LED Lighting for Marine Use: The Change is Here|
The arrival of the LED onto the marine lighting scene has had led to some pretty dramatic changes in how boat lighting is designed, managed and operated. Initially seen as a pricey and somewhat less than effective lighting alternative, LEDs still managed to draw large amounts of interest due to their inherent high energy efficiency. As anyone familiar with operating watercraft can tell you, any equipment that holds the potential to reduce power consumption is usually worth a second look. There are few things more unpleasant than spending the night offshore, only to find yourself without battery power when it’s time to start the engines and head home.
Although they have been around for decades, LEDs for the better part of their existence have been relegated to low power, low importance applications. The last ten years have seen this change, however, as advancing technology has produced LEDs capable of rivaling even the most powerful halogen lamps while drawing only a quarter the amount of power. In fact, in commercial fishing applications LEDs are fast replacing even the once favorite high pressure sodium lamps used to illuminate work decks and open water when working nets and navigating towards markers. This is a small surprise really when you consider the improvements in light quality and amp draw that LEDs represent.
LEDs produce light through a process called electroluminescence. At its most basic, this process is best described as the emitting of light from a material when it is subjected to an electric current. This is different than the usual process of electrical resistance commonly found in incandescent lamps. In a typical incandescent, electricity is fed to a wire filament which resists the flow of electricity. This resistance causes the filament to glow and emit light has it heats up. Although reliable, the problem with this method is that a great deal of the electrical energy applied is wasted as radiated heat rather than light. In addition, the light produced tends towards the red end of the spectrum, so the light created ends up being yellowish or slightly orange in color. With LEDs, electrical current is fed through a semi-conducting material. The electrons flow through this material and move through “gaps” within the material and recombine where they are then emitted as light as they leave these gaps. The color of the emitted light can be controlled by “doping” the semi-conductor with different materials, essentially changing the size of the gaps and causing the photons to be emitted at different wavelengths or more simply put, colors. This process produces very little heat, which in turn means less energy is wasted. This process has been refined to the point where LED manufacturers can now even control the color of the light produced, resulting in not only efficient light production, but light of higher quality with no yellow-orange tinting.
Although highly efficient, early limitations in semi-conductor technology and materials kept LEDs out of the mainstream for decades, with most seeing use as simple indicator lights on appliances or as the lights used in devices such as calculators. In the late 1990’s, however, semi-conductor technology made several large gains and the resulting improvements spilled over into the development of the first LEDs that were practical for everyday lighting applications. Over a very short period of time, LEDs quickly gained in lumen per watt output and light quality. By 2001 LEDs were beginning to appear in flashlights and small lighting fixtures that were usually battery powered and of generally limited use. By 2005, however, LEDs were appearing in full on lighting applications and presenting a serious alternative to traditional light sources. In the boating world, these LEDs represented cabin lights, walkway lights, workspace lights and even spreader and deck lights although these too tended to be low powered and of limited ability. LEDs for boat applications in 2011 are different story altogether.
Far from being low powered or of questionable practicality, LED boat lights now rival or surpass the traditional incandescent lights they are quickly replacing. Commercial grade LED light bars in particular like Larson Electronics’s LEDLB-200X2E LED light emitter are producing over 30,000 lumens of light while drawing only a fraction the amount of amperage that an incandescent light fixture would require. Even better, these LED designs are producing light of much higher quality, doing away with the yellowish coloring of halogens or the very poor quality orange light found with high pressure sodium units. For commercial fisherman this is a great improvement over the current lighting technology being employed. The fishing industry is a high risk-high expense enterprise. LEDs are helping to reduce these risks and expenses by reducing the amount of power required for illuminating their operations while at sea as well as improving the quality of that illumination. Where the poor light quality of high pressure sodium lamps was once tolerated due to their high output and low power requirements, LEDs offer greatly improved light quality and even better efficiency.
It must be remembered, when you consider the efficiency of the LED, it is not just the actual power they use that needs to be considered. LEDs are compact, require little or no special hardware to install and are also extremely durable and long lived. They require very little maintenance and have rated life-spans averaging at 50,000 hours. This of course means that as well as reducing the costs of providing electricity, LEDs will not require replacement for several years after installation. In commercial operations, all of this translates into a good return on investment. Lower operating costs and a safer workplace, less maintenance and better productivity, all of this is offered by simply upgrading a boat’s lighting systems to LEDS. Lest you think that it couldn’t be that simple, consider that many LED installations require nothing more than a connection to existing lighting terminals and mounting. With some additional hardware like dimmers or digital controllers, many commercial grade LEDs can even be dimmed or set to strobe like beacons, adding even more versatility to their value.
To underscore the point of all this, consider also that boat manufacturers are now offering models with lighting systems entirely or almost entirely comprised of LEDs. From the spotlights to simple walkway lights, LEDs are very much at home in the marine environment. With few if any shortcomings, it’s only a matter of time before they are the only lighting to be found when out on the water.