Boondocking Made Easy -> LED Lighting
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
So, your handy-dandy steps to buy an LED replacement are as follows:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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).
*2016 Update -> A few of these LEDs burnt out at the 2-year mark and we replaced them with G4s from Quartzsite, but the rest have lasted for over 5 years.
We also replaced some reading spotlights in our bedroom (1383 bulbs) with some bulbs from buylighting.com**. The beam from these bulbs is much more “narrow” than our old 1383’s, but brightness and color are good.
**2016 Update -> These are still going strong and we still love them. Totally worth the upgrade. However the specific bulb we bought is no longer offered online.
Finally we replaced our porch light with Starlight Revolution 200*** and love the increased brightness and cool light.
***2016 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 🙂