Everybody saw the news coverage reporting that there wouldn't be any fireworks "at Waterfront Park," but what many didn't know until the Port KY e-blast was that the Slugger Field presentation by Zambelli Fireworks was to be launched from a barge on the river. Would you believe that at showtime there were still slips available at the waterfront? We're hoping funding for the Waterfront Independence Festival is restored for 2015.
We're always looking for smart boat improvement ideas to keep our vessel looking good and running better. One such upgrade is the conversion to LED lighting. I had the opportunity to visit the Shenzhen Electronics Group (SEG) Market four years ago, and was amazed by the proliferation of new LEDs. I've been waiting for the costs to the U.S. boaters to come down, and we're finally reaching a point where there is a good selection of LED lighting available at ever-decreasing prices.
Above, inside the massive 1.8 million square foot electronics market in Shenzhen, Guangdong, PRC
We're fortunate in Louisville that Marine Sales & Service* has recently embraced the new technology. Kirk, a familiar face behind their counters, has set up several different displays showcasing various LED options. I set off with a goal of replacing all the lighting on our cabin cruiser with LEDs, which gives us much more light at a fraction of the current draw.
It's worth noting that LED lighting is also available through some dedicated online retailers, but I'm always in favor of supporting our local stores when possible. A few trips back to the store to return or swap purchases can easily offset shipping costs that you would incur dealing online. The store is also very interested in feedback, so that they can better refine their LED offerings to their boaters.
The first thing to do is to determine your needs for LED conversion. In our case, we found that anchoring out for the night would drain our house bank, especially in the fall and winter. Our cabin, for example, features fourteen G4 fixtures, six courtesy lights and two dedicated reading lights. Dome lighting in the galley and head also includes eight #1141 bulbs.
Above, a "Before" and "After" comparison of the 1141 bulb replaced with a "Cool White" LED
With the anchor lights and all the cabin lighting illuminated, we calculated a total consumption of almost 400 watts of 12v power. Using the DC conversion formula where Watts = Amps x Volts, that works out to a 12v current of 33A, in our case split over five circuits. You can see how that could put a dent in a 1,000 Amp-hour bank at anchor. They also emitted significant heat, which is the last thing anybody needs in the summertime.
The G4 fixtures, each featuring a 10w halogen bulb, were replaced with nickel-sized LED bulb clusters that drew a total of 1.3w, for an 87% savings in power. Some of the other bulbs had less efficiency, but in the end, the total energy savings is still very significant. Even a 75% gain in efficiency would bring our 33A draw down to a respectable 8 1/4 Amps. Obviously, we don't leave all the lights on, but now there's no reason not to, at least as far as the battery use is concerned.
One other consideration for lighting would be the color and intensity. We preferred the modern look of the "cool" white bulbs, but liked the "warm" white for the reading lights. Photographers will tell you that warm lighting works better for food or portraits, or for a make-up mirror or a candlelight dinner. Many of the lights come with other color options such as red or blue, and some are selectable depending on your change of mood.
Also on our list of bulbs to replace were the dome lights in the engine compartment. This was another area where we saw a huge benefit. Whereas the old fixtures were almost useless, the new fixtures, three total, lit up the dirt in the corners like nothing before. The first time I turned them on, they exposed a small drip from a fresh water coupling that I hadn't noticed before. That little problem could have led to a bigger problem, so already there is another benefit to the brighter replacement lighting.
Installation and Polarity
LEDs, by definition, are light-emitting diodes. A diode works like a check valve for electricity in that it will only allow current to pass in one direction. We test-fitted a few bulbs, only to find that some didn't work at first. As it turns out, some of my overhead fixtures had been wired at their respective switches backwards from the other ones. A quick criss-cross of the new wiring fixed the issue. The same held true for a few other connections, and a voltmeter confirmed that we'd have to reverse their polarity at the fixture. If you're doing something as simple as replacing a festoon-style bulb, the solution could be as simple as turning the bulb 180 degrees. Incadescent lights don't care which way they get the current, but the LEDs are more finicky.
Above, the one of the new LED dome fixtures in the engine compartment.
Below, this daytime picture shows how much light those LED can emit
Another area ripe for conversion was the navigation lighting. Let me start by saying that requirements vary depending on whether your boat is above or below 20 meters in length. Below 20m, the next question is whether it was produced prior to 11/01/2003. Some people have gone the route of replacing their festoon bulbs with new LEDs. There can be issues with some of the colors not working well together, for example you wouldn't put a red or blue light behind a red lens, as the red output could be distorted. In any case, you want to make sure that any installation meets the USCG requirements of 33 CFR 183.810 or ABYC Standard A-16 as applicable.
Additionally, make sure that you follow the minimum visibility requirements specified by the COLREGS under "Rule 22, Visibility of Lights," so as to be in compliance. For recreational boaters, you'll find the requirements change at 12 meters and 20 meters length, and the masthead lights have different requirements than your side and stern lights. Google is your friend, and Perko has a fact sheet that will get you started, as well.
Perko faqs: link
Above, a new navigation light installation, marked with "USCG 2 nm" approval.
Below, an overhead fluorescent tube light with a 12v ballast was replaced with two $20 LED strip lights that proved to be much brighter.
Our original fixtures were discolored and dated, so I had a perfect excuse to purchase a new set of navigation lights with housings. Yet another benefit of the LEDs is their long life, some advertising between 10,000-50,000 hours of lifespan. Our masthead light can be hard to reach for replacement. So, once we find a suitable replacement bulb, it should outlive the boat.
As of this writing, the cockpit spreader lights on our radar arch are all that we have left to replace. One of my reasons for not doing them was that we seldom use them. They draw a lot of power and can be hot. That brings us full-circle to the benefits of the LEDs, so we decided to order them, too, and have a 100% conversion.
From the top, another "Before and After" picture, the head with new fixtures, old and new reading lights, and a "Before and After" demo of the courtesy lighting.
What About the Cost?
Well, it's a boat, and like other boating-related improvements, they are not exactly inexpensive. Our Silverton project came in at just under $500 before ordering the spreader lights. That list included the master stateroom, salon, galley and dinette, navigation lights, engine room lighting, as well as interior and exterior door and courtesy lighting. Your best bet is to make a list of the lights on your boat, then head to the store to find out what the project's parts will cost you. Be sure that your installation includes waterproof butt connections for the marine environment per industry standards.
Above, overhead and courtesy LED lighting
In the end, the lighting benefit is readily apparent. Whereas the old lights just never seemed to be enough, the boat really "pops" now. The bulbs are cool to the touch, and no longer heat the cabin on a warm summer evening. Our boat is currently listed for sale with a broker, so spending $500 may be counterproductive. In this case, however, it is a valuable upgrade with an immediate effect on first impressions. Like with new paint on the walls, it also makes the interior soft goods look just a little old and faded. Looks like we need a few bolts of Sunbrella interior fabric for our next project…
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