Better Boat Lighting Through Aftermarket LEDs|
It’s a plain matter of fact that when boat manufacturers produce a new model, a big part of their design and manufacturing considerations include material costs. This is one of the reasons why most boat builders have yet to discontinue using halogen and plain incandescent lighting in favor of LEDs. Although LEDs are so much more reliable and efficient that they save the boat owners significant amounts of money in operational and maintenance costs, their higher initial costs make manufacturers reluctant to make the switch.
Up until a few years ago it remained reasonable to avoid LEDs due to quality and power issues, but not so anymore. LEDs now easily rival traditional lamps in light quality and power, and far surpass them in terms of efficiency and longevity. Although they may cost more initially, they pay for themselves rather quickly with lowered fuel consumption, reduced maintenance, and significantly reduced replacement costs.
Though the prime allure of LEDs remains their efficiency, it is also very important that light quality, durability and effective coverage also be taken into account. It is these factors that once made LEDs somewhat tricky to use for general illumination purposes, but as will be seen, not so now with modern LEDs designs.
One of the earliest problems with LEDs was their poor light spread. Due to design quirks that come about because of the unusual nature of LEDs, the light output of an LED tends to be radiated over a very short degree of spread. To illustrate, imagine a typical incandescent bulb. When this bulb is turned on, it radiates light in every direction from its surface. This is because an incandescent bulb has a centrally located filament that emits light radiation in all directions from every part of its surface when heated. LEDs, however, use a flat piece of semi-conducting material to produce light. This is usually a tiny square of material which is then mounted to a small circuit board, much like a transistor or resistor you’d find in a portable radio, only on a smaller scale. The result is that light is radiated outwards only from the surface of this flat piece of semi-conducting material, rather than from every point of its surface. Additionally, LED manufacturers can alter how wide the spread of light is from an LED by altering the semi-conductors shape, slightly curving it upwards at the center to give a greater degree of radiance.
However, LED manufacturers have found that output is more intense and efficient when the LED surface is kept as close to flat as possible. This is why if you look directly into an LED, it is bright indeed, but if looked at from an extreme side angle, very little intensity is noticed. This poor directional quality, however, has been addressed through improved reflector designs and by creative grouping together of LED clusters, resulting in LED fixtures capable of easily rivaling or surpassing traditional light sources in radiance quality.
Color quality was also once a serious bone of contention among consumers. LEDs once tended to produce light that was of a much higher color index than incandescent lamps, resulting in complaints of the light being too “bluish” or of an unnatural color. Improvements in LED construction and the semi-conducting materials used has largely done away with this problem in all but the lowest quality LEDs. Now LEDs can be produced with a wide range of color temperatures that closely mimic the qualities of incandescent and fluorescent lamps, reducing the problems with unnatural appearance.
Durability has been less of an issue for LEDs than either color quality or directional radiance. LEDs have no glass in their construction and are solid state in design, so they naturally are more durable than typical incandescent bulbs. However, LEDs are very sensitive to heat and current fluctuations. While too little current will not damage an LED, and to a point actually improves its efficiency, even slightly overpowering an LED can drastically shorten its life. Early manufacturers of LEDs did little to address this problem, resulting in LEDs that burned out far before they should have. This particular problem has been solved through the inclusion of special circuitry known as drivers, which manage the current fed to the LEDs and maintain an optimal power level at all times.
While all of this might sound great for LEDs, it may have you wondering what it has to do with boat manufacturers and their unwillingness to yet commit to LED lighting on their new offerings. All of this increases the costs of an LED fixture, which as we mentioned earlier, is a big part of the boat building equation. Cheaper parts equals higher profits for manufacturers, plain and simple. The good news though is that there is a wide range of aftermarket LEDs available to boat owners which can help them reap all the benefits of LEDs with little effort. LED light fixtures like Larson Electronicss’ Marine Spreader Light offer extreme versatility and efficiency in a small package. Easily installed by anyone with basic mechanical skills, spreader lights like this can greatly improve lighting quality and electrical efficiency when included as part of a comprehensive upgrade to LEDs. Although more expensive to install initially, boat owners can quickly realize savings and benefits in the form of less fuel used, almost no fixture maintenance, and no bulb replacements for periods of up to 10 years with some applications.
While it is true that new energy efficiency mandates from the government and gradually shrinking costs are bringing LEDs ever closer to the forefront of lighting technology, it is also true that as long as incandescent bulbs remain cheaper, they will likely continue to be the lighting of choice for manufacturers. In time this will probably change as incandescent bulbs become scarce and consumers increasingly choose LEDs over typical bulbs. Until then, however, boaters can still realize savings and improvements from what amounts to nothing more than changing a light bulb.