Let There Be LEDs

By Michael Vatalaro
Published: December 2013

Inside or out, above or below the waterline. No matter where you want light on your boat, there's an LED for that.

Photo of a center console of a boat showing the eerie glow of blue underwater LEDs
Photo: OceanLED

Light-Emitting Diodes use far less energy to produce the same amount of light,
making them ideal for boating applications. This center console shows the
eerie glow of blue underwater LEDs.

Photo of cockpit courtesy lighting on a sailboat
Photo: OceanLED
Cockpit courtesy lighting on a sailboat makes use of indirect light and LEDs' cool blue glow for maximum appeal.

Most of us don't give lights much thought until we flip a switch and nothing happens. But on your boat, unless it's relatively new, chances are the lights aboard are inconveniencing you more than you know, even if you're not replacing burnt-out bulbs from time to time. Incandescent bulbs are spectacularly bad at what they do, which ostensibly is producing light. Only five percent of the energy that goes into an incandescent bulb becomes light. That's a staggering inefficiency that makes the internal combustion engine look positively thrifty. Moreover, the penalty for this inefficiency spills over in ways you might not have considered.

Photo of Viking sportfishermen show off white lights below the waterline
Photo: OceanLED

A fleet of Viking sportfishermen show off white lights below the waterline.

Photo of a close-up of an LED bulb
Photo: Imtra
A close-up of an LED bulb showing the individual diodes and circuit board.

What's the last thing you want to add to your stateroom on a still, sweltering summer's night while at anchor? More heat, right? But 95 percent of the power being drained from your battery bank to run the reading light above your bunk is becoming just that. The additional heat means running the air conditioner more, and therefore the generator as well. Those hot bulbs are costing you money and more time at the fuel dock. But wait, you say, I've got solar panels. I get my juice for free from the sun. Ah, but did you really need those panels? And if so, did they have to be so large?

The point is, retrofitting your boat with LED lights will cut the amount of energy used to light your boat by 90 percent. And the amount you're using now can be surprisingly large. Just illuminating an average set of running lights consumes around 7 amps. A few halogen surface-mounted fixtures in the saloon can eat up 10 amps. Running for an hour after sundown and then entertaining aboard for a few more can burn up 40 amp hours of your battery-bank capacity. But with LEDs it would be more like 4.

"From a consumer standpoint, it sounds expensive," says Bradd Wilson, of Cruising Solutions. "But you'll see cruisers investing money in solar panels, wind generators, or gensets. If they'd just cut back on their power consumption, they wouldn't need any of it."

What To Think About

"The first step is deciding whether you want to keep the existing fixtures," says Wilson. If you're happy with the look and feel of your fixtures and don't want to add remote switches or dimming, replacement bulbs can be an effective solution. "We're at a point where we've got a bulb to fit in just about every kind of fixture," says Wilson, whose company started selling LED replacement bulbs eight years ago. Before you go swapping every bulb onboard for LED replacements, take a moment to make sure you're getting well-engineered LEDs suitable for marine use. Here's what to look for:

  • Constant Current Circuitry: A quality LED will have "constant current circuitry," which maintains the current at an exact level to deliver the greatest illumination per watt for the longest duration (30,000-50,000 hours). This CCC designation should be present on a good LED bulb.
  • Voltage Regulation: LEDs need only 4 volts to make light; marine LEDs are rated at 10-30 volts, which means they need a DC-to-DC converter to make use of the 12 volts out of the boat's batteries. In the early days, some manufacturers produced "marine" LEDs derived from automotive lighting, which used resistors to reduce the voltage. Trouble is, resistors cut voltage by a set percentage. For example, two 50-percent resistors in series would step 12 volts down to 3. This means that, as soon as the battery runs low, the voltage will drop below 4 volts, and the LEDs will flicker and fade. If it runs high, such as when the alternator is charging the battery, the LEDs burn up. A DC-to-DC converter will always output the 4 volts necessary as long as the input voltage is within the specified range. This also means they can work with 12 V or 24 V DC systems.
  • Reverse-Polarity Protection: Resistor-regulated LEDs also won't tolerate reverse polarity. Even if you install the bulb correctly, if you get reversed polarity off a dock, you'll damage your lights. Those with DC-to-DC converters can handle reverse polarity without failing. If an LED bulb is listed as "polarity sensitive," it should be avoided.
  • Heat Dissipation: LEDs also don't like heat. A quality LED bulb will use aluminum or copper backing under the printed circuit to pull heat away from the diodes. If the bulb is enclosed, it should have an external heat sink to draw away excess energy.
  • Binned (Matching) LEDs: Not all LEDs are created equal. Each individual diode will put out a slightly different frequency of light, usually measured on the Kelvin scale. Manufacturers will talk broadly about Kelvin as a descriptor of how "warm" or "cool" the light coming off the LED is, but binning is much more specific. The term comes from the physical act of sorting individual diodes into matching piles, where each diode emits the same frequency of light. If not done, a bulb made up of six diodes could have one different from the rest, which — believe it or not — is visible and will stand out every time you look at it.

Going All In

Tip icon

Look for bulbs with a one- or two-year warranty. Bulbs that don't feature CCC typically don't offer warranties of this duration.

If you aren't wedded to your existing fixtures, you throw the doors open to a world of possibilities, particularly if you're willing to drop the headliner or fish some new wires. Remote switching, dimming, recessed fixtures — all of these options come into play.

"When we talk to customers, we ask what their motivation is," says Kinder Woodcock, project manager at Imtra. "Is it to save power? Do they have maintenance concerns? Or is it heat or safety issues? Some just want to modernize the look of their boat. LED light has a certain look to it; it just sets things apart. If you're only concerned about power and not fussy about the color or intensity, bulbs are a great solution. They're easy; you just swap them out. The downfalls would be that they're only so bright and most of them don't have the ability to dissipate heat, so they are limited to a certain amount of output."

A well-engineered LED fixture offers several advantages over replacement LED bulbs, including more intensity, better or more complete electrical protection, and color consistency. An LED fixture can have a sizable heat sink, which means it can handle the output of more diodes than a typical replacement bulb, yielding more light. With a recessed fixture, that heat sink pushes excess heat into the hull or deck of the boat, preventing it from heating the interior. There's also room in a fixture to include reverse-polarity protection and voltage spike protection, and to reduce the amount of RF (radio frequency) interference put off by the light. This last point can be critical when installing LED bulbs or simple fixtures near electronics. A colleague with an LED masthead light reports that the interference from the fixture impacts his AIS antenna, reducing the range of the AIS by about half when it is lit. "There's only so much room on an LED bulb to include electrical protections," says Woodcock.

Photo of warm white LED lights in boat interior
Photo: Imtra

Choosing "warm white" LED lights for interiors brightens up
woodwork and provides a traditional look.

In addition to installation considerations, Woodcock advises thinking aesthetics through as well. For example, Imtra offers both cool-white and warm-white fixtures, as do many manufacturers. Each has its place aboard. Cool white, for example, looks great against shiny fiberglass as, say, a courtesy light, but it does wooden brightwork no favors. Similarly, cool white works well in engine spaces, but you don't want it in the galley making your burger look purple, and your lips, too. And many people can't stand reading by cool white, preferring the more familiar warm white that mimics a halogen bulb.

Another option is color. If you're thinking about courtesy lights for your walkaround or center console, blues and greens have become popular. And of course, you can get a red light for over the chart table. "A big consideration with courtesy lights is glare," says Woodcock. "LEDs tend to seem more intense, so you want to think about using indirect light, particularly on steps or companionways." LED fixtures designed with "eyebrows" to prevent you from looking directly at the light are a good option. You also want to look for fixtures rated to IP65 or greater, which means they can withstand direct spraying with a hose or short periods of submersion.

Getting Started

Making the changeover to LEDs doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If power consumption is your primary concern, you can start with the lights you use most or that draw the most amps. If you want the look of LEDs, start with exterior fixtures, such as courtesy lighting, spreader lights, or cockpit lights.

If you decide to start with bulbs, first you'll need an inventory of the existing bulbs in the various fixtures aboard. Write down both the type of bulb (festoon, wedge, bayonet, or two-pin) and its wattage. You might also want to note the manufacturer of the fixture. Depending on size and output, a quality LED replacement bulb will cost you $15 to $30, but should last for thousands of hours, far longer than you're ever likely to use it.

If you decide to go the fixture route, consider not only the cost of each fixture, which depending on your taste could top $200 per unit, but also the cost of any headliner you'll want to replace and/or installation costs if you don't do the work yourself.

When you're doing the math, don't forget that the savings aren't limited to replacing bulbs. LEDs can save costly upgrades in batteries, as well as forestalling the need to invest in generators, solar panels, and other costly charging capability.End of story marker

 

Michael Vatalaro, BoatUS Magazine's executive editor, has a 24-foot Pursuit center console and enjoys doing all the work aboard himself.

 

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The Final Frontier — Underwater

There are only two reasons to install underwater lights — to catch more looks or to catch more fish. If you're not about bling or bait, skip to the end.

"A big trend we're seeing right now is that these lights help catch fish," says Don DeMott, general manager at OceanLED. "The light will bring in bait and concentrate it at the boat. Our pro staff guys run the blue lights during the day as well.

Photo of underwater lighting that can change the color
Photo: OceanLED

OceanLED makes underwater lighting with a
controller that can change the color of the light to
any color in the visible spectrum. Blue is popular, but orange, purple, or green are also possible.

It creates a strobing effect and makes the predator fish curious, turning the hull into a giant teaser."

Planning an underwater light install typically takes a little more consideration because you need to drill holes to run power leads and choose locations that keep the lights submerged in order to dissipate heat. At the same time, you want the light to have a clear path into the water. The color light you choose is mostly about preference. However, some colors work better in clear water; some do better in brackish or stained water. OceanLED's website features useful tutorial videos; it helps to have a picture of your transom handy when you start the planning process.

Photo of OceanLED's Amphibian Pro series LED lights
Photo: OceanLED

Another factor is how you store your boat. If your boat is on a trailer or lift, a light designed to be submersed only part of the time will suffice, such as OceanLED's Amphibian series. If you keep your boat in the water, you'll need one with a housing designed to resist fouling, like their Pro series. The Pro series also are brighter for a given size fixture: for example, 800 lumens for the Amphibian T12 versus 1,300 lumens from the Pro series A12. "I always tell people to buy the brightest light they can comfortably afford," says DeMott. "Ultimately, you'll be happier with it."

 

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