Before you have a string of decorative lights in your motorhome replaced when a bulb burns out, consider changing the bulb yourself.
By Bill Hendrix, F761S
Originally, rope lights — the generic name for accent or mood lights housed in long tubes — were used only in luxury motor coaches. But like many other popular features, they now are commonly found all across the price spectrum. Our first experience with these lights was in our 1985 coach and subsequently in our 1988, 1993, and 1995 motorhomes. Over the years, I have replaced many burned-out bulbs using a simple, inexpensive technique.
Normally, the bulbs in these rope lights last a very long time. But on occasion, a bulb will burn out. Most people just ignore it rather than replace the entire string of lights, as total replacement can be expensive. The cost, of course, will be relative to the number and length of the strings and the labor rate at the repair shop. A friend of mine recently spent a few hundred dollars getting his rope lights replaced.
Please note, however, that the techniques described in this article apply only to low-voltage (12-volt DC) lighting. Some manufacturers use 120-volt accent lighting in their coaches. Do not attempt to repair rope lights that operate on 120-volt AC current.
Don’t confuse rope lights with fiber optics. The fiber-optic system uses a central high-intensity bulb, usually with a color wheel, and the fiber strands are just light conductors. That central bulb is accessible and can be replaced like a projector bulb.
There are two kinds of rope lights. One is encased in a flexible, clear plastic tube, and the other has a rigid tube. Inside the tube are miniature bulbs, wired in parallel between two small, coated, solid copper wires. The coating on the copper wires serves as the insulator to keep the leads from shorting to each other. The use of coated wires is rather common and is found in induction coils, motors, and many other applications. The bulb has two even smaller leads that are attached to the copper wires by tiny compression sleeves. During the manufacturing process, when the sleeve is compressed, it penetrates the coating on the copper wire and makes an electrical connection. I believe the bulbs are actually designed to operate on a higher voltage (probably 24 volts). By operating them on 12 volts, they provide a soft orange glow rather than a brilliant white light. This also gives the bulbs longer life. However, nothing is forever, and when a bulb fails, it leaves a skip in the sequence that is annoying.
Repairing the flexible rope lights is actually very simple. Rather than replacing the whole string of lights, just replace the bulbs that are burned out. First, you will need to get some replacement bulbs. Depending on how many bulbs you need, buy an appropriate length of lights from your RV manufacturer. There are about four bulbs per foot, so this should cost only a few dollars. From the purchased rope, slide the string of bulbs out of the plastic tube. Separate the two copper wires and clip the bulb leads as close as you can to the copper wire, thus leaving a pair of 3/4-inch leads on the bulb. Next, you need to get the burned-out bulb exposed for replacement.
Most of the flexible ropes are held in place either by a few dabs of clear silicone sealant and/or by a snug fit in the provided groove. If the rope can be easily lifted from its nest, do so and lay the rope on a piece of scrap wood for surgery. With the lights on, mark the exact location of the bulb with a narrow strip of masking tape. Then, with the lights turned off, make a 3-inch incision with a single-edge razor blade or a sharp knife on the back side of the plastic tube to avoid scraping off the wire coating. The wood serves as a protector of sorts just in case. Part the incision and lift the bulb out of the tube. Clip the bulb leads as close to the bulb as possible. This will leave about 3/4-inch of lead to work with.
Connect the new bulb to the old leads by twisting them tightly with a pair of sharp-nosed pliers, keeping the bulb location as marked with the masking tape. The repaired leads will be departing the bulb in opposite directions, and it is necessary to orient the bulb so the leads do not contact each other. Trim the twisted part of the leads to about 1/4-inch. If you have a soldering iron, a tiny amount of solder will make an excellent connection. (Personally, I have not used solder and have found the twisted wires to be sufficient.) Separate the opening again and carefully return the bulb and wires to the inside of the tube. Turn on the lights to test before installing the string back in its original location.
If removal of the rope is difficult, this same procedure can be done in place from the front side of the plastic tube. The incision is hardly noticeable but can be sealed with a light coating of vinyl cement.
Repair of rope lights in rigid plastic is somewhat more difficult. The plastic tube must be removed and the light string extracted from the tube in order to gain access to the failed bulbs. If removal is not obvious, call the RV manufacturer and speak with a service rep for instructions. Once removed, you will find that most rigid tubes are sealed at each end with clear silicone. Remove the silicone with a penknife and slide the light string out of the tube. Make the repair in the same manner as described above. Test the lights for function, then carefully slide the string of lights back into the tube. Re-seal the ends of the tube and when dry, return the light string to its original location.
By replacing the bulbs in our coach’s rope lights whenever necessary, I’ve been able to retain a complete decorative look with no lighting gaps.