LED lighting has become a hot topic among boaters, and with good reason. Although they got off to a rocky start, LEDs now offer performance and efficiency old style incandescent lamps simply can’t match. LEDs last longer, use far less energy, can handle tough operating conditions, and are so versatile there are few onboard applications they can’t be adapted to. LEDs also offer the ability to produce some impressive customizations that formerly were either just to expensive to justify, or consumed too much power to make practical. Underwater hull lighting and colored topside illumination effects are the main customizations that come to mind and both have become extremely popular over the last five years in large part due to the availability of effective and practical LED fixture options.
LEDs are also gaining popularity due to their ability to improve the safety of offshore travel as well as time spent anchored for long periods. LED navigation lighting offers reliability and durability far exceeding that of incandescent navigation lighting, and LED anchor and masthead lights provide power and efficiency that makes weekends spent anchored in your favorite cove more secure and less costly. Whereas before boaters had to find creative ways to run anchor lighting all night without draining battery supplies, which usually meant running noisy generators, LEDs offer a solution that provides a powerful beacon that practically sips on battery reserves rather than draining them to exhaustion.
All of these items and more make LEDs highly attractive to boaters looking to increase performance and efficiency, which although great, overshadows some of the less glamorous but no less important aspects of onboard lighting. Although onboard lighting aside from navigation lighting is often considered a luxury item and used sparingly, some types of lighting have a much more critical nature that is very easy to overlook. Near the top of this list of less considered lighting is engine room illumination.
Typical engine room lighting is at best meager. The engine room receives much less traffic and attention than other areas, and unless maintenance or repairs are being performed, is out of sight and out of mind. This is unfortunate because the engine room is probably the most critical location onboard any engine powered boat, and numerous potentially hazardous issues can arise there in astonishingly short order, and with catastrophic results. Perhaps one of the most dreaded issues that can arise is a fire, but did you know that your engine is also a potential source of major explosions as well?
Illuminating the engine room poses two main issues that should be addressed if safety and effectiveness is to be effectively maintained including adequate light levels and ignition protection. Most engine room lighting consists of one or two factory installed fixtures that at best provide just enough illumination to prevent tripping or stepping on strainers, but hardly enough to do anything more involved such as repairs. Most boaters rely on a portable source of illumination in the case of repairs and maintenance, and with good reason. In most instances, repairs and maintenance can take a very long time to perform, and running a set of bright lights for several hours continuously is almost guaranteed to drain a modest battery bank rather quickly. As a result, most boaters ignore the factory installed fixtures and simply run a drop light or portable light when working in the engine room.
The other issue is far more serious than simple illumination and energy use, and it revolves around preventing the creation of a potential ignition source. It’s common knowledge that gasoline is flammable, and pretty clear that even the fumes from gasoline can be ignited. As a result, we generally know enough to not smoke or create and open flame when gasoline is nearby. What many people don’t realize though is that just about any electrical device also represents a potential source of ignition, just like an open flame. Light switches, the sparks created within a loose fitting lamp socket, and even a hot exposed light bulb all have the ability to ignite flammable gases and vapors. Now imagine that you’re well offshore and your engine has just quit running because a fuel line has ruptured, or perhaps a fuel rail has sprung a serious leak. You go down into the engine room to check out the problem, and the first thing you are inclined to do upon entering is either flick on the light switch, or switch on your flashlight. When you click one of those switches, you create a small spark between the electrical contacts, and if the room is saturated with flammable gas fumes, just imagine what could happen next.
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