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Let There Be Lights

  #1  
Old 06-11-2018, 04:24 PM
giffenf
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Let There Be Lights

I seem to spend a fair bit of time loading and unloading my van, and a lot of that happens in the dark. So it seemed to me that would be a little easier if I had a way of lighting up the cargo area. The E350 Extended Passenger Wagon has 4 dome lights in addition to the front courtesy and map lights, and I thought swapping them out for brighter LEDs would do the trick. But…while they helped, they’re not bright enough to be able to see, say, a key or small part I may have dropped on the floor. Add to that, when the doors have been open a while, the dome lights go out to keep from killing the battery. A noble effort, but not helpful when it’s taking a while to load out in the dark.

I had just about received spousal approval to buy and install some LED strip lights when we found these at Costco:



“CAT” lights, branded by Caterpillar. 4 AA batteries and really, really bright LEDs that light up most any area. A fold-out handle so you can stand it up, they’ve even got magnets in the backs so you can (theoretically) stick them to a metal surface. $20 for two of them, batteries included. But the magnets aren’t particularly strong, so it isn’t too easy to put them where you’d really like t them to be, and they do tend to fall often. Then I got an idea. Amazon had a 4-pack of neodymium bar magnets that were just the right size to mount on the edges of the lights, one on the edge of the light and one on the edge of the handle. And these magnets are strong. And they came pre-drilled with countersunk mounting holes AND the screws. So I put them on the lights like this:




And now they’re incredibly practical.

But they still don’t light up the inside of the van the way I’d like. So I decided to install some LED strip lights. I don’t do much entertaining in my van, so really all I wanted was some bright white lights that would enhance my ability to see what I’m hauling around. No need for colors and light shows, etc. Luckily, those can be found pretty cheaply on
Amazon Amazon
. And since they run on 12 VDC, they’re perfect for automotive installations.

I watched most of the YouTube videos about the finer points of installing these things, and bought what I thought would be the requisite accessories for getting this done:
  • U-Shaped aluminum channels U-Shaped aluminum channels
    with diffuser shades to keep the lights protected and looking good. These can be screwed down to any surface that takes screws, or stuck down with double-stick tape if you don’t want to put holes in whatever you’re mounting them on.
  • Clamps Clamps
    – with wires on them to facilitate connecting the LED strips to power if you have cut specific lengths
  • Extenders Extenders
    – Aluminum clips that enable you to attach multiple aluminum strips together (the strips are 1 meter long, and the cargo bay in an E350 is a lot longer than that) for a long straight run
  • SPDT switches SPDT switches
    , because I want to be able to turn them on an off from either the front or the rear. The switches have a 0 and a I on them, but since this is a 2-switch circuit, one direction won’t always be “on,” and the other won’t always be “off,” so I put some Goof Off on a Q-tip and rubbed it until the labels went away


It took a while before I finally had time to get to work on it, and that’s probably a good thing, because it forced me to think everything through a time or two (something I’m not prone to doing) and minimize the chances of my screwing it up. Little things like “How am I going to mount these?” At first I was going to mount them horizontally over the seat rows, but then I looked at the headliner and was reminded it’s not a flat, or even gently-curved surface. There’s an A/C channel molded into the headliner that runs from the back (where the blower is) to the front, with adjustable vents so passengers can point the air where they want it.



That channel hangs down lower than the rest of the headliner, so horizontal wasn’t going to work. OK, how about if I run 2 long strips down the sides of the A/C channel? They’ll be closer to the ceiling than the air vents (and therefore out of the way), and at a slight angle, so they should illuminate the whole passenger/cargo area pretty evenly. I hope. But that doesn’t reach the back of the van, and the tailgate is where I need the light the most. So I figured I’d put one of the aluminum strips in the ceiling close to the tailgate. At 1 meter, it takes up most of the horizontal space, and it’s behind the A/C duct, so it can go (mostly) flat against the ceiling. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

But let’s talk about mounting those aluminum channels. I struggled with finding a way to mark exactly where to put them. Sure, they’re on either side of the vent duct, but I really wanted them to be straight, and I wanted them to be parallel. But how do ya do that when you’re on your knees in the van trying to mount something upside down? This didn’t bode well for my skill set. How can I draw a long straight line that’s 2 meters long, then draw another one that’s parallel to it, on the ceiling of a van? One of the few tools I inherited from my dad (I’ll spare you the tale of the wicked stepmother) was his Craftsman chalkline. It’s a long piece of string, impregnated with red chalk, and it winds up with a crank like a tape measure. You stretch it out somewhat tautly, it can’t help but make a straight line, from one end of where you want the long straight line (in this case, the place where I was going to drill the hole for the wires; I just pushed a nail into the headliner and hooked the end of the chalkline to that) to the other, then you pull it up a couple inches and let go. “Thwap!” Instant long straight line (I was having so much fun at this point I didn’t stop to take pictures of that). Two of those and I was in business. I just put the screws for the mounting brackets for the aluminum strips in along that line, and installation was (literally) a snap. Then I measured and cut the LED strips, and they’ve got peel-n-stick adhesive on the back, so they stuck right in.




OK, so how am I going to power them? Those 100-ft. spools of red and black 16-gauge wire I bought for other stuff seem like a good way. But how do I get those wires to the LED strips? Since I’m using the A/C duct as a mounting surface, how about making use of that? Well, that will facilitate splicing the two long runs together, but how do I get power from a switch on the dash to the middle of the ceiling? I looked at the headliner. There’s a gap between the inside of it and the roof of the van, maybe if I drilled a hole in the headliner, inside the A/C duct (which is accessible if you take off those adjustable vents) and used a fish tape to pull wire in from the side near the barn doors. I even remembered to drill at an angle so I didn’t go through the roof of the van. The fish tape worked so easily I wondered what I was missing. So now I have wire from the floor of the van (where all the other wires are) up the side (the barn door jamb on the left side has a gap that’s practically a perfect conduit to run wires through), and over to the vent holes between the roof and the top of the headliner where I can splice them all together.



(to keep the wires in the channel, I slit a grommet that was bigger than the channel, put it over the wires, and stuck it to the wires with the red tape, then shoved it into the channel; it stayed put).

OK, now to get the wires from the LED strips into the A/C duct so I can splice them to the wires that will feed the power to them. The wires on the LED connectors are really thin, and don’t take well to crimped connections. But by stripping a sizable amount of them and doubling the wire over, then doubling it again, I had a thick-enough piece of wire to crimp on.



Of course, that meant I had to drill a hole from the end of the LED strip into the A/C duct that was big enough to shove two 16-gauge butt splice crimp connectors through, which turned out to be a ” hole. But rather than leave these two little wires looking like they were flopping around in a big hole, I put a grommet on the smaller wires which fit in the hole and makes it look a little neater.



I mentioned there’s another LED strip across the back, it needed to be wired, too. But there is no A/C duct. So I drilled another hole (at an angle), used the fish tape again:



and just soldered the wires to the red and black wire I’d pulled in, then ran those wires down the side:




(had to pull off some of those plastic fasteners that hold the body panels and weatherstrip down, and pull the weatherstrip partway down, but the fasteners come out easily with a body panel tool, and go back in just as easily).

I also mentioned that I wanted a double switch circuit, so I could turn the lights on and off from the front or the rear. That left the question of where to put the switch. Not completely sure why I felt the switch had to be on the right back door, I guess I just haven’t shoved enough wires through that flexible rubber conduit and needed to put three more in there.




First I wanted to put the switch up near the window on the right back door, next to the lock button. But there really wasn’t a good way to do that, so I had to look elsewhere. I settled on right below the power lock button, since there was room behind the door panel for the wiring, and it would be somewhat intuitively located, since there was already another switch there.






Because there’s so much room, and there’s an easy-to-access hole in the interior wall in the jack storage area, and it was a reasonable center of connections, I used the space inside the right taillight to bring the wires from the switch in the front, the wires from the lights, and the wires from the switch together for the final connections. It’s a little spaghetti-like now, but it all fits easily, and best of all, it all works.



I really meant to take a picture of this with the taillight lens off, but forgot. So if nothing else, here’s proof that it still looks the same as it did before.

I ran the ground wire all the way up to the dashboard, not for any particularly good reason, just that I didn’t see a good place near the back anywhere with a non-painted screw that I had confidence was chassis-grounded. I found a wonderful bracket next to the glove compartment with an unused, threaded hole in it, and I actually had a bolt that fit it, so I crimped a lug on the wire and fastened it down. The two wires from the dashboard switch, which I mounted into the plastic on the dash near the ignition switch (there was plenty of free space there) go under the dash, over the doghouse (up high enough so the doghouse won’t catch on them when it comes off or goes back on; I’m accumulating a lot of wires there with all the goofy electrical stuff I’m doing to this poor van), then under the plastic panels in the walls and door wells, and around to the back.




And now, I’ll never have to load out (or in) in the dark again.


These are most of the tools I used for this (I forgot a couple, or maybe I’d actually already put them away):


It’s the usual stuff for cutting, stripping, and crimping wire, two little Philips screwdrivers to remove and reinstall the vents in the ceiling (there are two holes in the vents, you stick a screwdriver into each one and rotate the whole thing, and the vent pops off), drill bits, lights, but the most helpful tools are those blue body panel tools. They make quick work of safely pulling off the various snapped-on panels around this vehicle, and the
whole set whole set
was under $9.

After cleaning up and putting the tools away, I looked at the remaining strips of LEDs and thought, “Wouldn’t it be handy to have a strip of these under the hood, in case I ever have to pop the hood at night?” Not only handy, but easy. I don’t think it took more than an hour, and most of that was spent cleaning the part of the hood where I stuck the LEDs.

 
  #2  
Old 06-12-2018, 08:40 PM
EmilBarnabas
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Thanks for the great post. I just bought a passenger van to use as a cargo van, so you have given me lots to think about.
 
  #3  
Old 06-12-2018, 09:02 PM
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guitarpicr
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Nice clean install & thanks for posting all the pics. Turned out great. I always wind up using my flashlight but that has me thinking
 
  #4  
Old 06-14-2018, 05:38 PM
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I also changed out the bulbs to leds and while it made a difference, IIalso needed more light. I used some battery powered puck lights. I got them for free when I was helping a friend move some stuff. They are remote controlled. They light it really well. I'll take some pics later, if I remember.

First pic, below, is with regular dome lights on. Second is with the puck lights on, also.
 
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Old 06-14-2018, 10:09 PM
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  #6  
Old 06-15-2018, 11:21 AM
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puck nice

Originally Posted by EagleFreek View Post

PUCK .. those do a good job !!! :lol: :lol:
 
  #7  
Old 06-15-2018, 03:34 PM
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I bought LED pods, each one have 2 blue LEDs, the boards have 20, it's really bright, tho if I were to do it again, I'd not use these, they were assembled with tiny wiring that has caused grief, I don't like repairing it. I used the RGB strips in my 73, made a light box and put it in the center, much simpler, but with the AC in the center of the ceiling in my 99 something different was in order, tho I did it 12 years ago.
 
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Old 06-15-2018, 03:37 PM
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BTW for adjustment, you can add a dimmer so it's not blinding bright, I noticed my blue strips near burn my eyes they're so bright.
 
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Old 06-15-2018, 05:54 PM
giffenf
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@EagleFreek, those puck lights look very powerful (with my heart and soul I want to throw in some more "puck" puns, but all the good ones have already been used so I'll spare you).

@maples01, I guess mine aren't as bright because (so far, anyway), my eyes have only been grateful for not having to strain to see things.

I showed the lights to our bass player (whose day job is as a metal fabricator in a hot rod shop) and he went nuts raving about how cool the lights are. Mission accomplished.
 
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Old 06-15-2018, 07:10 PM
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Puck, yeah. The puck lights are easy to install since they're battery operated and there's no wiring. You just take off the battery cover cover screw that to the ceiling and then twist the puck back on. However I now have six lights with three double a batteries each. That's a lot of batteries.

Blue LEDs are known to be the most bright and annoying to the human eye. I hate it when a phone charger or some other accessory like a radio has blue LEDs. They really bother my eyes.
 
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Old 06-15-2018, 09:23 PM
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I have several colors, I've not used my white ones yet, the greens are single LEDs set in the shelf to light my shot glasses, I noticed they were nowhere near as bright as the blue, I am trying to set stuff up for accent lighting, not blinding, the RGB strips are great, so if you get a chance, they go on remotes, so you don't need to look for switches to turn on a light. BTW the blue LEDs I put in my dome lights are reasonable, not overwhelming, I find nothing lasts long in that rear housing tho.
 
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