Which Are Better? Dedicated LED Boat Lights or DIY LED Lighting?

Boaters are an inventive and industrious group. With the high costs of owning and operating a sea going vessel, they have to be. Aside from normal maintenance, boaters spend a great deal of time performing their own upgrades and modifications, in most cases in an effort to improve the efficiency, durability, and safety of their vessels. Particularly when it comes to managing power, boaters will find all sorts of interesting ways to reduce their amp use and make the most of the power they produce onboard. Whether it’s adapting a land based solar array to marine use, or stripping the guts out of an LED walkway light to create a makeshift anchor light, boaters will usually find a way if something looks possible. Although this kind of creativity and innovation has resulted in a lot of interesting and effective results, sometimes it is a good idea to see if the effort is really actually worth it. In the case of adapting LEDs to your vessel, this can be especially true.

About ten or so years ago when LEDs really began gaining attention due to new designs being able to provide better than meager light output, boaters began noticing how efficiently the LEDs produced light. On a boat, particularly smaller vessels with limited power generation and storage capabilities, managing power use can be a major affair, and lighting all too often ends up falling victim to compromise and rationing as a result. On a boat carrying only 600 or so amp hours worth of power storage, the last thing you want to be doing is running a set of spreader lights for several hours, and you can pretty well forget illuminating the whole cabin for an entire night. That is unless you don’t mind running a noisy and fuel hungry generator repeatedly. Since there are other devices like radios, stereos, radar, live wells, and even refrigerators and ac units being used, lighting is usually considered an extra that can be work around using flashlights, battery powered lanterns, and similar temporary light sources, in order to save power for more important equipment.

While rationing is OK and effective, it takes a lot away from the enjoyment and convenience of using your onboard lighting systems the way they were meant to be used. Think about it, would the spouse be happier being able to spend time below decks catching up on a good book for a few hours under the light of a well illuminated cabin, or would they rather try reading by the light of a candle or cheap lantern? This is the sort of thing which has led many boaters to consider upgrading their onboard lighting systems. Since options for improving onboard lighting are limited, the introduction of LEDs has become quite popular with boaters due to their very high efficiency and long life. A typical halogen cabin light pulling about 25 watts and 2.5 amps will produce about 425 lumens of light output, while an LED light of about 8 watts pulling less than an amp can produce the same amount of light. Clearly the LED holds a significant advantage in the efficiency department.

When LEDs were first getting noticed by boaters, the available aftermarket LED boat lights were far and few between. With few options, boaters began experimenting with retrofitting LEDs into their existing fixtures. While this was a good idea, the unique characteristics of LEDs and their then still moderate power and light quality made it a hit or miss prospect. Boaters were finding the light from LEDs too cold in appearance, poorly distributed, and output below their expectations. Making matters worse, the voltage sensitivity of LEDs meant it was often necessary to add resistors into the wiring circuit in order to prevent voltage spikes and fluctuations from causing premature failure and poor performance. A final problem boaters encountered with this do it yourself approach involved the directional nature of LEDs and the basic design of the fixtures they attempted to retrofit them into. Unlike incandescent bulbs which radiate their light over their entire surface, LEDs produce light over the top of their surface, resulting in a much tighter beam spread. Fixtures designed for incandescent bulbs just were not effective at distributing the light from LEDs well, resulting in fixtures that while fairly bright, did not spread light very far or evenly.

These early problems with do it yourself LED conversion had a lot to do with the early poor impression boaters formed with LEDs. It was later when boat lighting manufacturers began producing fixtures designed specifically with LEDs that the technology really began to take hold among boaters. LED boat lights being made now feature more mature LED technology, with LEDs producing much better light quality and much higher output. These LED fixtures can produce light output that visually looks “warmer” like and incandescent, and the output has increased to the point where LEDs are now up to 50% more efficient that they were ten years ago. Even better, the dedicated LED boat lights now available are designed to take into account the directional nature of LEDs, resulting in fixtures that radiate light more effectively and over a much larger area, similar to the way an incandescent fixture would.

Probably the best advantage to be had with dedicated LED boat lights is the simplicity of installation. Whereas before the do it yourselfer had to wire, solder, and modify their old incandescent fixtures in order to accommodate LEDs, these new fixtures are direct replacement for old incandescent units that require little more than attaching their wiring and securing the fixture with screws. While an entirely new LED fixture may indeed cost more than a do it yourself retrofit, the savings in time, durability, reliability, and increased performance, really more than make up for the simple savings of a one time cash outlay. Add in that the excellent efficiency and long life of the LED will reduce your fuel and maintenance costs, as well as increase the overall enjoyment of your boat, and there really is little reason for boaters to continue trying to retrofit old fixtures to accept new LED lighting technology.