Navigation lights on older boats are a great target for an LED upgrade. However, I’ve seen some pretty terrible solutions to do this without replacing the fixtures. Recently I found an option that appears to be extremely well built and bright.
Grace has the factory Hella bow and stern navigation lights. These use a festoon-type bulb, and had been updated by the previous owner to an LED of some sorts.
I hadn’t been that impressed with the amount of light that the stern light was putting out, and after figuring out how to remove the Hella lamp cover (squeeze top and bottom together, bottom has a clip), I exposed the light inside. The light had 6 rather dim LEDs on a board. The color of the light always bothered me too – sort of an off white, too cool and almost borderline blue.
I had really liked the quality of the LunaSea LED anchor light I put on my mast earlier in the year, and noticed that they also made a festoon navigation light replacement. I ordered two of the LLB-189W-21-0Z from Fisheries Supply. I decided to order two white bulbs instead of one white for the stern, and one red/green for the bow, as the fixture I have on the bow has very dark lenses which should work fine with the white LED.
Note: beware Amazon versions of this product – I saw widely ranging prices up to $75 (Fisheries sells it for $24) and odd pictures that might not be the same light.
The bulb itself is nicely made – far wider and angled on either side to ensure that the light is spread all around. In addition, the entire light is fully sealed in plastic so that it will last a long time in the marine environment. It feels extremely well built.
Here you can see the previous LED on the left, and the LunaSea on the right. Not only does the LunaSea have 3 more LEDs, but they’re angled more appropriately to emulate an all around bulb, and the LEDs themselves are much bigger.
It was pretty clear when I powered it up in the stern light with the cover removed that not only was the color of the light far better, but the brightness and coverage was far safer and more complete.
I did some testing in the dark, which is hard to take photos of, comparing the visibility from off center using both bulbs, and the new LunaSea was shockingly far better. The older bulb was extremely hard to see from even a small angle, which is dangerous!
The bulbs fit easily, if not a bit more snugly, into the festoon holders. Some with smaller width lights may have issues with the size of the LunaSea – it is quite wide.
Updating navigation lights to LED is not a new subject – I’ve seen countless articles on it before, and I usually replace them on any boat I purchase, as well as recommend the same for anyone who doesn’t already have them. However, I was surprised at the crappy quality of the ones that had been put on Grace, and should have done my own upgrade when I purchased her.
I was happy to find a very high quality LED replacement from LunaSea that seems to be extremely well designed, very bright, and has a wide beam due to their design.
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October 19, 2018 at 5:35 pm
I was told that replacing an OEM bulb with an LED in a USCG approved navigation light voids the certification. Do the LunaSea lights hold the certification?
- Steve Mitchell
October 19, 2018 at 5:39 pm
Good point – they don’t specifically state that they hold the certification, because they don’t know what sort of fixture they’re going into, so I suspect that would be hard to certify for everything out there. The certification mostly centers around the brightness and visibility of the light, and given that the original incandescent bulbs (I tried those too) are less bright than this, I would imagine at least the brightness requirement is met.
I also know there are better lights than the 18 year old ones originally included on Grace – the plastic lenses have to be less effective than when they were brand new.
I’m less worried about the certification, and more interested in whether it improves the safety side of things with a brighter, more clearly seen light at this point.
February 25, 2021 at 8:45 am
I know people do it all the time, but it is generally a bad idea to install LEDs into light fixtures designed for incandescent bulbs.
LEDs retrofitted into these fixtures typically do not give the designed brightness, especially with the colored lenses. “White” LEDs are not truly broad spectrum white light, but actually produce a series of narrow cut frequencies that, when averaged together by our eyes, appear to be white. The problem is that these bands do not necessarily line up well with the colored lenses that are used to filter the light from an incandescent bulb, so less light, sometimes a LOT less, gets out of the lens than would be true with an incandescent bulb of the same nominal brightness.
A typical festoon style bulb has all its light coming from a single vertical filament. With the much larger light sources from an LED it is virtually impossible to be sure that the required angle of visibility is correct. Remember, that too wide is just as bad as too narrow!
You will rarely get the hoped for design life out of an LED retrofitted into a fixture that is not hermetically sealed. Moisture intrudes, corrodes contacts and causes other issues. There is also the issue of VHF radio interference that is frequently poorly controlled with retrofit bulbs.
Lastly, the USCG Approval of your existing light fixtures REQUIRES the use of the original bulbs as tested. By retrofitting the bulbs you no longer have USCG approved navigation lights. I am guessing if you were buying new fixtures you would not buy fixtures that did not have USCG approval, so why negate the approval of your existing fixtures?
If you want to go to LED navigation lights, and there are certainly a lot very good reasons for using them, it is far better to switch to a fixture designed for them that is USCG approved as you will install it.
- Steve Mitchell
February 25, 2021 at 9:01 am
Thanks for your comments Bill. I think the subject of using retrofit LED bulbs has been covered extensively in forums and other places, and you make some good points.
There were some original comments on this article a while ago (lots in the import) about USCG vs non-USCG and whether those arguments are as valid as they used to be. Yes, of course you’re not certified any longer, but many LED bulb manufacturers such as LunaSea design theirs to be brighter, and cover the same spread as the original bulb. In the case of this replacement, I can confirm that this particular bulb increased the visibility across the entire arc and range compared to the original bulb.
And I will agree that a purpose built, sealed enclosure would last longer than a retrofit, but the retrofit is just that – meant to be something that gets you some additional time out of an existing fixture. In my case, I had bulbs all die at the same time, and the replacements were also bad. The LED replacement lasted for the time I needed until I replaced it with a purpose built fixture.