Over the last couple of years, we have received requests for LED strip lighting that can be retrofitted to coaches that do not come factory equipped with LED strips on the awnings. Some of our RVs have a patio awning roller tube with a track large enough to hold a fluorescent tube that is designed to be stored in the track. It comes equipped with a coiled cord that can be stretched from the awning tube and plugged into a mating socket on the patio light on the coach body. With automatic awnings and taller coaches using these lights presents a challenge, requiring a ladder to access the light and cord and care to ensure the auto-retract feature of these awnings is turned off when the light is plugged in. To aggravate the RVer even more, the automatic awning does not extend and stop with the light facing the ground, requiring manual switching of the awning extend/retract control to get the light into position. Personally, I have never found this something worth attempting after the first use to see how it worked.
With the initial conversion to using LED light strips, awning manufacturers began using LED light strips that were not suitable for the task of providing durable, dependable lighting. The first generations of LED light strips were assembled from a series of about 3” (7.5cm) LED-containing circuit boards soldered together to form long strips. The strips were often contained in plastic tubes creating the infamous ‘rope lighting’ often laid on the ground around RVs at campsites. The same strips were attached using a double sided tape and some form of covering to awnings, which then provided light along the length of the awning body. Some ambitious manufacturers replaced the fluorescent strips mentioned earlier with the light strips mounted on the awning roller tube. The wiring was similar to the fluorescent strips and not convenient to use.
These LED strips were not suitable to the rigors of RV use, frequently having sections or even individual LEDs fail, to the consternation of RVers. If the failure occurred while the awning was under factory warranty, the strip was replaced with the same type and frequently the same fault re-occurred as time passed on. Our decision was to decline to sell strip lighting until a much more rigorous design came out and easier to use control systems were brought to market.
The LED Solution
Each year I survey the market in an attempt to find well-made LED strips which can withstand the beating that RV use dishes out. We learned in early 2015 that great strides were being made and last December, I saw the improved product at the Louisville, KY RVIA Dealer Show. These new LED lighting strips are encased in a silicone gel for protection, use the latest 3528 LED, are attached with a durable 3M® adhesive strip and have a black background to allow them to be mounted to the black awning housing and blend in much more than the prior white background strips. The wiring connections are far more durable, the end is finished properly and the highest quality strips are UL® listed. This latter point is important since these LED strips are subjected to extensive electrical and physical tests and when they pass, the makers can stamp them with the UL® logo. The light density is either 30 or 60 LEDs per meter. These are bright, great quality lighting strips available in many colors. In addition, convenience dictates that these strips be at the very least 12-volt switchable, however ideally they would be remote controlled and dimmable.
So now that the product exists, what is the source and how is it installed? Our firm committed to carrying the product and we have tested them and we have begun assembling LED lighting kits with a remote control. While some of the awning makers continue to promote installation on the awning tube which might be best for smaller RVs and trailers that frequently sit much of the time, the trend on larger RVs is to mount the strips on the coach awning housing or when a large slideout might obstruct the light from the coach mounted awning housing, placing the LED strips on the housing of the slide topper. This approach provides high mounted light over the patio area and with a remote control the light can be dimmed to suit at any time.
Installation involves finding a suitable 12-volt power source, cleaning the housing and mounting the strip, installing the fuse protection, wiring and dimmer control, then sealing any access holes and cutting the strip to fit and sealing the end. The challenge that high end coach owners will have is that most of the 12-volt lighting circuits are multiplexed and controlled by wall mounted switches that switch the power source at the multiplex board not at the light fixture. Tapping into a nearby light for the LED strip power would require that the interior light be turned on to provide power to the LED strip. That may not be convenient. Running a dedicated 12-Volt power source may be difficult in a modern RV. In a RV with conventional lighting controlled by individual switches, the task is simplified, since a connection to the light wiring provides power for the LED strip and installing the remote control module provides the on-off and dimming capability. The biggest challenges in this case are finding a place to locate the remote module and feeding the wiring from the source to the LED strip. Sometimes it may make sense to order an optional 110 VAC adapter, which allows the LED strip to be powered by 12 volts supplied by the AC adapter which is plugged into a nearby AC outlet, possibly powered by an Inverter for ‘dry-camp’ use.
An Installation on our Coach:
On our 2009 American Coach Allegiance, we have 30 inch (76cm) wide kitchen slide immediately behind the front entrance door which is about 13 feet (4m) long. The awning lighting would have been obstructed by the large slide, thus our decision was to mount the LED strip on the slide-out’s slide topper housing. This would provide patio area lighting along the full length of the coach and the results were spectacular. The slideout contains the 12Volt refrigerator power which was tapped into for the LED power and the access panels made installing the controller and running the wiring fairly simple. This RV does not have multiplexed lighting and with the large slideout blocking the patio light, I had previously installed a motion light which was connected through the slideout wall to a reading light fixture that has power to it all the time and a switch on the base of the light. This could have provided power to the LED strip light has we not had access to the refrigerator power.
We have also found that many RVers find the cool white lighting to be too stark even when dimmed. We offer warm white lighting that appears to be a ‘string of pearls’ when viewed.
Each RV will present its own set of challenges in locating a suitable power source, installing the control module and wiring. The results are well worth the time spent in making the LED strip lighting addition.