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Light reading

So last week I met with Tim Mackinlay and his wife Bice down at my club for a coffee and a chat about the wonderful world of LEDs. Tim builds and sells LEDs of the "warm white" variety; they aren't your Dad's (elder sister's, maybe?) "bluey" LEDs, but are easy on the eyes and have the ideal (for boating) quality of directionality and low-amperage draws.

Tim was kind enough to give me a couple of "bayonet mount" lights and a foot-long strip of ganged LEDs to play with as an incentive to buy. Frankly, his prices are very good, so if the quality matches the ding, he'll be receiving my custom.

I've spoken about the logic of using LEDs before (or at least I think I have). For sailboaters, who are not making electricity when actually sailing, unless they have a wind generator or solar panels (and it's full daylight), lights are among the biggest users of the usually limited power that the boat's battery banks can store.

We are so used to more or less unlimited access in this country to cheap...but steadily getting more expensive...electricity that my constant shout of "turn off the lights when you leave a room" is frequently ignored and our cities at night are ablaze with clearly illuminated, empty rooms.
With the incandescent 12 VDC "auto lamps" in use aboard most boats until the last five to ten years, you simply cannot leave them on for hours on end without running the engine, and its amp-producing alternator to recharge the batteries any more than you can leave a car's headlights on all day and expect the engine to crank. They convert 90% of their draw to heat to make that little tungsten wire glow, and heat up the boat (desirably, in some situations) in the process. Rare is the boater who hasn't overdrawn his or her batteries through miscalculation or mistake, and it can make for a sick feeling when the engine won't start...or starts in a dodgy fashion...because you've left the lights on too long.

The heat issue was solved in part years back via the use of 12VDC flourescent tubes and "C-shaped bulbs" that provided either a cold or warmer light, but without the heat output. I think they drew a little less, as well. Good as area lights, like for under-counter fixtures in the galley or the head or even the engine room, the flourescents, if not well-made, sometimes had the habit of emitting RF interference, leading to crackling static on certain VHF or SSB frequencies. Some alternators do this, too. It's sometimes due to shielding or proximity issues, but can be annoying. Also, some people just don't like the "office lighting" effect aboard. Maybe it's the atavistic impulse that sailboats below deck should be bathed in the cheery yellow glow of stinking oil lamps or even candle-powered "lanthorns". Or maybe it's because the last place you want to be reminded of "the office" is "the sailboat". Whatever...flourescents have never taken off, except as work lights where the shadowless "throw" of the light is great for finding critical little pieces you've dropped under the engine.
Alchemy has a real mix of lighting: incandescent nav lights of the "honking" type, which in this case means 25 W Aquasignals. These are oversized from a legal standpoint, and draw down the batteries, but if I'm motorsailing at night, I love the fact that they make us the brightest thing for miles. LEDs here, at 1/10th of the draw, if equivalent in brightness, would represent a huge savings in amps, because I would sail with the trilight on all night without thinking I was going to have to turn off the fridge for three hours.

I also have two 10 w lightbulbs in the saloon bulkhead fixtures, tube and C-type flourescents in the galley, head and pilot berths, a typical brass and faceted glass incandescent in the aft cabin, 10W halogens for aft cabin berth reading lamps and an Alpenglow red and white flourescent in the pilot house. There's even a blue LED with a switch for the fridge! Throw in the various LED flashlights, head lamps and work lights I own, the oil lamp I bought from that poor girl who died on the S/V Picton Castle, and short of an arc lamp, it's all there: the history of boat lighting in one hull! It's quite representative of the changes since Alchemy was built and I'm sure many a boat in the harbour contains the same mongrel mix.

I would keep a halogen for close work in the galley, like dish washing and cutting board work, and maybe for the "workshop" forward, for when I have to do soldering with a magnifying glass or clean out burrs from tapping aluminum. I also will keep the Alpenglow, which by some design magic is the flourescent fixture that looks the least flourescent of any I've ever seen, and has "dim" settings in white and red suitable for the nerve center of the boat. The rest? Swap meet.

Going forward, the goal of "independence from the marina and its Satanic shore power" is intimately tied to the concept of installing and keeping topped up a substantial house battery bank (the batteries used to power everything but the engine starting, by far the biggest, if short in duration, use of electricity aboard and customarily delegated to a dedicated "start" battery). Then, once you've got this quarter-to-half ton of sparky lead at 100% capacity, the idea is to use it as little as possible! One pulls this particular rabbit from the confines of its top hat by monitoring and reducing draws where possible. The fridge gets insulated with tranches of blue or pink closed-cell foam, sealed with gooey, waterproof, condensation-blocking industrial goo, and strict rules about opening the lid are posted. The idea is that the compressor should cycle as little as possible, because in the tropics, the difference between keeping things frozen and the temperature on deck can be awesome to contemplate and expensive from an amps-consumed viewpoint to achieve.

Lights are also amp-eaters. LEDs, not so much. Leaving an LED on for 10 days tends to equal the equivalent of leaving a lightbulb of equivalent output on for one day, and even drunken sailors are likely to notice a lamp left burning that long. So the advent of more "warm" and "less directional" LEDs is welcome. I have "first gen" blueish LEDs I bought some seven years ago on Valiente already, and they aren't nice, but I can't measure their draw with a one decimal amp meter, so they'll stay because they make great night lights.

Where LEDs have real potential, I think, is not in the "bright, warm reading and area light" market, where I think the corner has been turned on everything but price (still too expensive!), but in specialized, boat-particular applications where the LEDs are dim, directional and not even attached to the boat's DC power supply.

Years back, I got from one of my favourite surplus stores a single dim, red "blinking" LED, a 9V battery and a 9V battery connector. Some electrical tape and two crimps later, I had a weird-looking black Pez dispenser-like thingie that blinked steadily like it knew something. I clamped it to Valiente's nav station and sure enough, through the smoked Lexan of the dropboards, it looked like some sort of burglar alarm or other security device. It worked for about 14 months straight before needing a fresh 9V, which set me back two bucks. Did it keep the boat safe? Dunno. Did I get two bucks' worth of "peace of mind"? Yes, I did.

So I started to think: What if you wired an IR sensor, some sort of auto-off circuitry and the same 9V battery and the same dim red LED to the companionway stairs? On the blackest night, a light would illuminate the companionway steps...poorly, so as to preserve precious night vision...and then would shut off after three seconds? You could have the whole boat done this way, although you'd want to have a "daylight shutdown" to save power. A heaving boat at night can be tricky, and yet turning on proper lights can disturb sleepers. How much better would it be to have invisible beams turn on dim "here's where the cabin sole is" lights that self-extinguished as you moved through the boat?

Another use, already implemented in part on Alchemy, are magnetically switched little LEDs that click on when a locker lid is raised or when a cabinet door is opened, throwing lights on the contents. I would like to implement this idea pretty well everywhere not only because it logically shortens the time spent rummaging around in the dark (there's that "do not disturb" aspect again), but is also a safety element, because on a rocking boat, you don't want to have one hand in the locker, the other holding a flashlight, and no hand left "for the boat". I've worn headlamps on watch and they are the next best thing, but paradoxically are sometimes too bright. "Dedicated" locker LEDs down in the bilge stowage and inside cabinets and lockers could save time and be safer when all about is dark...and at night at sea can be like the inside of a cow.

Another aspect of LED and safety concern is what happens when the normal lights go completely out. Electrical failures of the catastrophic sort are rare, true, but lighting happens, corrosion never sleeps and fuses inevitably blow, any of which could find you searching in the dark, on a lee shore, with heavy air all about, trying to connect batteries you know were good three hours ago to nav lights that may or may not be still functional. If you were the Pardeys, you'd already have the oil lamps out, but we aren't them, and maybe you aren't, either. You want perhaps, some form of lighting that is self-contained and independent of the boats "mains", as our British friends call it.

The "self-contained" part is critical. Any situation bad enough to need self-contained lights is probably going to involve a breakdown of the boat's electrics, either via water ingress or flooding. I know I'd want the bilge pumps to work then, not the lights. I don't need a light to notice my feet are wet.

There's a little kids' toy you can buy at any dollar store that is a tiny coloured LED worn on a little piece of elastic on one's finger. Like so:

I don't like single-use items, but these are cheaper than the batteries inside them and are great for dark corners.

Well, you could either mod them for a white LED, or simply use them as is on your little finger to bring light RIGHT UP to the work in your boat! Clip 'em to a hat and you've got a map reading light. At a buck a piece, you could buy quite a few to brighten various areas up to see if the concept of "many points of light" works for your boat.

That's what I mean is a bit of a paradigm shift with LEDs. They are so cheap and plentiful that you start thinking less of "what light" and more of "where would I want light?"

Of course, all these little gadgets can be coated or siliconed to make them more water resistant, if not water-proof.

That's enough for now. Good grief, I do prattle on.


Silverheels III said...

Don't forget Sensibulb. IMHO the most halogen like light for your buck and drawing much less than 20mA. We have six of these units running for two years now and have experienced no RF interference at all. Available at Defender or direct from
The others we've tried are OK if you enjoy reading in candlelight while saving amp hours. Sensibulbs deliver halogen like brilliant incandescent coloured light at a convenient distance for general or task lighting.

Silverheels III said...

Good idea on the self-contained lights throughout the boat. Remember 'tho that AAA and AA cells cost $1.50US in the Caribbean for knock off (no Duracells or Energizers) and that button cells are virtually unavailable away from North American shopping malls. We've had to smear Vaseline on both ends of every AA cell in our barometers, clocks, flashlights and handy-talkies just to keep the salt water corrosion at bay.

Rhys said...

Sensibulb have reportedly changed something in their manufacturing process and aren't quite as wonderful as previously noted. Imtra makes some decent lights in terms of colour temperature as well, and I concur that the extra $$ are worth it in the case of a reading light.

So keep that "first-gen" Sensibulb...apparently it's a keeper.

As for the bulbs from, they'll be tested on Valiente this summer. The little one-foot strip I'm playing with lights up satisfactorily on just a 9VDC battery, so throwing a IR switch in there is pretty easy. We'll see. Toronto is not good for testing for the absence of ambient light. 300 NM south of Bermuda? That's pretty frickin' dark on a cloudy, moonless night.

As for the batteries, I had heard this before. I already do the vaseline or "touch o' lithium grease" trick in some things like the 9VDCs I put in meters or in the ship's clock. I believe it's also in the alkaline "power pack" I can put on the oldest of my VHF handhelds. But it's a good policy to do in any case where the object is going to meet the salt air, I agree, as is taking care with crimping and soldering to "tropical grade".

Thanks, Ken/Lynn for the comments.

Silverheels III said...

We have the second (2007) 2-led, and third (2010) 1- led generations of Sensibulb. No problem with any of them. we also have their dual colour dome fixture with red and white illuminators over the galley counter. Great for food prep or diving for snax on an overnight without killing one's night vision.

Our DC and AC connections are all made with Ancor adhesive-lined heat shrink terminals. Soldering terminals with multi-strand tinned wires will stiffen the wire at the entry point, causing potential breakage when flexing during the natural vibrations in a cruising vessel. You've paid good $$ for multi-strand tinned wire. Crimp but don't solder.

Rhys said...

Do the colour temperatures appear to be different between the 2nd and 3rd generations?

The "food prep" light answer is still in flux for us. I like the idea of a relatively weak "area" light, under cabinet LED strips, and a strong "sink and cutting board" light on a gooseneck. The red plus white is a good idea, although I'm not really a night snacker!

I concur on the crimping vs. solder and the Ancor heat shrink. I favour the look of the Ancor dual crimper, although apparently Harbor Freighter makes a reasonable knock off. This guy seems to have a clue (clew):

Best instructions I've seen.

Engine is apparently at the airport and will be on the boat shortly. Weather is approaching "two-part kick" temperatures...just not today!

Silverheels III said...

I can't see any colour temp difference from the 2nd -3rd generation lamp. Let those Sailnet groupies prattle on about Sensibulb colour temp and RFI...these things are so bright that upon checking just now on a sunny day here in Antigua all I see now are spots in my eyes due to the bright halogen like illumination. It consumes 20ma cold and only 16ma when warmed up.

General task lighting is good for the galley under the counter. Our dual colour Sensibulb brightly illuminates the stove and reefer/countertop food prep area. Goosenecks will collect dirt and grease near the stove and will never be where you need it to point.

Rhys said...

I would put a gooseneck over the sinks (the cutting board I made fits over them. I would keep general area lighting for the stove, as you are correct...that can get greasy.

Interesting to hear such a solid vote for the Sensibulb. I assume you have the older two LED models and not the newer one LED?

Regardless, good news on the dribbly amp appetite. You could light up the saloon with a 9V battery.

Enjoy's a cold, damp spring here so far.

Silverheels III said...

Sunny and a windy 31C here in Antigua.
In 2006 when I first ordered the Sensibulb from sailors solutions their on-line ads showed 4 LEDs on a PC board. They delivered our first two units with 2 LEDs. Plenty bright for reading in a bi-pin halogen socketed bell-shaped reading light at a meter or more away.
The four Sensibulbs delivered in 2010 have only one LED but they're blindingly brilliant.
As I've said...we do visit lots of boats down here and their LED reading and general illumination lamps ,give a nice cozy oil lamp ambiance for dining in the saloon but I was unable to read an ICOM radio manual after dinner without taking it back to our boat.

BTW one needs good sharp lighting at the stove if you cook every day and I hate doing dishes in poor lighting.

Rhys said...

I will experiment. Right now, all batteries are out of Alchemy so the engine bay can be painted in ceramic sound-proofing paint...yes, it's real and it works.

But I have a few places to put LEDs on Valiente, so we'll test out examples this summer.

Frankly, it's not the "inside" LEDs that interest me (although they do) so much as the trilight/anchor light/running light models that are likely to be on for hours when the engine isn't. That's where the lesser draw down will have dividends, not so much in the couple of hours you have the galley lights on before hitting the sack.

Who would've thought that the biggest debates in sailing revolve around anchors and lighting?

Silverheels III said...

We use Dr LED at the masthead trilight and anchor light. Not cheap but as far as we know they are the only retrofit bulbs that meet colregs as a 2 mile unit. We leave the anchor light on 24/7 unless we are on the move. Timers and photocells are superfluous when the anchor light only draws 90ma. We also have a low draw lower anchor light as most folks can't discern a masthead light close in from a speeding dinghy after a few libations. We also have three self-powered solar patio lights, one at the bow and two in the cockpit to show the length of the vessel in a pitch dark night. Keep your 10W steaming bulb as is....the engine IS on when steaming after all....

Wait 'till you get off the dock......the debates are far ranging out here....holding tanks vs overboard discharge, battery types, solar vs wind power, reefer systems, gas generators....boxers vs briefs......

Rhys said...

I may just get a new light entirely for the masthead. I concur that leaving the anchor light on 24/7 at anchor is a good policy when it's so low a draw, because if a squall passes through the anchorage, you are still visible...does ANYBODY use dayshapes/marks anymore?

Also concur on the steaming light...we have a perfectly good Aquasignal 25W and if we're "steaming", who cares?

I agree that a lot of this stuff is academic until one has left, but other things in the lighting/plumbing realm are legally required, not optional. That's why we may spend Winter One in Halifax, as the 1,500 NM between there and Toronto will allow a good evaluation of what we think today are the right tools and techniques.

PS. Becky's taking her ROC/DSC course...Whisky Tango Foxtrot!

Silverheels III said...

Sadly only 50% of anchored boats display any anchor light at all! Many many $250k boats have only a solar patio lamp in the cockpit or rely on the Davis light suspended in the cockpit. Not visible from all angles. Go figure their logic....

We have a black anchor ball day marker which we use practically everywhere. Most folks do not have them. Rumour is that if you're hit by another boat your insurance coverage may be reduced if you are not displaying the ball. Some folks have motor-sailing or even fishing day marks. Something to consider in these litigious times.
European and Canadian vessels have MMSI's but most cruisers do not know how to use DSC. Americans have two ways to get a MMSI, Boat US which is not on the international database or thru the FCC. We educate boaters to the advantages of DSC wherever we sail. For instance....there is so much crap on VHF Ch 16 or other popular local calling channels such as 68 or 77 we keep the volume down at night but the radio will still page you audibly if a buddy boat sees a security problem or needs help during normal sleeping hours, (21:30- 07:30) Of course a DSC distress alarm will come through as well with the volumed down.

Rhys said...

I believe that most sailors are under-disciplined or just plain ignorant of basic safety and signalling and radio procedures...because they are very much the same here on the lake.

DSC seems to me like heart medicine...a little bit is great, but too much will kill ya! I still need to apply for an MMSI but haven't yet felt the need until Alchemy is relaunched and I need the VHF we are going to use on the trip. I have two DSC-capable handhelds, but frankly, I just pre-arrange a working channel with Becky if we are in different boats...or sometimes I have WX on one and 16 on the other.

Thank god for squelch.

Silverheels III said...

Having a pre-arranged working channel to go to is common. Lake Ontario has virtually no radio traffic. Down here it's quite busy. Hence the beauty of DSC. Also if you want to have a semi-private conversation with another boat just choose a channel on DSC and the system will take the station you're calling there automatically. Common cruiser's VHF hailing channels while in port are 14 or 68. 16 is reserved to those at sea. An old ham radio trick....we call on 68 and then say "go to channel 71 and up. This reduces the need to reconnect with your station on the hailing channel if your go-to is just keep going higher until a quiet channel is found. Another trick in a busy harbour is to have your calling channel on....say....61A while in USA or Canadian mode. The Europeans have their radios on international mode and cannot use 61A simplex. International mode has many many duplex channels while CAN/USA mode has more simplex.

Rhys said...

Good techniques! The trick of switching between INTL and CAN/USA is known to me, because I've taken handhelds to Europe and elsewhere, but I haven't tried to use it in earnest.