LEDs have been around for over 50 years, and in that time they have been subjected to a somewhat erratic and intermittent development curve. The period during which the creation and development of LEDs originally took place was a time of plentiful and cheap fuels and electrical power, and high electrical efficiency was a relatively unimportant aspect of energy use. For the most part, lighting has been dominated by the cheap and easy to produce incandescent bulb. Although extremely inefficient and short lived, the cheapness and effectiveness of incandescent bulbs coupled with the then low cost of energy made them well suited for their time period. LEDs saw very slow development and advancement as a result, and were relegated to minor applications such as indicator lighting on appliances or pocket calculators.
By the 1970's however, the energy landscape began a dramatic shift which saw massive increases in the cost of fossil fuels and a matching increase in the cost to produce electrical power. In very short order, the importance of energy efficiency and conservation began to take center stage, and developers of electrically powered devices began a shift towards development of products which could utilize energy more efficiently. This was very apparent in the appliance, air conditioning, and industrial manufacturing markets as manufacturers began turning out products which touted their improved efficiency over older designs as a selling point.
One area where energy efficient technological development lagged however was the lighting industry. Although more efficient fluorescent lamps began to rise to prominence during the 1970's, their odd design and higher cost limited their practicality, with the biggest areas of use being within the commercial and industrial markets. By the 1980's, it became clear that lighting efficiency was lagging far behind most other forms of electrical technologies, and some type of more effective lighting technology was needed. It is at this point that development of the LED began again in earnest, although during the period of the 1960's through early 1980's LED development did see some significant improvements, most notably in the ability to produce white light output LEDs and better semi conducting materials with which to manufacture LEDs.
By the mid to late 1990's LEDs were becoming available which could fill a variety of general illumination applications effectively. One of the applications where LEDs began to meet with great success was in boat lighting. With their very high efficiency and cool operation, LEDs were a natural fit for use onboard boats where power is limited and maintaining safe battery power reserves critical. LEDs offered the ability to provide illumination while cutting onboard energy use by up to two thirds. There were some problems however, the most significant of which included poor light quality and proper installation. Although LEDs in the 1990's were now more powerful and able to produce white colored light, the light tended to be rather cold in appearance, and since LEDs require precise voltage levels to operate properly, boaters had to figure out how to install the proper circuitry to maintain safe voltage levels.
By 2005 most of the problems with LEDs had been addressed well enough to allow LED boat lights to surpass incandescent bulbs by almost every measure of performance. Light quality was now manageable and LEDs became available in cool white, warm white and natural white color temperatures in much the same way as fluorescent lamps. LED boat light manufacturers began including built in voltage regulating circuitry which allowed LED fixtures to be run from a variety of power sources including both common 12 and 24 volt systems without any worries of uneven voltages or spikes damaging the lamps. Output power for LEDs was up as well, with LEDs now able to fill almost any role onboard a boat be it cabin lighting or exterior spotlight applications with great effectiveness.
Now in 2012, we are seeing LEDs being included as standard equipment on many new boat models. This progression from relative obscurity to becoming the expected dominant form of boat lighting can be traced almost entirely to the rising costs of energy and the need for efficiency, and the almost ideal fit LEDs offer with boating applications. LEDs can lower the electrical power used by lighting by up to 80%, which on a boat is an almost magical improvement. Where boaters once had to ration the use of onboard lighting in order to preserve battery reserves and keep fuel consumption down, they can now run lights for extended periods without any excessive power drain.
LEDs offer boaters added benefits as well which are directly related to the unique conditions lighting equipment on boats face in a marine environment. Unlike incandescent bulbs, LEDs have no filament or glass bulb in their design, giving them durability far beyond that of any traditional lamp. The heavy vibrations and repeated impacts boats are often subjected to under rough ocean conditions can work to significantly lower the life expectancy of a typical incandescent bulb, often resulting in outright lamp failures as fragile filaments break under the heavy stress. Since LEDs are solid state in design, meaning they resemble a transistor more than they do a light bulb, they are much better able to withstand abuse without any notable negative effects.
Although LEDs are still more expensive to purchase than incandescent bulbs, they have a life expectancy far outstripping that of their glass and filament counterparts. While a typical incandescent bulb may last 1,000 to 2000 hours, an LED can easily operate for 25,000 to 50,000 hours on average. This extremely long operational life means an LED will last for up to a decade on a boat in some cases before it needs replacing. The obvious result here is that although an LED may cost more initially, it will pay for itself with extremely long life and far fewer lamp replacements.
Although it took decades for LED development to truly begin moving ahead after their initial creation, added impetus from increasing energy costs and a good performance match with marine applications helped to reignite interest in their use. When matched with boating installations, LEDs prove just how effective and practical their use can be, and show beyond any doubt just how capable they are of eventually replacing the soon to be obsolete incandescent light bulb.
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