Choosing the Right LED Lights for Your Boat

As LED lighting continues to grow in popularity and with many boat manufacturers now including them in place of the old incandescent lamps that were once standard equipment, many owners of older boats are finding themselves considering switching to LEDs as well. And why not? LEDs use less power, they’re small, they produce little heat, they last a very long time, and they won’t break filaments or shatter when subjected to rough conditions or handling like glass bulbs. In fact, LEDs almost seem as if they were created with the boating industry in mind, so what could be simpler than switching to LEDs?

Despite all their benefits, many boaters considering installing them onboard their vessels still find themselves with a lot of questions. Perhaps they tried some bargain LED fixtures, and found that they lasted little more than a month before they stopped working. Maybe they are confused by all the choices now available and find that because LEDs produce light differently than the trusty incandescent, choosing the right kind of LED for their boat is difficult. Whatever the case may be, these are legitimate issues that a boater is right to consider before making the switch to LEDs. Fortunately, boaters are in luck as understanding the how’s and whys of choosing LEDs continues to get easier as LED manufacturers continue to rapidly advance and improve their offerings.

One of the big problems many boaters have encountered with LEDs is that although LEDs do indeed last much longer than incandescent lamps, they have found that LEDs installed on their vessels lasted little more than a month before ceasing to operate. Confused and disappointed, these boaters go back to the incandescent bulbs used previously and assume LEDs just aren’t their cup of tea. This is unfortunate, because this is an easily addressed problem that can be solved with little more than some attention to the type of LED fixtures they install. Most boaters who find LEDs did not last nearly as long as advertised when installed on their boat, made the mistake of assuming the only important aspect of LED boat lighting is the LED itself. However, in order for LEDs to not only operate properly when installed on watercraft, but reach their actual operational life as well, it’s necessary to consider LEDs as part of a lighting system rather than as just another light bulb.

The electrical systems on boats are self contained affairs that when broken down to their simplest configurations, include a power generating source, a power storage device, and power distribution systems. The whole system is independent of outside power sources, and usually not designed to provide a high degree of precise power delivery. While boat electrical systems are generally safe and reliable, they do tend to have current levels that can fluctuate a great deal, with short voltage spikes and varying current levels actually being quite common. For most types of electrical equipment such as light bulbs or electric motors, these variations are not severe enough to cause any notable issues. With sensitive electronics like radar, computers, or similar equipment that relies on smooth power delivery for proper operation however, these variations can have serious consequences.

As you might by now guess, LEDs are sensitive to fluctuations in electrical current delivery. While they are indeed rugged and powerful, they require precise voltages, and when the voltage delivered to them exceeds their maximum tolerances, they can abruptly fail or ‘burn out”. Combine this with the less than precise voltage control of a boat’s electrical system, and it is obvious that problems can arise. Most electronic devices destined for marine applications onboard vessels are designed to withstand the fluctuations in voltages that occur with use on a boat. Solid state electronics with special controls are added to these devices which manage the flow of current the device uses, in essence regulating the current and keep it to a consistent level. This is true with many voltage sensitive boat systems, and as you can imagine, applies to LEDs as well.

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