Just a few years back, LED navigation lights were in their infancy. Today, there are enough of them on the market to make them worth a head-to-head evaluation. Pending the results of our look-see, we could think of only one reason not to use them when it comes time to replace or upgrade running lights—their staggering cost.
Why LED Running Lights?
As most readers know by now, LED technology has already been a boon to boaters, in the form of flashlights, trailer lights, courtesy and emergency lights, and even as cabin and engineroom lights. The reasons are simple: They’re tough as nails, virtually impervious to vibration and hard knocks. They last, for practical purposes, forever. And they draw a fraction of the power of their filament-based cousins—although in running light configurations, LEDs use more power than some might think. Outdoors in the marine environment, they can be effectively sealed or “potted” in their housings or lenses, so that moisture just plain can’t get in. Yes, you still have to pay attention to the wiring, but anyone who’s had to go up to the top of a mast to deal with a blown or dead bulb, or the socket corrosion caused by an improperly fitted housing, couldn’t help but be intrigued by the idea of an LED light up there.
Requirements and Certifications
The current federal requirements for navigation lights aboard recreational boats are spelled out online at www.uscgboating.org/safety/fedreqs/equ_nav.htm. It’s worth re-reading the definitions and requirements of lights once in a while; it’s worth being in compliance; and it’s vitally important to keep a light reference on board if you travel at all at night, simply to be able to identify the type and course of vessels around you. But rather than try to memorize all the rules (unless you’re studying for a license) just remember what the protocols are trying to achieve—a 360° circle of light around each vessel, noticeable enough to other vessels to prevent collisions—and equip your boat according to the rules. We’re speaking in this article only of “running lights,” those that are required to be shown on vessels underway between sunset and sunrise—and remember, a sailboat under power is a powerboat.
The certification rules for manufacturers are complicated, and too lengthy to cover here in detail. The majority of readers here will be running boats between 7 and 20 meters LOA, and lights for these boats must be made according to the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) standard A-16.
For various reasons, none necessarily indicative of inadequacy or shoddiness, some of the lights covered here have not received US Coast Guard certification, although they may be certified in Europe, or by international COLREGS rules. These lights are said to be “compliant” with the ABYC A-16 standards, but not certified. Buyers who use these lights must do so at their own “discretion and risk.”
Some LED running lights are approved for both sail and powerboats, but most are approved only for powerboats (or sailboats under power). This is because the ABYC requires a greater vertical range of light output for sailboats—25° above and below the horizontal plane, for a total of 50° —than for powerboats, whose lights are only required to show 7.5° above and below, for a total of 15°. There are even requirements for luminous intensity in different sectors of those ranges—pretty stringent stuff.
Lights are rated for one-, two-, or three-mile visibility, and are specified according a boat’s LOA and the light rules. Remember that the requirements are for minimum visibility at those distances. If you’re replacing a one-mile light, there’s no rule that says you can’t substitute a brighter two-mile light.
Most LEDs are directional; that is, they shoot their light out in a tight beam. For any application other than a flashlight or spotlight, manufacturers have to figure out ways to get that light to spread, or to appear to spread. In running lights there are various means to that end, from arranging multiple LEDs in a pattern so that the edges of the beams overlap in a radius, to shaping the emitted light with carefully designed lenses and housings, to running fewer, bigger LEDs with more power behind them. Perko’s 170-series LED side lights, for example, use only one large LED apiece.
“There’s a tremendous amount of light output required for navigation lights,” says George Bellwoar of Perko. “If you shine an LED flashlight in one direction, it might fulfill a two-mile visibility requirement, but only in a very small spot. Spread the required range of visibility to an area 15° by 135°, and now you need about a dozen flashlights to cover that span, and without dark spots that would drop you below the requirements. When we make a stern light for a sailboat, that range increases to 50° by 135°. So the light output we need for a sailboat light is dramatically more than what we need for a powerboat.”
The number, size, and quality of the LEDs needed in a fixture, and the labor that goes into setting everything properly in place, makes these lights expensive from the start. Then there are problems and opportunities of power management. Since LEDs are more sensitive than incandescent lights to variations in voltage, some manufacturers build sophisticated circuit board electronics into the fixture itself, for example to maintain a constant brightness of an LED through a range of voltages, or to enable on/off functions at sunset and sunrise, or for strobe functions. These features, too, can send the cost through the roof.
What We Tested
Practical Sailor undertook a big evaluation of incandescent navigation lights a few years ago, and published the results in the Jan. 2002 issue. No less than 70 lights were put through their paces on a cold, clear night on Long Island Sound, and most were more than adequate, even satisfying Coast Guard requirements at a fairly miserly test voltage. The lights that excelled were Aqua Signal’s model 40100-1 bi-color light, rated for two nautical miles, and Hella Marine’s 62208 stern light, also rated for two nautical miles.
LED lights are still an evolving technology, with more players coming into the game all the time. Rather than try to find all the LED lights on the market, we tried out a goodly sampling of lights from two of the premier marine light-makers—Perko and Hella Marine—plus products from Innovative Lighting, Lopolight, Unified Marine, and Orca Green Marine. At the time of this writing, lines of LED running lights from other major players ABI, Attwood, Aqua Signal, and TaylorBrite (Taylor Made) had not emerged on the market.
We decided to include only ready-made, fixed-mount lights, not clamp-on or strap-on portables that are available for small boats (although these, too, might be worth a look soon), and not replacement lamps made by outfits like Greenray (www.firststarled.com; formerly Deep Creek Design) or owner-installed LED modules (Stecktronics, www.stecktronics.com). For comparison’s sake, we did include a set of incandescent running lights from Aqua-Signal.
All of the lights are rated for 2 n.m., except for the Hella single port and starboard sidelights, which are rated for 1 n.m.
How We Tested
After a certain amount of due diligence, trying to figure out the nature and construction of a product, and often trying to sort through a morass of solid information, myth, and spin from manufacturers and enthusiasts, we generally like to cut to the chase and find out how the things work in the real world. When it comes to lights, this is a pleasure, because although the topic of light and light-emitting equipment is complex, real-world testing is straightforward: You hook up the lights, turn them on, and look at them at night on the water. The brighter and more visible they are, the better.
For these LED nav lights, we used the same procedure as last time, except that this time we were smart enough to do it in Florida instead of New England. We mounted the lights on planks, and affixed those to our test boat. We used tie-wraps to fasten a strip of side lights to each side of the boat—green lights on the starboard bow rail and red on the port. The all-around white lights were mounted to a panel of wood affixed on the boat’s T-top. The stern lights, also on a plank of wood, were tie-wrapped to the swim ladder in its up position so that they were about four feet above the water. The tri-color masthead lights were mounted on T-shaped wooden pieces that the testers held above their heads and rotated.
We dropped our keen-eyed observer on the beach in Sarasota Bay, and drove the boat 1 n.m. from his location, and then later 2 n.m. away. At each station, we powered up the lights, one by one, swinging the boat around on its hook as necessary to display the full and proper view of each of the lights that were affixed to the boat.
The observer on the beach jotted down his ratings of the lights and comments. We supplied the lights with a constant 13.75 volts throughout the test. We tried a lower voltage for a couple of lights, but this made no difference to the observer, so we resumed testing with the higher voltage only. We also measured the amp draw of each light with a multimeter on the test bench, while supplying both 13.75 and 12 volts.
The details of the observations, along with published light specifications and ratings, appear in the chart on this page.
What We Found
The red and green LED lights were as bright as the Aqua-Signal incandescent lights. This impressed us. The LED white lights, however, were noticeably dimmer than the incandescent whites. There’s still room for improvement here.
The red and green LEDs are bright, but our observer noticed that the combination and the tricolor lights, when viewed straight on, are hard to discern. The red and green almost cancel each other out, or in some instances the red overtakes the green. However, these same lights are quite bright when viewed from the side.
From 1 n.m., the lights were clearly visible to our observer. Visibility was enhanced because there was little ambient light around the boat—just several flashing navigational markers. At 2 n.m., the observer had some difficulty picking up the lights, so the crew on the boat shined a spotlight to help the observer locate the light being evaluated. The white LED lights were harder to see than the red and green lights in most cases. There were some white LEDs that received Good ratings, but none was as bright as the incandescent white from Aqua-Signal, which was not only brighter but one of the larger all-around white lights tested.
These lights are tremendously expensive, no doubt. If money is tight, your decision will have to ride on your realistic intended uses for these lights. If you just plain don’t go out at night, it hardly matters. On the other hand, the more you burn running lights at night, especially under sail, the better your reasons for taking the plunge.
John Gambill, of Hotwire Enterprises, is an expert in alternative energy products for sailors. As a dealer for both Orca Green Tri-Anchor and the Greenray Tri-Color Mark II replacement lamp (not tested here), he offers an interesting take on the subject:
“In my mind, the greatest advantage and clearest energy and cost savings for sailors are using LEDs for anchor lights, and when sailing at night with a tri-color light. Assuming that you’re on a cruising sailboat, and that you’re making all of your power by means of solar modules, with solar at $5 per watt, it takes about $300 worth of solar modules to make 20 amp-hours per day, which is how much a typical incandescent anchor light would use. A $150 LED anchor light will need 6 watts of solar modules, costing about $30. If you plan to sail at night a lot, the savings on a tri-color are similar.”
Perko’s 170 Series and the Hella NaviLED Pro series are the only lights (other than Orca Green’s tri-color), that are certified for both power and sail. We like that Perko’s warranty includes the finish, but the Hella lights consume slightly less power, and were more visible at 2 n.m., so they ‘d be our first choice. The only caveat is that actual street prices have yet to be established for Hella’s new lights.
Orca Green’s product would be our choice for an LED tri-color light.
• Orca Green Marine, 866/535-5777, www.orcagreen.com
• Lopolight (Euromarine Trading), 401/849-0060, www.euromarinetrading.com
• Perko, 305/621-7525, www.perko.com
• Innovative Lighting, 800/949-4888, www.innovativelight.com
• Unified Marine, 800/282-8725, www.unifiedmarine.com
• Hella, 800/247-5924, www.hellausa.com