LED lights

My short time in my alter-identity of TBM ended with a sputter on Sunday.  The prior two weeks had vanished in a series of indistinguishable work days, in identical 100+ degree temperatures, and the primary variation most days was the choice of evening entertainment.  There were quite a few torn movie stubs on the counter by the end of the period.

I made on last attempt to seek out something worth of a Tucsonian bachelor hero, with a second “annual” Sonoran hot dog test.  Alas, as it turns out Sunday is not a good day for Sonoran dogs in Tucson.  The mobile food trucks which normally can be found on every major boulevard hawking these beloved examples of Tucson’s primary contribution to the culinary arts, were notably absent on Sunday.  I found just one: El Sinaloense, working in a vacant lot along Alvernon between Pima and Speedway.

For $3.50 I got a very nice variation on the classic bacon-wrapped Sonoran dog, with a nicer bun (a little flaky, like a muffin) and a bacon-wrapped pepper on the side, plus a Mexican soda, served in the ultra-casual environment of a plastic chair in a dirt lot.  No pretense here; the “atmosphere” of the restaurant is just plain atmosphere, the kind that we all breathe every day.  I like that because (a) it’s a uniquely southern Arizonan experience to eat a bacon-wrapped hot dog under a tent when it’s 105 degrees, and (b) there are no poseurs just hanging around because it’s a place to be seen by others.  There’s a sort of clarity of purpose in that.  You go for the food.

I did try a second local establishment, whose name I will withhold because despite a decades-long reputation the “famous” chili dog I was served was horribly disappointing.  From a look and taste of the product I would say that the old chili dog has met its superior in the Sonoran dog, and it won’t be long before the chili dog has to step up its game or go extinct in Tucson.

That was it. I sadly packed away my TBM suit with the symbolic ying-yang, wrist protectors, and ever-flaming torch (the latter item quite hard to pack, by the way), closed up the house and boarded an early flight back northeast on Monday.  Time to shift gears again.

This week is all about enjoying a last few days of Vermont summer and prepping the Airstream to hit the road.  Older brother and I took apart the rear of the BMW motorcycle and replaced the chain and sprockets on Tuesday, had lunch on the deck and looked at the beautiful lake & mountains, then we took Emma out on the boat to watch the fireworks from Burlington harbor in the evening.  It’s about a ten mile trip via boat across the deep dark waters of Lake Champlain.  Last night the water was smooth and warm, and twinkling with the red/green nav lights of hundreds of other boats that came up the lake to do the same thing.

Today we are going to see the 4th of July parade with some friends up in the small town of Bristol, and this afternoon Emma will go sailing, and maybe Steve & I will take a little motorcycle tour under the green trees that line the rural roads.  Everything we’re doing feels like a very northeastern summer thing to do, so despite the very short visit up here I think I’m getting a full dose of the necessary vaccination against the hot southwestern summer that still lies ahead for us.

As part of our Airstream prep I installed a bunch of new LED replacements for the standard bulbs that came with our 2005 Airstream.  I have wanted to do this a long time, since lights are huge power consumers in our trailer and we’re always operating in dim light to save power when we are camped without hookups.  This trailer has 27 individual lights in it (not counting the refrigerator or stove light, or any of the compartment lights), each one either incandescent or halogen, and if we turned them all on at once they would consume something like 40 amps of power, which is huge.  Even our large Lifeline GPL-4D battery with 210 amp-hour capacity would be drained in an evening if we dared turn on all the lights.  So most of the time we restrict ourselves to just a few crucial lights, and so the trailer tends to look like a cave in these situations.

I have been slowly experimenting with different LED solutions over the past two years, installing various LED “pads” and bulb replacements in different color temperatures to try to find the best for our situation.  Quite a few of them were disappointing, either for poor light output or inconsistent color (some looked greenish or bluish).  A few were defective, and I returned them.  None were particularly impressive.

Recently I bought a bunch of newer bulb replacements from LED4RV, which is run by a guy named Dan Brown.  These were different from the ones I’d tried before. Instead of individual LED bulbs mounted on a single pad or cylinder, the new models used Surface Mount Device (SMD) type LEDs, which appear as small yellow squares when the light is off.  The SMDs put out more light with fewer LEDs, so don’t just buy the bulb that has the most LEDs and assume it’s the brightest.  Dan provides a little chart to compare the lumen output of each bulb.

After some experimenting, the choice was clear.  For the big double light fixtures that are mounted on our ceiling, Dan’s “1156 Bright White 18 SMD LED cluster bulb” is perfect.  The color temperature is just slightly cooler than the incandescent bulbs it replaced, so no weird blue/green color like a fluorescent.  A pair of these use 12% of the electricity of the hot incandescent bulbs and put out nearly the same amount of light.

For the swiveling halogen reading lamps, we used the “12 LED Warm White Reading Spot” (G4 style).  In these light fixtures the lens is clearer than the overhead lights, so a bit of warmness in the color temperature helped.  These lights were incredibly bright and really output more of a flood than a spot of light.  They’re great in the dining area but by the bed they’re really almost too bright and I may replace those later with the 9 LED version.

The power savings is incredible.  The draw of these lights has been reduced from amps to milliamps, as measured by the Tri-Metric amp-hour meter installed in our Airstream. We can use twenty of our new lights on roughly the same power budget as three of the incandescent bulbs.

The only catch is the high cost of LEDs.  These lights were about 15 bucks each, which really adds up when you’re trying to replace 27 lights.  To economize, we focused on the lights we use the most, and in some cases we only replaced one side of a two-bulb fixture.  When trying to conserve power we can turn on only the side that holds the LED bulb.

Even considering the cost of LEDs, they are a relatively cheap solution to the power problem.  You can do very well simply by adding battery capacity and swapping out your lights for LEDs.  With those choices you can reduce the power demand of your lights by nearly 90% and perhaps double your power supply, which translates to extra days of boondocking capability for a few hundred dollars. That’s less than a quiet generator or solar panels, and it’s a solution that always works regardless of sunshine or fuel supply, so it’s a very sensible option for occasional boondockers.

I should also mention that these days Airstream has, uh, seen the light, and their new trailers come with a lot more LEDs than ever before.  It’s just those of us who own older models that need to make the upgrade.  Based on the success of the lights we have installed so far, I’ll probably go ahead and buy eight or nine more of the bulbs later this year.

That’s not our only Airstream job this week.  Our plan is to launch the Airstream on Friday, which means part of today and all of tomorrow will be dedicated to getting road-worthy again.  Eleanor and I need to glue a patch onto the awning where carpenter ants chewed a hole in it last year, I need to clean the roof again, and there’s plenty of re-packing to do.  Our trip plan is vague but we know we have to get back across the country by July 17, so we’ve got to get moving.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine