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CAMPING - POWER & LIGHTING

CAMP LIGHTING EXAMINED
We tested gas, fluoro and LED lighting

 

All
three forms of camp lighting – gas, fluoro and LED – have their place,
but here you can find out which one or which combination is best for
you. This camp lighting survey shows the variety of lighting that’s on
the market today, making it easy for bush travellers to specify exactly
what they need. Pricing varies from $5 up to $140, so there’s something
for every budget!

Illuminating
the campsite used to be a simple operation: you got the kerosene lamp
out of its hessian bag, wiped off any overspill, cut off last night’s
burnt wick tip, wound up some fresh, damp wick and lit it. The
flickering glow gave barely enough light to eat by, but it was better
than darkness.

The
next generation of liquid-fuel lamps used a glass-fibre mantle and kero
that was atomised via a hand-pumped pressure tank and fine jet. This
hotter flame made the mantle glow brightly, giving much more light.

Today’s pressurised liquid fuel and gas-fuel camping lights still use the pressurised fuel and glowing mantle principle.

No-one
thought of electric camping lights until portable fridges became part
of everyone’s travelling kit. To run a fridge a 4WD needed auxiliary
battery power, in the form of a dual-battery system and the second
volt-box meant that electric light became an alternative to
combustion-generated light.

Conventional
incandescent globes, like the ones found in vehicle headlights, gave
plenty of campsite illumination, but had fragile glass shells and thin
filaments, and used a lot of battery power. The arrival of robust
fluorescent tube lights changed that situation.

Fluoro
lights have no filaments to break or burn out, provide plenty of light
and use a fraction of the conventional globe’s power. Fluoros also run
cooler than incandescents and pressurised-fuel lights, which are
dangerously hot to touch.

Campsites
all around the country were lit by golden firelight, bright fluoro and
variable-intensity mantle lights until early this century, when
commercially viable LEDs blinked to life.

 

The Pros and Cons of LEDs

LEDs
– light emitting diodes – have advantages over other types of camp
lighting:  they don’t have filaments or mantles that burn out or break;
their small plastic-bulb construction makes them more durable than glass
globes and fluoro tubes; and they’re more energy efficient than any
other form of camp lighting.  

Heat is a by-product of light generation by incandescent bulbs and fuel and gas lights, but this heat indicates wasted energy: the more heat, the less efficient the light source.

The
cool-running nature of fluoro and LED lights indicates that much of the
consumed electrical power is used to generate light.

This
doesn’t mean that gas and incandescent lights don’t generate plenty of
light, but it does mean these ‘hot’ light sources waste energy in doing
so.

On
the face of it you’d expect that LEDs would have replaced other camp
light forms, but energy consumption isn’t the entire picture. For a
start, all LEDs are not alike, even if they share a common principle.
Some LEDs are deliberately low-light; others are cheaply made and not
very brilliant; and the latest flux or chip LED units are increasingly
replacing high-powered incandescent bulbs.

Also,
LEDs are directional, like a torch beam, so multiples are needed in an
angled cluster, to provide area lighting in the way an incandescent
globe or a fluoro provides.

So,
when assessing different camp lights it’s best to compare them in a
real-world situation, which is what we’ve done for this report.

 

Pressurised Fuel Camp Lighting

LPG
and petroleum-based liquids are common camping stove fuels. Flame-lit
mantles glow a brilliant white at full power, providing excellent area
lighting and can be turned down to a gentle yellow glow, for intimate
bush dining.

This
flexibility is unmatched by portable electric lights. However, LPG and
fuel lights must never be used in enclosed spaces, because of the
obvious fire risk, plus the potential poisoning effects of combustion
emissions.

The downside of fuel combustion lighting is inefficiency, which is shown clearly in heat buildup.

Mantle
lights often suffer from heat-discoloured caps and cracked glass
diffusers. LPG consumption varies, depending on brightness, between 20
grams per hour and 100 g/h.


Another disadvantage of LPG and liquid fuel lighting is the fragile nature of mantles.

They
need to be ‘burnt in’ before use and thereafter can easily turn to
white powder if touched. It’s not uncommon when travelling over rough
tracks to find the lamp mantle a pile of dust at the end of the day,
requiring a new mantle to be fitted before the light can be used.

Several
makers have made gas lights with metal mesh ‘mantles’ and reflective
mirrors, but light output has been far less than from fabric mantle
lights.

 

Horses for Courses

We
took a pile of different electric camping lights – major brands and
‘cheapies’ – and pitted them against a gas fuel light. We tested 12-volt
fluoro and LED lights that had either inbuilt battery power or cables
with 12V socket plugs

We
assessed each light’s output in terms of brightness and area coverage,
and we’ve tabulated the results. Rather than being viewed as a direct
comparison this table shows the lights that are best for area lighting
and for localised lighting.

We
tried to work out a cost of running comparison between the different
forms of camp lighting, but it proved impossible: how do you asses the
duration and amount of vehicle alternator power you’re using to power up
a rechargeable light and determine the extra petrol or diesel the
engine needs to do so?

We
discovered that fluoro lights and the LPG light gave better area
coverage than LED lights, which were ideal for smaller area, localised
lighting, such as above a tailgate or a camp stove, or inside a tent or
camper trailer. Large-area LED work lights turn night into day, but can be uncomfrtably bright for a relaxed camping experience.

Only
the turned-down LPG light was considered convenient for use as a table
lamp: the others were uncomfortably bright, unless they were suspended
above the table, mounted on a pole or hanging from a branch.

So, what should you buy?

If you want to illuminate a large camp area the best choices are LPG or fluoro lights.

For
work lights over the tailgate or stove, LED or fluoro lights are ideal
and you have a choice of plug-in or rechargeable types.

If
you’re driving every day, touring, camping overnight and then moving on
the next day, battery drain isn’t a problem, so plug-in lights are
fine.

If
you’re camping for two or three days at a time, without running your
4WD engine, your best choices are rechargeable or 
battery-powered LED lights.

Rechargeable
work lights won’t give you large-area coverage, but they run for up to 75
hours.

We
found that rechargeable LED work lights supplied by Narva and Hella
charged well from car sockets, but Coleman lanterns needed 240V charging
for optimum lasting power.

The pick of the 12V Coleman lanterns was the excellent D-cell battery Quad unit.

 

LPG Lamp

The
Coleman NorthStar LPG lantern came in a plastic clamshell carry case,
complete with folding base. It screwed easily onto a disposable LPG
465-gram cartridge that can also be used to fuel some Coleman camping
stoves.

Cartridges
cost around $8-$10 from hardware and camping stores. Gas life depends
on light intensity, but we managed 20+ hours easily, varying light
intensity from area coverage to table lighting.

The
plastic case proved handily shock-absorbent and the mantle coped with a
week’s spirited driving over indifferent surfaces without fracture.

The
Coleman LPG lantern was the most versatile of all the lights we tested,
being by far the most variable in light intensity and with the greatest
area coverage.

 

Fluoro Lamps

The
Coleman Retro Rechargeable lantern is designed to look like an
old-style ‘kero’ lamp. It even has a dummy fuel tank cap that works as a
yellow night light!

The
curly, fluoro globe illuminated a large area, but its claimed running
time of up to nine hours assumes a powerful charge that’s best achieved
with 240V input: fine for caravanners who visit powered sites every few
days.

There’s a warning that the globe may blacken if the light is used with a flattening battery.

We wouldn’t recommend this light for remote-area travellers.

ARB’s
Adventure Light and Piranha’s Fluorescent Premium are twin-fluoro tube
types and Narva’s Inspection & Leisure light is a single-tube unit.
All three are hook-up and plug-in types, but the twin-tubes give
slightly wider area coverage than the single-tube. Current draw is 0.9
amps for the Narva and one amp for the twin-tube lights.

 

LED – Plug-In Lights

ARB’s
LED Adventure Light and Piranha’s LED Premium are LED equivalents of
the hook-up and plug-in fluoro types, using virtually the same housings
and power leads. In exchange for less area coverage they had lower
current draws: 0.3A for the ARB and 0.39 for the slightly brighter
Piranha.

 

LED – Rechargeables

We
checked out a wide range of these lights, from Narva’s belt-clip
Compact Inspection Lamp, up to Coleman’s Family Size LED Lantern.

The
Narva lights come with water-resistant housings and on/off switches,
and 12V/240V chargers. They’re intended for rugged use in workshops and
over work stations. Area coverage is limited, but brightness is
excellent.

Our
evaluation unbranded $50 unit worked well, but its 12V charge lead
broke off at the plug, after a minimal amount of rough handling,
rendering it useless. You get what you pay for in rechargeable LED
lighting!

Piranha’s
bright orange LED Work Light is the only light on test to have a magnet
in its plastic housing, making it easy to attach to vehicle panels. It
also can switch between 10 LED and 30 LED operation. The downside is the
fact that the light cannot be used while it’s charging, from either 12V
or 240V power.

Coleman’s
Family Size LED lantern is disappointing. It uses a single,
super-bright LED and a reflector, but area coverage is poor and the
light is painfully bright to look at.

 

Cell Battery-Powered LEDs

We
checked out a couple of small tent lights – one vertical type and the
other that could give rise to sightings of mini flying saucers – and
Coleman’s breakthrough Quad unit.

The
24-LED round light is available under at least two different brands –
Hengtai and TRS Trading – and varies in price between $5 and $20. It
needs four non-rechargeable AA batteries and hangs from a central hook,
making it an almost flush-mount tent light. This mini light works well
illuminating small spaces. Claimed battery life is 30 hours and our
testing confirmed close to that duration from premium alkaline AAs.

The
Coleman Quad swallows eight D-cell batteries and these, in turn, power
up nickel metal hydride rechargeables in each of four LED modules. As
well, each of the four LED modules can be taken from the lamp and used
remotely for at least an hour, before needing to be returned to the
housing for recharge.

Literally
brilliant! The Quad is ideal for family camping, where a central light
is needed, as well as individual bedtime or ‘dunny trip’ lights.

 

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