Smaller, better and brighter underwater lights are changing the way we boat at night.
Underwater lights have been popping up on hulls everywhere. Most people don’t need them but they sure look cool. In fact, there are three primary reasons to have underwater lights — lighting for nighttime fishing and diving, safety in case of a man overboard and aesthetics — and only 30 percent of underwater lights are purchased for the first two practical reasons. The other 70 percent are for effect. Like mag wheels do for cars, underwater lights ramp up a boat’s wow factor and add a bit of bling.
LED-based underwater lighting was introduced in the 1990s, and 25 years later, the underlying technology has changed dramatically. The lights are better and safer, while their installation has been simplified and their performance per dollar spent has increased.
Changing Tastes & High Expectations
Today’s lights flash, strobe, dim, change color and even synchronize with sound. They come in single, dual and full-spectrum (RGBW) color and can change smoothly from one rich hue to another. For example, Lumitec’s SeaBlaze X Spectrum surface-mounted lights offer full-color crossfade mode with limitless color options and synchronization across all the underwater lights installed.
“Full RGBW color is where the upper market is going,” said John Kujawa, president of Lumitec. “We introduce five to eight product families each year. Expectations of innovation are high, so lighting is less static and more evolutionary — more like marine electronics.”
Boaters now like to set preprogrammed moods and themes for entertaining, effectively creating an on-the-water nightclub. And the more lights, the better. The conversation today is less a focus on through-hull lights potentially sinking the boat and more about underwater lights as mandatory equipment. According to Susan James, head of marketing at Lumishore, the question used to be this: “How big will the hole in the boat be?” Now it’s this: “How many should I put in?”
The underlying technology has come a long way and has contributed to the lights’ exploding popularity. Great strides have been made in the four key components of lights: housing, optics, controllers and light emitters (LEDs).
Made of bronze, aluminum, stainless steel, copper, polymers (plastic) or a combination of metal and polymer, light housings have become more compact, so they require a smaller hole and less room in the hull. Also, due to some canister designs, the housing may be permanently mounted in through-hull fixtures while the guts of the light may be removed, serviced or upgraded without hauling the boat. Take for example, OceanLED’s XFM Gen 2 (Xchangeable Flush Mount), which can be serviced from inside the hull. With a bit of miniaturization, lighting companies have freed up real estate in the housing to add more smarts and heat-dissipation features.
Advances have also been made in the reflectors and lenses that focus the light and determine the beam angle and its projection, which is how far it will reach and how even it will be. The higher the quality of the lens, the less light will be trapped in the fixture and, therefore, the more efficient and brighter the light.
“Without optics (reflectors), companies need to push lots of power into the light, which looks good on paper with high fixture lumens but actually performs worse,” said Jim Deheer, director of marketing at OceanLED. “By using an optic to focus the beam (narrower angle), we can again make the light penetrate farther and not lose light into deep water.”
Beam angles have increased — 90 degrees for surface-mounted and 110 degrees for through-hull lights. “Optical systems continue to evolve in complexity,” Kujawa said. “Light-mixing chambers, light-shaping, micro-textured diffusing films, compound optics — all are becoming more prevalent today.”
Some of today’s lights work differently than before. For example, James pointed out that Lumishore’s dual-colored (blue/white) lights run each color at full power. Instead of half the bulbs shining blue and half white (as it used to be), they all shine simultaneously as either color, and that’s big when one needs a light that will punch out a substantial distance.
The greatest advances have been made in the electronics portion of the light, most specifically in the controller. “Many of the luminaires that Lumitec sells have the processing power and memory of what would be found on a typical PC just 20 years ago,” Kujawa said. “Lights now have a brain and they can communicate, which makes programming, heat monitoring, interactivity and diagnostics easier and better.”
Today’s controllers can do more, such as provide individual and simultaneous control of four separate lighting zones. James said that Lumishore’s SUPRA Series, operated by the manufacturer’s Lumi-Switch, offers dual-colored lights with dimming, two-speed strobe, full-power brightness and switch memory that returns the user to the last setting when the lights are turned back on.
“Also,” James said, “all our products, whether surface mount or through-hull, are more compact with a low profile that helps reduce drag and debris snags while underway.”
But in most cases owners don’t need a controller that is proprietary to the light manufacturer. Information is moved via open protocols that include NMEA 0183 and 2000, and controls can be displayed on a screen via a digital switching system such as a C-Zone monitor or even the MFD at the helm.
Additionally, Bluetooth connectivity has enabled remote control of the lighting environment. If one wants to manage a light display, whether customizing color sweeps, setting a mood or adding sound, he can now do so with some manufacturers’ lights from an app on an iOS or Android tablet or smartphone.
“More people have exposure to lighting control, with RGBW strips being fitted in houses,” Deheer said. “So they are more comfortable with lighting apps, like our DMX Control app.”
Lumitec SeaBlaze Mini Spectrum
Aqualuma Gen4 FF12
Lumishore EOS TIX402 w/Mini Wi-Fi controller
OceanLED X-Series X4 w/DMX Control app
No matter the shape of the housing, the number of lights included, the type of housing or the means of control, underwater lights are better than ever, and manufacturers are all competing to offer the brightest lights with the least amp draw. It’s all about lumens per watt, lumens per dollar, and lumens per fixture.
Long-lived & Robust
In the power draw vs. brightness equation, the evolution has been to increase the lumens per watt. A decade ago the standard was 16 lumens; today, it’s more than 10 times that. Many companies are striving for increases in output that are 20 to 50 percent year over year.
Another measure of output is called “fixture lumens,” or the amount of light emanating from the complete unit. Competitors are all vying to build the most powerful light with the least amount of amp draw. A light with 1,100 fixture lumens today draws less than an amp, so it’s easier on power consumption.
This drive toward constant improvement in lumens per watt, lumens per dollar and lumens per fixture ensures continual innovation as customers look for the latest. However, Kujawa warns that boaters should be skeptical of lumen ratings, as there is no standardization in reporting across the industry.
Light longevity is less of an issue today. LED manufacturers tout 30,000 to 50,000 hours of life, which can translate to 10 to 20 years of actual use on a boat. But LEDs are tested in a lab under ideal conditions, so some underwater light manufacturers are more comfortable with saying 20,000 hours. Without question, lights are living longer and will probably outlast some of the boats they’re on.
One thing to keep in mind is that LEDs tend to vary in color — “blue” may not be “blue” if the bulbs were manufactured in different years. Lighting companies know this, so they tend to buy in bulk to have a large supply of color-consistent lights on hand. They also tend to differentiate their products by generation.
“We’re about to change over to our Gen 5 product,” said Alexandra Bader, president of the Aqualuma division of Tides Marine. “We have an enormous supply of bulbs that we buy at the same time, so when one light fails six years down the road, we can supply a bulb that will match whatever is already installed on the boat.”
Price vs. Value
With improvements in manufacturing and increases in volume, LEDs have dropped in price. Therefore, one would expect the price of underwater lights to have plummeted as well. Price decreases have been reported in lower-end products; however, LEDs are only a small part of the overall cost of the lights and are more than offset by the cost of ever more-sophisticated electronics and optics.
As everyone chases a lower cost per lumen, the lights are improving and therefore are not so much cheaper as they are better. “Today, you can purchase advanced color-changing lights for the price of simple one-color products of only a few years ago,” James said.
So, as lights have become more feature rich, the price has remained level or decreased only slightly. High rates of adoption have driven the costs down a bit too. At the upper end, value is king. With improved output, Wi-Fi connectivity, more features and better functionality, the top end has stayed higher priced but provides much better value.
Maintenance & Installation: DIY?
Today’s lights are easier to install, so boatyards need less time and labor to get more lights added to a hull, and for brave individuals willing to drill holes, it may be a do-it-yourself project.
“It’s more DIY than you’d think,” Lumitec’s Kujawa said. “We give boaters a template and with four holes (from one-eighth to one-half of an inch) and a good bedding compound, they can install some lights, especially surface mounted, themselves.”
Bader said Aqualuma created a manual on installation for boatyards. But boaters can use it too, she said. “Our templates are stickers, so you just adhere them to the hull and then drill the holes right through the template.”
With today’s canister designs, most through-hull lights may be removed, inspected and upgraded without a haulout, which saves time and money. Easy interchangeability is key to upgrading lights from the inside, and since LEDs can outlast fast-changing color and effects tastes, hassle-free upgrades are important.
“Aqualuma has an upgrade program,” Bader said. “If someone bought a boat that had our through-hull lights installed previously, we offer a discount to change out the guts but keep the canisters in place.”
Underwater lights are now marketed as pre-programmed and packaged systems with add-ons, and that has made installation simpler. Technical advances have created plug-and-play solutions with intuitive programming that are easier for boatyards, or even boaters, to wire up. Lumishore for example, markets its LumiHub, which is basically a junction box that can take up to four lights and simplifies all wiring.
For easy maintenance, new lens technology has incorporated better antifouling coatings, such as OceanLED’s Tritonium-based resin, which simply wipes clean of marine growth without the need for potentially damaging scrubbing by a diver.
However, warranties on the component parts (LEDs, chassis and controllers) may vary, and the risk of damage during installation or in the course of regular maintenance by a diver or a boatyard pressure-washer is a concern. If installed per the manufacturer’s recommendations, even a DIY project should not void the warranty, but be sure to check on that. The industry standard warranty tends to be two years for surface-mounted lights and three years for through-hull lights.
Today, sophisticated lighting effects are reaching down to boats less than 30 feet. Once the realm of superyachts and sportfishers, underwater lights are infiltrating all segments of the market as smaller, more purpose-built vessels — think center console fishing boats and runabouts — get into the game.
Surface-mounted lights are finding their way onto pontoon boats whose owners want to create their own nighttime party ambiance. Polymer housings are ideal for the aluminum tritoons that are the fastest-growing segment of the boating market.
“Our SeaBlaze Mini Spectrum lights can be mounted with the cord coming out the side (not through the hull) so they can be mounted on pontoons in various ways,” Kujawa said.
Even towboat manufacturers are taking an interest. Due to limited time to practice, wakesurfers for example, will go out after work and run in the dark, and because they surf so close to the boat, lights are a necessity. OceanLED’s Deheer agrees that the market has gone from “Why do I need those?” to “I want those.”
Not only have underwater lights proliferated into new segments of the market, they have also multiplied per vessel. It’s not unusual today to see a 70-footer showcase six to eight lights. The aftermarket for retrofits is growing, too, as boaters get lighting envy.
Pimp your Ride
The underwater lights of 20 years ago may have been underwhelming but much has changed. Now the customer has become more educated and therefore more discerning, and boaters know there are a few things to sort through. When adding or replacing lights, the first thing to decide is how sophisticated the lighting needs to be. Most companies offer product families according to functionality and price, to make it easier to choose. “We have three series based on color,” said Lumishore’s James. “Ora is single color, SUPRA is dual and the EOS is our full-color-spectrum line of lights.”
After that, it’s just a matter of figuring out how many, where to put them, and who will install them. And then, it’s party time.
To the Web
UnderwaterLightsUSA.com (Sea Vision)