MODIFICATION: DIY RV CLOSET LIGHTING

In this photo you can see some of the aluminum channel I used, and some of the diffusing lens that snaps into it after you place the LED strip into the channel. Also shown is some of the LED light strip. I’ve marked the cut points and copper soldering pads on the strip. Note that the soldering pads show + and – symbols indicating polarity.

Reading time approx. 20 minutes

Are you annoyed by the lack of adequate lighting in the closets or cabinets of your RV? If so, then this is an article you will want to read.

It seems to me that RV manufacturers do a pretty good job of making RVs that at first glance look nice inside, but upon closer scrutiny and as time goes by, fall short in terms of manufacturing quality as well as features and functionality.

For example, the shower in my RV had handles on the faucet as opposed to knobs. These looked nice and at first they seemed easy to use, but I soon learned that during a shower they were easily knocked out of the position to which I’d set them which caused the temperature of the water to change. This created the potential for an unexpected chill, or perhaps more seriously, a scalding. I remedied that situation by replacing the handles with knobs. My point here is that the RV manufacturer didn’t seem to give much thought, if any, to the selection of the type of faucet or its placement in the shower. Or, maybe they thought about it but just didn’t care. Since the model year of my RV they have changed the location of the faucet. No, it’s not in a better spot. Now it’s tucked away in the back corner of the shower instead of where you step in and this makes it harder to reach in order to adjust the temperature before getting in, and, it still has the same stupid handles you can easily knock out of position. They have made things worse. This is the kind of thinking, or lack thereof I have come to expect from RV manufacturers. Instead of thoughtfully moving forward they seem intent on making mindless decisions for reasons which are impossible to fathom and which sometimes move things in a backward trajectory.

The shower faucets are but one of many less-than-thoughtful implementations I have personally encountered or heard about in the RV world and while this kind of thoughtless design is not the exclusive purview of RV makers–it can be found in stationary dwellings as well–I see no reason to give RV makers a pass on poor design choices simply because similar lapses in judgment also occur elsewhere. Stupid is stupid no matter where it’s encountered. The subject of this article, however, is the lighting inside closets and cabinets, or more accurately, the lack thereof–another area of seemingly thoughtless or unconcerned design choices.

At home I can see fairly well into my kitchen cabinets and wardrobe just from the ambient room light without the aid of supplemental lighting within the cabinets or closet. This is not the case in my RV, however. The pantry cabinets in the kitchen are fully two feet deep–you can barely reach to the back of them–and while room light spills into the upper two of the five shelves the lower three are dark and require a flashlight to see into their recesses. This, IMHO, is poor design that creates unnecessary inconveniences for RV owners. The only reasons I can see for this are thoughtlessness, lack of concern and/or the desire to economize in order to make RVs that can be sold for less than the competition–a race to the bottom, if you will.

The wardrobe closet in my RV is also impossibly dark inside much of it. Initially my solution to this problem was to Velcro a couple of touch activated, battery powered, LED puck lights to the underside of the closet shelf but this solution was less than ideal. For one thing, the lights could be hard to locate in order to turn them on. They also had a tendency to rattle open, half of the light remaining Velcroed to the underside of the closet shelf with the other half falling to the closet floor, spilling the batteries around in places where they were difficult to find. Annoying. Another problem with this arrangement was that things on the shelf above received no illumination from the puck lights, plus, the light provided by the puck lights under the shelf wasn’t that great either. The expense, inconvenience, additional weight and environmental concerns of dealing with batteries were additional downsides.

Finally, when I had enough of this nonsense, I decided to install some permanent, supplementary lighting. When researching options I decided that the best might be to install LED ribbon lights inside aluminum channel. These would be economical, energy efficient, lightweight, cool burning, long lasting, very compact, unobtrusive and provide light to the furthest reaches of the wardrobe. I could have tried to install prefabricated LED light bars or other types of RV LED fixtures or even some sort of LED rope light but I saw complications with these in terms of wiring and switching them as well as the bulky nature of many which would interfere with using the tight spaces within the closet and pantry. (Having completed the LED closet lighting project my plan is next to illuminate our kitchen pantry. Stay tuned for an article about that.) For better or for worse, I opted for the LED strip lights and aluminum channel that I could cut to the lengths I deemed most suitable. I think that turned out to be a good choice.

DIY RV Closet Lighting
The end result of my closet lighting project provides enough light in the right places to see into all the formerly dark recesses of the closet. Placement of the lights toward the bedroom side as opposed to the back of the closet keeps the light out of your eyes and on things you wish to see.

For the uninitiated, LED ribbon lights, often called or LED tape lights or LED strip lights, are commonly sold on a reel like those used for the old 8mm home movies or reel-to-reel tape recorders if you’re old enough to remember those. The light strips are about 1/2″ wide (see the lead photo to this article), plus or minus depending on the particulars of the strip: more on that below.

The light strip I bought is barely more than 1/4″ wide and has a total of 18 LEDs per foot which I thought should be enough to illuminate the closet. Different color temperature strips are available and I chose warm white, 3,000º K*, because in the past I have found cooler (bluer) lights such as daylight or 5000º K unnatural and glaring in an indoor setting. The strip I purchased measured 5 meters in length, about 16.4′ (there are some longer strips are available), and could be cut into sections at markings provided on the strip placed about every two inches (see the lead photo). In other words you can make multiple, separate light strips from one reel at sizes suitable for your particular situation. That’s a potential advantage over prefabricated light fixtures.

The LED strip I bought runs on 12 volts and the entire 5 meter length of the strip uses only 18 watts of power which equates to 1.5 amps at 12 volts. This is a small amount of energy which off-grid RVer’s like us should find comforting. If my quick and dirty calculations are correct a 2′ section of this LED strip used for 15 minutes a day would consume less than .04 (4/100ths) of an amp hour. Running the entire 16.4′ length of the strip for 15 minutes would use less than .4 amp hours. I calculated that one 16.4′ strip would be enough to make four light bars for my wardrobe and 5 smaller ones for the kitchen pantry.

Like most of these strips I’ve come across the one I purchased has a peel-off adhesive backing. This facilitates attaching them to the aluminum channel. I’ve heard some of the sticky backing isn’t so good but the LEDs I bought use an adhesive from 3M so I’m hopeful it will last. LEDs like these are rated to last tens of thousands of hours, so, here to, hopefully they will last and not require any maintenance during the time I own the RV.

Many LED strip lights are sold with step-down transformers to convert 110 volt household current to 5, 12 or 24 volts. For RVers running DC systems these transformers should be unnecessary. Not only that, using them requires 110 volt power and introduces another potential failure point into the lighting system. It makes more sense just to go with LEDs of the same voltage as your RV’s DC system.

LED light strips are used for things besides the mundane task of lighting closets. They come in many variations including multiple colors, varying voltages, addressable (programmable) strips that will do light shows of sorts, dimmable and non-dimmable, different types of diodes (LED stands for Light Emitting Diode) and the number of LEDs per foot. For the purposes of lighting my closet I took a chance that a strip with a smaller number of LEDs per foot, 18, would be adequate. I guessed right. I bought LEDs that run on 12 volts. For my purposes, the most simple, one color, non-programmable, non-dimmable LEDs were the ticket.

Aluminum channel with light diffusing material to soften and more evenly disperse the light from the LEDs is widely available in which to house the LED strips. Such channel also protects the LEDs and acts as a heat sync to carry away the heat the LEDs make thereby extending their lives. The sticky backing on the LED strips makes it easy to stick them in place inside the aluminum channel.

Aluminum LED channel and related parts
Here you can see some of the aluminum LED channel I used. It came with mounting clips that you screw to the surface (screws also included) where you want to mount the lights and the channel snaps into (and out of) the clips relatively easily. The supplied end caps cover the ends of the channel. Half of them have holes for wiring. Half do not, although holes can be drilled into them.

As to cost, it was very little. The 5 meter LED light strip was only $11 and five meters of LED channel with diffuser lens material with mounting hardware was $24. While making sure it was wide enough to accommodate the LED strip I had chosen I bought the lowest profile aluminum channel I could find so as to minimize it’s obtrusiveness and weight. You can find it here, and more choices here.

Additional expenditures for me included some wire. I purchased this 24 gauge wire, and some 18 gauge the latter of which may have been overkill. I prefer PVC insulated wire over silicone because it’s tougher, more durable. I also purchased some bullet style quick connect wire connectors, plus this 1/4″ inside diameter convoluted tubing (wire loom) that I have found softer and more pliable than other brands of the same stuff. This made it a little easier to work with. Make sure any wire loom you get has an inside diameter large enough to accommodate any connectors you plan to use plus any additional wires passing through it. In order to minimize the size of the wire loom needed I offset where I placed connectors so their bulk would occur at different places within the wire run–I made the leads I attached to the LED strips different lengths by a couple inches so the connectors for the positive and negative leads wouldn’t be at the same place in the wire run.

I anchored the wire loom with these P-clips and to activate the lights I bought this push-button switch. I chose it over others because of the broad push-button I thought would be less likely to hurt my fingertips than switches with narrower buttons. While it works just fine, this switch wasn’t ideal for my purposes, but only because I wanted a surface mount switch with leads on opposite sides. I couldn’t find one like that so I opted for the one I bought which is sometimes called a canopy switch and is designed to be mounted inside a fixture. I used ultra sticky and strong 3M VHB tape in order to surface mount the switch and unless I accidentally apply enough lateral force to stress it significantly I think it should stay in place (photo immediately below). If that happens I may fashion a bracket for it out of a piece of metal and fasten it as was intended by the manufacturer.

I also bought a pack of additional fastener clips and end caps for mounting the LED channel as the channel kit included only enough clips and caps for the 5 channels supplied and my plans included cutting the channel into 9 strips. Choosing to solder my connections I didn’t use connecting clips, but connecting clips for LED strips are available for those who prefer not to do their own soldering.

For soldering I have both a butane micro torch similar to this one and an inexpensive, rudimentary electric soldering iron. This is the wire stripper/crimper/bolt cutter multi-tool I have and it’s also very rudimentary. There are plenty of others to choose from here.

Witch, loom and p-clip
To activate the closet LEDs I used a push-button switch that I mounted in a central, easily accessed location. This switch was designed to be mounted inside a fixture, not surface mounted as I have done, but I could not find a switch of the exact design I wanted so I decided to make due with this one. I mounted it with 3M VHB double stick tape which has a reputation of being very strong. Also shown are the convoluted tubing and one of the P-clips I used for securing the wiring.

By way of helping you navigate what might be unfamiliar terminology, LED nomenclature includes terms such as SMD 2835, SMD 5050, etc. To unpack that for you SMD simply stands for Surface Mounted Device, meaning that the LEDs are mounted to the surface of a printed circuit board. That’s what the ribbon strips are–circuit board–albeit flexible ribbon in this case, but it’s still a printed circuit “board”. The numbers following SMD describe the length and width of the LEDs. For example 2835 decodes to 2.8mm x 3.5mm; 5050 decodes to 5.0mm x 5.0mm. Now, don’t think that larger LEDs are necessarily brighter or better. LEDs have evolved over time and newer designs of smaller sizes such as the 2835 can be brighter as well as more energy efficient than older, larger LED technology such as the 5050. There are other differences between LEDs too. There are any number of primers about LEDs online. If you want to take a deeper dive into the subject you can try this one which will keep you busy for awhile.

For the closet in my RV I installed two aluminum channels on the underside of the shelf in order to illuminate the hanging clothing and items on the floor. I put one light bar on the left side and the other on the right side of the closet. These two bars are each about 30″ in length. I chose a location where I felt confident that we wouldn’t be knocking into the light bars with hangers and where the light would shine onto our clothing and not so much into our eyes. This meant attaching the LED bars to the underside of the shelf as close to the closet door as possible (photo immediately below).

LED bar installed under shelf
This photo shows the LED bar I installed under the closet shelf on the left side. It’s far enough away from the closet rod so that we shouldn’t be knocking into it with hangers as we remove and replace them. It shines light on the clothes from the open side of the closet as opposed to the back side minimizing any light that might shine into our eyes. We haven’t found that to be an issue. At the far end on the left side of the photo you can see the wire that leads up to the light bars above the closet shelf.

Above the shelf I also installed two lengths light bars although I made them shorter due to the difficulty of accessing the area in which I installed them (photo immediately below). They provide plenty of light for the shelf. The end result with four light bars provides light for the entire closet, and plenty of it, making easy work of finding things that was once a chore in the dark recesses of the closet.

In terms of wiring the lights I had to learn some things. LED strips are made in an interesting way. The strip I purchased has groups of three consecutive LEDs wired in series and each group of three wired to the strip in parallel. If one LED burns out the two other LEDs to which it is wired will not function but the rest of the strip will continue to work. Separate LED strips must be wired in parallel. This can be accomplished by running a separate wire pair to each strip or by connecting one strip to the next using the copper pads at the end of each strip (see photo, you guessed it, immediately below). If the strips are near each other then connecting them directly to one another might be the way to go, but if they are further away from each other then separate wire pairs might be the ticket. It really depends on the situation. It is worth noting that many LED strips are marked at their cut points, the places where you can cut them, and at each of these is a pair of copper soldering pads, one positive and one negative, to which you can solder wires or use prefabricated clip-on connectors in order to connect them to the power source or to each other.

Soldered LED strip
With the tips of my soldering iron and fingers included in this photo for scale you can get a pretty good idea of the small size of the LED strip I used. Soldering wires to these LED strips requires some skill and I had to practice a little before I felt confident to attempt it. I ruined a 2″ segment of LED strip or two practicing my technique. I found YouTube a good resource for soldering tips. Connecting-clips that snap into place are available for those who prefer to avoid soldering. I opted for soldering because I believed the connections to be less likely to come apart than clips while bouncing down the road and because I relished the challenge of improving my soldering skills.

For my closet I wanted all four light bars to be activated by one switch in a central location. I ran the positive, incoming lead to the the switch and from there to the first light bar. The ground went straight to the first light bar. I then connected one light bar to the next, soldering on short leads to the end of the LED strip in each light bar and using using bullet quick connectors to add the length of wire needed between each light bar and the next.

One consideration in installing anything electronic is where the power will come from and where the ground will be. I had learned in a brand-centric Rv user group about a hot lead accessible in my closet behind an access panel and I was able to tap into that for power. For a ground, however, I had to drill hole in the closet wall, a window seat and dresser in order to route a ground wire that I attached to a member of the RV chassis that is visible inside the dresser. I had to drill a small hole in the chassis member and thread it for a screw to which I could then attach the ground.

So, there you have my closet lighting project. Perhaps it will inspire you to undertake something similar. If you have any questions feel free to drop them into the comments section below.

*Light has color. This color is talked about in terms of being warm (reddish) or cool (bluish). Its color can be defined in terms of the Kelvin scale, or degrees Kelvin, or simply K, named after its inventor Lord Kelvin. On the Kelvin scale, warmer, redder light has a lower number whereas cooler, bluer light has a higher number. The warm red glow of tungsten light bulbs is closer to 3,000º K whereas daylight or cool white lights are closer to 5000º K.


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