Underwater Lighting For Boats: Create An Electric Atmosphere

Bling Your Ride

Underwater lights – they just invite a party, don’t they? Most people don’t need them, but just about everybody wants them on their boat. There are three reasons to have underwater lights: nighttime fishing, safety in case of a man-overboard, and pure aesthetics. But only 30% of lights are purchased for the first two practical reasons. The other 70% are for dramatic effect. Like mag wheels for boats, underwater lights add a wow factor and bling to your ride.

LED-based underwater lighting was introduced in the 1990s. It was big, cumbersome, expensive, and by today’s standards, unimpressive. But 30 years of technological progress later, much has changed. The lights come in surface mount or thru-hull installations, are better and safer, and performance per dollar spent has increased. Let’s take a look at how things have evolved.

Today, sophisticated lighting effects are reaching down to boats under 30 feet. Once the realm of superyachts and large sportfishers, underwater lights are infiltrating all market segments as smaller, more purpose-built vessels (center console fishing boats and runabouts) get into the game. LEDs are ideal for shelf lighting, low level floor washers, and uplighters.

Underwater lights create a nighttime party ambience. Image credit: OceanLED

Surface-mounted lights are finding their way onto pontoon boats where there is a demand to create a nighttime party ambience. Plastic housings are ideal for installing aluminum tritoons that are the fastest-growing segment of the boating market.

Even towboat manufacturers are taking an interest. Due to limited time to practice, wakesurfers will go out after work and run in the dark, and because they surf so close to the boat, lights are a necessity. The market has gone from “why do I need those” to “I really want those”.

Not only have underwater lights proliferated into new segments of the market, but they have also multiplied per vessel. It’s not unusual today to see a 70-footer showcase six to eight lights. The aftermarket for retrofits is growing too as boaters are getting lighting envy.

Changes In Buyers Expectations For Underwater Boat Lights

Today’s lights flash, strobe, dim, change color and even synchronize with sound. They come in single, dual and full spectrum (RGBW) color and can change smoothly from one rich hue to another. Full RGBW color is where the upper market is, and expectations of innovation are high so lighting is dynamic and evolutionary – changing quickly like marine electronics.

Boaters like to set preprogrammed moods and themes for entertaining, effectively creating an on-the-water nightclub. And the more lights, the better. Today conversation surrounding is less focused on thru-hull lights potentially sinking the boat and more about underwater lights as mandatory equipment. The question used to be how big will the hole in the boat be for one light, to how many lights can I put in?

The underlying technology has come a long way and has contributed to boat lighting exploding popularity. Great strides have been made in the four key components of lights: housing, optics, controllers and light emitters (LEDs).

underwater lights illuminating marine life underwaterUnderwater OceanLED lights illuminating marine life 

Light Housings Options

Light housings can be made of bronze, aluminum, stainless steel, copper, polymers (plastic) or a combination of metal and polymer. They have become more compact, so they require a smaller hole and less room in the hull. Due to some canister designs, the housing may be permanently mounted in thru-hull fixtures while the guts of the light may be removed, serviced or upgraded without hauling the boat. Additionally, with a bit of bulb and system miniaturization, lighting companies have freed up real estate in the housing to add more smarts and heat dissipation features.

Advances have also been made in the reflectors and lenses that focus the light and determine the beam angle and its projection, which is how far it will reach and how even it will be. The higher the lens’s quality, the less light will be trapped in the fixture and therefore, the more efficient and brighter the light. Without optics (reflectors), companies need to push lots of power into the light, which looks good on paper with high fixture lumens but performs worse. Using an optic to focus the beam (narrower angle), the beam penetrates farther, and the light isn’t lost in deep water.

OceanLED in particular have invested a lot of time in research and development to achieve the optimum lighting effect through bespoke advanced unique optics. As well as saving them power, OceanLED’s optics contribute to delivering more sustainable products that help boaters reduce their carbon footprint.

Developments In Light Controllers

The most significant advances have been made in the light’s electronics portion and specifically in the controller. Many of the luminaires that companies like Lumitec sell have the processing power and memory of a typical personal computer just 20 years ago. Lights now have a brain and can communicate, making programming, heat monitoring, interactivity, and diagnostics easier and better.

Today’s controllers can work with the individual or simultaneous control of separate lighting zones. Lights are offered in dual colors with a dimming feature, two-speed strobe, full-power brightness and switch memory that returns the user to the last setting when the lights are turned back on. Also, most products now (whether surface mount or thru-hull) are more compact with a low profile outside the hull, reducing drag and debris snags while underway.

Bluetooth connectivity has enabled remote control of the lighting environment. If you want to manage your light display, whether customizing color sweeps, setting a mood or adding sound, you can now do so with an app on your iOS or Android tablet or smartphone. More people have had exposure to lighting control already, with RGBW strips fitted in homes so they’re more comfortable with lighting apps in general.

Light Longevity

In the power draw vs brightness equation, the evolution has been to increase the lumens per watt. A decade ago, the standard was 16 lumens/watt, and today it’s more than ten times that. Many companies are striving to increase output, and year-over-year those have been 20-50%. This drive toward constant improvement in lumens/watt, lumens/dollar and lumens/fixture ensure continual innovation as customers look for the latest.

Light longevity is less of an issue today. LED manufacturers tout 30,000 to 50,000 hours of life, translating to 10-20 years of actual use on a boat. But LEDs are tested in a lab under ideal conditions, so some underwater light manufacturers are more comfortable advertising 20,000 hours. Without question, lights are living longer and will probably outlast some of the boats they’re on.

Boat Lights: Price vs Value

With improvements in manufacturing and increases in volume, LEDs have dropped in price. Therefore, you would expect the price of underwater lights to have plummeted as well. However, LEDs are only a small part of the lights’ overall cost, which is more than offset by the cost of the evermore-sophisticated electronics and optics.

As everyone chases a lower cost per lumen, the lights are improving and therefore are not so much cheaper, as better. Today, you can purchase advanced color-changing lights for the same price of simple one-color products only a few years ago.

DIY Underwater Boat Lights

Today’s lights are easier to install, so boatyards need less time and labor to get more lights added to a hull and for those few brave individuals willing to drill holes in their hulls, it may be a do-it-yourself project too. Companies have installation guidelines that were created for boatyards, but boaters can use them also. Some templates are actual stickers, so you adhere them to the hull and then drill the holes right through the template.

As mentioned above, with today’s canister designs, most thru-hull lights may be removed, inspected and upgraded without a haul-out, saving time and money. Easy interchangeability is key to upgrading lights from the inside, and due to the fast-changing color and effect tastes, hassle-free upgrades are important. Some companies work directly with boat owners, and if a boat had their brand of thru-hull lights installed previously, they offer a discount to change out the guts but keep the canisters in place.

Also, for easy maintenance, new lens technology has incorporated better antifouling coatings that wipe clean of marine growth, so they’re less likely to be damaged by a scrubbing diver.

However, warranties on the parts (LEDs, chassis and controllers) may vary, and the risk of damage during installation or in the course of regular maintenance by a diver or a pressure washer is a concern. If installed per the manufacturer’s recommendations, even a DIY project should not void the warranty but check with the manufacturer. The standard warranty tends to be two years for surface-mounted lights and three years for thru-hull lights.

A Boatload Of Bling

When adding or replacing lights, the first thing to decide is how sophisticated the lighting needs to be. Most companies offer product families according to functionality and price to make it easier to choose. After that, it’s just a matter of figuring out how many, where to put them, and who will install them. And then it’s party time.

Underwater lights are becoming smaller, better, and brighter, so they provide you with the ability to add bling and pimp your ride.

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.


A Clean Wake Up Call
Category: Boating

Emma Coady talks to Meag Schwartz, a trailblazer in promoting the protection of our fragile coastline's...