When it comes to creating great Christmas lighting, nothing beats the pixel.
When you go by someone’s house and see color changing and blinking “bulbs” that each change color, you’re seeing pixels.
Or you see a smooth, wave of color slide across a home – you’re seeing pixels!
Pixels are individually color-changeable lights which are all wired together. They are different from regular Christmas lights because each light can change on its own. This is unlike regular Christmas lights or even “dumb” LED lights that only change by the whole strand.
Having the ability to change each and every light is not only magical but also a great way to make a high-impact Christmas light display.
And because these lights give us total control, we can choose whether we want to be flashy and fast-paced, or slow and smooth – or any mix of the 2!
In this article, I’m going to share with you how pixels work and show you some examples of what they may look like so that you can begin the planning process of putting your first Christmas light display together!
How Christmas Light Pixels Work:
In simple terms, Christmas light pixels are controlled via a type of serial data from a pixel controller. This pixel controller is then controlled by some sort of DMX (RS-485), Art-Net or sACN (e1.31) console or computer.
Popular types of pixels run via protocols such as WS2811 (and WS2812, WS2813 and many other variants), APA102, and TM1804.
The “WS” varieties are the most popular, and a really great type of pixel to run so we’re going to focus on those here.
When given the signal from the pixel controller, the first RGB pixel takes three channels of information. One channel for red, one channel for green, and one channel for blue.
The microchip inside the pixel then passes the rest of the information along to the next pixel, who also thinks that it’s the first pixel in the line.
Because each pixel takes its three channels and strips them from the data stream, pixels are assigned their order based on how you plug them in.
This has some massive advantages and a slight disadvantage.
It means that when you’re setting up, you just plug in your lights in the order that you want to control them. Then, they just work, and self-address. On the side of the pixel itself, you don’t have any settings or numbers that you have to assign.
The disadvantage to this way of working (not that you have a choice with pixels), is that if you have a prop or section go bad and need to remove it, you must replace it with the same number of pixels before your show runs again – or else any pixels after the “bad prop” will get the wrong information!
Now that we’ve got the data sorted out,
Pixels Need Power Too…
While your pixel controller may or may not provide power, after a certain distance, you’re going to need to add in more power.
Most commonly, you will see pixels that run off of 5v power or 12v power. Without going into the weeds on the differences, just buy 12v LED’s, and your life will be easier 🙂
And while I could write a whole book on different methods and ways you can inject power, for now, it’s just important that to understand that you’re going to need to power these lights separate from the data, but you can insert power at any point in your pixel chain that you need to.
The simplest way to inject power is with a “Power Injection Tee” that many sellers of pixels offer.
These special adapter cables insert wherever you need to inject power. They cut off the existing power while allowing the data to flow through the adapter and the new power is spliced in. All without having to solder!
This also is a huge advantage over traditional, ”dumb”, RGB LED lights that can’t be re-injected with power for a long run!
What Types of Christmas Light Pixels are There?
Now that we understand the basics of how pixels work, what do they look like?
One of the cool things about pixel technology is that pixels themselves aren’t limited to one look or one type of light.
Below, I’ve listed a number of different types of pixels that you may run into and show you what they look like. This by far isn’t a 100% complete list, but it does list the common types that you’ll see in most Christmas light displays.
As you think about the type of Christmas lights you might want to do on your home or business, the great thing is that you can mix any of these types together to make your show!
12mm Pixel “Bullet Nodes”
The most common type of pixel that you’re going to see is called the 12 mm “bullet” node.
This is a simple, waterproof pixel that is on a wire and looks a good bit like traditional Christmas lights.
The advantages? These are very inexpensive, and quite simple to repair as well. I like these a lot and use them often.
There are also many “props” that are designed to mount this type of 12mm node (or the “square” type below), to make various shapes, colors, and outlines on your home.
The only real disadvantage I see is that they do leak a lot of light behind them, and installing them into your props can get a bit tough on your hands.
Many places that sell pixels also offer “Pixel Pliers”, which do make this process a bit easier. Or, you can throw a party and invite all of your friends to help if you’re mounting many pixels. 🙂
12mm Square Pixel Nodes
Though these pixels cost a little bit more than the bullet nodes, they also don’t splash as much light back behind themselves.
This can be an advantage when you want to highlight the pixel, but a disadvantage on some props that are purposefully white-colored to catch the light that splashes back!
So, if your budget allows for it, it’s a good idea to buy these if you want to save a little bit of frustration and get a little bit of a cleaner look. At the time of this writing, it’s $2-$4 more for a 50 count string of square nodes, compared to the bullet nodes.
Personally, I’m on the fence. The cheapskate side of me keeps buying regular bullet nodes but I really do like the way that the square pixels appear and install, especially for house outlines!
Pixel Tape / Strips
Very popular in the entertainment industry as well as architecture, these are the first type of pixels that I was introduced to.
However, when it comes to using pixel tape or strips for your Christmas lights, it’s generally not a great idea.
Though waterproof strips exist, they often are not fully waterproof, or the waterproofing doesn’t last as you move around and work with the strips.
Also, doing repairs on pixels tape or strips is very difficult and time-consuming. Remember, we’re going to keep these things out in the rain, snow, wind, and other conditions, so it’s best to stick with other types of pixels that are much more repairable.
Pixel strips also are thinner, which requires you to inject power much more often.
Having worked with both the “cheap strips”, and the “expensive” architectural-grade strips, I can tell you that there is a major difference between what you get in a $20/5m strips vs a $200/5m strip. The inexpensive stuff that many of these holiday pixel vendors sell is very fragile and difficult to work with.
For this reason, I usually recommend going with a different type of pixel for Christmas lighting, because it’s just much less frustrating!
These models are often waterproof, and what sets them apart is the fact that you have multiple LEDs within each pixel. So, they’re larger and brighter for each “pixel”.
An example module shown here contains three LEDs. so each module is a pixel, and these three LEDs are all controlled together – not individually. And sometimes, that makes a lot of sense for the prop you’re designing!
These particular pixels come from the retail/sign-making industry and are often shipped without any plugs on them – just bare wire. Keep that in mind when ordering and planning your display!
The fairly obvious thing that sets these apart, is that they do use a pretty good deal of power, compared to other types of pixels.
But, the effect is really cool. Because they are many, many times brighter than a regular “bullet” pixel, they also cost a good deal more too. But, only a handful of these can create a nice wash of light across your home or yard, as each pixel puts out a ton of light!
When you move into the pixel world, you can get the exact same thing. Individually controllable, but instead of plugging in the regular power, these will plug into your pixel controller.
These give you that classic look, with the full functionality of pixels.
If you are going to buy this type of lights, please buy them from a pixel vendor and not the home improvement store!
Many people have tried using the “home improvement store” pixel bulbs with their pixel controllers, and while you can get them to work – they’ve proven to be significantly less reliable for only a little less cost.
These are usually a standard 12mm bullet-type pixel with a decorative lens on top. Sometimes, you can buy these in icicles and other form factors as well.
Anything You Can Imagine!
The crazy thing about pixels is that they literally can be any shape or size.
While these are the most common types you’re going to see, if you really look around you’ll find some really interesting shapes that you can make a part of your display!
Where Do I Buy Christmas Light Pixels?
Now that we’ve covered the types of bulbs that there are, and you’ve got an idea of what pixels you want to buy, where do you buy them?
You’re not going to find these at your local home improvement store. However, this doesn’t mean they’re overpriced, just slightly uncommon.
A Quick Note About Waterproofing...
Most electronics, these lights included, are given a rating by their manufacturer as to what the “IP”, or “Ingress Protection” rating is. This is a measure of how “waterproof” the lights are. You’ve probably seen numbers before like “IP65 Outdoor Rated”, and this roughly means that the unit is “waterproof” in rain.
The first number goes as high as 6, and deals with the ingress protection of solids (dust, etc). The 2nd number is all about liquids and goes up to 8 – total protection when submerged!
Most of the time, IP65 will do what we need (dust tight and waterproof against “jets” of water), and some pixels like bullet and square nodes are generally rated IP68. But remember, these IP ratings are assinged by the factory in China, so be careful – especially on more fragile pixel products, such as pixel strips/tape.
When you’re just getting started, my recommendation is to buy through a Christmas light vendor. For that, I’ve had great success with our DIY LED Express, and Wired Watts. There are others as well, but don’t waste your day comparing them – there are many with similar quality products. Find somewhere that works for you, and stick with it!
You can also buy pixels on Amazon, but you’ll pay too much, and products change so much on Amazon that you’ll have trouble getting matching pixels over time. Trust me, I know this from experience! Not good! 🙁
You can buy directly from China as well. However, it’s much easier to buy from someone here in the states.
Then, the vendor in the state takes care of making sure the quality is up to par and the products are consistent – an issue that many people have had when buying directly from China!
Consistency is key, and every detail of the pixel must be clearly communicated with the factory – from the type and size of wire, LED, plugs, quantity, etc.
Even with specifying all of this information, I’ve seen some occasions where folks still find something “new” has been added or changed since their previous order without notification. And you don’t know until you open the box that was delivered to your doorstep!
That’s why, in my mind, it’s best to order from a US importer like the ones I mentioned above, especially when you are first starting. It saves you a TON of details, at little extra cost!
Tip: If you’re buying a lot of pixels (multiple thousand), buy during a early-season “pre-sale” or email and ask the vendor for a custom quote – you’ll be glad you did!