Selecting Off Road And Camp Lighting
This is a section dedicated to looking at lighting for expedition vehicles and campers using predominantly off road vehicles and operate remotely from mains electricity, while it explores new technologies it deals mainly with current technologies.
Fuel And Gas Mantle Lights
These are the traditional lighting from years ago, and derived from the humble paraffin (kerosene) lamps which used a naked flame and a wick to provide low levels of lighting; these have now been superseded by the multi-fuel and gas lanterns. Multi-fuel lanterns use either specialised, refined petrol’s (gasoline) or ordinary fuel pump petrol’s for ease of use, and gas lanterns use either a disposable or refillable gas container to power them. These types of lights all use a mantle, with the exception of the paraffin lamp which uses a wick and it’s the mantle which causes the problem in that they are brittle and easily damaged when travelling off road in rough terrain. Two problems arise; one being the need to carry many spare mantles, the other is having the gentle touch to constantly replace mantles as they require a very delicate touch as they are so easily damaged. Glasses can also be an issue as these are delicate and easily broken or damaged, so carrying a spare glass becomes essential, as does packing the light before travelling.
Mantle lights do offer a good light output at a reasonable price and many provide a gentle source of heat when outdoors, they do not suffer too much from fairly strong winds and you do need a supply of fuel or gas to power them. As they burn at a reasonably high temperature they need time to cool, if the glass is splashed or used outside in the rain they shatter, not something you want or need.
Torches are the largest group within the outdoor lighting arena as they are the most popular, they come in a range of sizes and as rechargeable torches or dry cell torches; they can be portable and compact, or massive, and have a short range or a very long range. Many people will carry and use more than one torch or more than one type of torch if they are off-roading to meet differing requirements
Small torches offer more choices than ever before so it’s important to select the right type of small torch for your requirements, this is more important if you intend to use more than one type of size of torch. If we look at the body of the torch we see several options for materials, plastic is the most popular type as its cheap, reasonably durable, and cleans easily; but what if we need something more robust. Rubberised steel torches are a sturdier option as they combine the strength of steel and the impact resistance of the rubberised coating and if they are dented the dent is easily knocked out with basic tools. Aluminium torches have become popular with the lowering cost of aircraft grade alloys and these are also very strong, but lighter in weight than an equivalent steel torch and these are now a popular choice for buyers looking for a robust and lightweight torch. Small torches are very practical as they can be dropped into a glove box, centre console, or door pocket of a vehicle; they can also be carried in a pouch on a belt or in a pocket or ladies handbag, in short they are convenient. Small torches can be held in your mouth while repairing or examining a vehicle at night, used to light your way if you in a remote location and walk into the nearest town, or for just looking for items inside your vehicle.
Medium size torches are little more than an up-scaled small torch and are available in the same materials as smaller torches, they often use larger batteries and the larger reflectors mean a torch with a longer working range than a small torch. Medium torches come with a large range of accessories for many purposes which make them more appealing to those camping in the wilderness, they can detect dangers such as animals much earlier and they have a longer working life per set of batteries. Many medium torches offer a facility to alter the beam from a long penetrating pencil beam to a very wide angled beam and this is a very useful feature to look out for.
Large torches are merely the medium torches which are larger to accommodate larger more batteries, they often have much larger bulbs which produce more light and this gives them a longer range or a longer working life then medium torches
Spotlights are the massive torches which often use an automotive bulb as their light provider and they have a massive range when compared to a medium torch, they also have a very short working life of minutes instead of hours. Most of these massive torches rely on lead acid batteries for their power which means they are heavy and cumbersome and take up a lot of room which is often at a premium in a touring or overland vehicle. For this reason alone I would discount them unless there was a specific need for a spotlight with a range of over 500 metres.
Fluorescent lights offer a good light output for a lower power consumption than incandescent bulbs and this is a very wide light which is suitable for lighting the inside of vehicles or tents for several hours. These are fine for roof tents or awnings as they can be packed away in the vehicle when the vehicle is travelling and they are sturdy and robust, but they are mainly 12 volts and need connecting to a vehicle with cables. This can be inconvenient if you need the vehicle or have other items such as fridges competing for electrical power such as fridges, and a limited power supply as your auxiliary battery is small or you cannot park your vehicle close to your tent. Fluorescent lighting is good as an outside light if you cook or eat outside as they can often be clipped to poles stuck in the ground, or hung inside a frame tent on it’s poles. Many fluorescent lights come with twin tubes which means you have a choice of two settings, one tube gives a longer battery life through lower power consumption whereas two tubes increases the consumption but gives more light, but you have a choice.
Lanterns are free standing lights which are battery powered and house the heavy batteries in their bases to make then stable, they are the ultimate in flexibility as they are moved to where you want them and they offer an omnidirectional light. These lights can be placed in a cooking area, in an eating area, in a tent, in a roof tent, and even under a vehicle to work on it. Lanterns come with a variety of light sources and are the preferred choice of most off roaders and campers as the main source of lighting inside a tent, roof tent, or vehicle converted to a camper as an additional source of light to those inbuilt into the vehicle.
Types Of Bulbs
Many types of bulbs exist for torches and lanterns and it’s often difficult to know what to choose for your light, the main types are plain filament bulbs, tungsten halogen bulbs and krypton bulbs. All bulbs use a filament which heats up and glows and it’s the different gas inside the bulb which makes the filament burn brighter, tungsten halogen has halogen as its gas and is brighter than a standard filament and krypton gas is in krypton bulbs which are brighter and whiter than halogen.
It’s a no brainer then we have to have krypton bulbs in our lights then? Yes and no as light output is determined by the lens and reflector and switching to halogen will yield a brighter light than standard tungsten but switching from tungsten to krypton may not be visibly different. Ultimately it comes down to cost and power consumption as krypton bulbs have a much higher current consumption at voltages lower than 6 volts, above 6 volts their power consumption drops which makes them more efficient than halogen bulbs.
Fluorescent tubes are a better option in lanterns as they offer a lower power consumption than bulbs and are better to run over longer working times, they suffer one trait which is they draw considerable power when starting so do not like being continually switched on and off. Continual switching on and off hammers power consumption so switch them on and leave them on, switch them off only when you need to.
One lighting technology currently emerging is HID or high intensity dispersement; this is a cross between a fluorescent tube and an ordinary bulb and works with a transformer and ballast for starting and often takes several seconds to light. HID uses a xenon gas filled bulb which replaces an ordinary bulb and it uses two electrodes to strike an electrical arc at very high voltages in excess of 20,000 volts to heat the xenon gas, once lit it consumes around 80-100 volts to maintain the excitement of the gas to provide light. HID lighting is predominantly used in the larger spotlights as the 55 watt halogen bulb can be replaced with a 35 watt HID bulb and still maintains the same light output, so reducing power consumption for an equal light output. Currently, the smallest xenon bulb is 35 watts which draws around 3.2 amps from a battery which makes them impractical for torches, but one manufacturer is currently using them in torches with great success and sales among the security and military applications and use. Technology moves on and I see HID bulb ranges being expanded and their bulbs and control equipment being made smaller to power large and medium torches and lanterns which will allow them to produce light for several hours and with the current lightweight rechargeable batteries. HID has another advantage which is its colour temperature which is basically the colour of its light output, this is measured in a unit called Kelvin and is abbreviated to K, natural daylight is around 6400K and HID temperatures range from 3000-10,000K. Many xenon ranges of bulbs include a choice of colour temperature and they all include a 6000K or 6500K bulb which is very close to natural daylight; at this temperature the human eye responds very well and a 6500K bulb means the human eye sees more than with a halogen or krypton bulb.
Many manufacturers of lighting offer a technology called LED’s which are a single unit producing a very bright light from a single LED or an even brighter light from a cluster of LED’s and reflectors called a chip or luxeon emitter. LED’s offer the manufacturers a considerable power saving as they consume so little power when compared to incandescent bulbs which consume the most power or fluorescent tubes which use less power than bulbs but still much more than LED’s do. LED lighting technology is currently the best solution for off road users wanting a good light output for short and medium distances and with working times increased to around 3-400% over a normal bulb. LED technologies are increasing at a dramatic rate due to the current research into power saving technologies and every month someone finds a way of increasing their light output without increasing their power consumption.
LED’s offer many advantages over bulbs and fluorescent tubes and the key one is their durability as they have no filament like a bulb so nothing to damage if they are dropped, they have no glass to smash like a fluorescent tube so are much safer. Many LED’s come encased in epoxy resin which makes them waterproof if their connections are sealed. LED’s are available in torches as replacement heads for many of the premium manufacturers or purely sold as LED torches by other manufacturers, and come in lanterns and even strips to replace fluorescent tube lighting.
One useful feature of many premium torches is their use in combination torches; these are a torch with a krypton bulb for a long operating range and a set of LED’s fitted into the torch for a shorter range but a much longer working life on a set of batteries. LED’s have a much longer working life than bulbs and fluorescent tubes, a high powered krypton bulb has a working life of about 100 hours, halogen bulbs are around 500 hours, fluorescent tubes around 3000 hours and LED’s are 10,000 hours minimum.
Dry Cells Or Rechargeable Batteries
This has a simple answer, rechargeable every time, but we have to consider which sort of rechargeable torches or lights we purchase as many are cheap Chinese or Indian manufactured units which are of poor quality, but sold at inflated prices. These units are not problematic for intermittent or occasional use in a domestic environment such as at home for power cuts, but they can be for the serious traveller who relies upon their lighting. Issues are generally the poor quality of the components used, many have cheap batteries and poorly regulated charging circuits and it’s these poor charging circuits which either undercharge or overcharge a battery. Undercharging means a reduced working time and means the battery is never fully charged, and this develops a memory as they use cheap batteries, and overcharging simply damaged the battery internally. Often a spare battery or battery pack is available but it costs more than buying a new torch or lantern.
Features to look out for are those which can be recharged from the mains, and have the modern mains chargers which work with 100-250 volts input instead of a fixed voltage, for the traveller it means practicality in countries with differing mains voltages. 12 volt charging means a lantern can be recharged from the vehicle and is much more practical for the traveller as they simply plug them in when travelling.
Dry cells in lighting does have a place but this is usually within spare lighting which may be carried for emergency reasons, these are best with LED lighting as the low power consumption means much longer battery life, and cost savings in replacing them.
Batteries or cells come in a range of types, originally all rechargeable batteries were NiCad or nickel cadmium and all dry cells were zinc chloride based, but times move on and we will look only at rechargeable types. NiCad batteries are all but redundant because they have been superseded by NiMh which are nickel metal hydride, lithium, and Li On which are lithium ion cells.
NiCad and NiMh have a nominal voltage of 1.2 volts, dry cells have a nominal voltage of 1.5 volts so they cannot really be used to replace dry cells unless the bulb is changed, or a battery pack is made up instead, and Lithium ion have a nominal voltage of 3 volts. Battery packs exist, and they are simply a number of individual cells welded together in series to give a battery pack which is a derivative of their individual cell voltages, look at any cordless power tool it can be 1.2, 2.4, 3.6, 4.8, 6, 7.2, 8.4, 9.6, 10.8, or 12 volts, or even higher. For a 12 volt battery pack you simply divide 12 volts by the nominal 1.2 volts we know individual cells are and we see we need 10 X 1.2 volt cells welded in series for our 12 volt battery pack.
Can we convert out dry cell lantern to rechargeable cells? Yes it is possible but I would avoid buying or making a battery pack as you need a charger to charge at that particular voltage and you would need the more expensive individual cells which come with solder tags. My preferred choice is to use battery or cell holders and standardise all cells you use to one size and AA cells would always be my choice, cell holders come in single, two, three, four, five, and 6 cell holders which allows us 1.2, 2.4, 3.6, 4.8, 6, and 7.2 volt battery packs. Obviously you can buy more than one cell holder and connect them in series for much higher voltages. Multi packs of AA Ni Mh AA cells are available from many retailers; my last pack was purchased from Maplins, a UK electronics component supplier who charged £14.99 for a 12 pack of AA 2700 Ma cells. Of all the rechargeable cells I find Ni Mh the best all rounder, batteries are measured in both volts and Ma or milliamps, one milliamp is 1/1000th of an amp, therefore a cell with a 1200 Ma rating will give an output current of 1.2 amps. Most AA size Ni Mh cells are available with outputs exceeding 3000 Ma, or 3 amps, but are correspondingly expensive, if you down rate to around 2500-2700 Ma you can get a 50% saving but you will need to charge them slightly more frequently. They are still many times more powerful than traditional dry batteries, and as a true performer for very reasonable costs they cannot be beaten. If you opt for this method of rechargeable cells i would always advocate sticking with one size of cell across all equipment so you only need one charger, you can carry a couple of spare cells, and if one fails you can simply replace it, or you can switch to cells from other battery holders in other equipment.
Charging cells is very easy with modern technology, but you still have to beware of a few things, does the charger you purchase support all the types of cell you use? Traditional NiCad chargers may not be suitable for Ni Mh, newer ones will support both. Lithium Ion need their own chargers as they are different voltages, and cannot be charged in AA sized chargers anyway as they don’t fit.
Many NiCad/Ni Mh chargers will only charge cells as pairs, or multiples of pairs, usually they are four cell chargers which will charge either two or four cells, and while this may not be a problem for some, for others it will. Modern digital chargers with the capability to charge 1, 2, 3, or 4 cells are the beat and are the ones to go for as they monitor each cell individually while they are charging, and they use a display or LED for each cell to tell the user it’s charging, or fully charged. Most of these are rapid or 1 hour chargers and the ones to choose as many come with cell monitoring and if a defective cell is inserted into the charger it gives a visual warning. Always look for chargers which allow mains multi voltages to be used as these are usually 100-250 Volts input, and ensure they come with a 12 volt car charging lead so you can use them in your vehicle when you are travelling.
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