April 11, 2019

As you plan and begin to build your first Christmas light display, it’s important to think about fixing your pixels for when they break.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about Christmas lights from my childhood, I think about half working strands of lights that were near impossible to fix at times. And oh yes, they were tangled up too!

Like any Christmas lights that you put outside in all of the weather, your pixels are going to break.   

You will have problems from time to time. but never fear, because pixels are pretty simple, and can be repaired even more easily than regular Christmas lights.

When You Receive Your Pixels

The very first step into ensuring your pixels continue working well is to test all of your pixels when you first get them.

“Burning In Some Already-Loaded Pixels with a test pattern.

Many people call this “burning in”, and the process is very simple.

I like to go ahead and power up my pixels and run some sort of a test pattern on them. I may run them on that full white for an hour or two, and then run them on some kind of color changing pattern after that. The pattern is pretty key so that you can tell if there are any issues with the data along your strings as they heat up.

If there are any issues early on, you’ll spot them now.

I know in the past I’ve had strings that looked pretty good when I first got them, but only a few hours into running then I started to have bad pixels here and there.

Sometimes, a bad string gets past quality control. But, if you catch it before it’s up on your house, it’s much easier to fix!

Prepare for Broken Pixels

Once you have your display up, it’s time to prepare to fix your various pixels.

At a minimum, I like to have a few strands of extra pixels around. That way, I can pull the bad strands of lights out of service, and fix them when I have time without losing any parts of my show.

If you’re using any coroplast props, window edges, or Boscoyo strips, you’re going to want to have an extra one of those around too. That way, you can load it up and put it on your house, replacing the bad section quickly.

There are a few tools you’ll also want to have to for repairing pixels.  

Many people, myself included, have fixed many pixels with a soldering iron. However, solder sleeves are a newer and popular way to fix pixels, especially when they’re up on your house.

My biggest tip with sleeves is to make sure you heat up the wires well with your heat gun, even before they’re in the solder sleeve itself. The biggest issue that I see is that the wire doesn’t heat up enough for the solder to properly adhere to it, causing a bad connection later.

Diagnosing The Problem

When a pixel stops working, there can be a few different causes that require slightly different solutions. Here they are:

1. Bad Pixels That Don’t Pass Data

If a pixel doesn’t light up and the pixels after it do not respond, you’ll want to replace both the pixel that’s not responding and the pixel before it.

2. Pixel That Doesn’t Light, But Does Pass Data

However, if a pixel doesn’t light up, or only lights up in some colors, but still passes data, you’re good at leaving it in the chain until the end of the season.

This generally means that the electronics are fine, it’s just the LED itself has lost connection or broken.  If the dead pixel bothers you or is in a place that’s very obvious then you may want to replace it anyways!

3. “Strobes”, “Flashes”, or other Strange Behavior

Last, if you have flashes or lightning-like effects that aren’t supposed to be happening, then you’ve most likely got a ground problem or water intrusion.

Water often gets into the connectors that attach your pixels together or attached pixels to your controllers.

While these connectors are usually called “waterproof”, they are not truly waterproof connectors.  As a measure of prevention, you’ll want to use a few drops of Dielectric grease in order to prevent water from touching and sticking to the electronic parts.

If you have connections that are exposed to the rain and snow (and you most likely do!), be sure to place them with the female side of the connection up, and the male down.

That way, as water runs down the wire, it doesn’t get in and it won’t be able to “well up” inside the female socket.

Fixing the Pixels

As I mentioned above, you can either solder or use solder sleeves to fix your pixels. (And of course, like almost anything in this hobby, there are 100 opinions on what alternative connectors are best!)

To fix your bad pixels, you want to first identify the bad pixel and which way the data is flowing.  I like to mark the bad pixel with a Sharpie, right on the lens so I don’t miss it!

Turn off and unplug power to the strands that you’re going to be working with. To be safe turn off your whole display. 🙂

Then, cut out any bad pixels that you have with wire cutters. Remember, if the pixel is stopping the flow of data, be sure to cut out 1st non-working pixel as well as the last working pixel.

If the pixel simply doesn’t work but does allow the data past, then you only need to remove 1 pixel.

Then, you’ll want to strip the wires and use your favorite solder sleeves or a soldering iron and some adhesive lined heat shrink to keep the connections waterproof.

Finish it up carefully, making sure you solder the proper wires together. When you’re done, reapply power and test your pixels.

And just like that, you’ve repaired your pixels!

Hopefully, this won’t something that you have to do often.

If you buy pixels from reputable sellers, they shouldn’t be failing very often. Here’s to your fully functioning Christmas display!

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