How to Update RV Interior Lighting
If there's one question we get asked the most about our tiny home on wheels, it would be how the heck did we update our RV interior lighting?
The good news is it's much easier than you think.
Check out the video – Quick Tip: How to Update RV Light Fixtures:
Whether you want to update only the light bulbs in your RV, switch out entire light fixtures, or perhaps a combination of both, I hope this post will help point you in the right direction.
Side Note: The light fixture shown above was originally installed above our media cabinet, then switched with the one above our sofa.
How to Update RV Interior Lighting
We had two main issues with the light fixtures that came with our RV:
- They were boring and didn't have much going for them in the style department.
- The bulbs weren't LED, meaning they were total energy sucks AND they would get really hot when left on for a while. We even found some burn marks in the ceiling after removing some of the light fixtures. Yikes, now that's scary.
Disclaimer: I'm not an electrician and anything I've learned about light fixtures in general has either been found online, from my mom, or through experience. Please use your best judgement when dealing with electricity, or if you're unsure of something please consult with an electrician.
The basic understanding I have is that RV's can sometimes include two types of lights:
- 120v – these lights only work with a generator or when plugged into shore power and is similar to most sticks and bricks homes.
- 12v – these lights run off the batteries and some RV's only have these types of lights, at least that was the case for us.
At first we considered just switching out the bulbs in the old light fixtures to LED, and updating the fixtures later on. I think that's mainly because every time I started to research “RV” 12v light fixtures everything I found was just as lame as the ones we wanted to remove. Ugh.
It's all about the bulb
One day after yet another google search, I came across an RV forum (I can't remember if it was iRV2 or TiffinRVNetwork) where someone mentioned being able to use ANY light fixture in a RV, as long as you use the correct light bulbs.
Yes, apparently the light fixture doesn't matter so much, what does matter is the light bulb you put inside the light fixture.
For example, if you have a 120v light you can use any light fixture as long as you can screw in a 120v light bulb, and if you have a 12v light, you can use any light fixture as long as you can screw in a 12v light bulb.
This was music to my ears, but my excitement was short-lived.
You see, the light fixtures I had in mind required “exposed” light bulbs and I realllllly wanted vintage-style Edison bulbs. You can see one of the light fixtures from Schoolhouse Electric that I was drooling over at the time.
Whodathunk finding 12v LED Edison bulbs would be such a difficult task? I think our entire renovation constantly felt like we were taking one step forward and
ten two steps back.
It was exhausting. And my brain hurt.
It's totally normal to have 30 browser tabs open, right?
Every couple of weeks I would search again, hoping something would pop up, only to end my search hours later with about 30 browser tabs open, and a feeling of disappointment. (Fun fact, I currently have 44 tabs open, yes I just counted. Shhh don't tell Eric.)
Then one day the perfect bulbs finally appeared on my screen and I was excited and annoyed at the same time. Mainly because they showed up with a simple google search, the same search I had been doing for over a month.
I was doing this light bulb search a year ago, but the good news is that the 12v LED light bulb market has started to pick up over the past year and it's no longer a nightmare to find them. Yay tiny house movement!
I had purchased my first batch of bulbs through SuperBrightLEDs since Amazon didn't carry them at the time, but later purchased through Amazon once they became available.
If you don't care for Edison-style bulbs but need a standard base light bulb, you can find other 12V LED bulbs or go with non-LED 12v Bulbs. I recommend switching to LED if possible, even if you can only do it a few bulbs at a time. This will save on power, heat, and last longer than non LED light bulbs.
Buy or DIY
To be honest, I'd recommend buying the light fixtures if they're within your budget because it will make everything soooooo much easier. Plus you can find some really great options on Amazon and Etsy. You may also want to compare pricing of buying the lighting you like vs. creating something similar and see if making your own will be worth it once you take parts and time into account.
And if you're looking for a project and want to get creative, you may discover you love making your own lighting, or even create a business making light fixtures geared towards RVers. Who knows?
And don't be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to making a light fixture. You can turn almost anything into a light so look around and see what you may be able to repurpose, including dishes, serving bowls, planters, jars, and decorative objects.
As far as installing light fixtures in your RV, it's similar to installing a light in your home. You can find video's online that walk you through the process of installing a light fixture in a RV, but if you're unsure or nervous about the process then I'd recommend hiring an electrician.
Aside from the “fancier” dome light above the sofa, this is what the 12v light fixtures looked like in our RV before we replaced them:
About our Updated RV Interior Lighting
Once I realized we had a total of 13 light fixtures throughout our RV, I knew replacing them all at once could get pricey, especially since the ones I liked most cost $100-300 each. Instead we decided to replace 6 of the light fixtures, 5 of which we made ourselves to save on the cost. I probably spent around $300 on materials to make the light fixtures (not including the light bulbs), but that includes buying extra lighting parts that I didn't need or use.
This left us with just the ceiling dome lights in the RV, which I don't mind as much because they tend to disappear into the ceiling, which you can see in our kitchen photo below. We figured we could update the bulbs or change to newer dome lights later on. (Update – check out the video at the bottom of the post to see how we installed our new LED dome lights).
The light fixtures we made include the one above the media cabinet, the one above our sofa, the one in the hallway, and the mason jar sconces in our bedroom. You may have caught glimpses of these in one of our RV Tours.
By the way, most of the lighting parts I used were purchased from Grand Brass and this Etsy shop.
I lost photos of some of the lighting projects back when my computer crashed last year, but I may eventually share more info on how we made a couple of our fixtures. They're not perfect and since there's no telling if or when I'll get around to that you can find the DIY light fixtures that inspired me here, most of which include tutorials on how to make them.
The light fixture above was previously located above the dinette booth, which has been replaced with our custom media cabinet. You can see a photo of the updated space, including the light fixture I made below:
The only light fixture we replaced but didn't make was the cage light in our bathroom, which we purchased from Lowe's and paired with a mini pendant fitter. We only used part of it and probably could have bought the parts separately for less, but were impatient and on a time crunch so we made it work.
We did have to make some changes to the wiring to get it to sit flush against the ceiling rather than hang down, but you can buy light fixtures this way (look for flushmount or semi-flushmount lighting) so you don't have to make additional changes. We were impatient and short on time so we made do with what we could find locally.
You can see the bathroom cage light and 3 arm light fixture I made for the hallway in the image below:
Don't have a wall switch?
After receiving a couple comments about how to update light fixtures that have a switch on them (or when you don't have a wall switch), I realized I didn't mention that in this post. The quick answer is once you remove the light fixture you’ll notice a third wire that’s attached to that switch, which you’ll need to remove. Depending on your fixture you may be able to remove the switch and re-use it with a new fixture, or you may need to purchase new switches. Then if your new light fixture doesn’t have a wall switch, you can just drill a hole into the ceiling canopy for the switch to fit through. It was a lot easier than it may sound. I hope that makes sense!
Here's a photo showing the toggle switch we added to the side of the canopy:
The Moral of the Story
I know this is a long post but the moral of the story is yes you can buy a standard light fixture from your local hardware or lighting store, Amazon, Etsy, World Market, etc. and install it in your RV, just as long as you make sure your light bulb matches the voltage of the existing fixture.
While we created more work by making some of the light fixtures for our RV, you can certainly save time by purchasing ready made fixtures.
Tips + lessons learned after updating our RV interior lighting:
Measure, Measure, Measure
My advice when it comes to installing light fixtures in your RV is to measure, measure, measure! Think about the space the light fixture will be going into and take proportion into consideration. While a standard light fixture may seem like a “typical” size in the store, it's amazing how large it may look in your tiny home.
How will you use the space?
Think about how you'll use the space. Don't get me wrong I LOVE the exposed bulbs in our RV, but they may not be the most practical lights in a RV. We don't have kids but I'd think it would be a bit more dangerous if we did, especially since the ceilings in a RV aren't nearly as high as those in a sticks and bricks home. One of our light fixtures with exposed bulbs is located in a slide-out and another is below a cabinet so that doesn't help since they're nearly 1-2 feet below the ceiling.
While we don't walk under the light fixture above the media cabinet we still have to be careful when moving things around in that area. In fact, back when we were still renovating I had my camera sitting on the media cabinet and when I went to pick it up I lifted it in the air to get the strap around my neck and smacked it into one of the bulbs which shattered all over the place. Woops. This was nearly a year ago and I haven't broken a bulb since (knock on wood), but that's definitely something to keep in mind.
The same thing goes for the light fixture above our sofa. We don't jump or stand on it so it shouldn't be a problem, but we did build a narrow sofa table behind it so whenever we go to put stuff in or out of that storage compartment we have to be extra careful.
Luckily the light fixture in the hallway comes down from the ceiling so it's higher than the other two light fixtures with exposed bulbs, but I probably should have made each arm a tad shorter so that it wouldn't get so close to the sliding bathroom door, which brings me to my next tip….
Consider the Bulbs
We're currently using 3 different types of 12v LED bulbs in our RV (A19, ST18, and G45) because each style is a different length. I ordered shorter bulbs for the light fixture in the hallway, otherwise the bulbs would have made the light fixture too wide for the space. I probably should have measured better and taken into account the light bulbs when I made the light fixture, woops.
Also, I had to order smaller 12v LED bulbs for our mason jar sconces because the other styles were either too long or too wide to fit inside the jar.
Plan to Buy LED Lights? Test before buying in Bulk
If you plan to order LED 12v bulbs to replace the current bulbs in your RV light fixtures, you may want to consider ordering a few different options so you can test the color temperatures. This will help you decide if you'd rather have the lighting be warmer white, pure white, or cooler white. You can also visit a lighting store to get a better idea, but the lighting could look slightly different in your own space.
While I think it's a great idea to update the outdated sconces and any other accent lights in your RV, I really don't mind dome lights. We still have 7 dome lights throughout our RV, but they blend in for the most part. I like the idea of having a couple star “light fixtures”, otherwise all of the fixtures may compete with one another, especially in such a small space.
That doesn't mean you can't update the dome light with a newer one, especially if the color is dingy. You can paint them, order new LED bulbs for the dome lights, or just order completely new LED dome lights.
Get a Dimmer or 3-way Switch when Possible
I'm all about ambient lighting so one other item I wish I would have incorporated into our lights is either a dimmer or three way switch. Just something for you to think about during the process.
I hope you found this post helpful, but if you have any questions or tips about RV interior lighting, we'd love to hear about them in the comments below!
Specific 12v LED Bulbs we purchased: