Flash Forward: LEDs are finally ready for their close-up

There’s a reason boats keep high-pressure sodium, or HPS, systems.
“They create massive amounts of light,” said Michael Morris, president of Durabrite, speaking on the classic filament units that are commonly in the 1,000- to 1,500-watt range. “But LEDs have changed the game. They run totally cool, basically the temperature of a cup of coffee.”

Although Durabrite entered the LED game nearly 10 years ago, it was just two years ago that they began looking to the Pacific Northwest and discovered different lighting needs than off the Northeast coast, where the company was starting to gain acceptance among Maine and Nova Scotia lobstermen.

Morris said a daylight-balanced LED deck light that could light up an acre, which was working in the North Atlantic, wasn’t the right color temperature for the Pacific fog and snow squalls. So they dialed back the temperature to mimic the classic HPS color, and the result was something that approached an amber glow.

This feature was first published in the Summer 2017 Edition of North Pacific Focus. Subscribe now for digital and print editions.

The first Pacific LED deck light candidate was the Beauty Bay out of Dutch Harbor, a boat that replaced its 1,500-watt units with LEDs that came in at 300 watts each. At about 2,800 degrees Kelvin, the color temperature was just right without becoming too orange, which also reduces the amount of light output.

Now that the LEDs were dialed in correctly for the Pacific Northwest, the next challenge was “getting something that has real punch,” said Morris. “You can just keep adding LEDs to increase light, and that’s what some companies do, but this also adds weight to the fixture. We’re not a hard-core lighting company as much as a power and thermal management company, and our patented technology is the way our circuit board tech drives the LEDs.”

Colby Chevalier, a lighting manager at Imtra Corp., echoed the importance of LED circuitry to ensure reliable and consistent deck light fixtures. “A fixture might have 30 LEDs but they must match another fixture 5 feet away. What’s really important for any LED company is to enforce the ‘binning process,’ which is where they are tested for output, color temperature and other variables.”

Regardless if the LEDs are produced domestically at companies like Cree and Phillips or even overseas in South Korea, the binning process ensures the LEDs that come on a reel of as many as 1,000 pieces are matched. From there, a quality assembler can assemble fixtures with like LEDs from the same batch, ensuring consistency.

For Imtra, this means sourcing materials that are assembled at Vision X, an LED company based in Auburn, Wash. Durabrite’s LED components are sourced and assembled at its factory in New Jersey.

If most LEDs are outsourced, then what separates LED deck lighting technology between brands? The answer is found in the details.

Amber LEDs were specifically designed for operating in the Pacific Northwest’s snow and fog. Durabrite Lighting Solutions photo.

“LED lights ultimately come down to efficiency. The light is very focused by design. A filament bulb reflects off a silver reflector, gets smoking hot, and very little of that output was leaving the fixture as usable light,” said Colby. “It’s a misconception that LEDs don’t generate heat. They do, but they also manage that heat better.”

Using the housings of a fixture as a heatsink, aluminum has become a popular material because of its nonconductive nature and ability to withstand saltwater. On the back of most LED units, you will see a series of fins that are additional heat sinks. The circuitry in LEDs will dictate not only heat management, but also the lifespan of the product. If proper thermals are put in place, 50,000 hours of use becomes the benchmark of usability.

And that’s not to say that LEDs will suddenly fail once they reach that number. With such a new technology, very few applications have approached the equivalent of nearly six consecutive years of use, 24 hours a day. But the predictions are that the LEDs by then will begin to lose output and perhaps have a warmer color shift. Still in all, the consensus is that 100,000 hours will be the maximum output for the current generation of LEDs, before there will be even more reliable technology.

But in the here and now, there are tangible benefits of LEDs as deck lights that go beyond their solid-state construction and ability to withstand impact and breaking waves.

LEDs are optimized in a grid pattern whether the fixture is big or small. Imtra Corp. photo.

“LEDs use one-third the power of conventional bulbs. If you have a 500-watt quartz unit, you can replace that with a three- or four-unit LED fixture,” added Colby. “For boats that turn the lights on as soon as they leave the breakwater, this puts a load on the generator, and LEDs can save some fuel.”

Morris said his Canadian customers were the first early adopters of LEDs to reduce fuel costs, an important factor for a company that relies on 85 percent of its commercial marine sales as upgrades or retrofits.

“The Nova Scotians were the first to understand the efficiency and benefits. They could shut down a 20-kW generator and save $100 of fuel per night. After a few seasons in Novi, that gave us credibility.”

Also unlike the short-lived compact fluorescents that don’t like cold weather, flicker and most importantly, have mercury in their base, LEDs have a performance advantage in the way they can turn on and off instantly and their ability to focus precisely.

“In the past, it was a guessing game on where to put the lights,” said Nate Cabral who manages commercial lighting sales at Imtra. “You based your installation on a past boat and maybe put five forward and used two with a narrow beam.”

Now, with computer-aided design, the team at Imtra can take 3-D ships plans and overlay different lighting possibilities, showing exactly where the light will fall on the deck. For boats without these plans, a 2-D model is used, based on overhead and side views. Reducing the number of fixtures can not only free up space in an electrical panel, but also reduce the amount and gauge of wiring required. For most big LED deck lights, 14-gauge wire is sufficient because they have such a low power draw.

With LEDs poised to become as ubiquitous as the phased out common light bulb, Colby says Imtra is looking at ways to customize their lights, including using optics to focus the beams in wide and elliptical patterns.

A new technology called OLED (organic light emitting diode) is making its way into households but isn’t quite ready for the marine environment yet. The major benefits of OLEDs are reduced power consumption and weight, which may be important to consumer technologies. But it has a way to go before significantly altering the current LED deck lights, which tip the scales at just more than 20 pounds.

Like all technology, the trend will be to make things smaller and cheaper, but Morris says there is something even more interesting on the horizon.

“Lights are going to get smarter. We are entering the Internet of Things, and our lights are going to learn all about the vessel.”

About the author

Jean Paul Vellotti

Jean Paul Vellotti is the Boats & Gear editor for National Fisherman.

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