Remote Fireworks Ignition - Part 1

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Kids, don’t try this at home (go to Mikey’s house, his parents are away).

There is a certain visceral thrill to fireworks. Maybe it’s the way fire affects the human subconscious, maybe it’s being able to control the power, or maybe it’s just the inherent danger (did I just say the same thing 3 ways?).  I love the feel of the thump in my torso from a large mortar at a commercial display. I like seeing the pretty sparkling colors and the interesting patterns that are generated. I really love to see fireworks well choreographed to music or a performance that utilizes fireworks to enhance the presentation. I also enjoy setting off fireworks (a lot).

When/where I was growing up, firecrackers and bottle rockets and most other fireworks that make nannys cringe were legal for private citizens to buy and use. Even 8 year old kids.

I know of lots of people that did a lot more less-than-intelligent things with very rapid, highly exothermic chemical reactions than I ever did but I still did more than most. As a kid, I was only in a couple bottle-rocket fights (you’ll shoot your eye out kid) and I never held roman candles in my hand. But I did chain fuses together and pooled loose powder. I launched firecrackers at my plastic army men. I did miniature demolitions projects in dirt piles. I learned about the effects of loose vs contained burns. I learned about tamping. I learned about physics (new idea for a grade school course: physics with firecrackers). In Boy Scouts Order of the Arrow, I helped with “magic” ignition of ceremony fires (real Boy Scouts can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together but they only do that to earn their Wilderness Survival merit badge. They usually use a Bic and Varsol (Boy Scouts aren’t afraid of hazardous materials)).

I don’t think Mom would approve of most of the stuff I did. Dad would have probably grunted in caution or maybe waxed eloquent on his own childhood exploits (if Dad had ever waxed eloquent). He caught me playing with unexploded ordinance one time and tried to help by accidently setting off a fast fused firecracker in his hand so I had to stop. He never saw me doing it again.

As times have moved forward, we have made life safer for our kids (and in the process, removed the useful concepts of danger, responsibilty, and repercussion (but that’s a whole rant in itself)). As a result, "dangerous" stuff is harder for law-abiding citizens to come by but still quite easy for dangerous criminals to obtain (go figure).

As I said, a different rant.

I want to be able to remotely ignite consumer grade, NoVa suburban legal fireworks. Not a commercial display. Not an hour long display. Not a volley of bottle rockets. Not a couple tons of ANFO. Just a dozen or so fountains.

Expecting that the problem had been solved many times before, I went Googling. I found that the thing that pros use is called an Electric Match. I also found that they are expensive and overkill for what I needed. I think you may also need a demolitions license. Cool, but not going there.

Next stop is model rocketry. Estes rockets have always been launched with battery powered electric igniters. At about a buck a piece, they pass the price/convenience test. But do they work? I tested an Estes igniter with a fuse from a consumer firework and found that the igniter just isn’t powerful enough to burn through the lacquer on the fuse and ignite it reliably.

As hobbyists get older, their hobbies get more … sophisticated. Sport rocketry has igniters that will launch a Saturn V submerged in flame retardant but they also cost alot more than the fireworks I’m setting off. Houston, was have an unscheduled hold.

OK, step back. There is something that I’ve always heard called “green cord” fuse. Googling around informs me that it is officially called “visco fuse” (AKA: cannon cord, cannon fuse). It is a lacuered twist of pyro soaked cords. It is used by people for everything from firing their own black powder civil war technology cannons to launching model rockets. It’s basically the same as fireworks fuse, but the cheap stuff doesn’t have the as much of a lacquer coating and its available at hobby store that stock rocket supplies.

I tested green cord with Estes igniters. Success! I tested green cord transitioning to lacquer fuse. Success!  I found that 3 short (.5”) lengths of green cord surrounding an igniter in contact with the more heavily lacquered fireworks fuse and held together with masking tape works pretty well.

It's time intensive semi-skilled labor, but it's not very expensive and the results are good enough.

I now have my poor man’s electric match.

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