Flashing Made Simple
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Flashing Made Simple

A Typical Project Chronicle

By Alan Dorman

As usual I will get a call out of the blue from one of my customers with a request to come by their shop at my earliest convenience to help them determine the components necessary to flash some new sign.

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  • This project involved flashing some channel letters that spelled "Grand Canyon Experience". At first it looked like all they needed was a simple spell on action where "Grand" was spelled on one letter at a time till they were all lit. Then "Canyon" then "Experience" till the whole sign was lit up. This whole project would take 21 points of animation. Indeed the specifications laid out by the designer stated that the "Grand" and "Canyon" letters would spell on one at a time then they would all flash on and off twice then stay lit while "Experience" lit up.

    The specifications for the word "Experience" caught my attention next. While "Grand Canyon" was to be made with block letters the letters for "Experience" were to be made with cursive style letters all connected together. The designer wanted these letters to spell on also but in a style that would make the word appear to be written in lights from the "E" to the "e" in a fluid motion. This would take more than 21 points! It would look jerky at best to completely light up each letter as the word was spelled on. I was told that "Experience" would have low wattage light bulbs lined all along the center of the word in groups of six, a compromise to driving each bulb individually and really increasing the point count. Just the word "Experience" would involve driving 84 points of animation. So the total point count for this project was now 11 plus 84 or 95 points of animation.

    The next step was to determine how much AC current each point of animation would need to illuminate the sign. The words "Grand Canyon" were to have their borders steady lit with neon so I didn't have to worry about driving these lights. Inside the letters would also be done with neon. Each letter required one neon transformer. The primary of each transformer draws approximately 3 Amps of AC current. This small amount of current could be driven by one of my 12 Point 10 Amp per point triac boards with one point to spare.

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    The word "Experience", all 84 points of it, would only draw 2 amps per point so 7 more 12 Point 10 Amp per point triac boards would be needed. The next step was to determine what kind of programmable controller would be used to drive the 95 points of animation by turning the triacs on the triac boards on and off in the correct sequence. I filled out a programming work sheet and determined that a 32 point controller and a 64 point controller (total 96 points of control) linked together with a 6 point controller as a master clock would be the package able to do the job. While I was waiting for the triac boards to be built I wrote the software for the controllers and hooked them up in the shop to see what the action looked like (all of my boards have LED lamps on board to show the animation). In order to get the word "Experience" to look like it was spelling on correctly I had to slow down the "Grand Canyon" action by a factor of four. The final action was "Grand" and "Canyon" spelled on at about 3/4 second per letter. Then they flashed on and off twice at one second per flash then stayed lit. Finally "Experience" whizzed from left to right at about 1/8 second per point giving a really spectacular and unique "feel" to the animation. The sign company could adjust the master clock on the 6 point controller to speed up, or slow down, the animation depending on the whims of the customer. Start to finish the whole project took three weeks.

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