One of our G4 bulbs and the LED we chose to replace it

Since we’ve got a few extra days of hanging out while Polly heals I thought I would add another post to my boondocking series, this time on LED lighting. Now, I consider LEDs a luxury rather than a necessity for dry-camping. You can easily manage without and, given their price, it’ll take a good few years before you make back your investment in pure $$, but the fact that they drop your power draw for lights by a factor of ~10, that their lifetime is almost infinite (up to 50,000 hours) and they run super-cool make them fascinating for a self-confessed geek like me.

Oh, I wanted them…oh, yes I did…and thankfully LEDs have come a long way since the days of the dim red types that were used for calculator displays. Nowadays LEDs are both brighter, more efficient, more reliable and available in a range of colors. Technically LEDs are semiconductors, light emitting diodes, and there are a bunch of different types and an even bigger bunch of companies that manufacture bulbs from them. However they all use a similar rating system and that’s the system you want to understand when you buy a replacement for one of your RV bulbs

  1. Lumens - All LED lights will have a lumens rating which tells you how bright you can expect the bulb to be (as perceived by the eye). The higher the lumens, the brighter the bulb.
  2. Color Temperature – The color temp is usually listed in K (Kelvin). If you cast your mind back to high-school science you might recall that in a burning fire, the blue part of the flame is hotter than the red part. In very rough terms that pretty much explains how color temps are defined. A higher K rating (~5,000K) is blueish-white in color while a lower K rating (e.g. 2,000K) will be yellow-red. Most incandescent lights that you have in the home run around the 3,000K range.
  3. Operating Voltage & Regulation - LEDs are quite sensitive to voltage. Their I-V curve is exponential meaning a small voltage change can produce a very large current change, potentially damaging your expensive LED. In practical terms LED lights really prefer a very constant/steady power source which is exactly what you don’t have in an RV. The batteries in an RV go from anywhere from 11V to 14V, depending on charge. So, for RV LED lights you really want to make sure the bulb you buy either has a built-in regulator or states it’s rated to handle a range of input voltages (e.g. 11-15VDC or 8-30VDC). This is one feature that a “cheap” LED bulb might not give you.

A reading spotlight (1383 bulb) and the LED we chose to replace it

So, your handy-dandy steps to buy an LED replacement are as follows:

  1. Identify Your Bulb - There are all kinds of bulbs inside a motorhome with names like G4, 1156, 1383. This site provides a nice, handy reference for some of the more common bulbs to help you figure out what kind you have.
  2. Choose Your Brightness - For accent lighting somewhere around 100-140 lumens is fine. For spot and reading lights you want somewhere around 160-300 lumens or more, and for much brighter applications you may want to go above that. For reference a standard 40-watt incandescent bulb produces ~520 lumens (this site provides a nice table of lumens/watt produced by various types of bulbs).
  3. Choose Your Color - The blue-white LEDs are often called “white” (~5,000K) and do tend to run brighter than the yellow LEDs called “warm white” (~3,000K). Outside the motorhome (e.g. for the porch light) I have no issue with a bright blueish-white color, but inside the motorhome I personally prefer the warm white color more like a regular incandescent bulb.
  4. Make Sure it Has Regulation – For your LED to last the lifetime you expect it to, it needs to have regulation to handle the varying voltages in the RV. So, check that the vendor either mentions a “regulator” circuit of some kind or specs a wider operating voltage range. Most of the good vendors have this, but some cheaper ones might not.
  5. Test it Out – No matter what the “spec”says on the website you’ll get variation in color and brightness from different vendors.  Taste is individual so some people may want more brightness or a different color than others. It’s always worth buying 1 or 2 bulbs just to test them out before you spend a bundle and replace a bunch.

Our new LED bulb (on left) as compared with the old 20W halogen (on right)

We replaced our G4 halogens with these bulbs from LED Wholesalers through Amazon. We are very happy with both the color and brightness (they easily matched the 10 & 20 Watt halogens that were in the sockets previously).
2013 Update -> A few of these LEDs burnt out at the 2-year mark, and we replaced them with G4s from Quartzsite.

We also replaced some reading spotlights in our bedroom (1383 bulbs) with these bulbs from buylighting.com. The beam from these bulbs is much more “narrow” than our old 1383′s, but brightness and color are good.
2013 Update -> These are still going strong and we still love them. Totally worth the upgrade.

Finally we replaced our porch light with Starlight Revolution 200 and love the increased brightness and cool light.
2013 Update -> This light is still going strong and we still love it. We’ve never had any issues with heat or interference

Other good vendors that we’ve seen mentioned on the RV forums:

The overall result? We loooove our new LEDs. They run so much cooler than the old bulbs (no more burning of fingers if you accidently touch the light) and our energy usage has dropped by a factor of ~10. When we turned on our living room lights in the old system we would run ~8-10 Amps. Now we run only ~1 Amp with all the lights on.

There’s much, much more to this whole LED business as with all things geekish, but hopefully this little intro can help you burn the night away in the most energy efficient of ways. Your batteries will thank you for it :)

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21 Responses to Boondocking Made Easy -> LED Lighting

  1. Linda Sand says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I want to replace lots of lights in our RV but hate my experiences so far since I didn’t know what I was doing. I have bookmarked this page of your blog so I can refer back to it many times as we do our replacements. Thank you!

    • libertatemamo says:

      So happy it’s helpful! It took a while for me to get exactly the LEDs I wanted, but I think we’re good now. Nina

  2. jil mohr says:

    OMG you are becoming sucha techie Nina….;-)

  3. Another great, useful post. As we gear up for our own launch, this is the kind of info I soak up like a sponge. Thanks. Oh, and we’re super envious of your beach boondocking time. Hope the pup heels up soon.

  4. Barb Thibert says:

    Great information. We haven’t bought our RV yet but I stock piling tips and useful information for when we do. I love learning from the success of others…it makes our journey more enjoyable.

  5. [...] LEDs in the right color & brightness - I spent alot of time finding exactly the right color and light when we converted our overhead G4′s and reading lights to LEDs. We’ve been [...]

  6. [...] you need to be aware of battery capacity loss. As you get more into boondocking you can consider LED lights (reduces your light draw by a factor of ~10) and even solar power (see [...]

  7. Jon says:

    Excellent, covering all the bases. New to me is the voltage range spec. Nice that the color chart is there too. Before seeing this post I ordered a bunch of automotive led replacements for my bus conversion running lights and my toad dome light and toad brake/turnSignals. There was no range on the specified 12V but the price and no shipping charge was comparatively very low: http://www.tmart.com. Already on the rear of the bus I have four trucker 4 inch running/directional lights that operate on a measly 0.25 amps total. I highly recommend these universally available trucker lights for the back end of an rv. Walmart has them for $16 each in the trailer supplies.

  8. [...] booths. I love the power-savings from LED,  but I’m very particular about light quality and LED’s can vary ALOT (color/brightness etc.) between vendors even with exactly the same specs. They’re not the [...]

  9. [...] Wheeling It       (great basic information and links to several sources) [...]

  10. Alan Hanson says:

    Just fround your site through the Newmar’s Owners Forum. Got a lot of looking to do, especially since we hope to get back up to the Oregon Coast a little later this year. Do have one question regarding led lights. We purchased some T10/T15 906 type lights in “White”. Don’t really care for the color. Do you know of a source for the same lights in “Warm”? Love what I see on your blog so far.
    Best Regards,
    Al Hanson

    • libertatemamo says:

      Happy to have you on the blog! I haven’t personally exchanged any T10/T15 lights so can’t give you any exact recommendations, but I’d say any of the vendors I listed in the post will provide some good replacements. Just look fro “warm white”.
      Nina

  11. […] of around 10 which is a real bonus for battery-conservation. And besides, they are techie cool! I wrote a detailed post about LED lights a while back explaining what to look for in terms of lumens, color temps and such. A few of our […]

  12. Smitty says:

    Thought I’d share some lessons learned as we make our shift to LED. We have puck lights that also have the inside cone setup to allow slight angle swivel. These are the smaller diameter, usually with 10W G4 Halogen bulbs. The addition of the inside swivel cone/dome, makes the inside diameter that much smaller. This reduces the number of replacement LED bulbs available that will fit. The final thing that makes finding replacement bulbs difficult is the bulbs are ‘back’ vs ‘side’ mounted. (So you have to reach up into the top of the fixture, down inside the reducing diameter cone/dome area.

    I’ve tried 10 different bulbs, from 4 sources, and none of them produce the ambient lighting we desire. Just not enough kelvin available in the smaller G4 LED’s that will fit inside. For our rear above bed area, we found that M4 Products had a light specifically for Airstream era fixtures, that produced a narrow focus stream of light. With out pucks ability to swivel, we can aim these where we want them for reading. A great advantage over the open 10W halogen’s that would literally blind your mate who is attempting to sleep!
    (G4-HP3W-CW Cool White G4 / T3 Reading Lamp) Many people use these same 5500 Kelvin with 260 lumens for all of the 10W back mounted pucks needs. I found the narrow stream to be too tight for what I wanted in the rest of our pucks. Especially over the dining table area.

    With normal Nina detail, even back in 2011 she was into everything RV’ing, she did a great write up.

    I will add that it may be worth trying out a bulb more expensive with better components and build quality – as I feel you’ll get a better value for the long haul.

    Most LED’s are either 5050 or 5060 SMD ‘chips’ (the individual little squares of yellow that produce the light. I have found the M4 Products Elite 5060 series, to provide I feel the best value for cost, quality and most important quality of lighting.

    Cool White, Warm White or Natural White – these vary from manufacturer, and frankly many of the lesser bulbs have ‘fudged’ kelvin and lumens numbers. Usually indicated by the lower price. The only way to see what will work for you, is to try different bulbs and experiment. So buy one bulb of each, and see what works for you. Then return the others and put in your order. We have found that in our bathroom vanity lights, that the M4 Natural White (nong G4 here) bulbs worked best. In our wall scones we are using and pleased with the M4 Elite 5630 G4 series in Cool White.

    I have a different manufacturer sending a smaller cube shaped G4 with 20 5050 SMD chips on it. Hoping these will work for our areas where sufficient kelvin/lumen is required. These are the equivalent of 15W halogen, so may be too bright. If needed, I’ll add a dimmer to this set of lights. (4 pucks over the dining table area.) The balance I suspect will be a mix of these same 20 505 SMD chipped bulbs, and the more prevalent, much less kelvin/lumens 9 5050 SMD’s, that just do not have enough light emitting.

    Fluorescent’s are a different animal. And we have only replaced our under kitchen 13″ and three of our 22″ ceiling fixture with Ming LED replacements. These are OK, and I bought the Ming’s from a small RV shop that was closing down, on about a 60% mark down price. (Meaning I did the opposite of my advice above, and went by price, from a knee jerk ‘Oh yeah, I was going to do this anyway. At this price, why not?’ move… Not knocking Ming’s, but I took what was available, and other CW vs WW bulbs exist.

    I updated this older post to share this info, as I saw on another board someone point a reader to Nina’s site to review her write up. So figured it was good to keep updating it with newer products as they became available.

    Thanks again to Nina, and best to all,
    Smitty

  13. Very good tech info on these (still) leading edge products. Just an additional bit of info and word of CAUTION, if your application involves a dimmer, DO NOT USE LEDs UNLESS they are rated DIMMABLE. To do so could be a dangerous situation.
    Another source for consideration is http://www.eversale.com/ , I have some LEDs I purchased from them and I admit, I am surprised based on their cost at how well they have performed, two + years and still going strong.
    Thanks for the detailed info.

  14. Stella says:

    What a fantastic article! Thank you for giving me hope that my lights in my rv might be warmer. I have even been considering putting a tint on the lenses to get rid of the commercial look.

    So I need to find low-temperature led bulbs…. :)

    • libertatemamo says:

      Yup, the color temp is key for those LEDs. You’ll get manufacturing variances too, so it’s worth testing out your bulbs before buying a whole lot.

      Nina

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