An Exercise in DIY Interior LED Lighting Conversion

Posted by John

Most of Mysticeti’s interior lighting is fluorescent, with several being Alpenglow fixtures. Many of these can be switched between white light and red light to preserve night vision. Some can also be switched between high and low power.

I’ve always wanted to change everything over to LED lighting. Mainly for power savings, but also to eliminate the annoyances of fluorescent lamps. For one thing, the CFL tubes come on dim and take several minutes to warm up to full brightness. This is frustrating if you want light for just a few seconds, maybe to find something. Also, spare 12 volt fluorescent tubes of the proper size and shape are not that easy to find, especially if they have been dipped in some sort of red coating in order to produce red light. And most annoying to me is that the ballast goes bad. This may be just me, but over the last few years the ballasts in five cheap shop fixtures in our garage at home have gone bad. The box of replacement fluorescent tubes we bought still remains unused, and the money spent on replacement ballasts totals at least as much as that spent on the original fixtures. Key word here, I suppose, is cheap.

Years ago, when the ballast died in two of Mysticeti’s generic fluorescent light fixtures, we replaced them with completely new fluorescent fixtures from Fisheries (marine store in Seattle), for a lot more money than I wanted to spend. And when the ballast died in one of the Alpenglow fixtures, we just stopped using it because the process and expense of fixing it was more involved than I wanted to take on at the time, especially since what I really wanted was a good LED replacement of equivalent brightness.

The Alpenglow company in Montana now sells LED versions of the old CFL fixtures. They also sell LED upgrades, which replace the entire insides, including backplate and switches, with new. And they also sell replacement ballasts which you can wire in yourself. With a recent price for the ballast of $34, and a full high/low power, red/white LED conversion (with labor) being about $100, repairs or upgrades are not cheap. Upgrading all of our existing Alpenglows would be at least $1,000. Even a ballast replacement at a remote location would not be easy.

I’ve seen people using strings of LED’s that come on a tape reel with a self-adhesive backing. They’re available in several different colors including red, and are inexpensive.

We bought some from Amazon for only a few dollars each. A 300 LED, 5 meter string was $6.99. I’ve also seen them in discount parts and surplus catalogs for very low cost. Originally, we bought them to experiment with and see where we might have a use. Since the boat was tied to the dock for the dark and wet winter months, and I had some time to kill, I wondered what kind of LED upgrade I could do on my own.

LED reel

The LED’s are wired in a series/parallel combination every three LED’s.

LED tape

Series/parallel means that three LED’s are wired in series, along with a current-limiting resistor sized for 12 volts, and then the pattern repeats, with each three-LED-plus-resistor module wired in parallel. The wiring is accomplished through the use of a thin copper foil printed on a flexible strip which is the “tape.” Between each module the copper foil widens into connection pads, marked with a + and -. These pads can be cut through the middle with a scissors to form attachment points at each end of whatever length is desired. The back of the tape is coated with an adhesive material protected by a peel-off paper.

One of the white LED reels we bought is marked “waterproof.” Waterproof means different things to different people. Unless there is an associated IP rating, such as IP67, you really don’t know what the waterproof claim means.

What I do know it means is that the LED side of the tape is coated with a thick, rubbery, transparent coating which must be carefully cut away from the copper pads if you plan on cutting the tape into smaller sections.

Once the pads are exposed from the coating (not an issue on the non-waterproof version), they can be soldered to. This is a somewhat delicate task. Experience suggests that the very thin copper foil could be destroyed by too much soldering heat. The LED reels we bought came with a few extra edge connectors that slide onto the end of the tape and make contact with the pads. There weren’t enough connectors included for my use. I didn’t try using them.

Since the Alpenglow light fixtures seem to carry a certain amount of value (perhaps less so, now that LED’s are becoming the norm), my first rule of conversion was to preserve what I had. In other words, I was OK with taking them apart for now, but I wanted the option of being able to restore them back to original condition later.

The first unknown was how many individual LED’s would be required to match the full light output of the fluorescent tube. The next question was how much power did the Alpenglows consume before the conversion, so I could compare with what they consumed after. The power question was the easiest to answer. I put an ammeter in series with the power supply and measured the current directly. Here’s what I measured:

High power white = 0.840 Amp
Low power white = 0.430 Amp
High power red = 0.671 Amp
Low power red = 0.371 Amp

The question of light output was more difficult. I remembered that my dad had a photographic light meter when I was kid. Maybe I could use something like that to measure light output from the fixture. While wondering if that thing was still around, if I had it and where it might be if I did, I started thinking about the old photocells of mine that I’d come across while getting rid of stuff recently. And by “photocell” I mean a light-sensitive resistor which changes resistance in accordance with the amount of light striking it. The kind of thing used to automatically turn on lights at dusk.

I set up the photocell a fixed distance above the Alpenglow fixture and connected it to an ohmmeter.

Light Measure

I obtained the following readings:

High power white = 735 ohms
Low power white = 1,230 ohms
High power red = 3,800 ohms
Low power red = 6,250 ohms

I could make the same measurement with the LED version to see how close the light output was to the original. Good idea maybe, but in reality I didn’t control all the other variables very well—like ambient light. But it did give me a rough idea, since I had no idea otherwise of how many LED’s to use to produce equivalent light.

The insides of our older Alpenglow fixtures cannot be removed without cutting the wires to the switches. My plan was to create a new backplate using a piece of aluminum, and stick the LED’s directly to it using their adhesive backing. I would reuse the same Alpenglow switches, retaining the same functions as before so there would be no difference in operation between the converted and non-converted fixtures.

Inside our vintage of Alpenglow fixture, and why even replacing the ballast is a non-trivial task.
Inside our vintage of Alpenglow fixture, and why even replacing the ballast is a non-trivial task.

I experimented with the LED’s using my light measuring technique, then organized them into two white sections and two red sections. The low power setting would turn on one section, high power would turn on both. The red/white switch would determine whether red or white sections were powered.

LED install

LEDs on

I rewired the existing switches as shown in the schematic diagram below. One of the switches is three-position, double-pole with the center position being off. The other switch is two position, either red or white. Double pole means that two sets of contacts change position when the switch is pressed.

LED conversion

I was somewhat surprised with the result. I did not end up saving any power with the white lights. Too many LED’s? My crude attempt at comparing light output between the fluorescent tube and the LED strip probably had some flaws (lack of ambient light control, for one). I should’ve taken two fixtures off the boat and converted one, using the other for side-by-side comparisons. Next time, maybe.

What I did get, however, is a very bright, instant-on (no warm up required) white light with no ballast to go bad or tubes to burn out.

The red light fared much better (far fewer LED’s were used), producing a significant power savings. In the low power setting, it uses 0.081 Amp, compared to 0.371 for the CFL. Two or three of these could be left on all night with virtually no battery drain and enough light to see while moving about the boat.

Perhaps the best part is, we don’t have to carry any spare fluorescent tubes, and the ballast isn’t going to fail unexpectedly. The conversion of one fixture was maybe $12, with $8 of that going for the aluminum sheet from the hardware store. McMaster-Carr sells some 0.032 inch thick fiberglass sheet that I’m going to try next time. It can possibly be cut with a hefty scissors, is less cost than the single-quantity aluminum sheet, and the soldered connections won’t short out if they come in contact with it.

New backplate

Putting the finished fixture back on the boat and trying it out at night revealed that the new high power setting is noticeably brighter than the old CFL high power setting. To my eye, the LED low power setting is approximately equivalent in light to the CFL high setting. So, perhaps I did achieve a power savings after all.

Rebedding Portlight Glass

Posted by John

I’ve read a definition that says a portlight is the openable glass flap covering a porthole. It also defines a porthole as a round opening in the side of a ship. Since the windows in Mysticeti are not just round, but also oval and rectangular, I’m not sure what they’re all supposed to be called. So even if I’m technically wrong, I’m calling the glass opening a portlight, no matter what shape it’s in.

We have several portlights that have been leaking rain water. Some of the leaking used to be through the seals where the portlight is dogged against the porthole frame. We fixed that several years ago by replacing the rubber seals. It’s the leaking around the glass itself that’s been the most problematic. Back when we replaced the rubber seals, we also took the glass out of one bad leaker and re-caulked it. For some reason the leaking only slowed down, but did not stop completely. With more leaks in more portlights this winter, we decided to try again, but use butyl rubber instead of caulk.

Some time ago we bought a box of butyl rubber tape. It came as rolls, about 1/2 inch wide, with a paper backing to keep it from sticking to itself. We’ve used it to re-bed deck hardware, including the chainplates we replaced last summer.

Butyl Rubber Tape

Mysticeti has six large rectangular and four smaller oval portlights in the main cabin, four oval in the aft cabin, plus two oval and two round in the head, and one round portlight in the engine room, opening to the cockpit.

Mysticeti Large Portlight Area

The glass in the large portlights measures 17 x 9 inches, 1/2 inch thick.

Portlight 17 x 9 glass

Below is a portlight frame with the glass and old caulk removed.

Portlight Frame

We applied the butyl rubber tape to the inside faces that contact the glass. A cast bronze clamping piece fits on the back side of the frame and screws down with 22 bronze machine screws to hold the glass. Butyl tape is also applied around the mating face of the clamp.

Portlight frame with butyl

The butyl rubber gradually deforms under pressure and evenly seals around the edges of the glass. Any gaps where the tape is not hard against the glass are easily seen through the glass from the other side, and fixed by placing a weight on the glass pane and giving it time for the butyl to deform and even out.

Once the old caulk was cleaned off the portlight frames, the butyl rubber was a neat, clean, easy way to affect a watertight seal.

For an El Nino year we’ve had an unusually high amount of rain this winter in the Seattle area. But since rebedding our portlights, we have had no drips. The best part is we no longer have to put drip catchers under them.

We hope this is a long-term solution. Only time will tell.

Goats go for a Boat Ride

Posted by John

Well okay, the boat was a Washington State Ferry and the goats were in the back of the family van, but the title is still accurate.

When categorizing those who cruise for longer distances than that which can be achieved on a weekend or annual vacation, there seems to be two types: those who live aboard with no other home, and those who maintain a separate home on land.

I envy those whose only home is their boat and the possessions which will fit inside it. However, for so many reasons that seem right at this point in life, we have chosen to keep our home and property and a lot of our things in waiting for our eventual return. At least that is the plan for now.

A few years ago when we first started formulating our cruising plan, we were responsible for a dog, a cat, two goats, fifteen chickens of various breeds and probably tens of thousands of honeybees in wooden hives. All of these creatures earned their keep, whether it was scaring bears away and chasing deer from the garden, or keeping the mouse population in check, or eating weeds and bugs, or eliminating blackberries and other invasive plants, or pollinating the fruit trees; or even just barking, crowing, clucking or bleating to warn us when something was amiss. Even a few well-placed bee hives will keep strangers from wandering around too much. But they all, including the honeybees, require at least supplemental feeding and human interaction. Not something from which you can just one day turn your back on and sail away.

The dog, the cat, most of the chickens and all of the bees were gradually lost through natural attrition. But what do you do with a couple of 175 pound pet goats originally purchased by a little girl with her own money, raised from babies, named by school children and shown at the county fair as a 4H project? When the goats first came to our house to live, we were told that we might as well sell our boat because we were now tied to the land more than we realized. So true. And that statement has echoed in my head for years.

For the past year we’ve searched for a new home for the goats, hopeful we had something lined up, only to then have it fall through time and again. Thoughts of where and how they might end up, and what happens if we can’t find them a new home, are the kind of thing that can keep you awake at night.

As a kid, while sailing with my dad on Lake Washington and watching boats coming through the ship canal from Puget Sound, I learned to recognize the differences between the bigger boats that were sailed mostly on weekends, and boats of the same size that were much more far ranging. The local boats had clean, white decks, everything neat and tidy, while the cruising boats had old jerry jugs and rope spools lashed to the rails, and self-steering gear mounted on their sterns where the local boats had swim platforms. The local boats appeared mostly of form, while the cruising boats seemed more of function. I used to think that a few chickens running around on deck would complete the image of the far-ranging live-aboard.

So yes, late at night I more than once gave some consideration, at least mentally asking myself the question, of what if we found a way to carry the goats with us on deck, perhaps lashed to the rail like jerry jugs? But of course, not a serious question. However, it points out that the process of just getting away from home for a few years is much more difficult than we originally had anticipated.

We finally found a new home for our goats but it meant transporting them from our home on the Olympic Peninsula, across Puget Sound by ferry, and north to Anacortes to a family that already has dogs and cats and llamas and sheep, each species with its own purpose. And now they also have a couple of goats whose job it will be to help keep the blackberries and other invasive plants in control.

Two big goats stuffed behind the back seat of a passenger van for a three hour road and ferry trip. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out nothing went wrong, in part, I like to believe, because of thorough planning and preparation based on asking ourselves the very question of what could go wrong. The same approach we are using to get our lives, home and boat in order so that we may enjoy a few years of extended cruising.

If the window opened, he'd stick his head out
If the window opened, he’d stick his head out
Goats: the new kids in school; meet the guard llama
Goats: the new kids in school; meet the guard llama
Exploring their new home, while we say good-bye.  Have fun guys.
Exploring their new home, while we say good-bye. Have fun guys.

It’s a New Year

So Christmas came and went. Then New Years came and went. Heck, all of January came & went according to our new 2016 calendar.  We are still quite busy at work on all kinds of fun stuff.  Sadly, that stuff is not actually being out sailing.  Some good news is that most of it is happening out of the rain where the temperature is not below 45 degrees.  Some new stuff will get posted here any day now to let you share in the adventure… Promise! And to those of you who have asked what happened to us and why no posts for a bit,, Thank You! for the interest and the reminders.