Wecome To RVs and OHVs

This blog is all about RVs (recreational vehicles) and OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), camping, and survival
and how they work together to provide wholesome family fun and great learning opportunities.
Many posts are intended to familiarize novice campers and RVers with RV systems and basic camping and survival
skills. But even experienced RVers and campers will enjoy the anecdotes and may even benefit from a new
perspective. Comments, questions, and suggestions are encouraged.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

RV Exterior Lighting Options

On road lights on RVs are pretty much regulated by state and federal vehicle laws.  You can usually safely replace clearance markers and may be able to upgrade headlights, but anything used on highway must meet applicable regulations.  That includes driving lights and fog lights.   Many campers like to add powerful off-road lights to their motorhomes or tow vehicles.  Such lights should not be used on the highway.  In most jurisdictions, these lights must also be covered when the vehicle is on the highway.  Remote control search lights are popular on motorhomes and can be a real boon in scoping out your camp site after dark.  Just don't use them on the highway!  If your headlights don't deliver the performance you would like you may be able to upgrade to Halogen or other high intensity lights.  There are even kits to convert your old sealed beam headlights to modern HID lights that really light up the road.   Just make sure they are DOT approved.   I had a friend who discovered an air craft landing light that would fit in place of one of the sealed beam headlights on his pickup truck.  It really lit up desert roads for him -- until he blinded an on coming Highway Patrolman.  He got a stiff fine and was told to remove the light and never use it again.  You may be able to supplement your headlights with driving lights.   In most places, they can only be legally used on the highway when the headlights are on dim and are usually wired with a relay so they can only be turned on along with the dim headlight setting.  Using them together with your bright lights is a good way to get a fix-it ticket or blind on coming drivers.  In some jurisdictions the law requires you to turn off your driving lights when approaching an on-coming vehicle.  In many places driving lights can only be used in conjunction with low beams.   Always make sure your headlights are clean and clear and in good repair.  A cracked, discolored, or damaged lens will alter the focus and efficiency of your headlights and possible shorten bulb life.  Mud and snow accumulation on the lens will cause a surprising drop in output.  Older, sealed-beam lights that are not damaged only need to be cleaned with window cleaner.  Modern headlights have a polycarbonate lens that become "fuzzy", hazy, or discolored over time.  They can usually be reconditioned for about $35-$50 per pair by a professional service that sands them down and polishes them to make them clear again.  Some of these services add a clear coating when they're done that helps maintain clarity longer than an untreated lens.  You can buy kits to do the cleaning yourself, but be aware the process is somewhat labor intensive and, if you don't don't have the right buffing equipment your results will probably be disappointing.  I found a wet-wipe kit that clears up headlights with little effort.   The results are not as long-lasting as buffing and polishing, but they may be good enough and last long enough to pass a state safety inspection.  There are often several options for replacing the bulbs in these style headlights that give you more control over the amount of light.  The best performing and longest lasting bulbs are going to cost more -- perhaps twice as much -- as standard replacement bulbs but it may be an easy way to get better (and legal) on road lighting.   When upgrading bulbs be sure the sockets and fixtures are rated to accommodate the more powerful bulbs.   Using over powered bulbs can damage the plastic lens, the reflector, and could cause the wiring to overheat and perhaps cause a fire.

Wiring is an infamous and chronic cause of poor headlight performance on motorhomes.   The problem is the manufacturers wire the headlights directly through the headlight switch.  Often the wire gauge used is barely adequate (and sometimes inadequate) for the high load headlights draw and the long wiring runs up under the dash and back sap power.  You can often get significant gains by simply installing relays to connect your headlights via heavy gauge wiring directly to the battery -- and control the relays using the original headlight switch and wiring.  That way, the heavy load appears only on heavy duty wiring directly from battery to headlights, instead of lengthy runs up through the headlight switch.  If you're not up to doing the wiring yourself you may be able to purchase ready made harnesses to convert existing switch-wired installations to more efficient relay-based wiring, but even that requires some electrical system knowledge and skills.  Directly wired headlight switches on motorhomes are more prone to failure due to the overloading the contacts because of the extra load created by the longer wiring runs.

If you aren't happy with the running lights on your RV you may be able to upgrade both the headlights and the stop/tail lights.   Older incandescant headlights can usually be easily replaced with Halogen versions that are easy to install.  If you really want high performance headlights you can upgrade to HID headlights but it will require a new wiring harness and you might need professional help setting it up.  The kits usually use the original wiring harness and switch to control the new HID headlights but they need relay controlled circuits direct from the battery to run the high powered bulbs.  You may also need to consider whether the existing mounting location can withstand the additional heat produced by HID units.

Recreational lights are usually not restricted as long as they aren't used while on the road.  Most RVs have at least one porch light near the entrance.  A popular form is one that has a built-in assist handle for climbing into the RV.  The better ones have a built-in waterproof switch so you can turn it on and off from outside the vehicle.  Others may require a separate switch, which is usually inside the vehicle.  If you don't like the light that came with your vehicle, you can usually replace it with another one for a nominal cost.  You may also want to add other lights.   I find it useful to have an exterior light on the front of my motorcycle trailer.   It illuminates the tongue and hitch for hooking up at night and gives me light for the work area on and around the tongue.  I have a bench vice mounted on my trailer tongue and a place to mount my motorcycle tire changer so the tongue frequently serves as a workshop.   Extra side-mounted lights can help illuminate your camp site for night time group activities.  Another candidate for extra lighting is the area near any outdoor shower, which are usually on the street side of an RV.  You may find it helpful to mount an indicator light inside your RV for all outside lights.  You can wire an LED in parallel with the lamp or just use a lighted switch.   All you have to do is connect the hot wire of the LED to the hot wire of the lamp and the ground to any available ground.  The small investment in time and money will avoid inadvertently leaving outside lights on and running down your batteries.   Many off highway vehicles (usually 4x4s) have multiple off-road lights mounted on the bumper or front brush guard and or the roof or roll bar.  These lights are great off-road but must never be used on the highway.

Porch lights are common on most RVs, providing illumination for unlocking the door and negotiating the steps after dark.   Unfortunately, the switch is sometimes inside the RV so that you either have to leave the light on while you're away (possibly running down your batteries) or you have to unlock the door in the dark.   A fun solution to this problem is to install a motion sensor LED light that will automatically come on when you approach your RV in the dark.  Often these are battery powered so you don't even have to run any wiring to set them up.  Replacing the incandescent bulb in the porch light with and LED bulb will let you leave the light on without as much chance of running down the batteries since LEDs draw much less power.

Entry step lights are another useful addition.  RV steps are usually painted black and are difficult to see at night.   Even with the porch light on they can be hidden in shadow. Reflective or glow-in-the dark tape can be added to highlight the edge of the steps to make them easier to see.  I use LED clearance lights to illuminate my entry steps so I can leave them on when I'm out without running down the battery.  I've left them on for an entire 4 day outing without running down my batteries.  You want to install them so they illuminate the step but don't shine out into the camp site where they may annoy you or your fellow campers.  Many RVs equipped with electric steps already have step lights.  Unless they are fairly new they are probably incandescent bulbs that will suck up a lot of energy from your batteries.  Replacing them with LED lights should be pretty easy.  Adding a step light will require installing wiring and a switch.  For the most convenience use a switch that is opened when the step is opened.  Installing a simple toggle switch will be easier, but you'll have to remember to turn in on and off.  Battery powered "tap lights" might also be an option for illuminating your steps without draining your main batteries.

Awning lights are a popular and convenient way to add illumination with ambiance to the portable patio next to your RV.  Some fancy models slide right into the awning roller tube. Others have to be attached using clips or hooks that slide into the roller tube or clamp to the awning fabric.  You can even use ID card clips, available most places that sell office supplies.  These spring loaded clips are usually easier to use than the snap-lock type clamps on standard awning clamps.  You can get a variety of light styles.  Some popular ones I've seen include miniature Coleman lanterns, American Flags, chili peppers, and colorful coach-light style lanterns.  Most require 120-volt power but some newer LED versions will run on 12 volts.  Remember, LEDs use a tiny fraction of the power of standard incandescent bulbs so if you're dry camping or just worried about draining battery power, look for LED versions.   I recently watched the installation of a fancy 7-color LED rope light under an RV awning.  It even has a remote control so you can change the color, speed, and pattern of light from the comfort of your easy chair.  It is a really neat addition but at the time it was a bit pricey -- about $100 plus installation, but I've seen some knock-off on the market around $30 since then.

Exterior cabinet lights are a real boon when you have to find something in the dark.  The most convenient ones come on automatically when you open the cabinet door but they require special switches.  You can easily install lights with built-in switches -- they might be wired into the vehicle's 12-volt system or be battery powered.  Batter powered "stick anywhere" lights can be found at hardware and building supply stores and don't need any wiring.  Just make sure you check the batteries before each trip.  If you're not using automatic switches, you'll have to remember to turn the lights off before you close the cabinet.   Otherwise you are sure to forget they are on and run down the batteries.  You might even want to wire in an indicator that is visible from the outside so you can tell when the lights are left on.  Using an illuminated switch is an easy way to do this without extra lights and wiring.  The switch itself is lighted whenever the switch is on.

General campground illumination.  You may want to bring along some portable Halogen work lights for lighting up your camp site at night.  The ones I use have folding, tripod stands that are very stable and highly adjustable.  Of course you need 120-volt AC power to run them but I managed to find one that has a 12-volt option as well as the normal 120-volt power cord.  Another option is lights equipped with spring clamps so you can clamp them to awning arms, mirrors, trees, sign posts, fences, OHVs, tables, etc.  Incandescent versions of these are inexpensive and can be found at any hardware store or home center and you could put LED bulbs in them to reduce power requirements.  And don't forget the old camp standard: the Coleman lantern.  White gas or propane powered lanterns provide bright white light about like a 100-watt bulb.  For a more rustic atmosphere, try some old fashioned kerosene lanterns.   If you don't like the smell of kerosene lanterns you can run them on scented lamp oil or unscented "liquid paraffin".  Nowadays there are also many choices for battery powered lanterns, including many LED lanterns that minimize battery drain.   Of course a primary source of traditional camp site is the camp fire.  Once you have a good campfire going you may not need any other lighting for many activities.

Searchlights and spotlights.   Roof mounted remote control search lights are popular on high-end motorhomes.  They usually have both "spot" and "flood" settings.  The spot setting is used to illuminate distant objects like signs and landmarks.  The flood setting can be used for general camp site illumination.  Manually operated spotlights on cars and pickup trucks were once pretty popular, but are quite rate these days.   Still, they can provide light up signs and landmarks to help you find your way to a remote camp at night.  They might also be used during nighttime search and rescue operations.  Hand held spotlights, both 12-volt versions that plug into your cigarette lighter and rechargeable models can approximate the function of permanently mounted spotlights without the expense or effort of what is often a difficult installation.

Creative lighting solutions.  One of my motorhomes came with a pair of bright 120-volt flood lights mounted on the curb side to illuminate the campground.  I didn't want to have to run the generator just to light things up and I wasn't very fond of poking more holes in the wall and cluttering up the outside of the RV with additional lights.  My solution: mount 12-volt light bulbs inside the existing 120-volt fixtures.   I bought a pair of 55-watt driving lights and cannibalized the sockets and bulbs from them and mounted them inside the existing 120-volt fixtures.   I then pushed the wiring through the same hole as the original wiring and hooked it up to conveniently located new switches inside. That allowed me to run the lights on either 120-volts or 12-volts as the situation demands.  For additional general campground illumination I mounted a 500-watt Halogen light on about a 5' piece of conduit connect to an old telescoping aluminum tent pole.   I clamped PVC pipe sleeves to the RV ladder.  When I need extra, broad-area lighting for group activities, I slide the tent pole through the pipe sleeves and plug the cord into an outside outlet on my RV. With the light raised about 4-5' above the roof of the RV, it provides very good general illumination for group activities.   I also mounted a simple 12-volt utility light under the hood so I could see to check the oil after dark.  It is an easy, inexpensive, and useful addition. I f you want to be really fancy you can even use a mercury or gravity switch on the hood so the light comes on automatically when you open the hood, like it does on many well-equipped automobiles.   This is another spot that is a prime candidate for an inexpensive battery powered LED "tap light".   I recently picked up a magnetic mount, battery operated light, with a remote control designed for use in above ground swimming pools.   I figure it can be attached to any metal surface, such as my truck or limited components on my RV to provide general illumination for nighttime activities. It came with a metal plate for use on Doughboy type pools that would also allow it to be installed on a tent.

Portable lights add a lot of flexibility for camp ground use.  I've tried a number of high-output battery powered spotlights, including rechargeable versions.  Some of these send out a pencil-thin beam with a range up to a mile!  There are also 12-volt versions that plug into your vehicle cigarette lighter or other 12-volt receptacle.   I always keep several ordinary flashlights in my RV and trailer.  I like to have a variety of sizes.  Full 2,3, or even 5-cell flashlights are good for many routine tasks. Smaller 3" LED lights are useful in close quarters or if you need to tuck one in your pocket to light your way back to your RV after an evening stroll if you get back late.  The big 5 D-cell lights double as tire-thumpers and would also be an effective self-defense device.

There are a variety of lantern holders that can be used to hang your gas or battery lanterns around camp.  Some are made of chain that can be wrapped around trees; some are designed to clamp to or hang from your RV awning.  I found some that consist of a tube that attaches to the side of your RV and contains a hook that slides out and connects to the top of the tube to create an arm on which to hang your lantern.   Check out the options at your favorite RV or camping store.  You might want to try out several styles.  They usually are not very expensive.  The ones designed to attach to trees usually have a light weight chain that wraps around the tree to hold the lantern hook in place.  They work well on trees and wooden poles, but usually don't cling well to metal poles.  Hangers for awnings are likely to slide into the accessory slot in the awning rail or clamp to the rafters.  Always be careful hanging a gas lantern from your awning as they generate a lot of heat, enough to damage awning fabric if left on too long.  Monitor prevailing breezes to make sure they aren't blowing the heat back under your awning or against the side of your tent or RV.

Light it up!


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