Skip to main content

Upgrade Your Engine Room and Emergency Lighting with LEDs

Bright Idea

It’s easy and inexpensive to improve your engine room and emergency lighting.

Okay, I’ll admit up front that engine-room lighting isn’t the most exciting topic you’ll find on this site. In fact you probably give little thought to yours except when you need to go below to find something or perform some maintenance. But before you leave the page, allow me to make the case that this is a topic worth considering.

Even if you are confident that your engine-room lighting is sufficient, there are two areas you ought to think about. The first is upgrading your existing system. Now you’re probably asking why you should be thinking about doing that if your current lighting scheme is fine. The reason is that it could be better, and not just in terms of producing more light.

I’ve just finished helping a chum change the perfectly serviceable fluorescent lights in his Bertram 46 to an LED system. I was a bit dubious of the project at the start, but after seeing the results I’m a big believer in the practicality of this upgrade. For a relatively modest expense and a weekend’s worth of labor, he has truly transformed his mechanical spaces. (He also installed LED lighting in his lazarette.)

A well-lit engine room

Let there be (LED) light: A well-lit engine room can help you spot potential issues (read: oil leaks)

I noticed the improvement even before he switched on the lights. The new LED fixtures are much sleeker and compact than the old fixtures. Each of the two 9-watt units we mounted above each engine contains four LEDs with an output (according to the manufacturer) equivalent to a 55-watt halogen, or about 1,600 lumens. I haven’t been able to locate a reliable figure for the lumen output of the 4-foot, two-bulb fluorescent fixtures he replaced, but I can tell you that my impression is that the space is significantly brighter.

This is probably for two reasons. One, as most of you are no doubt aware, is that LED lighting feels closer in color to natural light—it’s basically whiter—than the light produced by fluorescents in a standard fixture. The overall effect of this, at least judging from this installation, is a brighter overall space. The other reason, and one that’s particularly important in an engine room, is that a fluorescent bulb produces light in all directions, which the enclosure must then reflect, focus, and direct. LED bulbs are inherently directional: In this case each light is aimed in a single 90-degree beam, right at my friend’s engines, so none of the output is wasted.

Moreover, because my friend’s new LED fixtures are significantly smaller than the fluorescents they replaced—they measure only about 5¼ by 2¾ inches—it was easy to position them for maximum impact. That’s another reason why there’s little wasted light. At about three-quarters of an inch thick this LED fixture is also less likely to be in the way while someone is working on the engines, and since LEDs are entirely solid state they’re inherently vapor-proof and safe for an engine-room environment. Add to this the facts that an LED uses less energy and produces less heat (its housing also acts as a heat sink), and that its life is as much as double that of a comparable fluorescent bulb, and you have pretty compelling reasons to consider a retrofit. Best of all, they’re also relatively affordable. My friend paid about $100 for each of his four fixtures, and installed each one in about 30 minutes.

The second area in which to reconsider your engine-room lighting is how it will perform—or more likely not perform—in an emergency. Do you have a plan if your boat should suddenly lose electrical power and your engine room is thrust into total darkness? You say you have a pretty good flashlight? Sorry, that won’t do.

No need to go overboard here but you do need to have a high-intensity light source that you store outside of the engine room (otherwise how are you going to find it in the dark?), which can provide both a wide beam for general reconnoitering and a tightly focused beam for specific work. Obviously there are lots of possibilities here, but one you might consider is a flashlight that you can keep charged by plugging into a standard 120-volt. That outlet should be located somewhere on the main deck or higher where you’ll be able to reach it easily and quickly in the dark.

So you’ve got the right flashlight to take into the engine room, but what do you do when you’ve found the problem and you need both hands free to work on it? The answer is a headlamp of which there are many kinds. Even the cheaper LED units do a good job, but my favorite is the Rescue RHL-4 Focusing Headlamp from Phoebus Tactical ($48; It puts out 225 lumens on high beam (there’s also a low beam that saves on battery life), and you can easily adjust the focus from five to 40 degrees by simply pulling on the lamp. You can also adjust the aim vertically. Believe me, once you have a top-quality headlamp, you’ll find you’re using it anytime you’re doing repairs or maintenance. It’s the ultimate task lamp. Just don’t forget to keep fresh batteries on board, as some of these things can go through their AAA battery packs in as little as three hours.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.