Being frequent boondockers, (for the uninitiated, that’s camping off the grid without hook-ups, usually in beautiful, remote locations), we’re always looking for ways to conserve resources. Even though our RV came equipped with some fairly energy-efficient fluorescent lighting, 12V LED lights for RVs are the reigning champs of miserly power consumption. They use about a third of the power of fluorescents, and a tiny fraction of incandescent or halogen lighting.
Besides saving power, LEDs produce far less heat than other types of lighting. So, there came a time when we realized that fully switching every light in our entire RV to LEDs would benefit us tremendously. We did just that, and we learned a lot along the way.
This guide (along with the YouTube videos included with it) will share what we learned with any of you who may have an interest in converting to 12-volt LED lights for RVs.
We hope this guide lights the way for you when you’re ready to upgrade!
- 1) What Are LED Lights and How Are They Different?
- 2) How Do LEDs Benefit RVers?
- 3) Do LED Lights Come in Different Color Tones?
- 4) Where Can I Buy 12 Volt LED Lights for My RV?
- 5) Incandescent and Halogen
- 6) Fluorescent Tubes
- 7) Docking and Patio Lights
- 8) Security, Entry, and Reading Lights
- 9) Basement and Utility Lights
- 10) RV Headlights
- 11) Increasing Exterior Visibility
- 12) LED Review
What Are LED Lights and How Are They Different?
“LED” stands for “light-emitting diode”. With an LED light, an electrical current passes through a microchip, illuminating the LEDs to produce the light.
LED lights are different from the incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen lights often found in RVs in a number of ways. LEDs are more efficient and more durable (they last longer). And because they’re directional, they emit light in a specific direction (i.e. toward where you need it) rather than emitting light in all directions. That trait, along with radiating very little heat, is a key to their efficiency.
You can learn much more about RV LED lights, including information from our comparison chart, in our post entitled, “RV LED Lights Technology: Everything You Need to Know”.
How Do LEDs Benefit RVers?
As all boondockers know, conserving power when you’re off the grid is an essential part of the experience. The more energy you can conserve, the more freedom you have to camp anywhere for long periods of time.
And even if you’re not an avid boondocker like we are, you may overnight here and there without being connected to shore power. And you certainly don’t want your RV lighting to suck up more power than necessary. That can leave you without enough to power other amenities like your water pump or vent fans… or having to run a generator to juice things back up.
LED lights are up to 90% more efficient than incandescent light bulbs. They not only use far less power but stay far cooler. That means that when you’re camping in the summer heat, your lights aren’t increasing the temperature in your rig (as much)…IF you have LED lights.
And again, properly designed LED lights last a lot longer than any conventional light bulb. This is because with sufficient heat sinks to provide correct thermal management, LEDs won’t overheat and burn out prematurely, greatly increasing their lifespan.
These are the main reasons why one of the first upgrades many RVers make is the switch to LEDs throughout the rig. Converting to low-power 12 volt LED lights conserves energy, reduces heat, and leaves more power available for your other systems and appliances.
Do LED Lights Come in Different Color Tones?
LEDs are available in a range of colors from cool to warm, which are listed as “K” ratings. These refer to the color temperature of the light in degrees Kelvin.
We suggest considering “natural” or “warm” color LEDs (in the lower Kelvin temperature range), as very cool-color LED light (confusingly, higher K) is similar to very cool fluorescent light in that it can make your RV too bright white (with a blue cast, like a laboratory). Since “warm” LEDs do tend to be a little “yellower” we’ve equipped the vast majority of our RV with “natural” LEDs (which are more like natural daylight white) and think they’re perfect for almost everything. Nice bright light. Perfect daylight color.
The general range of color runs from about 6,000 – 7,000 K (very cold blue cast) to about 2,500 – 3,500 K, which is much warmer and has a yellow cast similar to traditional incandescent light. If you think you’d like something in between, 3500 – 4500 K has a warmth that isn’t too yellow in color and is closer to natural daylight. Again, those “natural” color LEDs are our personal choice, so we bet you’d like them, too.
Where Can I Buy 12 Volt LED Lights for My RV?
Before finding a truly superior brand of LEDs, we tried (like many other RVers), the discount ones commonly found in many places online. But they have cheap electronics and heat sinks, making them prone to failure, or even heating up enough to risk causing a fire. And, due to cheaper manufacturing standards and less quality control, we found that the light color they reported often didn’t match our expectations (with some even having a greenish cast… YUCK!).
When we decided to upgrade to LEDs, we did quite a bit of experimenting. The process of converting our RV’s halogen, incandescent, and fluorescent lighting to LEDs was frustrating because options for LED color and brightness can be confusing. And the quality was a crapshoot.
Many suppliers don’t accurately convey the information you need to choose the color temperature and brightness you want, so we ended up spending unnecessary time and money ordering various options online.
One day, on an iRV2 discussion forum, we read some rave reviews about an LED provider called M4 Products. We took a look at their website and found the information to be very thorough. We asked some questions, and the owner’s fast, detailed responses left us confident that M4’s lights would be the color and brightness we wanted, along with being higher quality than others we’d tried.
After way too much trial & error, we decided to buy some LEDs from M4, and it was hands down the best experience we’d had. We happened to be heading toward southern California, where M4 is located, so we made an appointment to stop by to see about upgrading more of our lights. We learned that M4’s owner, Steve, is a fellow RVer, which explained why he’d understood our questions and concerns so well when we initially reached out to him.
We found Steve to be incredibly knowledgeable about LED applications for RVs, and the quality of his products was obvious. He’s also such a great guy that over the years we’ve become close friends with him, his wife Terri, and their two sons. But the initial source of that friendship was the quality of his lights and the way he treats his customers. Providing a seriously superior product, and being a seriously decent person, are both key qualities for a successful business.
We’ve looked at and tried our fair share of LED bulbs from various sources. M4 LEDs are by far the best quality and value we’ve found. You can visit the website of M4 Products and take a look around.
Steve offers a special discount for RVgeeks readers, where you’ll save 5% on your entire order using this discount code:
We’ve replaced virtually all of the incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen bulbs in our RV with high-quality M4 LEDs. In addition to the power savings while dry camping, we haven't had a single...Show More
We’ve replaced virtually all of the incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen bulbs in our RV with high-quality M4 LEDs. In addition to the power savings while dry camping, we haven't had a single LED bulb fail since upgrading.
Use the discount code listed here to save 5% on your entire order!Show Less
Meanwhile, we’ll take you on a tour of our LED lighting upgrades.
If you’ve been wanting to make the switch to LEDs, check out the included videos to see if you’d feel comfortable doing the upgrades yourself as a DIY project. Again, it’s easy (most lights are simply plug-in replacements).
But some, particularly the fluorescent upgrades, require some wiring. Although it’s only 12-volts, we recognize that not everyone is comfortable working with electricity.
You won’t need a lot of fancy tools for these projects – just your new LEDs. It’s always good to have a quality digital handheld multimeter around when you’re working with electricity. They can measure both AC and DC current and are great for all sorts of projects at home AND on RVs, boats, and vehicles.
Something like this would be perfect:
- Measures both ac & dc current up to 400 amps, ideal for vehicles, rvs, marine boats & etc
- Ac/dc voltage, current, resistance, frequency, continuity, duty cycle & diode check
Incandescent and Halogen
Our first lighting upgrade was to replace our RV’s incandescent & halogen bulbs with LEDs. This is a very easy project, since most of them are just plugin replacements.
In this video, we show you how to choose bulb sizes, colors, and brightness to match or improve your existing lights while using a fraction of the power.
After we posted the video above, we received a lot of questions from viewers, all of which we were happy to answer. In our next video, we focused on LED color and brightness in response to many questions on this topic, and we provided additional details about the exact choices we made regarding color temperature, brightness, and style of LEDs.
Also in this video, as we upgraded our wedge-based incandescents and pin-based halogens, we included a demonstration of the differences in LED colors so that you can see them for yourself.
In this next video, we’ll show you how we originally converted our RV’s fluorescent bulbs to LEDs. This is another easy DIY project, and we’ll show you the steps required to convert 18” fluorescent tubes to elegant new LEDs.
Originally, we had converted our fluorescent tubes to LEDs by using adhesive strip lights. It’s an economical way to upgrade the tubes to LEDs because the strip lights were relatively inexpensive. But it wasn’t without its issues, due to problems with the connectors that attach the strips to the light’s wiring, poor quality adhesive that allows the strips to come loose from their mounting point, and more.
But once we visited M4 Products and saw what they had to offer, we decided to opt for their high-quality LED tubes with robust aluminum heat sinks and high-end electronics – and boy, are we glad we did.
18″ fluorescent fixtures are upgraded to M4 LEDs in a different way than 12″ fixtures are, so we created a separate video all about How to Convert a 12″ Fluorescent Fixture to LED, which you can view below. Because the 12” LED tube lights are smaller, they don’t have room to house the necessary electronics, so there are a few additional steps to get them taken care of and properly installed. Again, it’s not hard, it’s just a little bit different.
Docking and Patio Lights
Because LEDs are much brighter, while only using ¼ to ⅛ of the power of incandescent exterior RV lights, we decided to replace our RV’s docking and patio lights with cool, bright, low-power LEDs.
We chose to do this because we love boondocking, where we not only have no access to an external source of electricity for our RV, but there’s also no external source of outdoor lighting. So, we wanted LED lights in order to provide plenty of exterior light (to combat the darkness, when needed) while also using as little power as possible.
In this video, we’ll show you how easy it was to upgrade our incandescent patio and docking lights to LEDs.
Important Note: while increasing the brightness & amount of light your exterior lights provide can be a huge benefit when RVing in remote and very dark locations, please use this new power wisely. Be considerate of others who may be near you. Many people boondock to ENJOY the dark and to appreciate the night sky. But even when you’re not out in the boonies, having bright lights that are shining on neighboring RVs (especially if you leave them on all night) can be rude.
Security, Entry, and Reading Lights
Next, we replaced our security, step well (entry), and reading lights.
We’ve already talked about the fact that LEDs are famous for their energy efficiency, and these are certainly no exception. But other factors, including heat output, are at least as important as power consumption.
For example, you’d think a simple reading light wouldn’t draw much power or produce much heat. But if you decide to read a book in bed on a hot summer night, you’ll realize that the heat really pours off of traditional bulbs.
That said, if you look at a single bulb from a power and heat perspective, you might not think it’s worth the upgrade to LED. Let’s take the little incandescent light in our step well, for instance. That bulb alone wouldn’t present much of an issue for either heat or power.
But when you add up the power consumption and heat output of all the traditional bulbs onboard a typical RV, you’ll find that you’re reducing both heat and your overall power draw substantially by upgrading them to LEDs.
So, in this video, you’ll find us upgrading our security, entry, and reading lights… so that whether we need lots of bright light outside, are coming back to the rig at night, or we’re reading a book, we use as little power and generate as little heat as possible.
Basement and Utility Lights
After we’d upgraded much of our motorhome’s lighting to LEDs, we realized that we’d neglected to upgrade the lights in our basement compartments.
Natural White is generally our bulb color of choice in the living area, but for work areas, we prefer Cool White. It’s much brighter than the old incandescent bulbs, which is very helpful in a work area, and the LEDs use a fraction of the power.
Appreciating the brightness of the LEDs and the reduction in power consumption, we also upgraded the lights in both our engine and generator compartments. While we were shopping on the M4 website, we also spotted a sleek LED fixture that was just the ticket for pumping up the poor light level in our bedroom closet. This larger, brighter fixture has made a world of difference.
Here’s our video demonstrating all of these upgrades:
We generally prefer to drive during the day, but our schedule sometimes dictates staying on the road after dark, especially during the winter when the sun sets so early. We’d been very unhappy with the performance of our stock halogen headlights for a long time, so when M4 started offering LED headlights, we jumped at the opportunity.
As you’ll see in the video, these LEDs are almost as easy to install as direct incandescent replacement bulbs, but with light output similar to HIDs. Our experience with these LED headlights has been fantastic – so good, in fact, that we decided to also upgrade the headlights of our Honda, too!
Here we swap out our RV’s headlights for some fantastic new M4 LEDs:
Please Note: changing the style/technology of your headlight bulbs can result in a light pattern that can blind oncoming drivers, which you DEFINITELY want to avoid. Be sure to check the pattern of light your headlights produce when using LED bulbs, and adjust their alignment as necessary to keep them functioning properly. In our case, our light pattern was still fine after upgrading (and improvements in new LED headlight upgrades are continuing to improve this aspect), but don’t just put the new bulbs in and drive away. Some fine-tuning may be required.
Increasing Exterior Visibility
When we began upgrading our lights to LEDs, we started with the lights we used the most, and we made the switch primarily for power savings and heat reduction. Once we’d experienced the differences, we continued by replacing all of our incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent bulbs with cool, modern, energy-efficient LEDs.
Next in the upgrade process, we targeted visibility – how well we can see, and how well we can be seen by others while on the road.
For a review of the benefits of 12-volt LED lights for RVs, have a glance at our post, “What Are RV LED Lights?”, and feel free to drop your comments and questions in the comments section below!
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