Let there Be Light (for Fewer Watts)!

I recently undertook a conversion on our 2008 Roadtrek 190 Popular, swapping out the original fluorescent light bulbs for LED bulbs. Now this might sound simple, as in remove one bulb and install another. But when you’re changing from fluorescent to LED, you aren’t just changing the type of bulbs but the way they are powered, as well.

Fluorescent bulbs are powered through a “ballast.” This ballast regulates the current to the lamps and provides sufficient voltage to start them. But an LED bulb uses a “driver.” This driver responds to the changing needs of the bulb, providing a constant quantity of power to the LEDs.

I have been thinking about doing this conversion for some time because we like to boondock and anything that can cut back on battery use is a good thing. In this case, I knew LED bulbs should draw less power than fluorescent bulbs, but I wasn’t interested in changing out the fixtures.

There are several ways to do this type of conversion, but I decided to go with what I think is the cleanest look closest to factory installation. And that involved removing the fixtures, taking out the fluorescent ballast and replacing it with LED drivers before reinstalling the fixtures.

Each tube light kit from M4 comes with the LED bulb, pre-wired driver, and wire nuts.

There are a lot of resources online for finding the equipment you need to do this conversion, but I found and opted for a kit from M4 Products. They have a variety of bulbs available depending on the brightness and color hue or warmth you are looking for.

Each bulb comes with a pre-wired driver and LED tube lights that use the existing fluorescent bulb sockets. They look just like the fluorescent tubes being replaced, so when the project is done, your Roadtrek will look just it did before, only you’ll be able to see more of it because it’s so much brighter inside!

Warm or Cool?

Ordering the correct warmth of bulb is important and completely up to personal preference — options generally include Warm White, Natural White and Cool White. I opted for Warm White bulbs, which have a slightly yellow and warmer hue, for the light fixture over our couch/bed. The Warm White bulb colors are reminiscent of older incandescent bulbs than the starker, whiter colors associated with LEDs.

For the two light fixtures in the aisle, we went with Natural White, which is the middle-of-the-road in brightness and warmth. They are more of a white, cool hue and provide a brighter light than Natural White. The Cool White bulbs are brighter and whiter still, but I figured we weren’t planning to do surgery in our Roadtrek and something that bright in such a small space might actually be uncomfortable.

Below is a series of photos of my retrofit. Remember, this is for a 2008 Roadtrek 190 Popular, so your vehicle’s fixtures and how they are attached might be different. Total time for me on this project was about two and a half hours. My wife, Jessi, assisted and having a third or fourth hand to hold onto a light fixture while working on the rewiring is a big help. We weren’t in any desire to rush and the first fixture took a lot longer than the others because I had to follow directions a lot more closely the first time through. Also, anytime I’m cutting something in the Roadtrek, I make sure I’ve read instructions very closely!

Before you start, make sure that — in addition to your new bulbs and drivers — you have a #1 Robertson screwdriver (for those strange but effective square-headed screws Roadtrek loves to use), as well as wire cutters, a wire stripper and electrical tape. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, do not forget to ensure your coach batteries are switched off and your vehicle is not plugged into shore power. You are dealing with an electrical fixture and the only way to do that safely is to make sure there is no electricity flowing to it.

The “Before”

To the right is a “before” picture of the original fluorescent tubes on over our couch/bed. One thing to notice is that the light is brightest in the center of the couch, but it fades as you move to the outside corners. Also notice how the thermostat on the upper left wall is mostly in shadow. The lighting here and in the aisle always struck me as relatively bright but still lacking somehow. Also, the tubes were burning 8 watts each and our new LEDs will burn only 4 watts each.

More light for less power is a big deal when you’re living off of batteries!

The picture above shows the fluorescent tubes in the fixture above the couch with the cover removed. It also shows the six #1 Robertson head (recessed square) screws that need to be removed to drop the fixture from the ceiling. Apparently, these screws are popular in Canada. I had never seen them before we owned the Roadtrek. I do like the design, though, as they seem much less likely to strip than slotted or Phillips head screws.

After removing the six screws, the fixture easily slides out of its recess, shown in the picture above.

Be careful not to pull too hard because power wires are attached that need to stay attached. This is where having an assistant to help hold the fixture while you do the cutting and rewiring is very helpful.

Notice how dirty the fixture is underneath. I was surprised at how much dirt was collected on there. The fixture is supposed to be white, not that dingy brown color. The two aisle fixtures barely had any dirt on them when they were removed.

The picture above shows the back of the light fixture. The ballast you need to remove is under the metal plate at the top, which is held in place by two small Phillips-head screws. The green and red wires are connected to the coach’s battery system on one end and the fluorescent ballast on the other. This is how electricity is sent to the light. In this project, the ballast needs to be removed because the LED bulbs use a driver instead. The white wires are attached to the ballast as well as each end of both light sockets.

After removing the two small Phillips screws, the ballast easily pops out of the fixture. Don’t pull too hard or try to move it too far from the fixture yet. The red wire in the background is the power lead connected to the fixture from the coach power. That must stay attached. The red wire in the foreground is the switch connection. You will want to unplug that by sliding it up and off the connector. This wire is what allows the light to be on or off based on its own power switch when the vehicle’s batteries are turned on.

Time to Cut

This is a top-down view of the ballast after it has been removed from its cubbyhole in the fixture. Note the red wire on the right stays attached to the fixture. The red wire on the left is the wire that was connecting the ballast to the light switch. Here, it has been unplugged from the switch. The ballast is still connected to the fixture by three white socket wires and to the coach power by the black ground wire.

Note that the red wire connecting the coach batteries to the fixture will NOT be cut for this project. You will cut all of the other wires away from the ballast with your wire cutters. All cuts should be made as close to the ballast as possible. That will leave you with longer wires to work with, and the ballast will be discarded, so you don’t need any length of wire left attached to it.

The order of the cuts doesn’t matter but I started with the white wires to free up the ballast a little more. Once the white wires are cut, you can maneuver the ballast a bit better to gain access for cutting the red and black wire. Cut the red wire, again as close to the ballast as possible. You will be reusing this wire, so set it aside but don’t lose it! Finally, cut the black wire away from the ballast.

When you’re done cutting wires, your fixture should look like this although maybe not as dusty and dirty! (I did take time to clean up the fixture before reinstalling it.)

You should have the red power wire from the coach power still attached to the fixture, as well as a small red wire with a plug on one end that you cut away from the ballast. The black wire is the ground wire connected to the coach. You also will have three white wires that lead to three ends of the two light sockets. The fixture has two sockets, which means you should have four white socket wires available — one for each end of both sockets. You already cut three wires, now you need to carefully cut the fourth wire.

You can see it in the picture above connecting the two sockets together. You want to cut it away from the RIGHT SIDE of the fixture, clipping it as close to the fixture as possible so you have more wire to work with later. The way to be sure you are cutting the correct side of the wire is to trace all the white wires. You should end up with one white wire connected to each end of each light socket. The last white wire you cut is going to be quite short.

Above is a close-up picture of the fixture after all wire cuts have been made and the wires have been stripped of their sheath to prepare for attachment to the LED drivers. (This is where having a wire cutter will make the job much faster and less stressful. You can strip the wire sheath carefully with a knife, but using the correct opening on a wire cut takes all the guesswork and risk out this work.)

You can see in the photo above that the red power wire from the coach is still attached to the fixture and the black ground wire from the coach has been cut away from the ballast and now has its sheath removed.

You also should now have four white socket wires. There are two wires for each socket (with one connected to each end). The LED drivers provided with the kit from M4 also have four wires. The colors of the wires for the driver may vary, so follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Time to Reconnect

You need to connect all four wires from each driver, and it’s not that hard to figure out how and why. You need a power wire and a ground wire connected to each driver. So, you need to connect the vehicle’s black ground wire to the LED driver’s ground wire and secure with a wire nut. Now, remember that red switch wire I told you not to lose? That needs to be connected to the power wire from each driver and secured with a wire nut. Then you can plug it back into the switch where it was originally.

On the opposite ends of the driver should be two more wires; each wire is connected to one of the two wires for each end of the light socket. Simply wrap the wires’ exposed wiring around each other as described above and tighten up by installing a wire nut.

Because I was converting a two-bulb fixture, I had to double-up the power and ground connections, so both drivers had their power and ground wires connected to the coach’s ground and power wires.

But each driver has two socket wires, so those wires are connected individually to each of the four socket wires.

This looks and sounds like a bigger mess than it actually is. I’ll use my wire colors to hopefully simplify this a bit. In the picture to the left, you can see I have two brown wires from the two LED drivers connected to the coach’s black ground wire.

I also have two blue wires from the LED drivers connected to the coach’s red switch wire, and that wire is plugged back into the fixture. (Remember, this is what allows the light to be on or off based on its power switch when the coach’s batteries are turned on.)

The drivers I used also each have a red and black socket wire. How you connect these isn’t based on their color, but I put the red wires on the switch end and the black wires on the opposite end to help keep things organized.

In the picture above and the one to the right, you can see I have two red wires connected to separate white wires,  and two black wires connected to two separate white wires.

You now have the drivers connected to power and ground as well as each end of the light sockets.

Testing…testing…

Now that everything is connected, it’s time to test your installation.

By the way, the pieces wrapped in black at the bottom of the photo to the right are the LED drivers I keep mentioning. There is one for each light socket because each LED bulb requires its own driver.

To test your work, install one of the new LED bulbs into each socket. Then, turn on your coach batteries and flip the fixture’s power switch to on.

You should have two very bright lights turned on now, so be careful not to blind yourself by staring at them as you turn on the light fixture. (Trust me on this!)

If both lights lit up, great! You are ready for the next step.

If one or both are not lighting, you need to retrace your wires. Remember, you need a power wire for each driver connected to the coach’s red power wire. You need a ground wire for each driver connected to the coach’s black ground wire. You also need a driver wire connected to each end of both sockets.

At this point, no matter if you have the lights working or not, turn off your coach batteries.

Then, if the lights are working, wrap the bundles of wires together with some electrical tape to make them neater and easier to stuff under the light during installation.

If the lights are not working, check to see if all the wires seem to trace correctly, then double-check your wire nuts to see if a connection isn’t being made properly. This is why you need your coach batteries turned off. Once you’ve confirmed the power is off, then you can disconnect wire nuts as needed to see if the wires are making contact before replacing the nut and running your test cycle again.

Let There Be Light

To the left is a shot of the light fixture reinstalled. I carefully tucked the wires up behind the fixture as I was pushing it back into the cutout it fits into in the coach ceiling.

Even though it looked like a lot of wires, there was plenty of room to put them behind the fixture during installation.

You will notice that these LED lights have a slightly yellow hue to them. If you recall from above, that’s because they are “Warm White” bulbs. They appear less yellow when the light cover is installed. 

 

The picture to the right is the “after” shot of the couch with the new Warm White LED light bulbs installed. Notice the light flows evenly into the corners and the thermostat even has some light reaching it now. Even with a yellow hue, which isn’t as noticeable in this picture as it is in person, the LEDs still provide a cleaner and brighter light than the fluorescent tubes did.

Plus we’re using exactly one-half the watts to run them.

The “After”

The left picture here is a “before” shot of the aisle with all three fluorescent lights turned on. To the right is the “after” shot of the main aisle with all the new LED lights installed.

The picture doesn’t show it as much as it shows in person, but you may notice the slight yellow hue over the couch. That’s the Warm White bulbs compared to the Natural White bulbs we used in the aisle.

 

 

Finis!

And that’s my conversion project!

All that was left after this was to pack up my tools and daydream about enjoying these new lights on our next trip, hopefully in a warmer environment than Michigan offers in March — and off the grid. Boondocking will be even easier now since the LED tubes are burning a total of 24 watts compared to the 48 watts the original fluorescent tubes were using.

Happy Roadtreking — we’ll see you out there!

Jessi Wortley Adler and Ari Adler with Geraldine II at the 2016 Roadtreking Winter Freezeout in Michigan’s Tahquamenon Falls State Park.




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  • Jonathan Clement

    Thanks for this. Just what we have been looking for. Want to replace the single 18″ fluorescent tube in our 98D190V.