Today on the hookup we’re going to RGB all the things by installing individually addressable RGB LED strips in my backyard as landscape lighting, and we’ll figure out whether it’s stupid, genius, or a little bit of both.
My name is Rob, and I have a problem with individually addressable RGB LEDS. Seriously though, these strips are easy to use, super customizable, and in my experience pretty reliable, and lately I’ve been using them in all of my projects. My wife and I had been discussing landscape lighting for our backyard for a few years now, and we hadn’t come up with a solution we were both happy with. I briefly considered using those Philips hue outdoor lights, but at $280 for only 3 RGB LED spotlights I knew I could do better, and individually addressable LED strips sounded like as good of a solution as any.
As I said, I’m no stranger to LED projects. I have LED strips in my bedroom, my guestroom and my classroom, I’ve made custom clocks out of these LEDS, and I have permanently installed LED lights on my house’s roofline that have held up really well for the last 18 months since I installed them. I’ve had experience with the non water proof version of these strips for indoor use and my outdoor LEDS are the IP65 silicon coated variety, but for this project I decided to test out the IP67 version of LED strips just to do my due diligence and to be able to compare the longevity of the two options.
The goal of this project is to light up the palm trees behind our pool in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible. My original plan was to put in 6 vertical strips following the aluminum tubing of our pool screen, but I also wanted to be able to show you how these lights would perform in the more standard horizontal configuration since that is generally more applicable to landscape lighting, so naturally I decided to just do both, effectively doubling the amount of cutting and soldering needed for this project.
The exact strips I’m using are the WS2812B variety running on a 5 volts. In total I used 5 5 meter strips cut into 11 - 60 LED sections for a total of 660 RGB LEDS. As I mentioned before the strips I selected are IP67 waterproof, which means they should theoretically be able to survive being immersed in water up to 1 meter deep for 30 minutes without any negative impact as long as they are properly sealed. I spent a lot of time and effort ensuring that each strip was properly sealed on each end and the connections between them were waterproof, more on that later.
Speaking of wiring, I ran 14 gauge romex cable from the 5 volt 40 amp power supply located in a small cabinet on my covered patio to the first set of LEDS, these power supplies are absolutely not waterproof, so you’ll definitely need to mount it in a covered area. Because the data run is so long to the first LED I did need to utilize a logic level shifter to boost my data signal from 3.3V to 5V to prevent corruption of the signal.
The data wire runs across a horizontal strip, up the vertical strip, and then back down the vertical channel using 18 gauge wire to the next horizontal strip. Running along the entire horizontal section is 18 gauge power injection wire that will help to ensure that the brightness and color of each strip is consistent. After installing and testing all of this, I can tell you that more power injection is still needed if I want to run the lights at full brightness white. I’ll probably end up running some extra power injection directly from the first strip to the last one to try to fix the issue.
I 3D printed little junction boxes for the places where the strips connect. At each junction box I basically just needed to connect all 5 positive wires, all 5 negative wires, and then route the data signal properly from one strip to the next. I soldered each of these connections, covered them in hot glue, and then put heat shrink tubing on top of that. I am also considering filling each junction box with silicon to protect the connections. My only concern with that is that it will make any future repairs almost impossible, let me know what you think of that idea down in the comments.
My previous reason for not using these IP67 strips was that I was worried they would be difficult to work with and difficult to reseal when cut, and I was 100% correct about that. These things are a huge pain to deal with. After cutting my strips to length and soldering on new wires to the ends I needed to make sure everything was nice and waterproof. To do this I made sure all the connections were inside of the silicon sleeve and then I filled the ends with 100% silicon sealant rated for outdoor use. To give it a little more UV protection and make it look a whole lot nicer I also placed the strips inside these aluminum channels and covered them with the included plastic diffuser. On the vertical strips I sealed the top with silicon to prevent water from entering, but left the bottom open for water to drain out in the event that some did get in.
For the code I decided to add two different control zones, one for the horizontal strips and one for the vertical strips. Each zone can have a different brightness and a different color. In the future I may add some effects to the program but for now color and brightness will be enough. I’m running this off the same nodeMCU that controls my motorized patio shades, monitors the state of my backyard gate, and runs one of four auxiliary sirens for my house alarm. These ESP8266 nodemcu’s are extremely powerful microcontrollers and even with all of these different projects running off a single nodeMCU I’m not anywhere close to maxing out it’s capabilities.
Since these lights will be controlled via MQTT I needed to add two MQTT lights with color and brightness control to home assistant, one for the vertical sections and one for the horizontal sections. I chose to have the master power of the LEDS use the same state topic, but I could have set them up so they could be turned on and off separately.
And now it’s time to test them out to see if it was all worth it.
All 660 lights on at full brightness white is way too bright and not at all the effect I was looking for. Turning on only the horizontal strip looks very similar to most landscape lighting that I’ve seen, and using only green or blue makes for an interesting effect. As expected, red is barely visible since plants absorb almost the whole red spectrum of light. The vertical strips provide the most aesthetically pleasing light that looks similar to a well placed spotlight effect. I’m still playing around with different combinations, but I think I like blue on the horizontal strip and green on the vertical strips, the color is subtle but noticeable and using green light on palm trees highlights the leaves and not the wall concrete block wall behind them.
One issue that I didn’t forsee was that the structural cabling for my pool screen reflects the LEDS behind it, which is pretty districting, luckily since these are individually addressable strips I can easily just turn off those specific LEDS without needing to do any modification, I just created an array of LEDS that I want to stay dark all the time and I set those LEDS to black before calling the FastLED.show function. I could use this same method to reduce the brightness of specific LED sections if I needed to in order to create a completely customized look.
So is it worth it to use LED strips as landscape lighting? For my project I used 5 LED strips at $21 each, 25 meters of aluminum channeling at $2.30 per meter, a 5 volt 40 amp power supply at $21, 50 feet of direct burial romex wiring at $28, 1 tube of 100% silicon sealant at $5, and a logic level shifter that costs about a dollar, I used an existing NodeMCU, but I’ll go ahead and add $4 to the cost for completeness. That means my grand total for this project was $221.50, more than I thought I was going to spend, but still $50 less than the hue spotlights, but with a lot more customizability. If I had only done the horizontal segments my total would have been just over $100 for 10 meters, even less if I skipped the aluminum channeling.
LED strip landscape lighting isn’t going to work for every application, sometimes a spotlight is a better fit, but if you’re trying to light up a curved flower bed, or you have an existing structure that you can mount LEDS to I think strips are an excellent alternative to traditional spotlights. If you aren’t planning on cutting your strips you should consider using the IP67 silicon tubing version, but if you need custom lengths you should opt for the easier to work with IP65 variety, though I have heard that the IP67 version is significantly more resilient if you live in a climate that experiences freezing temperatures and snow.
Speaking of longevity, as I mentioned before, I’ve had individually addressable LEDS permanently installed on my roofline for 18 months without any issues… until a few days ago when lightning struck our electrical transformer and most things in my house that didn’t have a dedicated surge protector got cooked, including my 1 day old landscape LEDS and my roofline LEDS thankfully, in both cases the strips saved themselves. The first LED in each run acted like a fuse and burned itself out to protect the rest of the strip, and after removing that one LED I now have 659 working LEDS, probably not a common occurrence, but good to know I guess. I wish the fix was that simple for my $1500 pool pump that also got blown up by the lightning strike.
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