BY DEXTER LUCK
Ask any group of boaters what their biggest gripe with their boat is, and it’s a safe bet that the cost of fuel and electricity use are close to the top of the list of complaints. It doesn’t matter if you have a small sailboat of a large cruiser, you’re going to need electricity, and the only way to get it is to generate it onboard yourself. This means boats must use generators, batteries, solar panels and wind generators that take up space, add weight, use fuel, or are simply unreliable. As more and more electronics make their way onboard our vessels, the need for power only grows. This growth in power demand tends to lead to boaters having to install more batteries, larger capacity generators, and burn more fuel to maintain energy reserves at a safe level. Worse, despite having all these new electronics onboard, more often than not they are used only sparingly as boaters find themselves having to literally ration that use of electrical power in order to maintain a practical balance between fuel consumption and time on the water.
Since boaters first began retrofitting LEDs into existing onboard light fixtures, the potential for LEDs to produce significant reductions in onboard power usage has been to overwhelming to ignore. Although LEDs were first installed by DIY’ers and were of dubious effectiveness, LEDs have quickly improved in output and light quality and now surpass most halogen and fluorescent marine lights in color quality, efficiency, longevity and light output. Even better, the small size of the LED and its ability to operate on direct current without any need for ballast or special transformers makes it an ideal lighting solution for the oftentimes space challenged confines of a boat.
With the growth in popularity of LEDs within boating circles, aftermarket manufacturers were quick to jump into the fray and begin offering LED lighting products capable of directly replacing the traditional incandescent fixtures on boats. Whether it’s an entire fixture to be replaced, or simply a bulb, there are now likely several LED options available that will fit the bill. Easy to install, lasting for in some cases up to ten years, LEDs have certainly come into their own as far as the boating community is concerned. Sure there are holdouts, but more often than not, once they see for themselves just how effective the light output and energy savings from LEDs really is, they come down off the fence in short order.
LEDs are so much more efficient than incandescent bulbs because they produce light in a totally different way. Rather than heating a filament to produce light, which results in most of the electrical energy being wasted as heat, LEDs produce light through a process called electroluminescence. Rather than go into long and complicated explanations, suffice it to say that in an LED, electricity is fed to a specially coated type of semi-conducting material, which sort of rearranges the electrons and then emits them as photons, which is more commonly known as visible light. Since this process does not rely on electrical resistance to literally heat a filament until it is hot enough to emit light radiation and heat, it is much more efficient as little electrical energy is wasted. Instead, little energy is required to produce electroluminescence, and more of the energy is emitted as light. Even better, since the process only works one way in an LED, direct or DC current is the native type of power for an LED. This means no ballasts, inverters, or converters are needed to power an LED. In most cases, LED marine lights instead use solid state electronics to manage the flow of electricity to the LEDs. These electronics are known as LED drivers and are very compact and durable. LED drivers work to keep a steady current level going into the LED and allow a wide variety of voltages to be used, usually anywhere from 9 to 50 VDC. For boaters with 12 or 24VDC electrical systems, this means that hooking up LED lights can be as simple as screwing in a bulb or wiring in a light fixture.
Although the cost of an LED fixture is higher than an incandescent, the allure of the LED remains great due to their extreme efficiency and long life-span. If you consider that an average cruiser can use up to 70-100 amps just powering all of its lights, and that LEDs can cut that use by three quarters, it’s clear there’s a lot of savings in fuel use to be had. Additionally, when you realize that a typical halogen boat light rarely lasts more than a season or two, and that LEDs can last for up to ten years, the savings in bulb replacements alone can pay for the LED fixture in short order. Particularly with exterior illumination, like with spreader lights, LEDs quite simply make the halogens that came before them obsolete. Consider the Magnalight 40 Watt LED Light bar for instance. Compact, drawing only 40 watts, and using only 3 amps, this light produces 3,600 lumens. This is as much light as 4-5 50 watt halogen lamps that would normally need at least 12-16 amps to provide the same performance. Better, the LEDs are sealed, impervious to shattering, and produce very little heat. Add in that the LEDs will last for at least 40-50,000 hours or more as compared to the halogens 500-1500 hours, and you have what is commonly known as a no brainer decision.
Although LEDs remain a bit more expensive than incandescent bulbs, the savings in power and maintenance costs are simply too significant to make their initial cost a valid or prohibitive consideration. Long life, significant savings in energy and fuel consumption, and all around better lighting quality is making LEDs the new lighting of choice for boaters of all stripes regardless of whether they have a weekender or a long range full on cruiser.
For more information on LED lights for boaters please visit www.magnalight.com.