Sunday, October 10, 2010

Just a quickie

Threw together a couple of lanterns for my yard today.

Pretty simple, really. Just a couple of old jars I dug out of my neighbors garage (with her permission, of course.) I left the inside as dirty as I found them, but wiped the outside so I could dust them with pumpkin orange paint. I wrapped some fine steel wire around the top & twisted it so I could loop handles made from a wire clothes hangers through. I extended the hanger wire over the top & fastened one of the little clip on LED lights from Jacks tool shed. I didn't use the clip - I just taped the light to the wire.

Not sure yet how I'll display them. Thinking about a couple of pumpkin sentinels. Not much time to play...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sounds like...

I was looking around for a .mp3 player solution for a prop I had an idea for (more on that later), and came across a couple of boards at

The SD/Thumb drive board behaves just like a regular .mp3 player, but has the advantage of having the controls readily available so you don't have to tear one apart & hack the controls to use it. MP3 files can be stored on either a SD card or a USB thumb drive.

The board that really piqued my interest, however, was the serial TTL interface SD board (sold out as of this writing - sorry). This board is controlled by TTL level serial commands, making it a prime candidate for control by an EFX-Tek controller or a pic or Picaxe microcontroller. The board supports direct play of up to 199 .mp3 files, as well as random playback of a single track.

I have both these boards and can verify that they do work as advertised. Now to use them in a prop... :)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

One of those "why didn't I think of that" moments

Just ran across this really cool reststor value card over at Instructables. One of those cool little things that can make life easier. I keep a resistor color chart pinned to the back of my bench, but this would be much quicker and easier to use.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Capacity for capacitance

And then there's the capacitor. Simply put, a capacitor stores electricity. When a charge is applied to the capacitor, it is stored until a path is available for the current to flow. You might think "Oh, so it's like a battery." (C'mon, admit it. You might think that...) Well, it is and it isn't. Aside from the technical differences in how they're made, (a capacitor is a series of plates separated by an insulator, a battery consists of plates made of dissimilar metals suspended in an electrolyte) the capacitor charges and discharges very quickly, while the battery takes it's own sweet time.

The ability to charge and discharge quickly makes them handy in a couple of ways. Using a capacitor in parallel with a heavy reactive load like a motor or power amplifier can provide an extra "shot" of power when a load is suddenly applied. That's handy if you want to put big subwoofers in your car, but isn't used too often in a yard haunt.

What does come in handy is the capacitor's ability to filter out spikes in voltage. Halloween props very often involve the use of devices like pneumatic solenoids, relays, and motors that present a highly reactive load to a power supply. It's also very common for those props to be triggered or controlled by sensitive controllers. Putting capacitors in parallel with the power leads of the controller smooths out any voltage spikes the props might create. The charging and discharging of the capacitor smooths out the peaks and dips in voltage.

Think of it this way. Lets say your highly successful haunt has a straight queue line. As people come up in groups of 2 or 3 (or 10) the pressure on the line (voltage) rises and falls.

Now if you take a chapter from Disney's attraction design and add a "stretching room" like the Haunted Mansion, the flow of people is smoothed out.

Capacitance is measured in farads, and capacitors have a maximum voltage rating. For filtering purposes the smaller the farad rating, the faster it charges and discharges. That means that smaller capacitors filter higher frequency spikes, while the larger ones handle lower frequencies.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Playin' around with VSA

OK, so in the past I've used I.R. sensors & pressure mats to trigger props. It's always worked OK, but there have been times when the triggers failed, or the timing was off, or (worst of all) the props have been too frightening for the young TOT's & I've wished they didn't fire. I like the of manually triggering the props, but don't want to be tied to a wired control panel. I could use a simple wireless remote, but why do that when I can do it a much geekier way?


The routines in the video are just audio only examples, but they are .vsa files. I'm using Monkey Basic's awesome Helmsman to pre-load the VSA files, and a free program called EventGhost to trigger them. EventGhost has a web server plug-in that lets you create web pages with buttons on them that can trigger events on the computer. (EventGhost can do lots of other things, too. The learning curve is a little steep, but once you're past it you can do some really cool stuff.)

The video's just a proof of concept & I still have a few bugs to work out, but it works!
Once I get the kinks worked out I'll write up a how - to.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

enter the drago - er, ah, diode?

This is an easy one - Put simply, a diode lets current flow in one direction, but not the other. Kinda like a check valve.

A couple of things to remember about diodes - a diode will cause a bit of voltage loss in a circuit. This is referred to as forward voltage drop, and is usually around .5 - .7 volts. Diodes also have a maximum reverse voltage. If this is exceeded, the diode will break down and allow the current to flow in the wrong direction (that'd be bad, mkay?)

The polarity of a diode is denoted by a stripe on one end of the diode. Current flows into the end furthest from the stripe and passes out the other, but not the other way 'round.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Aah, the transistor. Where would we be without it? For starters, I wouldn't be sitting on the couch writing this post. The computer would be a bit too big and expensive for that, what with all the vacuum tubes it would take to make it work. As it is there's far more processing power in my laptop than there was on the Apollo space capsule that put men on the moon, thanks to the transistor.

But what is a transistor, exactly? A transistor is a semiconductor that allows a low current to control a much higher current. (I'm not going to go into what exactly a transistor is, 'cause it's boring.)

I'm going to limit this post to basic bi-polar junction transistors, although the basics apply across many other types of transistors as well. Transistors can be used to amplify current, or be used as a switch. For the circuits I'll be building for my haunt the transistors will be primarily used as switches, so that's what I'll focus on here.

There are two types of bpj transistors - PNP & NPN. This refers to the polarity of the junctions in the transistors, and determines how they are connected and used.

Transistors have three connections - the base, emitter, and collector. In a NPN transistor, a small amount of current applied to the base allows a larger current to flow from the collector to the emitter and on to ground.

Power is connected to the load, and the negative connection of the load connects to the collector of the transistor. A small current applied to the base allows the current to flow from the collector through the emitter and on to ground, completing the circuit.

In the above diagram you'll notice a couple of resistors. The resistor between the base and the trigger source is vital to the longevity of the transistor. The connection between the base and the emitter has very low resistance, and when power is applied to the base the connection is close to a short circuit. This would cause what's called "thermal overrun" (a fancy way of saying the transistor would get really hot).

OK, great. So we need a resistor, but how do we know what resistor to use? Too much resistance and the transistor won't reach saturation and pass the full amount of current needed, too little resistance and too much current passes through the transistor and it burns up. Never fear, there's a way to figure it out, & all it takes is a little math (you know, the stuff we learned in school that we never thought we'd need to know...)

When you look at the specifications of a transistor, you'll see DC collector current and hFE. The DC collector current is the highest sustained current that the transistor can handle, and the hFE is the forward current gain (not sure why they call it hFE, but if they called it fcg we haunters might confuse it with a flying crank ghost.) To figure out what value resistor we need, we have to figure out how much current the base requires for the transistor to reach saturation. This is simply the DC collector current divided by the hFE. So for example, if we have a DC collector current of 5 amps and a hFE of 1000, the base current would be .005 amps, or 5 milliamps. To ensure saturation it's a good idea to increase this a bit, so we'll multiply the base current by 1.2 in our final calculation. To find our resistor value we go back to Ohm's law - V/I = R. Assuming we're dealing with a 12 volt circuit, our calculation would be 12/(5 / 1000 * 1.2) = 2000, or 2K ohms.

The other resistor in the circuit isn't critical, but can help if you have erratic switching. In the case of the NPN circuit the resistor is considered a pull-down resistor. It's job is to hold the base low when no trigger voltage is present. The value of this resistor isn't critical, but should be significantly higher than the base resistor. A good rule of thumb is to multiply the base resistor's value by 10 for the pull-down resistor's value.

A PNP transistor is similar to the NPN, but instead of applying current to the base to trigger current flow, you apply ground.

In this case power is applied to the emitter, and when the base is grounded current passes through to the collector and into the load.

The resistor calculations are the same, but in this case the second resistor's job is to hold the base high when the transistor isn't triggered (called a pull-up resistor in this case).

Transistors are very versatile - you'll be hearing about them a lot in the future. Unless of course you get sick of my ramblings and quit reading...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Resistance is futile

OK, so we've covered some of the basic terms we'll run into in simple circuits. So now lets look at some of the components we'll use to actually build them.

Lets start with the lowly resistor. A resistor limits the current flow in a circuit (I know, we've already established that.)

More specifically, a resistor is a device that is added to a circuit to control and limit the flow of current. The resistance of a resistor is fixed and not affected by the flow of current or changes in voltage. (There are variable resistors, but they don't count.) (OK, they kinda count, but we're just talking about plain old resistors right now.)

For some strange reason, resistors aren't marked labeled with plain markings. That would be too easy. Instead, they're marked with a series of colored stripes. The colors denote the value and tolerance of the resistor.

Resistors also have a wattage rating that denotes the overall safe power rating of the resistor.

There are some really good resistor color code calculators online.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Watts the deal?

In my last post I tried to explain voltage, current, and resistance. Not too sure how well I succeeded, but no matter. Ever forward, right?

There's one more term that we'll see frequently - watts. Watts (W) are a measure of power, and are calculated by multiplying current by voltage. So if you have a 100 watt light bulb that runs off 120 volts, that bulb would draw .84 amps (100 watts divided by 120 volts). Pretty simple, huh?

So, what's the benefit of knowing all this, you may ask. Well, for starters you can figure out if you have enough power to run your haunt before you overload your power supply and burn your yard up (that would be bad). Just add up the total amperage draw for each circuit & make sure your power supply has a high enough amperage rating to exceed the total load.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just who is this Ohm fella, anyway?

In some of my previous posts I've talked a bit about some electronics projects I've been playing with. I've had some very positive feedback so far, but I've also had quite a few questions. So before I go on I thought I'd explain some of the electronic terms I'm talking about and how they affect each other.

So let's start with current. Current is the volume of electrons flowing through a circuit. If you think of electrons as people walking through your haunt, then current would be the number of people that it would take to keep the haunt full.

Current is measured in amperes, commonly abbreviated as amps. Lets say your haunts pathway is wide enough to allow two people to walk side by side, and it's always full because your haunt rocks. So for the sake of this explanation we'll say your haunt draws two amps.

The width of the path in this example is what limits flow. That limiting factor is called resistance.

Hallways, doors, props, and actors all increase the resistance to the flow of people. Similarly, wires, resistors, caps, microcontrollers, and virtually everything else in an electrical circuit contribute to the overall resistance.

Since you've built such an incredibly awesome haunt you have people lined up for blocks waiting to get in. Those people don't like waiting in the cold so they start pushing on the people in front of them, causing pressure. That pressure is called voltage.

So now we have three basic elements of electrical circuit design: current, resistance, and voltage. Back in 1827 this German guy named Georg Ohm didn't have anything better to do, so he figured out how current, resistance, and voltage relate to each other. What he came up with was Ohm's law (Georg was a bit narcissistic). Ohm's law states that I = V/R, where I is current in amps, V is voltage, and R is resistance in Ohms. (Yes, resistance is measured in Ohms. I'll bet that stroked old Georg's ego.)

So lets say things are running smoothly in your haunt. Then unexpectedly a bus load of German tourists shows up to check things out. They've heard great things about the 3-axis flying crank trash can trauma you've built, and in their excitement they start pushing, increasing the pressure (voltage) on the people going through. In order to keep things running smoothly, you can either a: increase the capacity or speed of your haunt (increase the amperage), b: remove obstacles (decrease resistance), or c: sedate the Germans (lower the voltage).

As long as you know 2 of the 3 values, you can figure out the third.

This diagram will help with Ohm's law calculations. Cover the variable you're looking for, and then perform the remaining calculation.

(Note: I'd like to apologize to any German bus tourists - I meant no offense. I'd also like to apologize for any unintentional snarkyness in this blog post. I'm not sorry for the intentional snarkyness, though.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

millicandelas and you!

In my previous post about LED wiring I discussed current ratings and voltage specifications, & how to wire LEDs so they don't catch fire (we hope). What I didn't talk about is what you get for all your trouble when you build a project using LEDs. Will that spotlight be bright enough to light your tombstone? Will your flying crank ghosts eyes be so bright they blind your trick-or-treaters? Hopefully this post will help us figure that out. A disclaimer - I'm no expert. If you're planning on building something critical like your own LED car headlight (please don't) then please look elsewhere for your technical guidance. This information is intended to point you in the right direction, but again I'm not an expert.

An LEDs brightness is measured in millicandelas. A millicandela - commonly written as mcd - is 1/1000 of a candela. A candela is equal to the light output of 1 candle. The light output of a lightbulb is commonly measured in lumens. 1 candela is roughly equal to 1 lumen. There are much more scientific definitions for both, but talk of steradians and 555 nanometer frequencies tends to put me to sleep. What we really need to understand is that your average 60 watt 120 volt incandescent light bulb puts out about 460 lumens:

and this LED puts out about 40,000 mcd, or about 40 lumens:

This is one LED at about 5 feet on a very dark night (sorry for the blurry pic, it's clipped from a video).

When you look at the specs of an LED you'll notice that there is usually listed an angle or viewing angle. This represents the directionality of the light output. Basically, the smaller the number the tighter the "beam" of light (think flashlight). This is important in that the tighter the beam, the smaller the effective useable area. For reference, the LED in the second picture above has a viewing angle of 12 degrees. At roughly 5 feet it effectively illuminates a 26 inch tall tombstone with very little overlap.

So basically, if you're wanting to build some cave eyes the 400 mcd LEDs from Radio Shack would work OK, but if you're wanting to illuminate your 7 foot tall Pumpkin Rot you'll probably want to look for something brighter.

There are some very good mcd to lumen calculators on line.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sparkfun free day goodness

I was lucky enough to get in on Sparkfun's free day a month or so ago. I figured this would be a good chance to play with some picaxe stuff, so I scored a few 08m chips & prototyping kits,& an 18m chip & board.

Now to see what kind of spooky trouble I can cause with it...:)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

LEDs and power

(Warning: longish, dry, kinda techie post)

Since I posted my LED spot light how to I've received quite a few questions, mostly about how to power them. The simple answer is there's no simple answer. LEDs don't behave like light bulbs, and powering them without damaging them requires you to take a few things into account. I'm by no means an expert on the matter, but I'll do my best to explain what I know about the way they work.

LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. A diode is a semiconductor that acts like a traffic cop on a one way street - It lets current flow in one direction, but not the other. An LED has the same electrical characteristics as a regular diode with the added benefit of - you guessed it - emitting light.

There are 2 specifications of an LED that we need to pay attention to - the current rating and the forward voltage. These represent safe values and are different for every LED. There's no specification for the resistance of an LED, because the resistance isn't constant. The amount of current that passes through an LED increases exponentially in relation to the voltage. So for example if an LED passes 1 mA (milliamp) of current at 1 volt, it would pass 2 mA at 2 volts and 4 mA at 3 volts. The manufacturer's specs are for a safe current level. The brightness of an LED isn't proportional to either the voltage or current, and the manufacturers specs will usually give you pretty much the max brightness you will get. You might be able to squeeze a little more brightness out of one by increasing the voltage or current, but you'll likely dramatically shorten the LED's life span.

So, OK, that last paragraph was a great cure for insomnia. But how do we calculate what resistor we need? Ohm's law, baby! R = V/I. The needed resistance (R) is equal to the power supply voltage minus the forward voltage (V) divided by the desired current (I). To use the spotlights I built as an example, I have a 12 volt power supply and an LED with a forward voltage of 3.4 volts. The voltage across the resistor (V) would be (12 - 3.4) = 8.6 volts. The desired current (I) is 20 mA or .02 amps. So, we have 8.6 (V) divided by .02 (I) = 430 (R). Since there's no standard 430 ohm resistor, we'll go up to the next standard size of 470 ohms. Easy as falling out of bed, right? Of course, that's just for 1 LED...

There are 2 ways you can wire LED's - series and parallel. Parallel circuits have all the positive leads connected to the positive lead of the power source and all the negative leads connected to the negative.

Series circuits have the power supply connected to the positive lead of one LED, and the negative lead of that LED connected to the positive lead of the next LED and so on, with the negative lead of the last LED in the circuit connected to the negative lead of the power source.

I chose to wire mine in parallel because for my setup it offers the most flexibility. I can add as many lights as I want as long as I don't exceed the amperage rating of my power supply. In a parallel circuit amps are king. The supply voltage requirement remains constant, but you need to add up the amperage draw of all the lights on the circuit & make sure you don't exceed the output capability of your power source. (I wouldn't recommend loading your power supply to the max - try to stay below 80% of the rated current.) In a series circuit, the current draw remains constant but the cumulative forward voltage can't exceed the supply voltage. For example, 3 LEDs each with forward voltages of 3.4 volts could be run in series on a 12 volt supply (3.4 * 3 = 10.2) but 4 couldn't (3.4 * 4 = 13.6). Current limiting resistors are still necessary in both series and parallel circuits. The calculations are the same, but you have to use the cumulative values. 3 of the example LEDs in series would need a 90 ohm resistor. A 12 volt supply voltage minus the cumulative forward voltage of the LEDs of 10.2 volts divided by 20 mA (12 - 10.2)/.02 = 90. The same 3 LEDs in parallel could use a 150 ohm resistor. 12 volt supply minus 3.4 volts forward voltage divided by the cumulative current of 60 mA (12 - 3.4)/.06 = 143.33333. The beauty of the parallel circuit is that you can use one resistor per light and not have to worry about recalculating your resistor values every time you want to add or remove a light.

Of course you could save yourself a bunch of trouble and just use one of the many online calculators... :)