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Tech we have deployed for Halloween

It started back in 2002. My wife brought home a large inflatable spider, something new for the exterior decor at Halloween. I struggled to find a way of using it that seemed appropriate.

In the end, I decided to give it context by building suitably large, lit spider web in the font yard. It spanned the gap between the house and a very tall Loblolly pine in the corner of the yard.

The children came in droves, and were filled with awe. They left with candy, and it was good.

Every year we try something new. We occasionally drop something that didn’t work quite as well as we hoped. This year I’d like to highlight a few things we’ve used that work very well.

1. Smart Plugs

Between the spider web and other things, we deploy quite a bit of lighting. Most of the lights are just 100 ct strings of orange incandescent lights. There are some LED flood lamps and several fog machines. On the big night, it’s great to be able to turn this stuff off quickly and easily once the candy runs out. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, it’s nice to be able to turn off some things after 1am to reduce power consumption.

This is made more difficult by the fact that power is sourced from different locations. Fog machines can draw from 500 to 1500 watts, so load balancing is a concern. There are several circuits involved, to spread the load.

Amazon Smart Plug

For the past couple of years we have deployed a few Wi-Fi enabled Amazon Smart Plugs. These little wonders work really well. They list for $24.95, but I’ve bought them for under $10 from Woot.com. Setup is easy using a smart phone. Since we already use Amazon Echo, it was a familiar process.

Once setup, you can turn the switch on/off using the Alexa app, or by voice. In our case, I programmed a schedule to turn them on/off. There’s also a button on the side of the device, to change status manually, or in the case of loss of connectivity.

More recently, we’ve switched to using smart plugs from the TP-Link Kasa range. These are very similar to the Amazon smart plug but hold one advantage – they don’t require internet access. Once installed they can be controlled directly from a smart phone app, or more interestingly, from a local Home Assistant server.

Early in 2020 we adopted Home Assistant running on a Raspberry Pi 4 as the core of our household automation. This allows our automation to remain active during an internet outage and makes coordination of disparate devices much easier.

Have you ever noticed how North American outlets look like they’ve been watching you, and they’re more than a little worried about what you’ve been doing!

2. Philips Hue Lights

It was frustration with Belkin WEMO in combination with Halloween that motivated our adoption of Philips Hue lighting. There’s a wonderful third-party app called Hue Halloween that’s the core of how we handle The Great Pumpkin.

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The Great Pumpkin is a 100+ pound pumpkin that Stella carves each year. It’s the centerpiece of one side of the yard. sits atop a stand made from monster mud covered Sonotube. The stand has holes bored around the top. A bright orange fluorescent lamp lights the inside of the stand, through which fog is blown. The pumpkin internals are animated by a single Hue color-changing bulb controlled by Hue Halloween.

Hue Halloween runs on an Android device, providing a soundtrack of spooky music and sound effects. It’s pretty creepy. In years past we’ve used it for The Great Pumpkin, but augmented with a separate music track. This year we used just Hue Halloween, piping the sound into a beefy Behringer powered audio monitor located behind the pumpkin.

Sadly, I don’t have any really nice video of The Great Pumpkin in action. Here’s a sample of Hue Halloween that I found on YouTube.

3. Fog Machines

Over the years that we’ve been doing this we’ve used more than a dozen(!) different fog machines. At first we used the small ones that you get from party supply places. These are typically in the 300-700 watt range. We learned that you probably want a remote control, preferable with timer capability. That way you don’t need someone controlling the fog all night.

Cheap Fog Machine

We also found that, if you want really creepy stays-along-the-ground fog, you need to seriously cool the fog as it comes out of the machine. Years ago we made fog chillers to augment the fog machines. There are DIY designs on the internet, here and another. While an interesting project, these proved unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Eventually one or two makers of fog machines clued-in and started to include a metal compartment right in the machine. Load them up with some dry ice and you have a more compact, convenient solution.

The Mister Kool series from American DJ are excellent example of this. We currently own two of them. They cost around $150 on Amazon.  They’re more heavy duty than the cheaper machines, but as a result you probably won’t find them locally available.

The heater determines how fast the fogger will work, and how long it will run before it has to cool down. Mister Kool has a 500 watt heater, while the second generation, Mister Kool II, has a 700 watt heater. The claimed fog output is 3,00 cubic feet/minute.

Mister Kool II

While an big improvement over the dirt cheap fog machines, Mister Kool was not without issues. The pump failed on one of ours, which was a first generation model. For the price I would have liked to repair it, but this proved impossible.

In frustration I decided to go all-the-way and buy a MUCH larger unit, the Ridgeyard 1500 watt fog & smoke machine. Where common foggers are the size of a loaf of bread, Mister Kool perhaps twice that size, this device four times larger again. It’s the size of a trunk or foot locker!

Ridgeyard 1500 watt fog & smoke machine

Its fluid tank can hold 2.5 liters of fogging fluid and the forward compartment can readily hold 10 pounds of dry ice. While only a little more expensive than Mister Kool, it’s a much more serious machine, capable of continuously creating fog all night.

It came with a removable, wired remote control with and adjustable timer. Also a wireless remote control that look like a key fob from a car. It even has a DMX interface, allowing it to be controlled by show automation systems common to lighting systems.

With a 1500 watt heater this fogger goes the distance, producing a maximum of 18,000 cubic feet/minute.

Best of all, it does exactly what we need….consistently makes creepy, ground clinging fog over a period of hours.

The Mister Kool foggers are pretty good. The Ridgeyard fogger is AWESOME.

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Grumpy Cat was not grumpy about the fog this year! The combination of favorable weather (not too wet, warm or humid) and good equipment made for very nice, creepy fog.

By the way, the vendors claim that the large holding area equipped with a drain allows low-lying fog machines to use traditional (water) ice in the coolant chamber. Don’t you believe it.

The effect is much more reliable if you use dry ice, which has over 10x the cooling capability of normal ice. You have to be careful handling dry ice. I use heavy duty leather gloves, like BBQ gloves. Unlike normal ice, there’s be nothing to drain. No resulting puddle in the yard. Also, I don’t have to handle wheel barrow loads of melting ice, which happened one year.

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