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LED Light Installation

Photos by Billy Black

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An experienced boater realizes the benefits of retrofitting his 27-year-old boat with LED lighting.

When you hear the term “LED lights,” your first vision may be a plethora of bright white, blue, and other-colored lights illuminating the outside of a boat and even the water beneath the hull. Like a scene out of a science-fiction movie, eh? But there is a practical side to Light-Emitting Diodes or LEDs that makes them attractive for use in a boat’s interior.

LED Light Installation - step 1This spring Will Keene, president of marine equipment manufacturer Edson International (www.edsonmarine.com) in New Bedford, Massachusetts, upgraded the lights on his 1985 Grand Banks 42, and I got to watch the process. He turned to his New Bedford neighbor, IMTRA Marine Products (www.imtra.com), to replace the interior lights aboard his boat with LEDs, including an upgraded dimmer system in the saloon.

One of the primary reasons for the upgrade is that Keene likes to spend his nights anchored in secluded coves. The LEDs will save Keene battery power because they use only about a quarter of the juice required to power the old incandescent lights. The lights Keene chose—the IMTRA Ventura series—use less than 5.0 watts, and have a 50,000-hour lifetime plus a five-year warranty.

LED Light Installation - step 2In addition to being more efficient, LEDs are safer. To resist water intrusion each light has a sealed housing. Additionally, a quality LED light like the IMTRA product has a built-in driver with integrated current regulation to assure that each LED is being powered appropriately regardless of input voltage. Finally, when shopping for an LED, look for one with ribs or fins on the back of the housing because they help dissipate heat. LEDs need ambient air around the back of the housing to help keep them cool. Also, LEDs take up less space than old-school automotive-style bulbs, so there should be plenty of space in the same framework.

For the swap, Keene selected 15 of the Ventura Warm White color and a single Warm Red at the helm station to preserve night vision. LED Light Installation - step 3The Ventura series light output is equivalent to a 25-watt halogen bulb with an 83-degree beam angle, wider than a typical spot-style bulb. Total cost for the lights, LED dimmer modules, Vimar switches, frames, and an LED engine-room kit was $3,334.90. In addition to IMTRA, you can find LED interior lights from Attwood Marine (www.attwoodmarine.com), Hella Marine (www.hellamarine.com), i2Systems (i2systems.com), and Abyss Technology (www.abysslite.com). 

Here’s how Keene’s boat was upgraded. Single two-light fixtures in the forward and aft staterooms and accompanying heads were installed, while four assemblies with dimmers were replaced in the saloon. Because each LED had its own integrated circuit board,  a matched dimmer and two additional wires were used between the dimmers and the lights. To comply with American Boat and Yacht Council guidelines, IMTRA lighting engineer Mike Moriarty made all connections with crimped heat-shrink quick-disconnect terminals from Ancor Marine.

The two-man IMTRA crew of Moriarty and Kinder Woodcock, IMTRA’s lighting product development manager, spent about six hours removing the old fixtures and the valances that Grand Banks had installed to hide the original wiring. When I arrived at the boat, there were wires hanging down from all the openings awaiting the upgrade. Moriarty explained that Keene was fortunate because Grand Banks hid a little extra wire above the headliner and it was found in good shape. Fishing new wires throughout the boat would have made the job much more difficult. IMTRA uses corrosion-resistant 18-gauge silver-coated strand wire on its lights, while those on the boat were slightly thicker 14-gauge.

LED Light Installation - step 4To keep the Grand Banks look, Keene retained the original teak frame surrounding the old lights and covered each plastic lens with birdseye maple veneer, finishing it with a few coats of polyurethane. The lens would have been too difficult to remove so the veneer was applied over it. To help maintain rigidity and keep the lens from shattering or chipping when it was cut for the new lights, Keene applied a teak backing plate bonded with West Systems epoxy. At the IMTRA facility, Moriarty cut the holes in each lens on a drill press with a 2⅝-inch carbide holesaw.

In the staterooms, the LED upgrade was easy. All Moriarty had to do was connect the two wires on each light to those hanging from the opening. For the dimmer and added red light on the starboard side of the saloon, he had to run three new wires from the switch next to the helm entryway up behind the vertical valance to where the headliner met the inner wall. He used square plastic wiring races to run the new wires. The races were hidden outboard of the boat’s original valances. On the port side, most of the initial labor was dedicated to removing trim panels and valances to run the extra wire needed for the dimmer system.  

Click here to see a video on how to install LED lighting on your boatDimmer units were secured with screws to the framework above the headliner for the forward lights on each circuit with extra wires run from the dimmer aft to the second set of lights on both sides. Adhesive-backed tiewrap anchors hold the wires in place. With wires and dimmers installed, Moriarty used the original fastening hardware for the lenses and snapped them back into place. After checking his wiring, he installed the switches. Now Keene’s boat has a lighting system that can set the proper mood and use significantly less electrical power doing it.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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