By now the chances are very good that you’ve heard a lot about LED lights. Since around 200 when they began to compete directly with traditional light sources in terms of output and light quality, manufacturers have aggressively marketed the LED as the next wave of lighting technology, and with good reason infohatworld
With new energy standards being enacted at a federal level and consumers really beginning to feel the pinch of high fuel and energy costs, energy efficient lighting has become a very attractive way to reduce these costs. Since boaters have felt these costs more intimately due to the nature of producing electrical power onboard their boats, it’s no surprise that the boating industry is possibly one of the currently most LED saturated markets. Nowadays, if you are looking for a new light fixture or lamp for your boat, chances are you’ve seen LED designs outnumber traditional halogen and incandescent’s two to one.
One of the first things boaters wonder about when considering a change to LEDs is whether or not they can simply replace their existing incandescent bulbs with LED versions. Since the technology behind LEDs is radically different than that of the traditional light bulb, this is a quite valid concern. Fortunately for us, LEDs are extremely versatile as well as efficient and manufacturers have come up with a wide variety of ways to upgrade, including LED bulbs which install and operate no differently than the tried and true light bulbs we’ve grown used to. However, it is not always possible to simply change out an incandescent for an LED, and in those cases it is necessary to go with an entire new fixture instead.
For general onboard lighting, in areas such as cabins and cockpits, it’s important to note that existing controls such as dimmers may not be compatible with your new LEDs. Many boaters prefer to be able to precisely control the amount of light in an area, particularly cockpits and wheelhouses where its important to preserve your eyes’ natural acclimation to darkness. A basic LED replacement lamp will likely not work with traditional dimmer switches, so if you desire to use one, you must purchase LED lamps designed for dimming. LEDs require a precise voltage to operate properly and contain electronics which monitor and adjust the incoming voltage to maintain it at the correct levels. Dimmer switches interfere with the operation of these electronics in LEDs not designed for dimming, causing flickering, erratic operation, and shortened LED life. LEDs designed for dimmable operation are “programmed” to allow for the changes in voltages a dimmer creates, allowing the LED to produce steady light output as the voltage is reduced. In short, you cannot simply connect any LED bulb or lamp to a dimmer switch and must use LEDs specifically designed for use with dimmers.
Another concern for boaters considering an LED upgrade is compatibility with existing wiring and voltages. The main issue here is whether your boat runs 12 VDC, 24 VDC, or 120 AC. For vessels running 12 or 24 volt DC power the options available are very wide. LED lamps run natively with DC current, meaning they can generally be connected to DC electrical systems without any need for special transformers or power inverters. As long as they are rated to operate within a range of voltages including 12 and 24 volt DC, boaters can wire them directly into the existing harnesses without any special considerations. This is not to say that you can just wire any simple LED into your system and expect it to work properly however. As we mentioned earlier, LEDs require precise and steady voltages to operate, and variations in voltage can have a severe and adverse effect on the LED including low output or greatly reduced operating life. Too high a voltage at the LED can cause it to burn out prematurely, while too low a voltage can cause dim output, erratic operation and flickering.
In order to prevent these problems and maintain proper voltages, manufacturers of LED boat lights include solid state circuitry controls also know as “drivers” as part of the entire LED lamp assembly. These drivers regulate the voltages coming into the assembly and manage them at the proper levels, maintaining output and LED longevity. Oftentimes these drivers will also allow added functions such as dimming and strobing, but users should check with the manufacturing literature when choosing to ensure their device is properly rated and will provide the operation they require. For boaters running common household current such as 110-120 VAC through the use of inverters or transformers, LEDs are also available which can operate with these voltages and typically include a built in transformer which converts these voltages to DC current the LEDs can use.