Coping With Bad Weather
Advice on setting up fireworks for safe firing in the wind and rain.
Firing your fireworks display in the rain is not only possible, but actually quite easy with an investment of time and effort in waterproofing your fireworks beforehand. In the first part of this article I’ll run through how to waterproof each type of consumer firework. Note: This advice is intended for those setting up in advance. If you are simply taking each firework out one at a time to fire then as long as you keep the fuse dry when staking it out, you generally don’t need to worry about waterproofing unless it’s raining very heavily.
Then, I’ll run through important things to consider when it’s windy, including how to change your set up to cater for wind direction and how strong a wind is too strong.
Table of contents:
Waterproofing fireworks: Cakes, candles, mines and fountains
I’ve grouped all of these fireworks together because they all share one thing in common: They are set up on the ground and fire their effects upwards. They’re also, in general terms, of similar shapes which includes cubes, cones and tubes. So the same method of waterproofing can be used on all of these firework types.
In fact, you have a choice of two different methods to waterproof your fireworks:
Clingfilm: Each firework is wrapped in clingfilm to make them waterproof. This method is good if you want to waterproof well in advance.
Plastic bags: Each firework is placed in a bag, staked, then another bag is placed over the top. This method is generally used at the point of setting the fireworks out.
Both methods are equally effective and my Fireworks Forum community (who between them fire thousands of displays a year) are equally split between each method. It really just comes down to what personal preference you have. Personally, I’m a plastic bag person because I find it quick and easy. But for our village display we use clingfilm because we like to waterproof all of the fireworks several days in advance.
Let’s take a look at each method in more detail.
Using clingfilm to waterproof fireworks
I’ll use a cake in this example but it could equally well be a roman candle, mine or fountain.
Normal household clingfilm is fine for this, though if you are wrapping bigger cakes or compounds then you might be better buying some catering clingfilm (or even industrial pallet wrap) which is wider.
First place the cake on some clingfilm to extend around the bottom edges. This will make the bottom waterproof though I also advise setting your cakes out on wooden boards which provides an additional layer of protection from wet ground.
Then, wrap the firework around the sides, going from the bottom upwards. Think how roof tiles are laid, with each higher layer overlapping the one below so there is no route for water to run inside. Once you reach the top, put another complete layer over the top and smooth it down the sides.
With smaller cakes you will find the clingfilm is much wider than the height of the cake so just a few wraps around the sides before doing the top is fine.
Providing you are using a suitably powerful lighting device (a portfire or a blow torch) then you don’t need to worry that the fuse is covered with clingfilm as the flame from these will easily burn through to the fuse underneath. However in most cases I would remove the orange fuse covers before applying clingfilm so that the fuse is not obscured by this safety cover when you come to light it. The idea is you simply apply the flame to the fuse, burning through the clingfilm.
If you are firing electrically then connecting your ignitors should be done before waterproofing, leaving the wires extended beyond the clingfilm to connect to your firing system.
Depending on what type of wrap you use, and how many layers, you may need to use additional marking (such as a permanent pen or luminous stickers) to make it obvious where the fuses are located. The idea is you light the fuse through the wrap, you are not intending to unwrap the firework to expose the fuse.
With most cakes, fountains and mines you don’t need to be concerned about clingfilm being on the top of the firework since the shots will easily fire through this. However check for any special set up instructions such as the requirement to remove plastic tops from some types of “missile” barrages, in which case, do this before applying the clingfilm.
Using bags or bin liners to waterproof fireworks
If wrapping each firework isn’t to your liking and you prefer to waterproof when staking out, then using plastic bags might suit you better.
The idea with cakes, candles, mines and fountains is that each firework is placed in a bag, attached to a stake and then another bag is placed over the top to make it completely waterproof. When you come to fire you simply remove the top bag, locate the fuse and light it.
You should of course use bags without holes, so supermarket carrier bags are not usually suitable. Bin liners are ideal and readily available. Freezer bags and similar are great for smaller items. You will also usually need to secure the top bag from blowing away, for example with a bit of gaffa tape (or elastic bands for tall and thin items like candles).
As with using clingfilm, you should try and make it obvious where the fuses are located, so you can find them quickly in torchlight when you remove the top bag.
Be careful however with any items where the fuse is located low down on the body, towards the ground. It is hard to bag these without making it hard to get to the fuse. Consider using clingfilm instead.
You might also find bags problematic for very large items such as compound cakes. This is because the firework is likely to be wider than the bag. In these cases too you should consider using clingfilm instead.
Note: If you want to waterproof in advance but using bags, then place your firework in a bag, taping it to the side of the firework, place another bag over the top and tape it down. Then you gaffa tape the whole thing to the stake. In this case when you come to fire you’ll be lighting the fuse through the bag rather than pulling the top bag off.
Waterproofing rockets and wheels
With both of these fireworks you will need to ensure all of the waterproofing is removed before lighting the firework, so clingfilm is usually unsuitable. Instead, use plastic bags or bin liners. It’s simply a case of placing a bag over the top of each firework and ensuring it cannot blow away:
If you are using a rocket rack then you can either bag each rocket individually, or put a plastic sheet over the whole lot. Note that one significant disadvantage of the latter is that once the sheet is removed to fire the first rocket, the rest could be getting wet if it is raining.
Lancework can be quite big and both the lances and the connecting fuses are very fragile, so you should avoid using heavy sheeting such as tarpaulin. Even lighter plastic sheet might pose a risk.
I asked a professional display team how they approach lancework and they’ve said they usually keep the item secured and dry in the van until the very last moment. So, some preparation is still needed to erect your posts ideally with nails or similar in place to hang the lancework on at firing time.
If you fire a lot of lancework and have any useful tips on weatherproofing it, please let me know, so I can update this section.
Covering multiple cakes with tarpaulin
I’ve seen a number of displays use tarpaulin or big plastic sheets to cover multiple cakes and then remove this prior to starting the show. Whilst on paper this would seem a good idea, in practice I have found a couple of problems with this approach.
The first is that once you remove the cover, all of the fireworks are then exposed to the weather. So it’s fine if you’re sure any rain or showers would occur between setting up and firing, but that it will be dry once you come to firing time. But can you really be 100% sure of the weather?
Secondly, if it has been raining then you will usually have pools of water form on the top of the sheeting in the dips and folds. I’ve seen cases where a large amount of water has poured onto a firework when the sheeting was removed, rendering it a dud.
As a result, I recommend waterproofing fireworks individually with clingfilm or bags as described above.
Waterproofing firing systems and modules
If you are firing electrically then it is likely that you will have some modules or firing units out with the fireworks. This equipment – where the igniter wires are connected to your system – is very vulnerable to damp, moisture and rain, all of which not surprisingly can cause them to malfunction. Cheaper consumer-geared systems will be most at risk, whereas more professional set-ups are likely to be weatherproof to some extent (for example, coming in hard plastic cases).
There’s no single recommendation on how to weatherproof your firing equipment, with members of my Fireworks Forum utilising many techniques from Tupperware and Really Useful Boxes through to Peli cases, but generally a hard case is preferable. You can easily adapt most clip-top plastic boxes to work here, for example by cutting a small section out of the side to allow your wiring to exit the box under the lid. You’ll need to experiment a little to find what fits your own modules. Do ensure you check your modules – if fired remotely – still pick up a signal OK in your case of choice and at the distances you will be firing, as often you won’t be able to extend the antennae outside of the box.
In the following video I make some suggestions for an IGNITE firing system however these apply equally to any consumer system:
A member of my Fireworks Forum reported an incident where they had waterproofed their modules in plastic bags. A malfunction with a firework caused a fire which melted this bag all over the units, making for a very difficult clean-up of the systems afterwards. As a result, my recommendation for electrical equipment such as modules is to use hard cases rather than bags.
Some wind can be beneficial to a display as it can help to clear the smoke out of the way and also push fallout towards your specified fallout area to the sides or rear of the fireworks. Problems arise however if the wind is too strong or blowing in the wrong direction.
Looking at wind direction first of all. The worst case scenario is where the wind is blowing from the fireworks towards your spectators. At shorter distances such as in the back garden, this can cause real problems both in taking fallout towards the crowd but also obscuring some or all of the fireworks with smoke. Luckily, whilst rain is always hard to predict with the UK’s notoriously unreliable weather forecasts, wind direction is pretty well nailed in at least 24 hours in advance so you have time to consider whether to switch around the firework and viewing areas. If you can’t do that then you should seriously consider whether to postpone the display.
To give an example of how problematic the wrong wind direction can be even to professionals, the images below show the effects from the very first section of a firework display, followed by the view just a few seconds later, which remained the view for the next ten minutes!
The best case scenario with wind is where the direction takes smoke and debris either to the sides or the rear, assuming in any of these cases you have a safety area designated for this purpose.
You should consider very carefully whether it is safe to fire your display if the wind direction on the night is likely to take smoke over any adjacent main roads or otherwise cause conditions which could be unsafe for other people.
Next, you will need to consider the wind strength. Usually whether the strength of the wind is an issue can only be determined by also taking into account the direction too.
The fireworks least affected by wind in terms of audience safety would be ground based items such as fountains and wheels. Sparks and smoke from these will of course be blown by the wind and you need to ensure they won’t cross-ignite other fireworks. However, fountains can be very smoky so be wary of firing these if the wind is going to blow right at your spectators.
Small bore cakes and candles are next in terms of risk since the effects are aerial but not usually too high. Again, a wind direction towards your audience would be a great concern but other directions are usually fine if you have suitable fall out areas for debris. Bigger bore cakes and the larger compounds will eject their effects the highest and so will travel further.
The biggest risk fireworks in high winds are rockets. Not only do these travel the highest, have the most problematic fall out (usually a complete stick and part of a plastic casing) but they also have a tendency to track into the wind due to the effects of the wind tipping the stick. So you can watch all of your cake and candle debris following the wind direction as expected then fire a rocket and it will defy logic and go the other way! The stronger the wind, the more pronounced this effect can be. You will need to take this into account when setting up your rockets, angling the launch tubes slightly in the appropriate direction.
Of all the fireworks to pull out of a show on nights of higher winds, rockets would be at the top of the list. If you’re unsure, a good approach is to keep a very good eye on the flight of the first rocket and then make a decision on whether to fire the rest depending in where it tracks and where it lands.
It possibly won’t come as a surprise to learn that professional displayers almost never use rockets – they use aerial shells instead for big sky effects as they’re predictable in flight and have minimal fall out.
Understandably one of the most frequently asked questions in my Fireworks Forum is how strong a wind is too strong? I can’t put a figure on this since, for example, 15mph but in the right direction could be fine but 10mph blowing towards the audience might be dangerous in smaller venues. Similarly, gusts to 20mph might not trouble fountains and small bore fireworks but rockets could be very hazardous in such conditions.
Ask yourself first, whether the direction is going to be problematic, for example will it be blowing towards the crowd? If so, you should not display even in light winds if you’re tight for space. If the wind is in the right direction, that is it will take debris and smoke towards a designated fall out area, you can allow for stronger winds, up to a point.
Fog and low cloud
Cloud isn’t usually an issue with consumer fireworks, given that cakes and candles rarely launch their effects higher than say 100ft or so, with rockets going in some cases to 200-300ft+.
It’s really mist and murk that can cause a problem, especially with large rockets. I’ve fired many displays in still, murky conditions typical of the UK autumn and winter and seen the larger Category F3 rockets disappear from sight before exploding. My advice here is to assess conditions when you fire the first large rocket. If it mostly vanishes in the gloom, save your money and don’t fire the rest.
Be prepared on murky nights for colours and effects to look subdued. How bad this will be depends on the thickness of the mist and how far the fireworks are from your audience.
Further information and help
Hopefully I’ve covered the main weather related issues and in particular put your mind at rest that rain need not be a problem. But if you have any questions about the weather or anything else relating to your fireworks then by all means ask in my Fireworks Forum (see below).