18 Jul 2021
Holiday Light Displays, or Christmas Light Shows can be an addictive and as a result, expensive hobby which grows and grows each year. If you are just starting out with a light display, it is not just important to plan your purchase for your first display now, but the next display and the display after that. Each year you will want to build on to your display, not replacing it because of a bad choice when you started out, so it is best to get to know your pixels before you start.
The average bullet pixel is made up of an Integrated Circuit (IC) connected to a RGB LED light source. RGB Pixel strings are available in both 5V and 12V versions with the 12V being the most popular as it requires less power injection meaning you can run more pixels together in a single string without voltage dropping off. Both the IC and LED perform best at a working voltage of around 5V, which means that the voltage needs to be reduced from 12V before it meets the components. In RGB pixels, this is achieved with either a voltage regulator or with resistors. They both do the same job but in very different ways.
Resistors work by restricting the 12V input power down to give an output power of 5V required by the IC and LED. They are very simple small wire wound components which are very sensitive to changes in the expected input voltage. This is not a problem for shorter strings but as the voltage drops towards the end of your pixel string, you will start to see each pixel getting dimmer or even incorrect colours. If you put a higher power through the resistor, it will hit the LEDs and burn them out.
Pixels with a resistor are generally cheaper but work very well. They do however use about twice the power of regulated pixels and generally disburse more heat which can reduce the lifespan of the pixel.
Linear regulators are used to reduce the voltage, giving a consistent and steady 5V power to the IC and LED. The resistance of the regulator varies depending on the input voltage and the load, resulting in a constant voltage output no matter the input. This means that if you were to provide only 10V, the regulator will still provide the necessary 5v power, which is particularly useful for longer runs with drops in voltage towards the end of the string. As long as the regulator receives the minimum voltage required, it will continue to power each pixel like the first. You can even use higher input voltages to power your regulated pixel strings, although this is not recommended.
Regulated pixels are slightly more expensive but overall are considered the better pixel. They use about half the power of resistor pixels and produce less heat into the pixel head itself which generally helps to increase the lifespan of the pixel. Ideal for longer runs as each IC and LED will receive the required 5V regardless of voltage drops along the length of the string.
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