Adding LED Ceiling Lights to an Airstream Trailer
Given the age our trailer it was not at all surprising that most of the lighting was supplied by traditional incandescent and fluorescent light fixtures when we purchased it. We decided that one of our first projects would be to replace a lot of the original lighting with LEDs so that we could 1) add more light and 2) give our home a more contemporary feel. For us, there were a lot of unknowns in terms of basic electrical knowledge, wiring, types of LEDs, dimmers, how to snake wires through the interior skins, etc. There were enough variables that it took a while before we were confident enough to start our transition to LEDs. If you're in the same boat (or trailer), hopefully this post will alleviate some of your anxiety and help you tackle this highly rewarding project.
In this post we'll focus on replacing the overhead fluorescent light in the kitchen/dinette area with 6 LEDs. We chose to build an enclosure for the lights and wiring as opposed to removing the interior skins and/or running the wiring through the ribs because it's a less invasive way to accomplish the project and much of the work can be done outside of the trailer, leaving our home more habitable while executing the project.
In future posts we'll tackle replacing the spotlights under the front and rear end-caps, the two miscellaneous lights over the fridge and wardrobe, and under-cabinet lighting in the kitchen/dinette area which will also cover adding dimmer switches.
- Provide more and better distributed overhead lighting.
- Allow us the option of replacing the original loud and ugly fan/light fixture combo that is over our dinette with a new fan-only fixture that would allow natural light to pass through during the day. We gain this option by outputting and distributing a lot more light with LEDs than with the fluorescent fixture.
- Give our trailer a face lift by modernizing the light fixtures and switches.
Our Existing Setup
- Two fluorescent light fixtures. One near the sink and another in an integrated fan/light fixture over the dinette.
- Four rocker switches near the entryway.
What you will Need
This should cover everything we used to complete this project. Hopefully you already have most of the tools. If you do, this project is relatively inexpensive at around $80 for the lights, wood, and hardware depending on which options you choose.
There are a few things you should consider when purchasing lights.
- Color/Temperature: Light color is measured using the Kelvin scale. The warmer the light (the more yellow it is), the lower the temperature. The cooler the light (the more blue it is), the higher the temperature. This is definitely a personal preference. The lights we chose are on the warmer end of the scale at 3000K.
- Dimmable vs. Non-dimmable: Not all LEDs are dimmable. If you plan on using a dimmer switch, be sure to purchase dimmable LEDs. For this project we used dimmable LEDs however we did not opt for a dimmer switch. We chose these lights because we had used them for other projects and wanted them to match. Using dimmable lights with a regular on/off switch is fine, it's just the other way around that's a problem.
- Recessed vs. Low-profile: Recessed lights will require that you cut a hole to "sink" the light into the ceiling or other enclosure. Low-profile lights give the illusion that the light is recessed without requiring the additional work. We used low-profile lights.
- Hard-wired vs. AC Adapter: Most of the LED light kits come with an AC adapter so that that the 12V LEDs can be powered by a standard US 120V AC outlet/receptacle. Depending on your application you might not want to hard-wire the lights like we are doing here. Depending on your location it might be preferable to plug them into a 120V outlet. If so, consider a lighting kit that comes with an adapter. Most of them do, including the one we purchased. We just didn't use it.
- "Hub": Some of the lighting kits come with a hub that makes it easier to connect many lights to the power source than if you were to have to daisy chain them all together yourself. Definitely keep an eye out for this if you're connecting more than a couple of lights.
This is the light kit that we used for this project as well as for replacing the end-cap spotlights. Other than having TINY screws they were pretty easy to install and have worked great for close to a year.
You definitely don't have to change your switch(es) unless you want a dimmer and don't already have one. We changed our switches because our switches, outlets, speakers, etc. were all dated and turning that awful yellow color.
We used two of these (4 switches) to replace the four rocker switches by our entryway.
You just need some basic things here. Hopefully you already have them. If not, you'll be sure to use them again in the future. Don't let the multimeter scare you. It's not necessary but can definitely make life easier at times.
Don't let the amount or type of tools here scare you. Any drill will do (cordless, corded, manual). You don't need to buy a set of tiny weeny screwdrivers. Some lights come with adhesive stickers for mounting, you could glue them, or if they come with tiny screws you probably have a screwdriver that will fit. The small clamp is probably not necessary. I used one for holding the wiring hub in place while the glue dried. You don't even have to glue the hub. The 12" bar clamps were used to hold the wood frame together while the glue dried and were very useful. These types of clamps have a million and one uses and if you don't already own some I'd recommend buying at least a couple although you could get away without them for this project. If you own an Airstream you should have a rivet tool. That being said, if you'd prefer to screw the light enclosure into the ceiling you can forego the rivet tool. As for an air compressor and brad nailer, these too are optional but will make your life many times easier. Any air compressor will do. I love the cordless compressor because you can use it anywhere including the side of the road if you need to fill your tires.
There are a couple of important things to note here. If following the same dimensions as our enclosure, you can rip the common board into all the pieces you need to create the enclosure's frame. You will need a table saw to do the lengthwise rip cuts. If you are not comfortable with this or you do not have a table saw, ask your lumber yard if they have something that will meet your needs or if they will cut it for you. Also, it's very important to get corner braces that are the same height as the frame of the enclosure. This way the braces will fit inside the enclosure and sit firmly against the ceiling. The 1x3 common board is actually 3/4 in. thick (not 1 in.) which is the dimension we use for how far the enclosure comes downwards/away from the ceiling. Therefore we use 3/4 in. corner braces to affix the enclosure to the ceiling. As for the plywood cover, our enclosure is only 7.5 inches wide so it's a shame to purchase a 4'x8' piece of plywood when all you need is 7.5 in. x 8 ft. Look around your lumber yard and see if you can find something more cost effective and less wasteful.
If you choose not to use a brad nailer and use an old fashioned hammer and nail, be sure to get some brad or finish nails. The same goes for passing on the rivets, you'll need to get a hold of suitable screws for fastening the enclosure to the ceiling. As for the hinges and corner braces, buy these at your local hardware store for a fraction of what they cost on Amazon.
Total Enclosure: 8' x 7.5 in. x 1 in. The frame has a height of 3/4 in. but with the 1/4 in. plywood cover it has a total height/depth of 1 in.
Side Rails (x2): 8' x 1/2 in. x 3/4 in. The 1/2" dimension is less important than the other two dimensions. It does not have to be precise.
End Rails (x2): 6.5 in. x 1/2 in. x 3/4 in. The 1/2" dimension is less important than the other two dimensions. It does not have to be precise.
Inner Rails (x4): 6.5 in. x 1/2 in. x 1/2 in. The inner rails are not as tall because we want to have space to pass the wires over them.
Cover (x1): 8' x 7.5 in.
LEDs: The center of the first light is 8 in. from the end. Each light thereafter is 16 in. from the previous light's center.
RemovE the Existing Light
This will depend on your light but it should be straightforward. Remove the rivets or screws that hold the light to the ceiling. Be sure to put wire nuts or electrical tape over the exposed wires.
Build the Enclosure
1. Cut the wood pieces for the frame: See the Dimensions section above for the number of pieces and their dimensions.
2. Assemble the frame: Using the pieces from #1, glue and/or brad nail the pieces together. We glued the frame together and used clamps to keep it together while everything dried. We also chose not to use 45 degree cuts for our joins since they would mostly be out of sight. Make sure to have the center "ribs" flush with the bottom (the floor if you're assembling this on the floor). Having space above the ribs will allow the wiring to pass above the ribs and into the LED wiring hub.
3. Add the corner braces: Use the 1 in. corner braces in each of the four corners of the frame to solidify the structure. If the screws that came with the braces are long enough that they'll protrude through the frame, get screws that won't.
4. Add the ceiling mount corner braces: Mount the 3/4 in. corner braces flush with the side of the frame that will sit against the ceiling. Depending on how you assembled the frame, you will likely want to flip the frame over before starting this step. You will know you are doing this correctly if there is space for the wires to pass over the ribs when the ceiling mount braces are flush with the ceiling. Stagger the braces enough so that the frame can be fastened snug against the ceiling.
5. Add the hinges (optional): If you'd like to be able to more easily open the enclosure in the future and more easily work on the wiring when you're originally mounting the enclosure, you can add hinges. Use a chisel to sink the closed hinge flush with the frame. In hindsight we're not sure if this was a great idea since we nailed the enclosure closed and it still won't be easy to open in the future even though we have hinges. They're also a little bit of an eyesore.
InstalL the Lights
1. Drill holes in the enclosure cover for the LEDs: Measure 8 in. in from one end and 3 3/4 in. from the side to find the center point for the first light. From there, measure 16 in. to each subsequent LED center and mark these points. Once these points are marked, use one of the LEDs to mark where the mounting screws and wire will go. Using the appropriate sized drill bits (large enough for the wire to pass through but not too large that the LED won't cover it and the appropriate size for the screws), drill the holes where marked.
2. Attach the LEDs: Remove the covers from the LEDs, pass the wire through the larger hole and screw the light to the cover. Repeat this step for all lights.
3. Plug the LEDs into the hub: Plug the LEDs into the wiring hub passing them over/under the ribs depending on which way you have the frame lying. We glued the hub to the cover. In the picture above the clamp is holding the hub to the cover while the glue dries.
4. Modify the AC adapter wiring: Since you won't be using the AC adapter we need to remove any AC components. With this light kit all we have to do with cut the wire on the male side of the switch harness. Now we can plug the male end into the hub and expose the wires on the other end for wiring into the existing wiring in the trailer ceiling.
Install the Enclosure
1. Attach the frame to the ceiling: Determine which way you want to affix the enclosure to the ceiling based on the position of the ceiling brackets (they must be facing the correct direction) and the hinges (which way do you want the cover to swing open). Ideally someone can help you hold the enclosure to the ceiling while you mark where the ceiling braces/brackets will go. Once they are marked, drill appropriate sized holes for your fasteners (rivets or screws). Once the holes are drilled, fasten the frame to the ceiling using rivets or screws.
2. Attach the cover to the frame: Now that the frame is attached to the ceiling we need to attach the plywood cover to the frame. If you are using hinges, attach these first. Once the cover is partially attached to the frame, connect the LED hub to the existing wiring in the ceiling. Make sure the all the lights work! Once the lights are wired in, complete the attachment of the cover to the frame, preferably using a brad nailer.
3. Finishing work: Using caulk, fill in any gaps between the frame and the ceiling and the cover and the frame. You can also use the calk to cover any holes created by the brads.
Most of this work was creating and installing the enclosure. Wiring LEDs into pre-existing circuits is easy. In future posts we'l share how we replaced the original end-cap lighting and under-cabinet lighting with the same LEDs we used in this project.
As always, we try to make it very clear that if you purchase an item through one of our links we may get a small commission. Not all of our links work this way but many do. Keep in mind that you never pay anything additional and that 99% of these links (we haven't actually done the math but we rarely see a need to list something that we're not already using) are for products that we ourselves have purchased AND are happy with.