We anchored one evening in Old Teakettle Creek, Georgia, off a winding section of the ICW. Only one other boat was in sight, a Nordhavn that had come in an hour or so behind us.
After an easy and relaxed dinner, we decided to call it a night, good-tired after a full day of glorious weather. I lay down on the master berth with a book I hoped to finish on this trip. Unfortunately it wasn’t going too well, as I have a hard time staying awake when the sun goes down when I’m cruising. I find getting up with the sun is best balanced by going to sleep at sunset, a very different tempo than back in the world. That’s one thing I love about cruising.
I switched on the gooseneck reading lamp on the side of the berth, settling down to read what I hoped would be close to a chapter, a goal I have yet to reach.
My mind was soon distracted, because the reading light focused a scorching beam on my forehead, rather than on the book I held in front of me. When I went to adjust the light, I was surprised by how hot the fixture already was, the halogen bulb emitting as much heat as light. This can’t be very efficient, I thought. I noticed if I bent the gooseneck up to a position where it would illuminate the book, the fixture head would rest against the vinyl bulkhead covering above the berth. This wasn’t going to work at all. I didn’t need to start any fires.
For the rest of the trip, I noted that when all the lights on our 2007-vintage boat are on, quite a bit of heat is generated. Most of the bulbs aboard are halogen, which are up to 20 percent brighter than their incandescent predecessors, and a lot hotter. I started thinking I, too, should join the growing number of boat owners making the move to newer lighting technology.
In the commercial and home environment, we’ve seen the emergence of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). These bulbs have replaced traditional incandescent lightbulbs, and they last five or six times as long. But they are not without their own issues and don’t readily fit a boating application, save for the occasional lamp fixture.
CFL bulbs are sensitive to humidity and lose their rated brightness far too quickly. (Buyers beware: Off-brand bulbs typically don’t last as long as those from major manufacturers.) And CFLs use mercury, which is toxic to us and our environment. There’ no question, CFLs represent a transitional technology at best. The future of lighting is the light-emitting diode, or LED.
Compare a 60-watt incandescent bulb to a 7-watt LED bulb, and you’ll see why. An LED bulb will last up to 50,000 hours, whereas an incandescent bulb may reach 1,200 hours if you’re lucky (I certainly am not). An incandescent bulb uses 10 times the energy of an equivalent LED bulb, and the LED bulb is not sensitive to humidity or vibration.
Yes, the initial cost of LED technology is more expensive, but when you determine the number of incandescent bulbs you would need to match an LED’s service cycle, you might consider LEDs a bargain in the long run, or at least justifiable. Another factor is the needless waste in resources involved in the manufacture of a product that’s designed with planned obsolescence in mind. There is a certain satisfaction in choosing a product that will be manufactured once, last a very long time and require zero maintenance.
There is no contest. LEDs are the future.
We’ve seen an explosion of LED technology in the past decade, and there are many new LED products at boat shows each year. It’s clear the marine industry has been one of the early adopters of this new lighting technology, for several reasons. LEDs work well with the DC power source we use in boats, and their brightness, which in early designs was lower than that of traditional bulbs, was well suited to onboard requirements. LEDs create very little heat, require no maintenance and have low power consumption.
In recent years, the state of LED technology has reached a point where their brightness now equals that of halogen/incandescent lighting. And things are just getting started.
Looking to get the latest on the subject as I develop a game plan of my own for Spitfire, I called Kinder Woodcock, product development manager at Imtra Marine Products. This company represents a number of diverse high-quality product lines, including Exalto wiper systems, SidePower thrusters and Besenzoni passerelles, and is always on the cutting edge. It has a 50-year reputation of supplying high-end equipment—pricey but the best available—found on the best yachts worldwide.
Kinder is immersed in this alternative lighting evolution, and he appears to know where it is going, as well. In the process of helping me understand what I need to do on Spitfire, he also gave me quite a lesson on the current state of LED lighting.
Now that LEDs are equal to traditional lighting in brightness, the industry is focused on improving color, enhancing the functionality of LED fixtures and coming up with better optics for improved beam angles. There is still much to do, but LEDs have arrived—they’re no longer an expensive oddity.
Kinder explained that LEDs can now match the brightness a 20-watt halogen bulb, which is truly amazing. The U.S. Department of Energy is a big supporter of moving this technology along, as well as creating programs for testing and certifying these lights to make them comparable among manufacturers. It is worth downloading the DOE fact sheet, with its various metrics and the label it hopes will accompany these products in the future (see www.lightingfacts.com).
The tested measurements include light output (in lumens), energy required to produce that output (in watts), efficacy (output per watt, a measure of efficiency) and color temperature. The fifth metric is the color rendering index (CRI), an assigned value of how well light renders the color of objects.
Lights with CRI ratings of 50‒70 are poor color rendering sources that can’t be easily corrected with optics, but such lights are perfectly acceptable for parking garages and street lamps. You can be sure a high-end food market is well aware of its lighting’s CRI, so the meats at the butcher counter look appealing and mouth-watering. CRI ratings of 80‒100 are considered high and accurately reflect color.
Some quality LEDs are now pushing a CRI rating of 95 and beyond, although generally available quality LEDs have a rating on the order of 80‒85.
It helps to do a little research when shopping for lights. Cheap, non-branded LEDs found on the Internet likely won’t have a CRI rating, or their rating will be low. Look for the above-mentioned lighting facts sheet or a CE label where possible, as these are good indicators of quality and test certification that manufacturers stand behind.
As Kinder and I discussed how to change my mostly halogen lighting to LEDs, his questions surprised me, and I was amazed by how many lighting choices we now have. To get the most out of this technology, knowledge goes a long way to best fit the available options to each lighting application.
When I mentioned the hot reading lamp with the halogen bulb, Kinder delved into the temperature issue and explained why LEDs make so much sense. Halogen lighting radiates heat from the light beam. LEDs also generate heat, but it isn’t radiated; rather, it travels from the circuit board (and all LEDS have circuit boards) into a heat sink at the back of the fixture, where it dissipates. The goal of the heat sink is to draw heat away from the circuit board. Heat is the major killer of LEDs, which is why it is so important to engineer this thermal management into every lighting fixture designed for LEDs.
It seems obvious that replacing existing bulbs with LED bulbs is the most cost-effective approach to upgrading one’s boat lighting. Replacement LED bulbs are available with side pins, back pins, G4 bases and just about every other type of socket base you might find.
However, because of the heat issue, simply replacing a bulb in an existing fixture with a replacement LED bulb may not be the best way to go, and the result may not be as bright, have proper color or be as long-lived.
Kinder warns that LED replacement bulbs should be limited to halogen or incandescent fixtures of 10 watts or less. A 10-watt halogen or incandescent bulb can be readily replaced with a 2.5-watt LED bulb with no problem, but for anything larger, Kinder recommends replacing the entire fixture with one that is specifically designed for LED lighting. Thermal management is the reason.
Not every fixture will perform as intended with a replacement LED bulb (assuming the bulb fits), especially fixtures that dim. If dimming is really important, you can give it a try (I did, with some success), but you may have to swap out the fixture with a new one designed to dim with LEDs. (Some dimming fixtures require two additional wires running to the electronic dimmer to eliminate electromagnetic interference that can cause buzzing in radios. Kinder said Imtra will soon offer retrofit fixtures that use existing halogen wiring.)
THE LIGHT LIST
I spent time aboard Spitfire alone with no distractions, pen and paper in hand, moving from one end of the boat to the other, counting all the fixtures in each of the cabins, spaces and lockers. I turned each light switch on and off, looking around for yet another light. I never realized just how many lights are on a boat! I did the walk-through a couple of times, checking the heads and showers, the hanging lockers, the engine rooms and bow lockers.
My list came together once I had identified how many 12VDC G4 bulbs I would need to replace, how many MR11 bulbs I would change and which fixtures I should consider upgrading. There is one 110VAC coral lamp in the saloon that has a CFL bulb in it, and I plan to change that to an LED, as well.
With this newfound knowledge, I began looking at other boats to see what lighting solutions they had. One that caught my eye was a 58 Hatteras LRC with blue rope lighting under its partial eyebrow that gives it a decidedly flamboyant look at night. I thought a similar light would add a nice touch to Spitfire, with her wide eyebrow around the wide side decks and foredeck. I ordered two strings of cool white rope lights with a hundred or so conduit clips to secure the rope light under the eyebrow, and I tied these lights into the courtesy light switch on the flybridge. These lights complement the boat’s courtesy lights really well.
Most of the 40-plus bulbs I replaced on Spitfire were 10-watt halogen G4 bulbs, a combination of side-pin warm bulbs for the interior and cool bulbs for the exterior and lockers. I chose wide beam lightbulbs for the saloon, and narrow spot bulbs for reading lights. The saloon dome light uses three back-pin G4 bulbs, and the various reading lights took replacement MR11 bulbs. The gooseneck reading light by my pillow now seems every bit as bright as the original halogen, but it is barely warm to the touch.
In the engine rooms and the starboard bow locker (which houses the genset and workbench), I replaced the incandescent fixtures with Imtra’s new LED engine room lights. The new lights, bright and well built, are perfect for these spaces. These fixtures employ 14 high-brightness, wide-angle LED bulbs and do a great job of illuminating an entire area. While somewhat expensive (as are other LED fixtures because of what goes into them), I am really happy having such a professional touch in the engine and bow spaces.
I was able to order many of the lights directly from Imtra and/or from my local marine store. Others came from sources on the Internet, including amazon.com. Understanding what to look for was the key to finding the good stuff among all that’s out there.
The energy savings of converting from traditional lighting to LED lights are both real and measurable. I calculated that our interior living spaces required 380 watts. With LEDs, that figure is down to just 81 watts—only 21 percent of the original. Impressive.
I suggest you take a look at your own boat’s lighting and see if such a conversion makes sense. It is not an inexpensive project, but it is one that provides benefits immediately. Perhaps, as Kinder suggested, it is something to do over time, starting with heavy-use lighting, such as the fixtures in saloon overheads, and then addressing other areas as time and finances allow. Some lights, such as those in a guest shower or locker, may not be used enough to justify conversion. Maybe just wait until those bulbs fail before replacing them.
In the reality of today, where we hold onto boats instead of trading up every few years, keeping the boat you have is also an opportunity to make it better, more efficient and more comfortable. By bringing LED lighting aboard, you’ll accomplish that while doing something good for the environment.