Lighting Fireworks Remotely
Information on using electronic firing systems to fire your display at the press of a button!
Firing systems have become hugely popular with consumers in recent years. Systems range from around £20 for something that can fire four fireworks through to £100+ for ones that can fire a dozen or more. In this article I’ll first look at what firing systems are and how they work. Then I’ll get into more detail about how to set up and fire a show remotely.
Table of contents:
The basics - how firing systems work
All consumer fireworks have a safety fuse which you light in order to start the firework. When lighting by hand, you put a flame against the fuse to ignite it. With a remote firing system, you instead attach an electrically operated igniter against the fuse. This is detonated by sending a current down its wires and in turn this ignites the firework’s fuse.
Each firework is therefore physically wired via this igniter to either the firing system itself or a secondary part of the firing system known as a module which receives a signal from a remote control telling it which igniter to send a current down. You operate this remote control and therefore determine which firework to light by pressing the corresponding button.
Let’s see all this illustrated in a diagram (not to scale):
The remote control is shown on the left. In this case a 4 button version and operates wirelessly, typically up to several hundred metres range.
The remote communicates with the firing system main module. Each module has a limited number of outputs known as channels or cues (for consumer systems these terms are often used interchangeably). Here there is just one output available as it is a 1 cue firing system.
The igniter is wired into this. Each igniter has two wires and ends with either a small head of explosive material (ematches) or a small wire coil that heats up (Talons or clip-ons). This is placed against the firework’s main fuse which is usually green or pink and often referred to as visco fuse. Igniters are single use items, once fired they become dead.
Remote firing adds both expense and complexity to your display and is not necessarily better than firing your fireworks by hand. I explore the advantages and disadvantages of each method more in my Hand Firing vs. Remote Firing article which you should read before investing in a firing system.
A closer look at electric igniters
There are three main types of igniter available and each one works in a slightly different way.
E-match igniters: This is the standard type of igniter used by professional display operators. They are usually inserted directly into a firework’s internal fast fuse known as quickmatch to give instant ignition of the firework. However they can still be used by consumers either in the same way, or by connecting them to a firework’s visco fuse.
Consumer match igniters: These are a version of e-matches with a plastic shroud. You feed the visco fuse on your firework in one end of the shroud and out of the other. This secures the e-match against the fuse and ensures the igniter burns through the visco’s outer coating to the blackpowder underneath. In the images below you can see what this type of igniter looks like with and without fuse in it.
Note: (October 2021 update) I no longer recommend the use of consumer ematches to light visco due to significant failures in my igniter tests. You can read more about it (with links to relevant articles and videos) here: Consumer Igniter Failures Part 2.
Talon igniters: These were developed specifically for use with consumer firework fuses and simply clip over the visco fuse. Unlike the igniters above, Talons do not contain a pyrotechnic material and instead use a thin wire element which heats up. Note: Talons require a longer burst of current than e-matches to fire reliably so you should always check that your firing system is suitable for them.
In the images below, you can see a close-up of an opened Talon with the element visible, followed by a Talon clipped on to a visco fuse.
When I refer to attaching igniters to the visco safety fuse of your firework, note that this will still result in a delay to the firework starting, as per hand lighting. Whilst it is possible to bypass the main fuse and ignite a consumer firework instantly, this is an advanced fusing activity which should only be attempted by experienced firers.
A closer look at consumer firing systems
Firing systems at the lower price points – typically aimed at consumer use – generally offer a smaller number of cues, each of which is fired by pressing the corresponding button on the remote control. Whilst on some systems you can configure the remote to “fire all” or fire a sequence, generally it’s a case of activating one cue at a time. Which is perfectly fine for back garden displays of course.
More advanced systems offer significantly more features including full scripting of a show (you design it on computer and then download it to the firing system), computer control, synchronisation to music and so on.
The main problem that consumers run into is having more fireworks than the available number of cues. A 12 cue system is fine if you have up to 12 different fireworks (though you can fire multiple fireworks at the same time from each cue which I’ll cover later in the article). But what if you have 20 or 30 fireworks? Expanding the number of cues can increase your costs significantly.
Let’s look at some of the options available to consumers:
4 cue systems and the DB04r
These are basic starter systems and available in what appears to be a vast number of generic (or rebadged) clones. These cost £20-£30 from a UK retailer and as low as £10-£15 on Ebay shipped from China although I caution that after-sales support with the latter is likely to be lacking.
Some of these come with a 4 button remote with a sliding cover and these are quite low quality, so look for systems with a 12 button remote where possible, as that also allows future expansion of your system by adding additional 4 cue units.
These units have received mixed reviews from enthusiasts. Some have used these for smaller and informal back garden displays with no issues. Some have experienced failures, so it is important to understand these cheaper firing systems have limitations and I would not recommend relying on them for commercial shows. Personally, I have extensively tested the DB04r and didn’t run into any problems in a back garden setting so I would say these are a great starter unit if you want to get into remote firing and test the water.
I also have a comprehensive online manual for the DB04r which runs through basic operation, features, reprogramming, expanding the system, waterproofing and troubleshooting.
I should stress that the DB04r has additional features not found on cheaper 4 cue systems such as the ability to program individual cues to any button on the remote (which allows a “fire all” setting).
So you do get what you pay for and in this video I will explain more by way of unboxing a very cheap system from Ebay. The cheaper systems all look quite similar, which makes choosing between them hard for beginners.
8 and 12+ cue systems based on the 4 cue systems
Some systems sold as 8 or 12 cues are in fact two or three 4 cue or DB04r systems linked to one 12 channel remote. Similarly, some systems with even more queues feature multiple 4 cue systems linked to a bigger remote control. See above.
MS12Q and 12 Cue Pro
These are similar looking systems with all 12 cues in one unit rather than split into 4 cue modules. In addition you have an arming key which helps reduce the risk of accidental firing. Price around £100.
MS32Q 32 cue system
An expansion of the MS12Q, offering 32 cues from one unit, activated by one remote (8 buttons with 4 bank selectors giving 32 cues). Priced around £240.
1 to 12 cue Distributed Firing System
This neat system comprises of 1 cue units which are linked to either a 1, 4 or 12 button remote. The idea here is that each cue runs off an individual module so you can distribute them around your firing site as required. A single cue with remote (costing around £32) could be a handy way to fire a set piece or wheel that’s away from your main firing area, for example. Or if you’re just firing one single, big firework for NYE or a birthday, a 1 cue unit and 1 button remote keeps things simple. A set of 12 cues and a remote is available for around £200 making it more expensive per cue than the systems above but with the obvious advantage of being able to distribute all 12 modules wherever you like. Note: In my tests I have found that these units are not suitable for Talon igniters due to their shorter burst of current, but work fine with e-matches and consumer e-matches. I have done a full review and video of this system here: 6th Generation rfRemoTech 1 Cue Firing System.
IGNITE 18 cue firing system
New for 2021 is a neat 18 cue firing system from the US called IGNITE. Aside from the unusually high number of cues, the system is controlled via an app on your phone or tablet rather than a remote control. UK pricing is around £180. Read my in-depth review of the IGNITE firing system.
Other systems and professional-grade gear
Once you start getting towards £1k or so you’re now into the realms of professional grade systems. These are, to be blunt, complete overkill for back garden displays. But, if your shows are getting bigger each year, or if you’re displaying to the public or local community where having a dependable system is important, you may well consider these worth investing in. I won’t cover these in detail here as it’s going beyond the scope of this article, but systems to research and consider include FireTek, Firestorm, FireByWire and Cobra.
Firing multiple fireworks from each cue
The good news with consumer systems having a limited number of cues is that it is possible to fire multiple fireworks at the same time from each cue. The number of igniters you can successfully fire at once is dependent on a number of factors including how long the igniter wire is, the type of igniter, the power of your firing system and whether they are wired in series or parallel:
Series wiring is where your igniters are connected in a line.
Parallel wiring is where each igniter is wired independently into the same cue.
I’ll demonstrate this better with a diagram. Here there are three igniters wired up to cue number 4 on the system shown. With series wiring, only one wire goes into each terminal, with the others connected to the next or previous igniter to form a chain. With parallel wiring, each of the three igniters is independently wired to cue 4, so three wires go into each terminal:
Series wiring is useful if you’re using e-matches and have a line of fireworks, for example a row of candles, which you want to wire up to fire together without having to run each igniter back to the firing module. Parallel wiring usually allows more igniters to be fired at once.
However you wire your igniters, it is important not to mix different types of igniters on the same cue and Talon igniters must always be wired in parallel.
Because each display set-up is different with varying lengths of igniters, wire and so on, not to mention different firing systems, it’s hard to give a definitive answer on how many igniters you can fire on one cue. For most back garden scenarios where you might need two or three items fired on one cue, any type of firing system, igniter and wiring method should be fine at standard igniter lengths. Once you start extending using additional wire, the capability drops significantly. There will come a point (usually 20m or so) when only a single igniter will fire.
So it is strongly recommended though that with multiple igniters from one cue you test the exact combination of firing system, igniter and wiring that you intend to use prior to your show (without it connected to a firework) to ensure your system can handle it.
It is easy to extend igniters using additional wire and connectors. The wire usually used is a solid core twin jumper wire. You can buy this from electrical suppliers such as Screwfix or Toolstation who usually list it as bell wire or from firing system specialists who usually refer to it as shooting wire.
To connect your wires and igniters, there are two approaches. The first and cheapest is “twist and tape”. Here you simply strip the ends of the wire, twist the copper cores together and then tape over the connection. This method is favoured for its simplicity and reliability.
You can also use specialist connectors which include two-way gel connectors which will be familiar to those who work in the telecoms and electronics sectors, plus a variety of spring-loaded and clip-shut connectors such as from Wago.
Each has its pros and cons. Gel connectors don’t need a stripped wire but may not work with thicker bell wire and they cannot be reused. Spring connectors are quick and easy but you need to strip your wire ends. It’s down to personal preference really.
Images below: Gel connectors, a close-up view, and the correct tool to crimp them closed.
In the following video from summer 2021 I explore extending igniters on my new IGNITE firing system. Although the video is geared towards this system in terms of range, the methods used to extend the igniters apply to any system. I show some examples of connectors and how they work, plus give specific product information for these and the wire used so you can buy the same equipment if you want to:
Once you have set up your fireworks and attached the igniters, you perform what is called a continuity test. This is where the firing system checks each cue with a very small current, not enough to ignite them but enough to check there is a complete circuit. If any cue fails then you will need to check the connections, your wiring and possibly try a different igniter.
How to fire remotely (aka how to press a button!)
With the fireworks set up, the igniters attached and the continuity tests done, you’re ready to fire. This will be a very short section because firing remotely is simply a case now of pressing buttons! This is the thing with remote firing; all the time and effort goes into the setting up.
Practice, practice and practice
I strongly recommend taking some time well before your display to test out your firing system and igniters to ensure everything works OK, more so if you’re a first-timer. It is not uncommon to run into teething problems causing the failure of some igniters to fire. These problems can include:
- Using Talon igniters on systems not designed to fire them (they need a longer duration of current than standard e-matches).
- Using too many igniters in one cue. Always do a test run first!
- Using depleted batteries. Testing will give you an idea how long a set will last in your specific system with the igniters you’re using.
- Failing to use igniters correctly. For example, not clipping Talons on properly, or threading the fuse into consumer e-matches incorrectly.
- Not inserting igniters into the firing system correctly.
- User error with the remote or firing system.
- A faulty system or a faulty cue on your module.
Finding out any of the above during testing allows you to fix the issues or ask for help.
There are a number of things you can do to help practice with your system and become proficient:
- Buy additional igniters to conduct live tests (outdoors only).
- Buy additional visco fuse (assuming you’re connecting to the visco on your fireworks) to test your igniters and system out on “live” fuse. Igniters and short lengths of visco give a clear indication of system success without making a noise and you can do this in daylight (though always outdoors). You can gain a lot of confidence by doing this.
- For indoor practice, such as familiarising yourself with the system, or for checking any re-training of the system (pairing remotes with different modules etc.) use 12v bulbs in place of igniters. These give a visual indication the cue has fired OK. These are suitable (thanks to Dodgey for this link – it goes to an Ebay listing but similar bulbs are also available on Amazon).
Powering your firing system
For those using firing systems at the consumer end of the scale, where power is usually provided by replaceable batteries rather than internal rechargeable units, choosing the right type of battery is important. You should never skimp on quality here since the difference between the best and worst batteries will make the difference between firing and not firing your igniters.
I asked Andrew at EasyPyro (where we sourced the 1 cue systems above) if he had any recommendations given his vast experience with these systems. He said: “We recommend Energizer Industrial batteries to our customers. The AA and AAA size haven’t been tested but we tested a load of different brands of 9V PP3 battery and the Energizer Industrial came out on top for maximum dead short current. It’s 2x that of Duracell. A Duracell PP3 will give you about 3.5 amps, a EI will give you about 6.5 amps.
“The lithium disposable batteries also have a high dead short current, but sometimes come with thermal protection which could in theory trip out the battery before the igniter fires, but I’ve never seen it happen. I think it takes too long to trip.”
Some firing systems, such as the newer IGNITE, come with a rechargeable battery pack as standard.
Having a backup plan
With the best will in the world, from time to time a firework will fail to light. With remote firing this could be because of the following reasons:
The igniter worked but the visco fuse did not light. This can be caused if the fuse was damaged, got damp or you have inserted the fuse wrongly into a Talon igniter.
The firing system is working but the igniter did not work. This could be caused by a fault with the firing system, with that specific cue or igniter, or your system is running low on power. Another cause sometimes is that your wires are shorted on that igniter.
So it is always good to have a backup plan. Usually in this case it involves manually firing the item in question. You will need to consider beforehand whether you want to do this immediately (legging it up to the firework in question with a portfire or blow torch) or to fire it after the main show. You could of course simply leave it out of the display completely and move on to the next firework.
With cakes and barrages with two fuses, the reserve fuse can be used to manually light the firework. With single fuse fireworks you will need to assess whether there is any visco safety fuse left or not. For example if the failure is because the fuse did burn but then went out, you are best to avoid trying to relight it. But if the igniter failed you will most likely still have a complete safety fuse left to light. There’s a lot more advice about hand firing in my Lighting Fireworks By Hand section.
Further information and help
Firing systems and their use is quite an involved subject. Hopefully I have covered all the main points in this article. If you haven’t already, read my Hand Firing vs. Remote Firing article for further advice on whether an electronic system is suitable for you.