Outdoor Articles

Incandescent vs. LED – Not All Trailer Lights Are Created Equally

by Pursue The Outdoors on July 20th, 2005 in General Boating

The lights on boat trailers take a lot of abuse. They are exposed to the elements, regularly submerged in fresh water and saltwater, and subjected to bad roads and rough boat ramps. It’s not unusual for lenses to crack and break or for lights to burn out.

When replacing or repairing trailer lights, it’s important for boat owners to remember that not all trailer lights are created equally – particularly when comparing standard incandescent lights to the newer light emitting diode (LED) lights that are available today.

ShoreLand’r, a leading manufacturer of boat trailers, has researched the advantages and disadvantages of both technologies and offers consumers these insights and suggestions when purchasing a new trailer or replacement lights for an existing trailer.

All vehicle and trailer lights have to meet minimum standards for light intensity, direction and reflectivity as outlined by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 and administered by the Department of Transportation (DOT). They also must have the ability to withstand environmental elements such as dust, moisture, corrosion and vibration. Most of the leading light manufacturers have had years to develop incandescent lights that meet these standards. However, this does not apply to LED lights and not all the new LED trailer lights offered today meet the DOT standard.


“ShoreLand’r is closely watching LED light technology and we’re waiting for the DOT to establish specific standards for LEDs,” says Butch Williams, ShoreLand’r sales representative. “Currently, the LED lights that match or exceed the quality and performance of incandescent lights are significantly more expensive.” There are high quality LED lights designed for use on boat trailers, but they are more expensive and customers typically do not want to pay the additional cost to have them installed. Many LED replacement lights fail to meet the DOT standards and could result in unsafe operation of the trailer. The safety and reliability of an LED lamp depends on the type of diode and the hermetic seal used in the manufacture of the lamp. A higher number of diodes will not necessarily result in a brighter light output, but the number of diodes combined with the lens optics work together to assure the proper light output at the proper direction.

Several LED lighting manufacturers design their lamps to exceed minimum standards by 25 percent for safety reasons during real world use when dust and grime on the lens can significantly affect light performance. Lens design is another issue that is just as important as the LED used because an LED diode is directional, like a headlight beam of a car. The light output must be directed by the optic design of the lens to cover all the zones required by law.

In order for LEDs to work properly in a marine environment, the diodes must be hermetically sealed from the elements and this can be accomplished by several methods. The most reliable method is to encapsulate the circuit board and LED diodes in a potting material that is impervious to the marine environment. Even the sealing techniques used in sealed incandescent lamps do not ensure a hermetic seal capable of matching the life expectancy of an LED lamp.

The long life expectancy of an LED lamp means that better technology and greater care must be taken during the design and production of the lamp. This translates into a higher initial cost but lower replacement costs over the life of the trailer. Remember that just like a sealed incandescent lamp, the entire sealed LED lamp must be replaced if there is a problem with the unit, and the replacement cost is much higher than an incandescent lamp. For these reasons, it is important to choose an LED lamp that is built to the most severe standards. Do not assume all LED lamps are equal.

There are some distinct advantages to LED lights such as lower amperage draw, instant-on capability for quicker reaction time and the ability to integrate features like flash, strobe and synchronization without any external switching systems. However, the trailer experts at ShoreLand’r point out that the advancement from incandescent to LED diodes is a huge leap in technology that is similar to going from analog to digital. Adapting the application of LEDs to boat trailers will take more time and study to perfect. “Boat owners will benefit from LED technology in the near future, but they should be very cautious about replacing their current incandescent trailer lights until these issues are resolved,” says Williams.

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