Know How: Switching From Incandescent Bulbs to LEDs

lighting combinations

It’s fun to have some lighting combinations to play around with

From the first time I switched on the lights on board our new project boat, one thing was certain: they would have to go. The 1987 Pearson 39-2 had been updated in some ways, but not in others—and it was obvious that interior lighting had been way down the previous owner’s priority list. Every light fixture on board was original, mostly equipped with low-wattage incandescent bulbs, though several had fluorescent tubes and several others were non-functional. Even with every one of the 12 lights in the saloon burning, the ambiance was gloomy—and the power draw was substantial.

The obvious course was to replace them all with LEDs. Who in their right mind would swap power-hungry incandescent bulbs out with power-hungry, heat-generating halogen lights? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve scorched my scalp on a low halogen fixture. The only questions were whether to take the budget approach and merely swap out the bulbs, go all the way and replace the light fixtures instead, or do a combination of the two.

On our old Norlin 34 project boat, I had purchased a few inexpensive light fittings and merely swapped out their halogen bulbs with LEDs. These worked fine in the confines of the Norlin’s snug saloon, but the Pearson’s comparatively cavernous interior cried out for a more sophisticated treatment. Where a half-dozen lights had sufficed for the Norlin, the Pearson has a total of 23, spread between saloon, galley, chart table, two sleeping cabins and two heads compartments. I decided to call in the best lighting guru I know—Kinder Woodcock, lighting project manager at Imtra, which supplies a great many LED bulbs and light fixtures for both boatbuilders and the aftermarket.

LED lights

LED lights require intricate circuitry (left), There’s a bulb for that—whatever it may be (right). Photos courtesy of IMTRA.

“You could replace the bulbs in some of these fixtures,” opined Woodcock, though I could tell he was not keen on the idea, perhaps because my faded, rather dingy-looking fixtures were showing their age. “But think about what you want from the boat and the kind of sailing you are going to do. There are some areas where more light is desirable than in others.

“For the galley, you want strong lighting so you can see what you are doing, and probably some directional lighting as well. You don’t want to skimp there. For the heads, you will want a strong warm white light for shaving and a less powerful red/white light for general use.

“Your reading light fixtures should be replaced with some compact adjustable units.  And for the overhead lighting, why not have dimmable lights? That way you can brighten up the interior when you need to and still lower the light level for entertaining.”

Ambiance is one thing I found lacking back when most new boats still sported halogen lights. Switch on the overhead lights and the saloon would be lit up like an operating theater. Nowadays even mass-production builders are paying much more attention to lighting and the effect it has on the all-round livability of a boat. Concealed lighting, colored strip lights, lights with built-in dimmers, low-level courtesy lights: there aren’t many limits to the ways you can customize your lighting.

Since the boat resides on a mooring, and my sailing plans include extensive coastal cruising and some offshore sailing, with extended periods at anchor, I wanted a versatile lighting plan that would work well for a small crew when sailing overnight—switchable red/white fixtures overhead in each cabin and compartment, good reading lights, a red/white chart table light—and that would also be cozy to hang out in at night. The Pearson’s light arrangement was actually quite good, with lights located where they needed to be; it was the execution that was lacking. The galley, for instance, sported an undersized fluorescent fitting that was of little use in twilight; same with both heads compartments. A couple of the reading lights were so corroded as to be useless, and some of the overhead lights were close to that point. Although there are some very good replacement LED bulbs on the market, I decided it would be best to replace all the fixtures, given that these generally put out more light than LED bulbs.

Woodcock suggested replacing the overhead dome lights with Imtra’s Largo tri-color lights. These switch between warm white, red and blue light. There is some debate as to whether red or blue is better for night vision, but I kind of like blue. The ability to dim these lights is useful when you just want enough light for people to move around safely. They were also the same width as the old fittings, so no surgery would be involved in the installation. To replace the fluorescent lights at the galley, chart table and in the two head compartments, Woodcock specified moisture-tolerant Resolute 805 surface-mounted LED strip lights. At 14in long these have a wide beam angle, and I was surprised at the intensity of the warm white light they produced; even if you did nothing else, installing one of these in the galley would be a great move.

Light varieties

The Largo dome lights (left) switch between red, white and blue; one of the old eyeball spots; a swiveling reading light (right)

I had installed one of Imtra’s Hobart spotlight-style reading lights in the Norlin 34 a few years ago so did not hesitate to specify these for both the saloon and sleeping cabins. Equivalent to a 10W halogen bulb, they can be swiveled and have a small base. Because the old semi-recessed eyeball lights were substantially bigger, I bought some plywood disks to cover the holes and mounted the Hobarts on them.

Being the nerve center of the boat, the galley got some special consideration. In addition to the Resolux and the Largo, Woodcock suggested replacing the existing eyeball spotlights with a pair of Sigma surface mount dome lights hooked up to a dimmer. That would provide more than enough light for food prep and cooking. The Sigmas fitted nicely over the large holes left by the old lights and were easy to connect to a dimmer.  I installed two more of these over the saloon table.

In general, this was one of the easiest upgrades ever, since I was able to merely swap out the old fixtures with new ones; no new wiring was involved, though installing the dimmers took some time. The end result of this venture was, as hoped, a resounding success. The new LEDs provide so much more light than the old bulbs it’s hard to credit, and I like being able to control the intensity with dimmers. I also like being able to leave a couple of red or blue lights on all night so I can find my way around without switching on bright white lights.

So far we’ve hardly mentioned power consumption, which is the main reason people switch to LEDs, but this, of course, is about 10 percent of what it would be with halogen lights. If power draw is your sole concern (as it was mine with the Norlin), replacing the bulbs may be the way to go. If you look at the way your boat is lit as a lifestyle benefit and spend a lot of time aboard, it’s worth the extra outlay on fixtures and dimmers to get the look and feel you want.

On that note, Woodcock also suggested a pair of LED strip lights, concealed under the lockers outboard in the saloon, would provide some extra atmosphere. I haven’t yet added these, but expect them to provide an extra level of sophistication to the venerable Pearson. Having already acquired a disco ball, I feel the concealed strips could be the final touch…

You want a powerful light in the heads (left), LED rope lights are increasingly common on boats (right).

You want a powerful light in the heads (right); LED rope lights are increasingly common on boats (left).

The Lowdown on Bulbs

Not all LED bulbs are created equal, and not all can tolerate the fluctuations in voltage you get with a typical marine electrical system. As always, you get what you pay for, so beware of the el cheapo $5 bulbs you can buy online. A marine-grade LED bulb will be rated to handle input voltage 10-30 volts, meaning it can be used with 12V or 24V systems, and incorporate a DC-to-DC converter to protect the diodes from voltage that is too high or too low. The converter also provides reverse polarity protection. The bulb should also have “binned” or matched diodes, with each emitting the same amount of light. LEDs emit heat, so if the bulb does not have a heat sink, the circuit boards should have aluminum or copper backing to dissipate heat. Expect to pay from $15 to $30-plus for a decent bulb; they vary widely in light output, so read the specs carefully.

Thinking about fixtures?

Indisputably more expensive than bulbs, LED fixtures tend to be a more uncompromising product, better engineered and more sophisticated. A fixture will have a bigger circuit board and more diodes than a bulb, and the difference in light intensity can be marked. It will have a bigger heat sink, along with protection from reverse polarity and voltage surges. One important issue is the amount of radio frequency (RF) interference produced by LED circuitry, which can affect nearby electronics; there is room in fixtures to include the necessary electrical protection. Housings can be made of plastic, aluminum or stainless steel. Once again, you get what you pay for.

RESOURCES

Aqua Signal aquasignal.com

Cruising Solutions cruisingsolutions.com

Dr. LED doctorled.com

Hella Marine hellamarine.com

Imtra imtra.com

West Marine westmarine.com

Photos by Peter Nielsen

March 2017

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