How the lights work and Switch-on

At the Sittingbourne Christmas Lights Association we often get asked questions like :-

  • Why do the lights not all switch on together ?
  • Why are some of the lights not working ?
  • Why are some of the lights damaged ?

We thought we’d explain a bit about the history of the lights and where we are now.

Back in the old days……..

A few hardy volunteers used to string together old fashioned multi-coloured filament bulbs on reinforced cables that crossed the High Street from side to side and which looked very bright and colourful. These lights used to be powered from shops and at switch-on time there were individuals in each shop switching them on by hand. On Switch-on day people would be looking out the windows to see when the next set turned on and so there would be a near simultaneous explosion of colour. Those over 40 or so will remember that the switch-on stage used to be in the square outside the old town hall (where the Avenue Theatre, Swallows and SCVC is now) and therefore what happened in the High Street was not too important.

High Street Refurbishment……

When the High Street was refurbished in the 80s the SCLA continued to string lights across the road having had special sockets installed in the newly paved High Street for posts to be installed (because the new lamp posts were not tall enough to safely use). This practice continued for quite a few years but eventually regulations on electrical safety and Health & Safety questions concerning volunteers doing the installation meant that the SCLA had to look at things differently. The decision was made to move to fixed displays on the lamp columns. Everyone will know that the SCLA has to entirely fund the lights and this move needed a significant investment.

Recent Years ……

Over the last decade or so the SCLA has had issues with suppliers of lights and a scheme purchased from a supplier in the years around 2010 was not properly looked after and when the contract ended acrimoniously a lot of very nice displays were swapped for some worn and dated ones. This small set of displays formed the basis of the scheme when the SCLA moved to it’s current contractor Aylesford Electrical Contractors (AEC). Over the last 4 years working with AEC the SCLA have purchased 44 new LED displays which form the majority of the displays in the current scheme. Funds are difficult to come by but the plan is to continue growing this stock of lights to ensure the display gets better and better.

The SCLA are indebted to AEC for a number of loan displays which are currently in place, some in the High Street and 6 in Station Street.

How do they work ……

It’s simple, each lamp column is individually powered from the mains and contains a timer which switches the street light on at the appropriate time. When the new columns were installed Swale Council installed special timers and sockets for festive displays which allowed them to be separately timed (currently we have them on from 4pm to 11pm). The important point here is that every column is individually powered and timed. When the Lights Switch-on ceremony happens the only way to have a simultaneous illumination of displays is to have someone at the lamp-post clicking the switch when Santa says “ON” ! This would be fine if it were not for the fact that many of the original timers and RCDs inside the columns have blown and have had to be replaced by separate gear at the top of the posts which can only be accessed on a ladder.

As we stand now, 2015, there are only a handful of displays near the Switch-on area at Central Avenue that can actually be switched on without a ladder and these are the only ones that the SCLA can make sure go on at the switch-on time. The rest of the lights in the High Street are then switched on in turn by AEC and are left on timers ready to operate automatically.

What next …….

The SCLA would love to have a way of turning on as many of the lights simultaneously as possible and will be looking very closely at Remote switching mechanisms which attach to the displays and allow a remote button to control the lights all at once. This is expensive and will be a significant investment for the group but it would make Switch-on more dynamic and exciting.

The SCLA will keep you updated as our plans develop.