Thursday, January 15, 2015

Converting Fluorescent Lights To LED

Yep, still cold, still rainy. Hopefully that will change soon. Figuring that I needed some indoor projects to keep me busy, one of the projects I've been researching is the continuation of upgrading my lights to LED.

I have already converted most of my incandescent lights to LED as they are the biggest energy saving bang for the buck (in the 75~90% range).  Now I'm taking a look at the fluorescent lights.  In the case of fluorescent lights, the power savings isn't as dramatic, but even 30% (or more) is nothing to sneeze at when your power comes from a limited battery bank.

In the case of my incandescent light fixtures, I was able to find LED bulbs as a drop in replacement (or even build my own from a broken household LED bulb).  Fluorescent replacements aren't quite as easy. Unlike incandescent fixtures that are a simple and direct connection to power, fluorescent ones have a transformer (called a ballast) that controls the power supplied to the bulb and is incompatible with LEDs.

There are some special bulbs that plug into the existing socket and have a wire to bypass the ballast, but they are a bit pricey. Another option is to replace the fixture.  There are a few fixtures out there with a similar footprint, but they aren't cheap and I didn't really like the options that I found.

While wasting time watching it rain researching this issue, I came across another option. With the advent of LED lighting, someone came up with the idea of putting LED's on a flexible adhesive backed tape.  This is often used for accent and under-cabinet lighting, but a few people have figured out you can use it to replace bulbs.  So, a few days ago, I found some of these flexible LED strip lights at a good price and decided to give it a try.

I ordered a strip of the "warm white" lights and they arrived today. Since the weather is still dictating inside projects and the ballast in the light in my berth has been giving me problems (it only turns on when it feels like it), I decided to upgrade it with the LEDs.  I wanted to document the process of the upgrade, but this one fixture was a bit more complicated than all the others on the boat.  Instead of wires running from the switch to the ballast, this unit had the switch and connectors soldered directly to the ballast. So in order to reuse the switch, I had to remove it from the circuit board, attach new wires, and new connectors.  Not that complicated of a task, but not a process I wanted to document as I figure it would only confuse the otherwise straight-forward process (people comfortable with electrical connections and soldering should easily be able to figure out how to do this).

Once I had the switch free and the connectors attached, the remaining install is reasonably straight-forward. I cut three strips of the lights to approximately the length of the tube I was replacing (cutting only at the approved marks on the tape) and adhered them to the fixture. I then soldered the connections on the strips together with small jumper wires I scavenged from the fixture (there are connectors made that can be used in lieu of soldering, but I already had the wire and solider and didn't see the need to buy the connectors) and soldered the switched power wire and ground to the connected strips.  I think it took me an hour or two for everything.

The result isn't bad.  The "warm white" colored lights turned out to be a bit more yellow in color than I would like (the picture below makes them look more white than they actually are).  Three strips of the lights put out just a little less light than the fluorescent tube did based on my observation (or maybe it is just the color difference that is tricking my eye, I'm not really sure). My guess is either 4 strips, or using the larger 5050 LEDs instead of the 3528 ones would put out as much or more the cost of more power use.  In the end, for about $2 worth of the LED strip and a little solider and wire I had on hand, I have a LED light that consumes around 3.75 watts instead of the 8 watt fluorescent. And best of all, I didn't have to put the old fixture into the landfill.

Next time I may try using the "daylight white" strips or a combination of those and the warm white ones.  I'll also document the process better in case you want to try updating some of your old fluorescent lights.


  1. Re-using the original fluorescent fixture is a great idea. I would have wasted time and become frustrated looking for a compatible sized fixture. Thanks.

    1. You are welcome and, yeah, I know that frustration. ;-) I have several other 2-tube fixtures on the boat...and am toying with the idea of setting them up as bi-color lights (white and either blue or red for night ops by replacing or adding a second switch).

      I hope to do a better write up of this eventually...with some extra info on types of LED strips and all of that...but the weather is actually cooperating at the moment, so I'm off tackling a couple of my other bigger projects right now.