Recently installed LED lighting aboard the destroyer Gonzalez was simple and threw more light in space, the crew said. (USS Gonzalez)
WASHINGTON — Few things are more ubiquitous aboard a US Navy ship than fluorescent lights. They’re in virtually every space — topside too — emitting that familiar, sometimes-flickering white light. Fitted as lights in every sailor’s rack, they can emit a hum loud enough to make sleep difficult.
But if the makers of a new generation of light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs have their way, the classic fluorescent light will soon disappear like speaking tubes and engine room telegraphs.
“The Navy had a need, not just to make itself more energy efficient, but to get to LED,” said Eric Hilliard, a Navy veteran and president of Energy Focus, a company specializing in LED technology. “They were and are still operating with very old technology — T12 lighting ballast technology. They also have a maintenance need.”
T12 fluorescent bulbs are the largest common type, an inch and a half in diameter; ballast is a device that limits electrical current in a lighting fixture.
In those lights, Energy Focus saw an opportunity.
“From a company perspective, this was a good market for a small business,” Hilliard said. “It’s hard to compete on a large scale when [the market] is controlled by larger companies. Here is a niche.”
Safety considerations at sea meant that new LED products would need to be resilient and simple.
“We wanted to simply pull out the existing light bulb and put in an LED,” Hilliard explained. “The fixture would have a ballast and a starter that would recognize whether the bulb is fluorescent or an LED. We had to fit into the existing form-fit function completely. There was nothing like this at that time. So we had to invent this and convince the Navy of the safety of the fittings.”
Energy Focus, with a factory in Solon, Ohio, just outside Cleveland, began working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to develop LED fixtures and bulbs compliant with requirements for naval ships.
The company designed and built four basic products: 2-foot LED lamps; globes in large and small sizes to install in high-traffic areas such as cargo holds and ammunition and cargo elevators; explosion-proof globes to go inside munitions lockers and gas turbine units; and bunk lights, complete with their own fixture that includes a USB outlet.
The market is considerable. A typical Arleigh Burke-class destroyer needs 281 bunk lights, 201 large and 50 small globes, 19 explosion-proof globes, and at least 3,682 2-foot bulbs in single, double and triple-lamp fixtures.
As ship size goes up, so do the number of bulbs. Cruisers, for example, need about 6,000 two-foot lamps.
Obstacles include the need to install new globe and rack fixtures, although the company makes an “intellitube” 2-foot bulb that can fit into existing light fixtures.
And price — well, hold on for that one. A T12 bulb runs around $4 each in the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) system.
Energy Focus sells a 2-foot LED lamp for $145 each to DLA, which then adds a $13 markup for additional shipping costs, for a unit cost of $158 each.
Yet for a destroyer with a service life of at least 35 years, the Navy expects the installation cost for LED lighting will be recouped within 10 years.
“Additional benefits of reduced maintenance and replacement are anticipated,” NAVSEA wrote in a statement.
“Reduced energy and fuel consumption and reduced maintenance and replacement were the primary drivers toward implementing LED lights,” NAVSEA wrote. “Life expectancy for LED lights is approximately 5 to 10 times longer than fluorescent and incandescent light, in addition to offering a 50 percent to 80 percent energy savings.”
Since the first fixtures were approved in September 2010, nearly 200 ships have at least some of Energy Focus’ LED fixtures and bulbs installed, said Dave Bina, the company’s business and development manager.
“We estimate the LED bulb should last 10 years on board a vessel,” he said. “The frequency of change-out could be in 10s of years.”
NAVSEA seems pleased. “The LED lights installed on [destroyers Preble and Chafee] were fully-qualified, including shock and vibration,” the command wrote in its statement. “LED lights installed on these ships beginning in 2011 are performing well and meeting all requirements.”
The first new-construction ship designated for a complete LED installation is the Paul Ignatius (DDG 117), under construction at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. All subsequent ships of the Arleigh Burke class will have LED lights, NAVSEA wrote.
Retrofitting LED lights isn’t always simple, reported Lt. Stephen Szachta, chief engineer of the Pearl Harbor-based destroyer Preble.
Nevertheless, he wrote in an Aug. 25 email, “[They] are significantly brighter than the fluorescent lighting. The LED lighting also lasts much longer, helping to save the ship money, and more importantly reducing the amount of man-hours expended replacing lights throughout the ship.” ■