Introduction: Electroluminescent Boat Navigation Lights

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For more than 170 years, the law has requires red (port) and green (starboard) navigation lights on powered marine vehicles operated at night.  Most basic navigation lights include a single bulb behind colored red and green plastic lenses.  Generally this is sufficient, but after being told by other night-fishermen that my starboard (green) light was "out" (not possible when the red is visible), or difficult to see, I decided to add enhanced navigation lighting using electroluminescent tape (EL Tape).

In my case, my trolling motor is mounted on the starboard side of the bow of the boat.  Depending on water conditions, and the position of the trolling motor, the green starboard light is sometimes shadowed or blocked by the trolling motor.  The EL Tape navigation lights prevent this problem, and provide a clear nighttime view of my vessel.

This Instructable will show you how to custom make similar EL lighting for your vessel.  Note however that every boat will have different needs, to fit its shape and to co-exist with other bow equipment such as trolling motors and anchor winches.  As such, you may need to be inventive with materials and workmanship.

Step 1: Materials

This materials list is broken into three parts, the must-have materials, the suggested materials, and the materials that worked for my vessel.  I will also make a few recommendations for alternative approaches.

EL Tape and EL Wire of various sizes could be used.  I first purchased 5mm EL wire for this project.  I'll not mention the name of the online vendor, but just indicate that the EL wire was difficult to work with, not very bright, and the colors were not good -- the red was more orange, and the green more of a lime green.

I later found the EL tape offered by (see the links below).  The colors are perfect, as is the brightness.

I also originally built an EL wire driver from Radio Shack parts and a circuit I found online.  It overheated and burned out within a few minutes.  Given that it cost more for parts than the adafruit driver, I highly recommend buying a driver over building one.

Required Materials: (prices are from the time of writing, in U.S. dollars)
* 100 cm. Red EL Tape - - $8.95
* 100 cm. Green EL Tape - - $8.95
* 12-volt EL wire driver - - $4.95

Recommended Materials:
* 1 male inline power wire connector - - $0.75
* 2 female inline power wire connector - - $0.75 (each)

These connectors aren't really needed - you can hand wire everything, but they make it really easy to power both sets of tape from a single driver.

Electronic Enclosure (to marine-safe the EL driver, etc.):
* Project Enclosure 3x2x1" (Radio Shack #270-1801)
* 12 VDC Illuminated Rocker Switch (Radio Shack #275-0018)
* Various sizes of Heat-Shrink, including 3/8" black heat shrink tubing, and smaller appropriate for various wires
* A length of black and red wires to the boat's front navigation light power source (I had some spare stranded wires)
* Alumilite Quick-Set RTV Silicone Rubber

Mounting materials...
The mounting materials will vary depending on your vessel.  In my case, I decided to make each light 31" long, to stretch the distance from the point of the bow to the nearest angled corner.  Because of the position of the trolling motor, it was not possible to easily mount both lights on top of the deck, but I wanted them as close as possible.  The trolling motor also added a bit of bend to the starboard (green) light, so my materials need to be somewhat flexible.

If you don't need to make any slight bends, I would highly recommend purchasing Plexiglass or polycarbonate tubing instead of the vinyl tubing that I used.  It will likely protect your EL tape better, and make it easier to replace the tape when it reaches it half-life.

The EL Tape should last a very long time, but it will not last forever.  You can read more about the life expectancy of EL wire elsewhere.  Also, the EL Tape that I selected is 1/2" wide.  I mounted it to 3/8" square wooden dowel to ensure:
1) That the vinyl tubing doesn't curly up as it is prone to do, and
2) That the EL tape can be angled properly for visibility, when it is attached to the bow of the boat

That 1/2" of tape, plus the dowel, are a very tight fit in the 5/8" I.D. of the tubing.  Slightly larger tubing may be easier to work with, but too large and the tape and support rod will require glue to hold them in place.  On my vessel, larger tubing would not have easily fit.

Mounting Materials (adjust as needed for your vessel - my vessel is a 2008 Tracker ProTeam TXW 175):
* Clear Vinyl Tubing 7/8" x 5/8" x 10 ft. (Home Depot, WATTS SVMK10)
* 3/8" x 36" square dowels x 3  (Lowes, UPC 0 80307 44864 4
* 7/8" black round furniture tip x 4 (Lowes, Hillman H# 884306)
* 1" Nylon Clamps x 2 = one package (Home Depot, Hillman H# 881303)
* 5/8" Nylon Hole plugs x 4, black (Lowes, Hillman P/N #881284)
* Halex 3/4 in. Electrical Metallic Tube (EMT) 2-Hole Straps (4-Pack) ()
* Silicon Caulk (Extra Flex, 100% Silicon)
* Marine self-tapping Screws #8, 1/2" x 4 (from an Attwood 9202-6 Marine Fastener kit)

Alternate Suggestions for Mounting Materials:
* Consider purchasing Plexiglass acrylic tubing instead of the Vinyl tubing. offers these as you can see here:
  - The plexiglass tubing should offer superior protection to the EL tape, but will not bend as easily if that is needed!

Miscellaneous Materials:
* 5-minute epoxy
* Solder
* Electrical Tape
* Hookup Wire

* Drill, various drill bits, including Philips head bits and bits for aluminum boat body
* Dremel, cut-off wheels, grinding stone wheels
* Caulk gun
* Screw drivers
* epoxy mix/application stick
* Wire Cutters
* Soldering Iron
* Heat gun / Butane torch / lighter (for heat shrink tubing)
* PVC pipe cutter

Step 2: Prepare the Project Box...

To wire this up, our goal is to:
1) Protect the EL Wire Driver from the marine environment
2) Dampen the noise generated by the driver somewhat (it hums at ~2.5kHz)
3) Provide a switch to shutoff the EL Wire but still leave the normal navigation lighting on
4) Provide AC high frequency, high voltage, low-current power to the EL tape

I decided to wire this directly to the same wires that power my main navigation light.  In this way, a flip of the console switch to turn on the navigation lights, turns on both the normal light, and the new EL Tape lights.  Nevertheless, since I'm not certain about how quickly the EL tape and driver may drain the main battery, I added a switch to separately shut off the driver.  This will not be a concern when the boat is under power and the alternator is recharging the battery, but on long, lonely fishing nights using the trolling motor for hours, it may be helpful to shut off the EL lights -- both to avoid the minor hum and the battery drain.

The Project Box

The project box has standoffs on the bottom of it, that can be used to mount a printed circuit board.  These will get in the way for us, so the first step is to use a Dremel tool with a cut-off wheel to remove the standoffs.

Once the standoffs are removed, the 12-volt EL Wire driver from adafruit fits nicely.  Holes are now drilled in the sides of the box to:
1) Allow the power-source wires to enter

2) Allow the EL wire connector out of the box.  (This could've been done at the top of the box with a small slit, but instead I drilled a large hole to fit the connector.  The wire also could've been cut and enter through a small hole.  You decide what you like best, but note that I intended to fill the box with RTV silicone to protect it from the elements, so the holes only mattered while the RTV was curing.

3) Allow the switch to be attached to the outside of the box, with the leads inside.  NOTE: The switch is a bit too big for the box with the driver.  We will fix this, but be warned that if you do not put the switch far enough down into the box you may need to use the Dremel with the cut-off wheel to modify the lid of the project box so that you get it to close properly.

The photos below show the process of removing the standoffs, drilling the wholes, and putting all of the pieces in place...

Step 3: Wire Up the Driver...

This is fairly simple, but you need to make a note of the wire diagram on the under-side of the switch before you attach it.  Two wires, a red and black will enter the box from the side.  These will later be connected directly to the same wires used to power the navigation light on the boat.  For now we will test them with a 12-volt battery.

The incoming black wire is soldered to the ground (-) post of the switch along with the black wire from the EL Wire driver.

The incoming red wire is soldered to the positive (+) post of the switch.

The red wire from the EL Wire driver is then soldered to the "load" post of the switch.

Because we will fill the project box with RTV silicone, it is not necessary to provide additional insulation to the wires, as long as nothing that shouldn't touch does when we pour the silicone.  This is fairly easy given our tight fight in the box.

Once this is wired up, you can connect the driver (inverter) to some of the EL tape, and connect the power-source lines to a 12v DC supply and test it out.

Step 4: Marine-proof the Electronics...

Now we will seal up (protect against water), and insulate everything in the box.  Hopefully this will also reduce some of the oscillation noise from the inverter.

To do this, follow the instructions in the Alumilite Quick-Set RTV/Silicone Rubber box to mix parts A and B appropriately.  You will need somewhere around 2 oz. of silicone.

Outside of the box, cover the holes through which wires exit the box with tape, to prevent leaking too much silicone.  The silicone dries about as hard as some of the heavier silicone cell phone protectors.  It is fairly hard and rubbery, not soft like the silicone in most caulk.

Pour the RTV mixture into the project box so that everything is covered.

Place the lid on the box and tighten the screws.

Allow the RTV mixture time to cure -- which probably means overnight.

Once completely cured, use your finger, a knife blade, etc., to scrape away excess silicone that leaked through the holes.

The box should now be waterproof, with all electrical connections insulated.

Step 5: Prepare the Connectors...

This is the easiest step of all.  Here we will take two of the female in-line power connector wires, and connect them to one of the male in-line power connector wires.

What this does, is allows us to connect the one EL wire driver to both pieces of EL tape.  Each piece of tape has a male connector.  The driver has a female connector.  By connecting two female connectors to a single male connector we will split the output of the driver to both pieces of wire.

You could also connect the end of one piece of EL tape to the other tape, if you need the full 100 cm of EL tape for your vessel.

Place a piece of heat sink tubing over the wires.  Match up the wires -- pay attention to the white stripe so they are all connected, solder them together, and then use a heat source to shrink the heat shrink tubing to insulate everything.

Step 6: Build the Light Bars...

Our light bars need to be custom made for the boat to which they will be attached...  In my case, I'm going to attach the EL tape to a 3/8" square wooden dowel that has been cut to 31", sanded, sealed, painted silver, and lacquered with acrylic.

These strips would fit perfectly on the boat, but I want more protection for the EL tape, so I'm going to insert the dowel and tape into clear vinyl tubing, and then use silicone caulk and plugs to seal off each end.  The end with the wire will have holes drilled through for the wires, but silicone caulk waterproofing the holes.

Start by cutting the dowel to the desired length.  Sand, seal, paint, and lacquer it.  I used supplies on hand.  I choose reflective silver paint in hopes of enhancing reflectiveness.

Once the lacquer is dry, cut the EL tape to match the length of the dowel.  Use wire cutters, not scissors.  Save the remaining EL tape and the attached wire connector for use in other projects.

Next remove the adhesive cover from the bottom of the tape and attach the tape to the dowel.

Then remove the protective clear cover from the top of the tape.

Use 5-minute epoxy to seal-off the cut end of the EL tape.  This will help ensure that nothing can short-out the wire (e.g. brine, etc.)  While the epoxy is out, use a little bit along the back of the EL tape to ensure a good connection with the dowel.

When the epoxy cures fully, the dowel and tape can be inserted into the vinyl tubing.  If you have plexiglass tubing this will be easy.  The vinyl tubing however wants to coil, so first insert an extra 3/8" x 36" dowel to hold the tubing straight.  Have someone help you remove the secondary dowel as you push in the dowel with the EL tape.  They can also help keep the tubing from bending and binding on the tape.

You can pre-cut the tubing with a PVC cutter, or you can cut it once the dowel and EL tape are in place, just be sure not to cut through the wire!  Leave less space on the ends than I have if you are using vinyl tubing as it still tries to coil and will round at the ends.

Cap off the end without wires by filling it with clear silicone caulk and then insert the 5/8" plug.  Add some silicone on top of the plug and around the end of the tubing, and then place the furniture cap over it.

Do the same thing on the end with the wires, but first cut a slot in the plug to allow the wire through.  Then cut an X in the end of the furniture plug, and carefully force the EL wire connector through it.  Use silicone to make sure the tube is sealed (waterproof) on both sides.

Step 7: Wire Up to the Boat's Navigation Light...

This step will require adaptation to your vessel.  In short, you have the 12-volt red and black (positive and ground) wires from the project box that need to be connected to a power-source.  In my case, I modified my navigation light pole so that I could feed the wires through it, and then added holes in the base connector, and soldered the wires directly to the wires coming into the base connector.

It is ugly, but it works great, because my EL light bars light up when I turn on the switch for my navigation lights.  I don't recommend this method though.  In the future I''ll fish longer wires through the front of the boat, under plastic "nose cone", and attach them to the same place, under the navigation lights base connector -- or maybe even on the console near the switch.

The other end is easy, just plug the connector wires we made into the EL tape connectors, and attach the other end to the driver connector wire.  I used silicone caulk to push the excess wire out of the way, and hold it under my trolling motor, and under the light bars.

In the photos I'll show some of the work I did, but please try to find a better, less hackish way because someday I will improve mine.

Step 8: Attach the Light Bars...

Again, this step will require adaptation based on your vessel.  In my case, it was convenient to use the existing screw holes in the "nose cone" on the bow as one point of attachment.  I used the 1" nylon clamps for the initial hold.  They are loose, but tight enough to get started...

I then used the "Halex 3/4 in. Electrical Metallic Tube Straps" to secure the light bars on both ends.  On the front end I used the existing screw holes in the "nose cone."  On the other end, I drilled small pilot holes and used self-tapping screws through the aluminum body.

The Halex tube straps appear to be made of aluminum, and were easy to bend around the vinyl tubing where needed...

Step 9: Clean It Up, Power It On...

Goo-gone and windex do a nice job of cleaning up the vinyl tubing.

Now turn on the power and check it out!

And then wait for a warm enough night to go fishing!!!

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