Cabin lighting gets overlooked in most retrofitting. Unfortunately many older boats have energy-hungry incandescent fixtures, while high-consuming fixtures can even be found on newer boats. Proper cabin lighting will not only save on the power drain, but make onboard work and play all the more enjoyable.
Different cabin areas require distinct types of lighting. This is especially true with liveaboard boats in which it is not at all uncommon for owners to more than double the existing number of fixtures to adequately light below. And while the price of the fixtures is a primary concern, the cost of replacement parts and the amount of 12-volt power consumed are also significant considerations of the renovation equation.
Incandescent lights, such as a common dome light, can be valuable for general-purpose illumination of large areas. These fixtures are inexpensive and widely available in brass, stainless steel, and aluminum. Many of these incandescent fixtures use as much as 25 watts, which is high for the amount of light they provide. Replacement bulbs are easy to find, being sold at any automotive store.
Work areas below need to be flooded with light. The galley, nav area, and engine room, for example, are three places where detail work—sometimes combined with aging eyes—makes lighting especially important. Rather than add a number of incandescent lights in these places, fluorescent fixtures make much more sense. They flood work areas with more useable illumination, while drawing as little as eight watts in the process. The cost of fluorescent fixtures varies widely depending on the features offered. Be especially careful to choose ones that are fully radio-suppressed; inexpensive units can cause annoying "electronic noise" that may have surprising effects. We had a fluorescent light that randomly turned our VCR on and off and switched the TV channels. Replacement bulbs for fluorescent lights are fairly easy to find. They are, however, difficult to store without breakage.
Many head compartments have inadequate light for shaving, applying make-up or performing minor first aid. Placing lights around or above mirrors can double the amount of illumination.
Reading usually requires a very bright white light concentrated in a small area. While incandescent and fluorescent fixtures can accomplish this, small halogen spotlights are perfect for this usage. Many draw as little as five watts. These fixtures are available in flush- or surface-mounts and a wide array of colors and styles. Remember that halogen bulbs are destroyed when handled by bare hands. These bulbs have a relatively long life, but are generally expensive and replacements are sometimes difficult to find. The newer Xelogen bulbs have up to 10 times longer life but are proportionately more difficult to find.
Some lamps can be converted into dual-purpose lights with the simple addition of a 12-volt rheostat. The light can be turned up to full brightness for reading or playing cards, and turned down at infinite increments for general-purpose lighting. This idea has gained so much ground that several companies offer standard fixtures with a built-in dimmer switch. You can often save money by replacing two fixtures with one. And they use less power when they are dimmed.
Incandescent and halogen fixtures are available in numerous styles that can accent and beautify the cabin décor while at the same time being functional. European styling or traditional brass lamps can be mixed or matched with units decorated with shades or stained-glass diffusers. Old-fashioned bulkhead and pin-up lights with colored or frosted globes add flair to a cabin. Overhead lights are available with teak trim and a variety of attractive diffusers.
Adjustable spot-illumination lights on flexible necks that can be adjusted to point exactly where needed are often sold as chart-table lights. But these lights can also be useful in the engine room or over the refrigerator box, too.
Specialty lights can have great utility. For only a few milliwatts of consumption, small LED units give dim illumination to an otherwise potentially dangerous companionway area. Very low-powered night-lights with red lenses prevent tripping in the dark without producing night blindness. Courtesy lights with strategically placed switches will prevent many a stubbed toe. Automotive-type door-frame switches are easy to install so that locker lights turn on automatically when the door is opened.
Rail lights, available in incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent models, can add mood lighting to the saloon, especially if it is paneled in dark teak, for example. Rail lights make a handsome presentation when hidden behind valances. On a fancier level, fluorescent lighting behind glass cabinet doors is attractive also provides area illumination.
For a modest investment in time and money, both work and play on board can be greatly enhanced by better lighting—and with the bonus of reducing power consumption.