Engineer's Angle: by JD Anson
Years ago, yacht designers and builders had a range of lighting choices, bulbs of every shape and size – but always incandescent. This is where our affinity for warm white began; it is what people were used to.
Incremental advancements were achieved with halogen and then xenon-based bulbs, making more and whiter light – but still incandescent. These bulbs are notoriously inefficient, with 90% of their energy consumption wasted as invisible heat. Not only do they waste energy directly, but they also use extra energy by creating an additional load on the air-conditioning system.
A short, unsuccessful period of compact fluorescent bulbs has now given way to much more advanced LED bulbs. These light-emitting diode lights are available in nearly any conceivable shape and size. They also come in a range of colors and color temperatures.
Simultaneously with the giant leaps in lighting have come giant leaps in lighting control. Where three- and four-way switches were once as exotic as it got, computer-based systems quickly became the norm on yachts. Lutron, Crestron and LiteTouch were among the favorites. The former are still going strong, but the latter has been discontinued.
LiteTouch systems are now reaching the end of their life expectancy, requiring constant care just to keep the lights on. I know of engineers who constantly scour eBay looking for modules and have a bin on board full of old spares, and I have heard of several prospective sales falling through when the buyer steps on board and sees LiteTouch keypads on the walls.
Even the best systems will become outdated. Many boats try to swap LEDs into the halogen fixtures, usually with poor results. The reason is simple: LED lights are not incandescent. They require different technology to stay lit and flicker-free, especially when dimming. Incandescent bulbs dim by lowering and raising voltage. Basically, the more voltage applied, the hotter the filament glows, thus making more light.
LEDs are really electronic components that happen to emit light. At full power, most existing systems will run them fine. But dimming is another matter. LEDs most frequently dim by pulses of power being applied for very short durations, so they don’t attain full brightness. The longer the pulses, the brighter the light.
Word is, class societies are considering outlawing lighting voltage transformers, the primary way line voltage is reduced for incandescent bulbs. This is because several fires having been blamed on these transformers. This means there may soon be a rush to convert to new lighting if surveyors deem vessels to be out of compliance.
Now is the time to begin research for upgrading.
While upgraded Lutron and Crestron are good choices for existing systems of the same brands, when it comes to LiteTouch things are different. Because LiteTouch used three-wire keypads, available replacement lighting systems will require rewiring because of their need for four wires to each keypad.
An alternative is a system from Loxone. They created a mesh wireless system that includes wireless wall touchpads and motion sensors to control the lighting and automation. Though they will work with nearly any light, they have also developed their own fully addressable RGBW downlights that can be reconfigured simply by programming and are connected through a single cable. Through clever programming, white light color temperature can vary throughout the day to match outside natural light. Bright white can be on during the day and warm white at night for relaxing and unwinding. Using motion sensors, they can light the way to the head or galley with a few judicious lights in a dim blue.
Simpler lighting can be engineered using off-the-shelf dimmers coupled with power supplies and the proper LED bulbs to mimic the less sophisticated local lighting controls consisting of push buttons in each area. Existing light fixtures can be adapted to LED, making the upgrade more economical. These have been installed with great success on board many boats that desire the advantages of LED without the costs of a fully automated system.
Transitioning to LED is quite worthwhile, but needs forethought before purchasing hundreds of bulbs that may be useless on board.
JD Anson has more than 20 years of experience as a chief engineer on megayachts. He is currently project manager at Fine Line Marine Electric (finelinemarineelectric.com) in Fort Lauderdale. Comments are welcome below.