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 we’ll first look at what firing systems are and how they work. Then we’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. These are also known as e-matches. Each igniter has two wires and ends with a small head of explosive material. This head 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. The igniter shown here is a consumer e-match with a special end to thread the fuse into.
Remote firing adds both expense and complexity to your display and is not necessarily better than firing your fireworks by hand. We explore the advantages and disadvantages of each method more in our 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 designed to be inserted directly into a firework’s internal fast fuse known as quickmatch to give instant ignition of the firework. These are less useful to consumers since you will need to manually attach them to your consumer 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.
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.
You will note in all cases above we refer to attaching igniters to the main fuse of your firework, which will 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. We would direct you to the fusing tutorials section of our Forum for more information.
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, heading towards £1k for example, 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 (or sections, if you fire multiple fireworks from a cue which we will 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:
DB04r 4 cue system
This is a basic starter system 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 we 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 our Fireworks Forum members. Some have used these for smaller and informal back garden displays with no issues. Some have experienced failures including a well publicised accidental ignition of the cues in a video by Galactic Fireworks. So it is important to understand these cheaper firing systems clearly have limitations and we would not recommend relying on them for important shows. That said, they’re a great starter unit if you want to get into remote firing and test the water.
8 and 12+ cue systems based on the DB04r clones
Some systems sold as 8 or 12 cues are in fact two or three DB04r systems linked to one 12 channel remote. Similarly, some systems with even more queues feature multiple DB04rs 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 our tests we 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.
WPStiny 12 cue system
Moving away now from the fairly generic systems featured above, to the first rung on a higher quality system called WPS. This type of company (and their competitors) tend to specialise in firing systems and each has their own loyal customer base. The WPStiny features 12 cues and needs to be connected to a 12 cue slat (which houses the connectors for the igniters) and runs off the standard 12 button remote featured above. Costs are around £100 for the WPStiny, £20 for a slat, £5 for a high quality cable and £10 for a remote, giving a total cost of around £135 for 12 cues. You can add additional systems and run them off different remotes so 24 cues would cost £270.
Wireless Pyro Solutions have indicated in a forum post in December 2020 (click here to read it) that they are no longer trading, so the system above and others from this company are no longer available to buy new.
WPShobby 24 cue system
At around £330 for the main unit plus battery and charger, plus £250 for the fully featured remote control, we’re now getting into significant costs for consumers looking for back garden systems. However, the extra costs are giving features which may well make this a useful investment if your firework displays are likely to grow in size. First you have much more robust units with weatherproof cases. You also have expandability for the future, and the ability to add automated scripting or to program your show on a PC, amongst other things.
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. We 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, WPSpro and Cobra.
All of the systems above can be purchased from the specialist firing system retailers featured on our Buying Firing Systems page. Please note that we do not work on commission or a referral basis nor track who clicks on adverts. So if you purchase any system after reading about it here on UKFR we would appreciate you mentioning this to the retailers as this encourages them to continue advertising with us, which in turn enables us to test and feature more products that may be of use to you.
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.
We’ll demonstrate this better with a diagram. Here we have 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 consumer 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. However in our Fireworks Forum (in this discussion thread), Wireless Fireworks fired three 1m Talon igniters from one cue, in parallel, using the basic DB04r. He also fired three 2m consumer e-matches from one cue, also in parallel. Further tests in that discussion thread show that six Talons fired OK in parallel with fresh batteries. The conclusion is that 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.
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 twin jumper wire. You can buy this from electrical suppliers or from firing system specialists who usually stock this (often referring to it as shooting wire). At the time of writing, a 500m roll of shooting wire is around £48, so that’s about 10p per metre. Shorter lengths are available at a higher cost per metre. Orange wire is recommended as it’s more visible on site.
To connect your wires and igniters, there are two approaches in use by our Forum members. 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 a specialist item known as a two-way gel connector which will be familiar to those who work in the telecoms and electronics sectors. Because these are filled with gel the resulting connection is waterproof. They also do not require the wire to be stripped and simply crimp the wires together when using pliers. Crimping pliers are available for this purpose and recommended to ensure a more consistent result.
Generic gel connectors are available for around £20 for 500 – 4p each – (e.g. from CPC). You can buy cheaper than this for example from Amazon or Ebay however some of our Forum members have reported that the cheaper ones are less reliable. You can also pick these up from most firing system suppliers, where they will often be called “pyro connectors” or “PyroSplice”, the latter currently costing around 10p-15p each depending on the quantity you buy.
A useful debate on the pros and cons of “twist and tape” vs. gel connectors was made in our online forum in September 2020 which you can read here.
Images below: Gel connectors, a close-up view, and the correct tool to crimp them closed.
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
Based on both our own experiences and also that of our Fireworks Forum members, we 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, either from us, your supplier or our online community.
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 UKFR Forum member Dodgey for posting this link – goes to an Ebay listing, less than £3 delivered for a pack of 12 at time of writing).
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.
We 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.”
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 a faulty firework (such as one bursting on the ground) damaging your cabling.
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 our Lighting Fireworks By Hand section.
Further information and help
Firing systems and their use is quite an involved subject. Hopefully we have covered all the main points in this article. If you haven’t already, read our Hand Firing vs. Remote Firing article for further advice on whether an electronic system is suitable for you.
Once you’re ready to buy a system, head over to the Buying Firing Systems & Fuse section for advice on purchasing one and a list of UKFR Sponsors who specialise in this area.
Have any questions? Want to chat about fireworks in our busy online community? Then head over to our Fireworks Forum today. It’s free to register and beginners are very welcome to join and ask for our help.