DIY: Cruiser’s Navigation Lights

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Reliable navigation lights are essential and required by law

Reliable navigation lights are essential and required by law

Unlike the owners of many new production boats, we planned to use our brand-new 44-foot sloop, Red Thread, as our family home for five years. She would take us through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, down the west coast of South America, and finally across the Pacific. After cruising up and down the east coast of the United States for several months, I realized that full-time use makes far greater demands on equipment than weekend cruising or daysailing.

Lights out

It took only a month for us to discover that our incandescent running lights were not up to the task. We hadn’t sailed much more than 500 miles before spray coming over the bow burned out one of the bow lights. I worked on the unit and thought I had solved the water-infiltration problem, but 500 miles later I had replaced five bulbs and two complete housings.

Power drain

An overnight passage was also a considerable drain on the batteries. Each of our running lights, two bow and one stern light, had a 25-watt incandescent bulb and between them, they consumed 50 amp-hours each night. A 25-watt bulb uses about 2.1 amps on a 12-volt system (watts divided by volts equals amps). I was running my lights an average of 8 hours, so my nightly consumption was 2.1 amps@8, or 16.8 amps per light for a total of 50 amps. Another part of the equation is the fact that a battery has a finite number of charge-and-drain cycles in its lifetime, so the fewer cycles it has to make, the longer it will last.

A typical battery bank for a boat our size has three 4D batteries and a total capacity of 600 amp-hours. That means there are just 300 amp-hours available before the battery bank is discharged to the 50 percent level, and the 50 amp-hours the lights were consuming each night we were under way was 16 percent of the total availability. Adding the chartplotter, autopilot, and other various electrical draws meant I was not far from having to do a complete charge-discharge cycle every day.

The problem

Because incandescent bulbs burn out frequently, their housing has to be accessible. The downside is that water can get into the housing. Our housings began to corrode after just 90 days of cruising; salt water constantly attacked the lights’ contact points and the hot bulbs burned out—often at very inconvenient moments—when they were sprayed by saltwater. While the lenses remained in good shape, once the contacts were gone the only solution was to replace the entire assembly, which I did on two occasions. I concluded that it was time to replace the lights with new LED (light-emitting diode) units.

1. Off with the old: First decide where the new LED mount will work best, taking into consideration that the LED unit is smaller and lighter than the old one. I was able to use the old wire hole in the stainless pulpit. The LED can be through-bolted or drilled and tapped. Since I drilled and tapped, I did not reuse the existing fasteners 2. Wiring: For the stern light I removed the old housing and wire and used the old wire to pull the new LED’s wire through the stanchion and below the deck. I drilled a hole into the stanchion from below the deck. The hole needs to be smaller than the inside of the stanchion but larger than the existing wire. In this case, the hole did not have to be resealed; any water that got into the stanchion would simply drain into the anchor locker instead of corroding the stanchion from the inside out

1. Off with the old: First decide where the new LED mount will work best, taking into consideration that the LED unit is smaller and lighter than the old one. I was able to use the old wire hole in the stainless pulpit. The LED can be through-bolted or drilled and tapped. Since I drilled and tapped, I did not reuse the existing fasteners2. Wiring: For the stern light I removed the old housing and wire and used the old wire to pull the new LED’s wire through the stanchion and below the deck. I drilled a hole into the stanchion from below the deck. The hole needs to be smaller than the inside of the stanchion but larger than the existing wire. In this case, the hole did not have to be resealed; any water that got into the stanchion would simply drain into the anchor locker instead of corroding the stanchion from the inside out

3. Alignment: It is important that all navigation lights be positioned vertically for maximum visibility. Because the bolt placement on my new Hella LED unit was different from that of the incandescent unit, I drilled and tapped smaller holes on the old bracket. The alignment of the holes has to be precise 4. No exposure to the elements: The LED is fully sealed and comes with over 6 feet of wire. The connections will be away from the elements. The light easily snaps into place

3. Alignment: It is important that all navigation lights be positioned vertically for maximum visibility. Because the bolt placement on my new Hella LED unit was different from that of the incandescent unit, I drilled and tapped smaller holes on the old bracket. The alignment of the holes has to be precise4. No exposure to the elements: The LED is fully sealed and comes with over 6 feet of wire. The connections will be away from the elements. The light easily snaps into place

5. Reconnect: I ran the wiring for the forward LEDs to a spot in the anchor locker that would not be exposed to any water that might enter the locker. I butt-spliced  the LED wire into the existing wire and covered the entire assembly with a heat-shrink cover

5. Reconnect: I ran the wiring for the forward LEDs to a spot in the anchor locker that would not be exposed to any water that might enter the locker. I butt-spliced the LED wire into the existing wire and covered the entire assembly with a heat-shrink cover

The solution 

With LED technology there are no light bulbs, filaments, or exposed connection points. Even though the cost of LED units has dropped a lot, they remain roughly 40 percent more expensive than the incandescent alternatives. And since an LED unit is physically smaller than its incandescent counterpart, its attachment plates will be different; if you keep your existing mounting bracket, you’ll have to drill new holes.

Replacing one of these units is considerably more expensive than replacing the lens of an incandescent lamp. But if you expect to see a lot of spray, installing an LED can pay for itself in a short period of time—you won’t have to replace it. The power savings is also very real because you spend fewer hours recharging the batteries. An LED navigation light for a 44-footer will use 88 percent less power than a comparable incandescent unit.

The refit

There are several ways to change over from an incandescent to an LED navigation light. Most incandescent units are through-bolted to a mounting plate; an LED unit, at half the weight and perhaps a third the size, may not require through-bolting. Most LED units are mounted on the bow and stern pulpits, with the electrical wiring running from the unit inside the stainless pulpit tube and down below through the deck joint. 3M 4200 or an equivalent sealing compound will keep the electric wire fixed in place and the interior watertight.

Anchor light

An incandescent masthead light can be another power hog, but the decision to change it to an LED probably depends on how much use it will get. If you use it at anchor 20 days a year or more, I think it makes sense to install an LED unit.

I converted all my navigation lights from incandescent to LED in Panama City before we left for the Galápagos Islands and Patagonia. By the time we reached Patagonia we had covered 5,700 miles, spent 37 nights at sea, and sailed through parts of the roaring forties. All the LED lights worked flawlessly, proof that these units are no longer something for the future. 

Resources

Aqua Signal, 847-639-6412, aquasignal.net

Euro Marine Trading (Lopolight), 401-849-0060, euromarinetrading.com

Hella Marine, 770-631-7500, hellamarine.com

Orca Green Marine Technology, 512-266-8226, orcagreen.com

Glenn Maddox, his wife, Pam, and their two young daughters began a circumnavigation aboard their brand-new Catalina 440, Red Thread, in 2006. After spending the Southern Hemisphere summer in Chile, they headed west across the South Pacific.

Photo by Charles Mason (top); courtesy of Glenn Maddox (remainder)

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