Misc. Questions & Answers

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It's impossible to answer every possible question in one place, but here are a few questions that are often asked, and some answers...

  • Q: Why are controllers often 8, 16, or 24 channels? Why not 10, 20 or 30? This is because of the electronic chips used in the controllers. Manufacturers of digital electronics chips often make them as 8-bit, 16, 32 or 64-bit devices, and digital electronics works best when numbers are evenly divisible by digital "bits." It would certainly be possible to create a 10 or 20 channel controller but in so doing, it's likely that some of the capability of the digital chips used to create it would go unused because 10 is not evenly divisible by 8, 16 or 32. For example, to make a 10 channel controller you might have to design a 16-channel controller and then not connect 6 of the channels. Seems wasteful...
  • Q: I have a Mac computer. Why isn't there more software for this hobby for Macs? Apple computers and operating systems generally aren't as openly accessible as Windows-based computers are in either software development or hardware and therefore, developers have gravitated to the easier development platforms. There are Windows-emulators for Mac that you can use and several DIY'ers do exactly that. Same with Linux computers -- running Windows applications inside an emulation shell. How to do that is beyond the scope of this answer though. Just know that it's possible. Remember, much of the software provided by hobbyists for hobbyists is FREE, and while the overall quality is quite excellent, understand that it's not backed by multi-billion dollar software corporations and consequently won't be packaged in quite the same way, either. You often get what you pay for but most DIY'ers have found the available software to be quite exceptional. One case in point is the rather excellent xLights software, which is available for the PC, Mac and Linux!
  • Q: I've never joined a forum before. How do you get answers to questions? The forum has many general (and some specific) topic areas. You'd open a NEW THREAD inside a topic area that seems appropriate for the gist of your question. For example, if you had a question about football, you wouldn't put it in a topic called "Basketball." Give the thread a meaningful title and be as complete as you can in asking your question, specifying the kind of controller and kind of lights (or other thing) you're trying to control or the problem you're having. Then sit back and wait for an answer. The forum is generally busy and it won't be long before someone "chimes-in" on your new thread with either a reply or if more clarification is needed, a return question asking you for more information. Also understand that DIYers are usually creative and you may get several answers because often, there are likely several solutions to your question. By the way, if you want fairly quick replies, understand that it's not very helpful to make the thread title generic such as "Need Help" or "Controller doesn't work." Make your thread titles more specific such as "Need help setting up DMX," "Having trouble flashing a chip," or "Pixel Controller won't work," etc. to give other DIY'ers some direction as to the kind of help you seek.
  • Q: I've read everything and it seems like this hobby is loaded with little gotchas and tricky little problems. Isn't there something closer to plug-and-play? No. But you can go to Home Depot and buy a Mr. Christmas setup for $100 and have a lot of fun with that. If you want the really wild, exotic, virtually unlimited and complete control and flexibility of a light show that's coordinated to the special music you want to use, there isn't a plug-n-play solution that you can do yourself. If your pockets are deep enough you can, of course, hire a decorating company to do it for you.
  • Q: I'm interested in getting started but I don't know the first thing about anything electrical. Can other DIY'ers help?" Well, don't feel alone. Many electronic hobbyists started out wearing the same shoes! This is not a hobby that you'll conquer in one season -- it's a long-term hobby and you can learn as you go along. A good starting place is to visit your local Home Depot, Lowes or library and pick up a beginners guide for home electrical wiring. Learn about home electrical safety and what the different colored wires mean because they are NOT interchangeable! Then learn a little about DC electricity and yet another set of colored wires. It's not hard to do and might take only a couple weeks to grasp the basics. You'll learn about voltage, current and polarity (+ and -) and that while AC power is different than DC power, there are some logical similarities. Along the way you'll pick up information in the forum and in the chat room (if you use it) and your knowledge and skills will grow gradually as you continue to build your display. Take your time and above all, have fun doing it. You'll discover that it's really not that hard to do!
  • Q: I have dyslexia so it's difficult for me to grab some of these concepts. Where can I get help with putting up a show? With all due respect, you first need to realize that this hobby involves using dangerous electricity -- the kind that can kill you. If you suffer from a learning or physical disability that may hamper your ability to properly observe electrical safety guidelines, you should re-think whether you should get involved in this hobby in a do-it-yourself manner or at least how much of it you may be able to tackle on your own. The potential dangers one encounters in this hobby should not be taken lightly.
  • Q: I don't have the time or interest to build the electronic gear. Can somebody build them for me? It may be possible to hook up with another DIY'er for some help, but most have their hands full working on their own projects. The practice of assembling electronics for others to purchase is called manufacturing, and that concept is counter to the idea of "doing it yourself." Don't be insulted if you don't get any takers on a request for such assembly services. It's just that very few DIY'ers have the inclination to get into the manufacturing business and encumber themselves with product liability issues and the expensive insurance necessary to adequately address them. This hobby is "DIY" for a reason, and now you know why.
  • Q: I keep seeing comments about electrical safety. That seems complicated. Do I have to follow all those rules? This is a big-boy hobby in which people can be seriously injured or killed by electricity. We aren't going to tell you what safety shortcuts you can get away with and which you can't. Don't take electrical safety for granted. Learn about it and follow the electrical safety guidelines. NONE of the DIY electronics is U/L approved and actually, if you're not a licensed electrician, any modifications that you make to your home's electrical wiring can negate your homeowners' insurance policy should a fire or other problem occur from any such modifications.