Monday, October 10, 2011

Making A String of Plug-in Jack-O-Lanterns

My family likes jack-o-lanterns. Been too busy to make new ones lately, but the last several we did were the artificial foam rubber sort, which means we get to reuse them every year. But with ten of them on the porch, getting them lit every night got to be a nuisance - not to mention costing us a fortune in batteries every October. What I needed, I decided, was a way to light them up that I could plug into a wall outlet.

There were a few restrictions, though. Those fake pumpkins are melty and flammable, so it had to be a cool light. And I really wanted to mimic the flickering light of a candle, which meant no colored compact fluorescents. Last Christmas, though, I decided that LED Christmas lights would be just the thing, and this year, I finally got it done.

First, though, please note that I'm not an electrician. I can't guarantee that I did any of this right, that it won't set your pumpkins on fire, fry your wiring, or destroy your house. It's working for me so far - but the month is young. Try this at your own risk. Here's what I did.

1. Figure out how many lights you need. Like I said, I have ten to light, and the light strings that looked like my best choice came 60 to a string. Just guessing, I thought six would be too few, but 12 would be enough - so I bought two strings. As it happened, that seemed to work pretty well - somewhere in the 10-15 bracket is probably good.

2. Select your light strings. Critical to my plan was a multi-function set - I needed lights that would flicker or shift. It is also important to decide what colors you want. Obviously, red, yellow, and orange are best for imitating candles. All I could find, though, were white and multi-color sets, so I grabbed two multi-color strings. I knew there wouldn't be enough warm colors, so I picked up a third regular string (no special functions) for the spare bulbs.

This was my first surprise - same brand, bought at the same place, but the bulbs from the spare string wouldn't fit the multi-function string. Very annoying, especially since the multi-function sets turned out to be only three colors - red, green, and blue - which meant I was stuck with two-thirds the wrong colors. I strongly suggest you buy a completely identical set for your spares...and maybe open the box to see exactly what you're getting before you make your selection.

3. Get your extras - wire, connectors, electrical tape, and a wire stripper if you don't already have one. How much wire you need depends on how far apart your pumpkins are, and how many wires your light string have - remember you'll need to splice each wire separately. Since my multi-function sets had four wires, that meant even my reasonably small porch took four 25-foot spools. I discovered that the light strings use 18-gauge wire, but the smallest spools I could find were 16-gauge - seems to work, though.

4. Re-arrange your bulbs. Mentally divide your string into whatever number of lights you decided to use - mark them with bread ties, or clothespins, or whatever. If any of your pumpkins can use your blue and green bulbs, great - swap 'em out to get the extra reds and yellows for the others. Otherwise, you'll just need to swap bulbs from your spare strings.

This was my second surprise - LED bulbs are NOT reversible. If you put it in the wrong way, it may be dim or not light up at all, and may also dim the entire rest of the string. So as you're swapping bulbs, check it with each swap, and if one doesn't light, rotate it 180° and try it again. I found it easier to just leave the string plugged in while I was switching them out - which is probably not the right thing to do, but it worked for me.

I also discovered that you can swap LED bulbs in the bases, just like the old-style lights, when the bases from different strings don't fit. It turns out that most of the "bulb" is just a plastic cap, though, and the caps from different bulbs probably won't fit. For this purpose, it doesn't really matter - the bulbs won't show, anyway. But it's something to keep in mind for the ones on your Christmas tree.

Once you have all the lights set the way you want, it's time to start rewiring. Just snip each wire between the sets you've arranged, and splice in a length of wire to extend the set. I strongly suggest you do one wire at a time to make sure you don't get any of them confused. Accidentally splicing the wrong wires together would probably be a bad thing. I used wirenuts to do the splicing - just strip off a little insulation from both wires, twist them together, and twist on the wirenut. I then wrapped electrical tape around it all - partly to help hold it secure, but mostly to try to water-proof the connections a bit.

Repeat that for each wire...then again for each group of lights. Just like when you were swapping bulbs - plug the lights in and check your work frequently. (Obviously, this is NOT a good time to leave them plugged in while you work.) It would be very frustrating to get one bad connection and have to recheck or resplice half a dozen to find the bad one.

Eventually, you'll get all the wires done. It should look something like this:
And the hard part is done.

Now all you have to do is stick the lights in the pumpkins. Just lay them out, cut holes in the back of the pumpkins, and stuff the lights in.

Get them pushed down into the bottom of the pumpkin as best you can. Ideally, the bulbs won't show - the light will still glow just fine. (By the way, those are baggies full of aquarium rocks - fake pumpkins are very light, and tend to blow away if you don't weight them down. This lighting method has the added bonus of hooking them together. I'm hoping it will help hold them in place.)

Pick your light setting - something that will flicker and shift. Having several lights in there, preferably of slightly different colors, should give a nice candlelight effect. Or maybe you prefer a flashing set, or slow color change - whatever you like. Plug the string into a timer or dawn-to-dusk switch, and you should now be able to leave the whole thing alone for the rest of the month, and still have a nice display every night.

1 comment:

BobApril said...

Since I posted this on Friends of Epbot, I'm hoping for more visitors, so here's an update. After four years of use, the light strings are still working, and still haven't set anything on fire. So I'm pretty confident now that this works.