Most recently-built boats are already outfitted with LED lighting, but if your boat is older, or you’re considering buying a used boat, the lighting may be ready for an upgrade. Imtra product expert Tom Orr walks you through the process of purchasing & switching to LED lighting onboard.
Why should I consider switching to LEDs on my boat?
The most common reason to consider switching to LEDs would be when it’s time to replace older lights that are broken or not performing up to your standards. Also, as a practical matter, if your boat is older, you may have difficulty finding replacements for certain types of halogen & incandescent fixtures and even for first generation LED fixtures.
Even if there is nothing faulty with your older lights, there are still reasons to consider the switch. One of the primary values of modern LED lights is that the ratio of light output to energy consumption is much more efficient than older lights. LEDs also reduce the heat output compared to many other types of fixtures, including earlier generation LEDs, and they provide a range of light options—neutral, warm, and cool white light.
Beyond the range of different color temperatures and intensities of white light, LED fixtures also have an advantage in producing multiple colors out of one fixture, because the diodes themselves can emit colored light. Halogen and incandescent bulbs require colored lenses to produce different colors, and one bulb is incapable of changing colors. LED circuit boards in a fixture or bulb can be arranged with as many different colored diodes as the physical surface area of the board allows.
How have LED boat lights improved recently?
All electronics have progressively become more efficient and smaller, using less power, lasting longer, drawing power more efficiently, and putting more light out, and LEDs are no exception. Newer LED lights are generally producing more light (measured in lumens), and consuming less electricity in a smaller, more energy-efficient body.
LEDs themselves are also smaller and less clunky than they were in prior generations. As they become smaller and more energy efficient, they produce less heat, reducing the size of the fixture needed to dissipate that heat, while also outputting more light in a smaller fixture.
LEDs have brought more sophisticated and affordable lighting concepts to the marine industry, such as “white tuning.” One lightbulb can now be tuned to show warm, neutral or cool light. For example, the Lumishore brand now has all three white light options available in a single downlight as well as full color-changing capabilities. Boat owners can choose the color they want at any time, using a touch screen to pick and choose.
What problems do you find with old boat lights?
When you’re looking to buy a used boat, consider these problem points that may arise.
- Exterior lights—These lights out on deck need replacement most often. Courtesy lights are often down low and may be compromised by water or suffer from getting kicked. The overheads may be sprayed by water in certain running conditions and bad weather, and often get corroded.
- Interior lights—Older lights in the cabin will die when the filament burns out or a piece of the light will break. When working behind the headliner, you might snap a spring off the light or crack the glass. Sometimes the bulb or fixture won’t be available to replace anymore if the manufacture changed the style or sizes of their lights.
- Utility lights—Lights in the engine room or lockers will sometimes get banged or bumped and need replacement.
- Underwater lights—Earlier generation LED lights and halogen lights will sometimes fail in part or completely, or may simply not appeal as much as newer LEDs that have more features, like extra colors or synchronization with your music and above-deck lights.
- Navigation lights—Port, starboard and stern LED running lights are brighter, draw less power, and last longer than older styles. For sailboats and on any other boat type where weight is critical, LEDs are also a big advantage.
What are some of the obstacles you find in making the switch?
The headliner in a cabin can be the biggest challenge to converting lights. If you can’t take it down or you have a stretch headliner made of canvas and leather with precut holes for the lights, you may not be able to put it back in place on your own. Sometimes, you may need to replace the headliner.
On some older boats, you’ll find the existing lights are set up to use AC power. Most new LED lights intended for boats use low-voltage DC power. So the question we ask customers is whether you have a draw that you can pull from—or will you need to install converters from high-voltage AC power to 12 or 24 volt DC power?
Dimmers and switches can create problems, too. Halogen and incandescent lights are dimmed through a different process than LEDs, so the dimming switches for the older style lights are almost always incompatible with LED lights. This might lead to you needing to replace many of the switches onboard. We dive into more detail on the different processes of dimming in our article on troubleshooting lighting circuits here.
How much does it cost to convert to LED?
Like any lighting system, depending on the scope and complexity of the installation, LED lighting can be relatively inexpensive, relatively expensive, or somewhere in between. As technology and manufacturing capabilities have advanced LEDs are significantly less expensive now than they were when they were relatively new. But of course, the scope of your refit project will ultimately determine the overall cost. If you’re simply replacing old halogen bulbs with LED replacement bulbs, it can be a relatively inexpensive fix. Single-color LED bulbs for an interior light fixture typically range in price from $8 – $20 per bulb depending on the size and power of the bulbs. So if you’re replacing the bulbs in 15 interior light fixtures, it can easily be done for $100-$150.
Of course, if you have a larger yacht with dozens or even hundreds of lights, and choose to replace entire fixtures, an LED lighting refit can get into the tens of thousands of dollars. Every boat is different, and there are almost always several available options for a refit ranging from simple bulb replacements to high-tech and color-changing synchronized lighting systems, so it’s important to evaluate and weigh your options, and of course, consult with an industry expert.
Seven-point checklist before shopping LED boat lights:
- Are lights surface mounted or recessed?
- If recessed, what is the size of the cut-out and recess depth?
- What size is the bezel (outer diameter)?
- What voltage of current lighting system
- Am I dimming now and do I want to dim the LED?
- Do I need a single color or bi-color light?
- How do I want to control the lights?
- Wall fixture
- Digital switching
- Switch on fixture?