Retrofitting LED bulbs into your navigation lights are unsafe, illegal.
LEDs might be a cost-efficient light source, but think twice before you simply replace your boat’s carefully certified and tested navigation light with an LED bulb – the consequences of which could be serious, or even fatal. Leisure Boating explains.
We all know the benefits of LED lights – they possess fantastic power-saving and longevity qualities – and it’s easy to see why some boat owners replace traditional navigation light bulbs with the LEDs. However, doing so can infringe the fixture’s certifications. This can have serious consequences, as International Navigation Rules as well as local authority SAMSA (South African Maritime Safety Authority) are patrolling this issue.
A recent article from the Martin Flory Group (a US media resource site) suggests that in tough economical times, some boat owners are constantly looking for ways to save costs and even the standard light bulbs in a boat’s navigation lights are being replaced by a more cost-efficient alternative.
According to close sources within the industry, Leisure Boating has learnt that several boat owners have, or are attempting to do the same thing without realising the severe impact such a seemingly insignificant change can have, even life-threatening!
“A certified navigation light fixture is a combination of a specific lens, a specific bulb and the necessary foundation and wiring. The boat owner or operator must ensure that when bulb replacement is necessary, only the original type of bulb is used”, said Phil Cappel, chief of the US Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Product Assurance Branch. “Any substitution can result in the light no longer meeting the Navigation Rule requirements”.
Alan Britz, a surveyor at the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) said that the same regime is present in South Africa. “South Africa requires that each vessel, and its equipment, is inspected annually to ensure that it’s constructed and fitted out in compliance with the Merchant Shipping Act (National Small Vessel Safety Regulations)”. Regulation 8 – Safety of Navigation requires skippers to comply with the collision regulations. These regulations ratify the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) convention of “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972”.
The technical requirements for navigation lights are clearly stipulated in this convention. These requirements include the colour of lights, arc and range of visibility, as well as the positioning of the lights, etc. “Owners who choose to substitute incandescent bulbs with light emitting diodes (LED) are no longer in compliance with the regulations, since their lights are no longer type-approved. This may result in the skipper wrongly interpreting these non-compliant navigation lights seen at sea, or on inland water, and this may lead to collisions and serious accidents,” said Alan. Industry specification and certification are in place to ensure your safety, and each detail is meticulously thought of.
Though it might seem simple, the red, white and green navigation lights are thoroughly tested for a light intensity, colour, angles of visibility, corrosion and temperature. “The lamp assemblies are designed and tested with a specific light source,” said Alan. According to the article found on Martin Flory Group news source article, accurate analysis determines if the navigation light reaches nautical mile requirements. Light output must also be sharp at the edges and smooth across the arcs of visibility. This prevents light from appearing to flash like a buoy rather than project consistently when the boat rotates and rocks. There may also be other problems that arise if the boat owner or operator replaces a bulb with one other than the original type. For instances, LEDs installed in a housing intended for a hot bulb might dim unexpectedly. Unless approved and tested by the light fixture manufacturer, LED retrofit bulbs do not belong in navigation lights.
Tampering with your navigation lights not only means flaunting the law and risking lives, but it also negatively affects insurance and liability. Navigation lights are considered life-saving devices to avoid collisions at sea and on inland water. Elton Solms of McCrystal Insurance in South Africa said that retrofitting LED bulbs into your existing navigation light housing is a violation of SAMSA regulation and “can negatively affect your insurance cover. However, negligence is often covered by your liability cover,” said Elton. The only solution for boat owners who wish to upgrade to LED navigation lights is to replace the entire assembly with a certified product. This ensures their navigation lights are safe, and legal. A wide range of replacement bulbs exist, including LED bulb conversion kits. Simply finding one that fits the fixture won’t assure the boater of a properly certified navigation light, unless the lamp manufacturer has third-party certified it for their own lamp. But the question is: is compliance with the regulations the responsibility of the bulb manufacturer or the boat operator? The latter would be the obvious choice.
“Owners who wish to take advantage of the benefits of LED navigation lights, must purchase new type-approved LED lights or type-approved LED retro-fit kits from selected boating agents,” said Alan. According to Steven Brown at Seaport Supply, he’s found that hardly any boat owners and operators would replace the port (red) starboard (green) bulbs of their navigation lights as it could hamper visibility. “Most boat owners are aware of this. They’ll mostly replace the anchor light with a LED bulb,” he said. For vessels up to 12 m, you can purchase new Festoon LED navigation light bulbs, which can cost between R80-R100 per bulb, and for vessels 20 m and up, the Bayonette LED navigation light bulbs can be purchased for between R300 and R400.