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12 Volt vs 230 Volt Lighting - What's The Difference?

26th July 2014

Today I thought I'd write a post about the differences between 12 volt and mains voltage lighting systems. What is the difference? What are the pros and cons of each system?

A 12 Volt  Halogen Lamp

Standard UK mains voltage lighting setups are 230 volt, and, other than being wired to the main fuse board or consumer unit require no additional equipment to run them. This is not the case for 12v lighting systems. Low voltage lights require a transformer for each light or set of lights. transformers reduce the voltage of the mains power to a level which can run 12v lights. Sometimes they come as part of a low voltage light fitting. Other times they are added to lights or sets of lights. For example, if you had a series of recessed 12v spotlights in your bathroom, you might have one transformer connected to 5 individual lights. Transformers are limited by a maximum voltage they can supply power to. This is normally stated on the transformer. Should you exceed that voltage by having more lights running from a single transformer than it's maximum voltage will allow, fittings can explode. If in doubt when installing low-voltage lighting systems, it is always advisable to call in a professional electrician.So is a low voltage 50w bulb the same as a 50w regular bulb?
Well, yes, and no. A 50w bulb, regardless of the voltage will always use 50 Watts of electricity. That said, a 50w 12 volt bulb is slightly more efficient than a 50w 230 volt bulb, and as such will provide more lumens (light) output.
12 Volt lighting systems are much more common in caravans and boats than in regular homes, and in the past few years, the track and recessed spot systems that were available for domestic use are much less common. One area in which there has been a resurgence in the use of domestic 12v systems, however, is for out houses and conversions which are powered by renewable energy such as solar panels and wind turbines. In these situations, using 12 lighting partly overcomes the need for inverters to convert solar and kinetic wind energy into 230 volt energy.
So what is the future for 12 volt lighting?
To be honest, beyond it's use in boats and caravans, I can't see much evidence that the use of 12 volt lighting is likely to grow over the coming years. Even where people are converting to renewable energy sources for their domestic electricity, the are doing just that, converting. It is much more likely that they will use inverters to feed the new power sources into their regular supply than go to the expense of rewiring their whole house unnecessarily. There will always be a place for 12 volt systems, just not in the domestic market.