Easy LED Lighting Upgrade

By Mark Corke

Lighting technology has come a long way in the last few years. Now might be the time to consider an upgrade to LEDs.

LED-lighting for chart tableOne of my first projects was to provide nighttime LED lighting for the chart table.

When you walk around the boat shows, you see that it's usually the big flashy boats that get all the attention. I enjoy looking at boatbuilders' latest offerings, but when the novelty of looking at boats that I can't afford has worn off, I like to go and visit the smaller booths in search of the latest innovations in electronics and gadgets. I'm always interested in making my boat more fuel efficient and easier to operate, and to this end, I've been looking into reducing the electricity consumption aboard.

LEDs are nothing new. They're comparatively old technology, and they've been used as indicator lamps on TV sets and electrical panels for many years. Scientists have known that the longevity of the LED "bulb" coupled with it's low power consumption would make it an ideal replacement for conventional incandescent bulbs, if only they could produce an LED that delivered a white light and high enough light output. With recent improvements and innovations, these challenges have been largely overcome, and LEDs are now being routinely changed to by owners or are fitted at the factory by the manufacturer.

LEDs are semiconductors that produce light when supplied with electricity of the correct voltage. Unlike a traditional incandescent bulb, there's no filament, so there's nothing to burn out or break. The most likely failure of an LED is from supplying it with current of the incorrect voltage, which may destroy it. Put your hand anywhere near a tungsten bulb and the heat is immediately apparent; with the filament glowing white hot, it's easy to understand that most of the electricity consumed goes into creating heat rather than light. LEDs give off far less heat.

One of the things that I noticed when I changed to LED lighting in the main saloon of my boat was that I had to run the air-conditioning far less often to keep the cabin cool. With the AC running less, I could use the generator less often, and this meant a decrease in fuel burnt. There have been other benefits, too. I initially changed the lights to reduce energy consumption, but the robust nature of the LEDs has meant that I haven't had to replace any yet.

Early LED lighting fixtures tended to cause electrical interference, but these issues have largely been resolved; in any event, the amount of interference was less than that caused by most florescent light fixtures.

So Can I Simply Replace My Existing Bulbs With LEDs?

This depends to a large extent on the light fixture. Normally, most reading lamps and those with bayonet-type connectors can be easily exchanged. This is often a good place to start if you're not sure if LEDs are right for you or your boat. I first converted my red and white light over the nav station to LED lighting, then went on from there.

Color Temperature

All light, either artificial or naturally occurring, has what is known as a color temperature. This rather misleading term has nothing to do with how hot a bulb gets but refers to the characteristics of the light that it transmits. Color temperature is measured in Kelvin, with 5,600 K being the temperature (color) of daylight at midday.

Any color with a number higher than this appears colder (bluer), while each color with a lower number looks warmer (yellower). Most artificial lights used for reading and other tasks will have a Kelvin rating in the 3,000 to 4,800 range, which represents a good balance between warmth and clarity, and which makes the interior of a cruiser's saloon feel warm and inviting.

Some LED products are labeled with their color temperature. Others are called simply "warm white" because we lay persons think of the yellowish glow of an incandescent light as "warm." Ironically, such LEDs have a color temperature close to that of relatively cool incandescent lights.

Sensibulb from Sailors SolutionsThe Sensibulb from Sailors Solutions fits neatly into a variety of light fixtures and offer a good spread of light to read by.

There is a surprising amount of variation in color temperature available. Your LED lights should last a long time, so if possible, try to see the light in operation before you make a final decision.

Power Savings

One of the main reasons to change to LEDs is saving power. Although it's difficult to give exact comparisons, a 25-watt 12-volt bulb uses just over 2 amps. An LED light fixture with a similar light output may use between one-fifth and one-tenth of the power. If you add up all the lights on the average cruising boat, your savings can be significant. I have 10 lamps on my boat in the saloon alone. I'm now able to burn all the lights without fear of the house bank getting severely depleted or having to start the generator to keep the batteries topped up.

Factoring In Costs

LED lighting isn't cheap, but you need to factor into the equation that you may never need to change a bulb. Over the life of the boat, the savings both in terms of replacement costs and lower energy bills should more than offset the higher initial outlay. As an example, a 12-diode bayonet-type bulb used as a direct replacement for a 25-watt bulb of the same pattern will cost around $9 versus $2.50 for the standard tungsten-filament version. As more and more consumers and boatbuilders incorporate LEDs, we'll see a further fall in cost. 

— Published: August/September 2016

Tech Support

Degree Of Difficulty
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  • Wire strippers
  • Wire cutters
  • Crimpers
  • Flashlight
  • Screwdrivers
  • Digital multimeter
  • Pliers


If you're just changing a light bulb, expect to pay $4 or $5. Each new complete light fitting could cost up to $50 or more


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