must finish before the next show starts. So even though the laptop still has perfect atomic time, the 5:30 main show doesn't start until slightly after 5:30.