Choreographing the Water: Show Control Systems

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As backyard and commercial water features have grown more sophisticated, so have their coordination and control. This article explores the technology of “show” controls, from basic to complex, which attempt to choreograph water movement with music and lights.

For most pools and spas and water features, simple, mainstream-market controls are sufficient to meet customer needs and desires. But with the ever increasing demand for automation, remote control (think Smartphone), and more sophisticated and controllable LED lighting and effects, a proper show control system can meet a lot of client desires (at a cost appropriate for the project budget)! 

The Essentials – Switches, Timers and Relays 

Even the simplest single pump fountain needs to be powered up. Of course this can be done manually with the flip of a circuit breaker or light switch, but the core of what can be considered automated show control incorporates one or more timer. Almost everyone is familiar with timers, from those rotary things you stick plastic pins into to neat digital displays with battery backup, so this probably does not need explaining. 

The next step up in timer automation is with the use of relays…a timer activates a relay, which in turn, powers a device or subsystem. This too is pretty self-explanatory and traditional. 

PLCs 

PLC stands for Programmable Logic Controller. PLCs are vintage technology, having their roots in industrial automation. Today’s PLCs have evolved programming interfaces that are user-friendlier than the days of eye-straining Ladder Logic flowcharts, but they are best handled by those with everyday experience programming them. For a small-scale project, incorporating a PLC and hiring a PLC programmer may not make sense to the overall budget. From a creative content producer’s (show programmer) perspective, PLCs are so 20th Century and best relegated to low level controls for medium to large installation sanitation/filtration control and monitoring. 

Architectural Controls 

There are several suppliers of architectural controllers. These systems have extendible capabilities via add on modules, and therefore can scale to the need. However, like PLCs, there is a high learning curve to the software, especially when systems have expanded to support new functions rather than encompassing them from the get-go, and can therefore be circuitous and non-intuitive to confront. Also like PLCs, these systems are not inexpensive, and best programmed by expert consultants (and not installers and end-users). 

Traditional Show Controls (DMX-based) 

Sequenced water features have traditionally employed a digital communications protocol known as DMX-512, which is a standard for theatrical lighting control. There are many software/hardware systems available, which output DMX. And there are many straightforward products which process DMX for control of relays, pumps, and pump controls (VFDs), while most commercial water-rated LED fixtures accept DMX directly for control. 

The sophistication and scalability of DMX systems vary widely, but most handle up to mid-range installations in stride. Both proprietary hardware and PC-based solutions are commonplace. DMX systems often support synchronized audio and video playback, so can be employed for musical show production as well as standalone water and light sequencing. 

It is at this level where things get a lot more interesting than PLC or Architectural control systems for the budget-conscious business person. Because DMX started as a theatrical standard decades ago, the technology has trickled down to the disco, church and school auditorium, etc., which are often programmed by DJs, students, and enthusiasts. In fact, there are DMX or DMX-compatible set ups out there that humble suburbanites use to program their pride-filled Outdoor Christmas light displays or Halloween Haunted Houses (see YouTube)! 

That said, you tend to get what you pay for, so don’t expect a Bellagio from the geeky teenager down the block using a plasticky controller. Whether you try to ‘roll your own’ or not should be based on the sophistication of the installation and its content goal, e.g. a few simple sequences vs. a library of musical shows. Most commercial musical or sequenced water features, at venues such as hotels, shopping centers, municipal parks, and theme parks, use industrial-strength show control systems programmed by seasoned specialists. 

DMX-based systems are also where simple end-user control becomes viable, either with local push button options or mobile devices. This allows for easy override of scheduled displays for special moods and events — say, a color-scheme appropriate for the current holiday. 

Full Musical Automation 

All the systems described above don’t do anything without being pre-programmed. A typical DMX-based one song musical show is created by a creative programmer in front of the target water feature for hours on end. For installations with a stable purpose, programming is pretty much a one-time cost; for example, a shopping center wants their centerpiece fountain to startup up quietly in the morning, run a variety of ‘ambient’ sequences during the day, switch to dynamic lit routines by evening, before mellowing back down and finally shutting off for the night. These events can be programmed and saved on a one-time basis for permanent fully automated scheduled playback. 

However, clients with musical water features are often interested in having a library of shows, for both routine and seasonal use. Building such a library can be fairly pricey; so often times marketing or operations budgets fall short and the same few songs are played over and over. Imagine being a shop employee or loyal customer (or home resident) in proximity to a feature that plays ‘It’s a Small World’ several times a day! 

This is where full musical automation comes in. Once set up with logical programming, any audio directed to a water feature’s sound system will serve to automatically choreograph the water and lights without further human intervention. This makes for evergreen content and an infinite library. Such systems require intensive set up and often can involve proprietary licenses, but in the long run can be the most cost-effective solution for musical water features. And these systems do everything that DMX-based and other pre-programmed show controllers can do as well, and are scalable and upgradeable. 

Scott Palamar of H2Oarts has been developing water feature content and show control technology for over 15 years…and he likes to recommend what’s he’s invented! For more information, go to www.H2Oarts.com.

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