Cheap LED Strip Lights for Boats

6 May

Looks like Ben Ellison also just blogged about inexpensive LED lighting – when it rains it pours – but note that one of these entire color-changing, dimmable, waterproof strip kits costs about half what a single marine LED fixture costs.

These LED strip lights must be in every college dorm room on the planet by now. They’re cheap (about $30 for a complete kit), they can make all the colors of the rainbow, and using the included automatic controls they’ll do all kinds of fades, flashes, and disco colors, which are kinda fun.

For a boat they’ve got other advantages: They use little power, about 3 amps at 12 volts to light up a 15-foot strip at full power – this is enough to light a large main cabin; they’re flexible and waterproof; and they can be set to just dim red, which is great for night sailing without blinding the crew. Finally, the strips themselves run on 12-volt DC, meaning they can be run directly off ship’s power on most boats. The kits usually come with an AC power supply, which can be chucked. The connector from the power supply input will need to be cut off, then 12-volt ship’s power can be connected directly. Here’s what I bought on Amazon:

I’ve read that these LED strips can overheat and burn out with voltages over 12 volts. I’ve run my system at full tilt with my engine’s alternator charging, so voltage over 14 volts, with no detectible heat. Obviously you should conduct similar tests with your system to make sure you don’t burn out your LEDs or start a fire.

These strips make all the color combinations just like a TV screen: Red, green, and blue LEDs can be mixed to make any color, sort of. Much like fluorescent lights, the color of LED lights can be less than pleasing. For home LED strips they make various natural white or sunlight white variations, but these are just white LED strips, without the other colors. On the color-changing strips their version of white, which is the red, the green, and the blue at full blast, is a sickly, bluish, hospital ER kind of light:

What I find more pleasing for evening relaxation is their version of orange, which is red with a touch of green, and no blue whatsoever:

Full disclosure: I’d been mulling this idea around for about a year when Green Brett wrote a very good article in Cruising World. You can see his wiring diagram here.

Mr. Brett saved me a lot of time, I assume by making a lot of the same mistakes I was about to make, and finding solutions. I was so impressed I just went out and bought exactly what he told me to buy, but then I had to screw it all up by getting fancy: I wanted strips on both sides of the boat, so I’d have to split my system in half. Then of course I’d want separate on/off switches for each side of the boat, in case I wanted just the galley lit up, but not the bookshelf on the port side. And while Mr. Brett installed footlights, and had a nice overhang under a settee to install and hide the LED strip, I’d be installing mine as under counter lights to illuminate my galley bench top and the bookshelf on the opposite side of the cabin. I’d have to find a stylish way to hide them.

You’ll want to hide the LED strips because they’re ugly, or at least not very nautical looking, and if you look right at them they’re blinding. I figured I needed a half inch thick teak batten to shield the LED strip, making them invisible unless you were lying on the cabin floor, and making the light diffused rather than direct. Of course this teak had to be ordered, cut, shaped, drilled, countersunk, and varnished, adding another few hours to the project.

Look at the size of the box, and the amount of packaging, to mail a teak stick:


Since these LED kits come with a remote control and controller, Mr. Brett and I both agreed that we might as well install the controller for a laugh, so we could have all kinds of strobe, disco, flashing, fading fun. We also both agreed that we’d probably lose or destroy the remote control in no time, so we’d better install a manual override. Mr. Brett installed a manual fader just for red; I went for manual controls on all three colors.

Again, this stuff is pretty cheap, so it’s not the end of the world to change your mind a bit. I junked my whole first purchase and bought a double density LED strip (300 LEDs per strip instead of 150) for another $30, just because.

Mr. Brett figured out, I assume the hard way, that there are all kinds of possibilities for certain LEDs to light up unintentionally: Each strip has four circuits, the three colors of LED, plus a common or ground. By customizing the system to have both the automatic and manual controls, it’s easy to end up with unintended lighting, like the other colors of LEDs glowing dimly when you intended to just have red. Mr. Brett used a DPDT (double pole double throw) switch and a diode for this purpose. I ditched the diode and went with a TPDT switch (triple pole double throw) switch:

These switches are like two or three on-off-on switches in one, with each individual switch called a pole, and each position called a throw (on-off-on is double throw, just on-off is single throw). In my installation one pole is used for the 12-volt power feed positive, another for negative, and the third for the LED strip ground. This way all three of these are switched from one controller to another (or completely off) with no chance for a sneaky back feed.

My TPDT switch, just missing the 12-volt ship’s power connections:


To show things a little more clearly, here is a diagram of a TPDT switch:
In my installation, the terminals are as follows: 1. Ground to automatic controller 2. Ground to LED strips 3. Ground to manual controller 4. Positive to automatic controller 5. Positive 12-volt ship’s power 6. Positive to manual controller 7. Negative to automatic controller 8. Negative to ship’s power 9. Negative to manual controller

In other words, the switch is switching three different things – the LED ground, ship’s 12-volt positive, and ship’s 12-vold negative – back and forth between the two different controllers, with an off position in between.

There should be a 5-amp fuse on both the positive and negative 12-volt feeds.

At this point I’ll admit I probably made this way more complicated than it had to be. If you just whack off the AC power supply and connect 12-volt power, and use these kits as they come, with the remote control, everything will be just peachy.

Here’s the whole magilla:
The white box at the top is the automatic controller, with it’s little infrared remote receiver and the output wires sticking out to the left, and the 12-volt power input on its right. Just below the white box is my TPDT switch, which you’ve seen before. On both sides of the TPDT switch are my on-off switches for each side of the cabin. At the bottom is the 3-color manual controller, with its 12-volt power coming in from the right, and the LED outputs on its left.

The LED strips can be cut every few inches, at specific points, to make them any length. Once cut at these points, you’d need to solder on a new pigtail to connect it to power. Here, where I’ve cut the strip, you can see the three circuits for the three colors, plus the common. Note that these strips use a positive common:

My LED strip came with pigtails at both ends (I think most do), so I was able to cut the strip in the middle and still have a pigtail on each section without any soldering.

I’d wired my whole system and screwed my teak battens into place. It was time to stick the LED strips in place, peeling the tape off the 3M adhesive backing. In this case 3M stands for Maybe, Might, and Might not stick. In my case it stuck…for about three minutes. I even foresaw this and went over the surfaces with acetone and a heat gun beforehand, just to make sure they were very clean and dry. Back to the drawing board.

The LED strip suppliers sell these little silicone saddles, for holding the strips in place with screws. But the saddles would change the location of the strips in relation to my teak battens, so I’d have to seriously customize my teak battens, just so the strips would still be tucked up into the corner, snug against the battens:

With the saddles installed:

Once I’d installed my saddles, the strips went into place just as I wanted, tucked in right against the teak battens:

Typical. Typical boat project. I don’t know how many hours. 20? 30? for a fun and funky project to install some cheap disco lights on my boat. Was it worth it? Yes, it was worth it, and total materials were something less than $200, with $80 of this going to the teak stick. If we graph our boat projects and call one axis of the graph “functionality,” and the other axis “bling,” this project would land in the upper right quadrant, having both functionality and bling, whereas replacing a bearing on the steering linkage would have functionality but no bling, and new varnish would be pure bling.

Here is my final control layout, integrated into the stereo shelf. Yes, it’s a lot of switches and controls, but keep in mind it’s not just a light switch but a Main Cabin Lighting Color and Intensity Control System:

Again, the switch in the middle switches between the three-color fader and the remote control, with off in the middle. On either side (with the red tips) are the on-off switches for each side of the cabin:

Here’s the dim red. It can go much dimmer than this, as in barely visible, but of course you can’t take a picture in no light:
Here’s green:
Here’s blue:
And here’s purple:

A color for every mood. You can imagine the obnoxious strobe function. The slow fade function is kind of nice, if you’re in the right mood.

With the three or four feet of strip I cut out of this middle this whole system runs at just over 2 Amps at 12 volts, for what I consider good lighting for cooking, eating, and general main cabin activities. They claim these strips will last for over 30,000 hours:

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


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