April 7

Understanding Marine Electrics: LED Lights on Your Boat – What You Need to Know

LED lights have become increasingly popular for boats due to their energy efficiency, longevity, and versatility. There are replacement LED lights for pretty much any existing light on a boat but this is not as simple as replacing an incandescent or halogen lightbulb. There are several important factors that need to be taken into account..

Considerations for Beam Angle and Color Temperature

One crucial aspect is the beam angle, which determines how wide the light is spread. If you need wide area lighting, you either need LEDs with a wide beam angle or multiple LEDs pointing in different directions. For cabin lighting, a wide beam angle or multiple LEDs is likely to be necessary to ensure adequate lighting. 

Then there’s color temperature. Lower color temperatures (below 3000k) provide warmer, more natural light, while higher color temperatures (above 3000k) produce cooler, bluish light. For interior lighting we recommend selecting LEDs with a color temperature below 3000k for a warm, pleasant light that mimics incandescent and halogen lights commonly used on boats.

Importance of Color Rendering Index (CRI)

The color rendering index (CRI) is a measure of how accurately a light source renders colors compared to natural sunlight. Incandescent and halogen lights typically have a CRI above 90, while LEDs should have a CRI above 80 and preferably as high as 90. A low CRI can result in poor quality lighting with colors appearing distorted and unnatural.

Watch Out for Radio Frequency Interference (RFI)

LED lights typically have a tiny DC to DC converter that operates at a high frequency. High-frequency switching can cause radio frequency interference (RFI) that may affect navigation electronics and VHF radios. Therefore, it's important to choose LEDs that are adequately RFI suppressed, especially for masthead lights next to a VHF antenna and for lights near the nav station or electronic equipment on your boat.

Quality Matters: Choosing the Right LED Lights for Your Boat

Selecting high-quality LED lights for your boat pays off, because poorly designed LEDs may result in uneven and low-quality light output with RFI issues. Investing in good quality LEDs with proper beam angles, color temperatures, and CRI can ensure a pleasant and effective lighting experience on your boat.

Real-life Example: Replacing Halogen Lights with LEDs on a Boat

Nigels brother replaced halogen lights with LEDs on his 40-foot cruising boat. By simply replacing the halogen lights in the saloon with LEDs, the lighting load was significantly reduced, and the quality of light improved, without having to change any fixtures. This demonstrates the potential benefits of upgrading to LEDs.

For more in-depth information on LED lights and other boat electrical systems, we offer a bonus module in the Boat Electrics 101 course.

About the author 

Nigel Calder

Nigel is often referred to as THE guru when it comes to technical systems on boats.

He is a long-time member of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) electrical Project Technical Committee (PTC) which writes the standards for recreational boat systems in the USA, and has also been involved in European standards development.

Nigel is best known for his Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual (now in its 4th edition), and his Marine Diesel Engines (in its 3rd edition), both considered the definitive English-language works in their field.

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