Using Fiber Optics For Cheap Lighting: Lessons From Venezuela

Jose Martinez Jose Martinez  |  November 16, 2020
Using Fiber Optics For Cheap Lighting: Lessons From Venezuela

I have always thought we preppers need to implement low tech as much as possible. Simplicity and maintainability are key for someone living off-grid. After having worked for so long in the oil industry I learned to love redundancy in both systems and gear. This usually works much better than beating the crap out of some device or apparatus, just to get rid of it once it is useless beyond repair. We all know having several shoes and clothing pieces, and alternating the usage will ensure they last much longer.

 Now that the Chinese mega-factories conglomerate destiny is uncertain, we shouldn´t take for granted our equipment and/or gear is going to be easily replaceable in the near future.

Even so, if these factories remain open, the trade between China and the rest of the world will be surely subject to significant stress. 

I will never cease to repeat this: thinking outside the box and making the choice to invest wisely in durable equipment is something every prepper must master. This mindset has saved me a lot of money, effort, and time. (You may find interesting the unusual application I found in a review, the link at the bottom of the article once you have learned what fiber optics are for!)

That being said, there are ways to improve the duration of some items. And one of these is using the features of optic fiber. This is a light conductor, as many of us already must know. The amount of light lost is negligible, even in the cheaper quality fibers. They have experienced an increased use in fields like surgery, communications, and many industrial applications, to take light to places hard to reach.

The light travels within the fiber from the source, all the way up to the other end. This implies many ways to take advantage of that if you´re creative. 

By living in a country with winter season after getting used to burn myself under a scorching sun my entire life, I can appreciate the advantages of having so much sun. Not just because of the 12 hours of full sun to top off a battery rack in my native country, but because of the daytime advantage this means for lighting.

Open windows allow the entrance of bugs and make the little bit of cool air that could be generated, and usually, in the dry season, the air is warm and doesn´t cool off anything. Therefore, we have thick curtains on all windows to avoid sunlight. But it is entirely contradictory to have so much sun outside and having to switch on a 110V lamp to read or work in a workbench. Too much sun energy wasted.  

Although in that neck of the woods sunlight sometimes is absent, I would say 80% of days, if not more, year-round is shining at full power. This is going to be quite useful. It´s only less than 2000 square meters patch, half of that already with a small forest of citrus trees. If I want to grow with aquaponics system, creative usage of the space is going to be a need. I have a design for a “greenhouse” but it is going to need an array of solar collectors and fiber-optic guided sunlight beams downside, so the plants inside the structure have enough sunlight, too.

I am tempted to use the space directly over the pond I´m going to dig, indeed, to increase the grow bed area and take down the needed energy to produce a constant flow. I won´t go 100% solar. Solar will be just a backup for this system, and for the water pump to allow flow and oxygenation.

The advantage we have right now is that the material is still affordable. There are some considerations in order to optimize the light transmitted, but that kind of detail will be discussed in the next articles once my own system has been built and it is working flawlessly. Some of these conditions are taking care of overheating protection (fiber temperature range is from -50 up to +160 give or take depending on the brand you use) of the sunbeam incoming end to avoid tip melting. Some brands are also chemically designed to avoid IR transmission, so they don´t transmit heat. 

The idea is to have a sunlight collector located in maybe the roof or eaves, or even using a tower or pole you already have in place, and route the fibers to, say, over your kitchen countertop. This is practical and doable: light intensity won´t diminish with length in an amount you can notice. 

You won´t need to switch on the lights to prepare your lunch. Something that we had to do in Venezuela: opening the windows to allow sunlight coming in (and flies, mosquitoes and such) meant all of the heat of the pavement and surrounding concrete structures came in, turning our dining room, kitchen and living room in a miserable place to be in.

Even a skylight would have worked quite well, but with the high amount of rain, I decided to leave the roof untouched. Using caulk is not a guarantee you´re going to avoid leaks in our tropical weather: sun and rain will make this useless in less than a year.

Caulk quality you can find there is crappy; good materials are no longer available.  Therefore, the fewer holes you make to your roof, the better, usually speaking.

I am working as well in a small energy-less system to get water off the ground with just focusing the sunbeams underground and generating evaporation, but that is just an idea I have to work on in the future, and make some experimentation. 

One advantage of this system is, you don´t need to leave them permanently. You would always remove them and take it with you. A small hole in the wall is all you need to route the fiber bundle. It´s not exactly fragile; optic fiber and concentrator lens can be plastic. As a matter of fact, my first design will require a few magnifying glasses I am going to buy on the cheap.

A few filters to avoid heating the fiber too much (they have a melting point close to 70 °C) and getting too much infrared radiation to avoid heating the collecting tip, and that´s it. A simple thin glass (non-transparent to the infrared radiation) is going to be my first choice for a filter. If the fibers are melt, then will try another layer to avoid excessive heating on the focused beam.

The deal is to allow light, but not all of it. Remember, visible sunlight is a mixture of some parts of light we cannot see like ultraviolet and infrared, both of which heat everything they touch. For those living in cold climates where maybe sunny days every now and then, forget about UV and IR filtering. 

I find this application especially interesting if you want to have some crops in a basement or some other similar facility. I find it as well quite adequate if you want to stack some greenies, when space is limited. LED growing lights can’t be effectively replaced, but I would give it a try to optics fiber sunlight collection to save some money by avoiding to draw your batteries during daytime.

A simple system can be arranged, though, to switch on the LEDs if sunlight intensity goes down a certain level. 

What I like about optic fiber is, once the system is installed and working, you won´t need to turn off your lights during the day, provided there is some sun shining.

The system is expandable, as much as we want. My plan is to invest in a good reel of a not-so-thin optic fiber, and then build a large collector (that will hopefully will work as an additional rainwater collector, too) with “tentacles” all over the house: kitchen countertops, bedrooms, bathroom, everywhere. This is going to avoid a lot of moisture and mold growing inside, too. 

For someone thinking or already enjoying a partial or total underground home, this could be a real deal. For those concerned about someone tracing their wiring up to the cache, no worries. The optic fiber is pure plastic and it won´t reveal your location, provided some means to trace metallic wires are used, like detectors or so. They won´t rot, and have a 20 years lifespan.

GIDERWEL Smart Bluetooth APP LED Fiber Optic Lights Kit for Car Use

image

The kit above is designed for a car but since it has a convenient 12V head on it you can use it with a lot of popular power centers like the Jackery.

Properly protected, fiber optic cable and lights will last decades without degrading. 

I have been always liked natural light; back in my college days, I preferred to go to a place with a skylight in our library. It is healthier and you people up there in the North (or extreme South) need it much more than we, in the middle of tropics, do.  However, I prefer to avoid skylights at home because in our country it rains too much. 

As the fiber can be routed (smoothly, they can break in sharp corners) in whatever way you reasonably need, you can take daylight to places that with other means is just not possible. Say, you have a partially buried home. You need a hidden cache in your lower level.

Fiber Optic Kit

image

Don´t want any wiring but you need light down there? Then just use fibers and a sunlight collector. At least during the day, you will have some degree of illumination. To take advantage and working just one time, you could install the sunlight collector side by side to the solar panel.

The most useful presentation I have found is the 100m roll, one fiber, and then you cut it to the length you need to make your bundle. This bundle will run then from your sunlight collector all the way to the place you have destined for your “lamp”. Just like a cable or wire. Good thing is, trying first with a small bundle and checking later how many fibers you will need. Working with this is remarkably easy.

Trust me, if I can make something useful out of this with my very limited manual skills (that´s why I got my CNC machine in the first place), you can too. You don´t need special tools nor skills, just some common sense. Once I have my complete setup, an article with a complete description of materials, tools, and procedures will be available. 

Although fiber optics is not exactly as cheap as I would like it to be, for my particular applications (work-at-home and spending the entire day at home) it is going to save me a lot of money in light bulbs replacement.

Notice that the kind of material we have to get is the lighting endpoint and not the side lighting one if we want to make a reading lamp with sunlight or something like that. There is a good price variation and options for the needed parts and the more you research surely the better option you´re going to get. Make sure you get an “end glow” fiber type if you decide to experiment with this! Unless you go with the decorative effect, though.  

Going a little bit further, there is a great advantage with optic fibers. They can transmit light without heating, and that´s the biggest advantage for me.

The outer structure of my cottage is cement, and the only interior wall too. The design allows for another two stories, though. Lighter cement bricks could be used for the walls, but all of the interior walls of these stories should be made in light wood. This is highly flammable as we all know. The reason to use 12V for night lights is partially to avoid wiring overheating and potential fire hazards.

With good floor planning, these lights and the sunlight ones can be combined to provide effective lighting that will last for many years with a minimal initial investment. Conventional lights are no longer something I would like to use rather than for exterior lighting like poles around the property. 

The advantages of combining these two materials are too many, in my opinion, when compared related to disposable bulbs: 

  • Amount of energy used
  • How easy is to wire everything with 12V
  • Not needed to drilling through your roof
  • How easy is routing the fibers
  • You can install the lighting end in places where you don´t want to be changing bulbs.
  • The durability they offer (acrylic fiber versions will discolor over time, but this effect will take many years) 
  • The benefit of getting natural lights in those places where you really need it but maybe don´t want to go outside.
  • As they don´t transmit heat, they increase your safety
  • You can transmit light 15 meters away from the source before significant light losses. (In my case, the distance between the sunlight collector and the lamp won´t be even 1/3 of this distance as I have plenty of sun everywhere most of the year) 

As a negative point, some special aspects need to be taken care of if you decide to go by this road, something I highly recommend if your weather conditions allow it. 

One is dust over the surface of the source end; meaning that a good sealing of the collector container must be achieved, and working in a very clean environment is required. The other one, is cutting the fiber itself. PMMA needs to be cut out with good precision to avoid wasting their light transmission capabilities. 

Just imagine yourself reading a good book in your easy chair next to your fireplace while a focused sunbeam spreads itself from the lamp over your head, knowing your batteries are not being depleted.

My article about manufacturing my own arrangement will be a reality: it will be one of the projects I will need to finish once installed in our cottage.       

Stay tuned!

I look forward for your comments!

J.

Aff | Emergency Blanket

[DEAL] Emergency Survival Blanket

Pocket-size survival blanket could save a life - throw in your bag or car.

Get Cheap Security

Updated November 16, 2020

Aff | Emergency Blanket
[DEAL] Emergency Survival Blanket Get Cheap Security

6 Responses to “Using Fiber Optics For Cheap Lighting: Lessons From Venezuela”

  1. Jose, Great thinking. I will watch eagerly for your stories on how you bring this about. Wishing you success in this venture.

  2. I’m skeptical. I think you’d be much better off with a simple solar panel, MPPT power converter, and 12V LED lighting. Whether or not you include a battery is up to you. The main problem is that a PV panel accepts light energy from all directions, but any system that relies on concentrating sunshine (such as focusing it into a fiber) requires tracking the daily and seasonal position of the sun. That means optics, two-axis gimbals, motors, gears, sensors, and electricity for the motors, and it all has to be protected from wind distortion and damage.

    LEDs just work. I have a strip of 12V LED lights over my kitchen counter, and they run cool all day long, and I expect them to last many more years. If you’re just running a few 12V LED lamps, you can use the same light-weight, flexible wire as connects your telephone to the wall, and it’s easy to route, cut, and splice. Splicing optical fiber is not so easy as soldering or crimping a wire connection!

    I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, ever since I discovered a rotting spool of carrier-grade optical fiber lying in the weeds next to a local highway. I think that it was staged for installation on a parking lot, then hit by a snowplow and lost. There’s got to be at least a mile of multi-strand fiber, in a 3/4″ plastic jacket! But I just can’t conceive of an effective way to salvage it.

    • Dear lathechuck,
      Just make sure to use good quality LED strips that won´t loose intensity on time. It´s not worth it to save a few bucks if in the long run your lights are going to dim.
      I wrote this with the specific usage in mind of taking lights underground or to some places where natural light is impossible to reach on, and always with the mention of getting the most out of our 12 hours solar light in my country, that´s the major attractive for me. Oh and avoid the need to buy light bulbs that could stop arriving from China or increase their price exponentially.
      I didn´t mentioned any tracking devices: we don´t need them there, because we´re very close to the Equator line and the sun goes directly over us the whole year. On the other hand, it would be always possible to design a quite small setup that works even with the very same energy it is getting: a little step-by-step motor and some guidance electronics.
      However this would be an entirely different project…and I will add it to my portfolio, as it is quite interesting.
      Thanks for your informed comment!
      Jose.

  3. Dear Dan, thanks for that nice comment!
    I have in my notebook a few devices that will be quite useful for us low income preppers. Easy to build and money-saving stuff.
    Stay tuned, amigo!
    Be safe.

  4. You ARE going to need a sun-tracking device. Just because you live close to the equator doesn’t stop the Earth from rotating, and though the sun is always high in the sky at noon, it swings about 24 degrees between solstices. Let’s look at some numbers. Suppose you want to simulate the brightness of a 100W incandescent bulb. That’s about 12W LED, or 10 W of pure light. Sunshine on a really clear day is about 1000W per square meter, so you need 10/1000 = 0.01 square meters, or 100 sq cm of light-collecting area, or a lens 12 cm in diameter. (If all goes according to plan, your dark room will be just as well lit as if you had a 12 cm skylight with sun streaming down through it. Is that enough light for you?)
    With a single lens, that’s going to get really hot at the focus, but you could use an array of smaller lenses feeding a bundle of fibers to reduce the heating and the focal length of the machine. (You can even make it modular, starting with one lens/fiber to see how it works, then adding more to get the brightness that you need.) So now you need to position the receiving fiber where the tiny image of the sun appears behind your lens, looking to the east as the sun comes up, and to the west as it goes down. It’ll track across the center of the sky on the equinoxes, but 12 degrees north on the summer solstice and 12 degrees south for the winter solstice, and I think you’ll need roughly 1-degree accuracy to get the sunshine into the end of the fiber.

    You’ll need to put it under a dome to protect the machine from contamination with dust, blowing leaves, and insects, and to keep it pointed properly on a windy day. But some of the light will be reflected away by the surface of the dome, so you won’t get as much as you expect from the calculation above. The dome will be hard to hide from those who pass by. A small (non-tracking) solar panel can probably provide enough juice to run the motors and controller. Don’t forget that the fiber (bundle) must be able to flex as the lens tracks from east to west and back (15 degrees per hour), so you might want to limit your design hours of operation to a few hours a day.
    As you might have gathered, I LIKE thinking about this scheme. I just don’t think it’s very practical. Good luck.

  5. Dear Lathechuck,
    Thanks for those impressive comments. Technically quite well presented. You’re right on the approach to minimize all the stuff and avoid getting everything burned. There are ways to do it, and some trial and error to be done. However I just checked in my area the sunpower and it’s like 4,75 kW per square meter/per day in the lowest season, in December. Got it from here //www.solarelectricityhandbook.com/solar-irradiance.html. You’re absolutely right in the need of an enclosure to avoid contamination by bugs and dust. Not exactly a dome, but a rectangular box, aligned to catch all the trajectory of the sun. It will be mostly in the roof of my cottage, and plan to run the fiber all the way down to a basement still to build. I was thinking that movement could be traced by a PC, if need arises, as I’m going to use it to control a bunch of other parameters too. My most concern is heat dissipation and glass cleaning, but I’m sure I could come with some subsystem to cool it down.
    Have to get the fiber first. I’ve some other materials though. Some cheap small magnifying glasses are going to be used at first, but maybe it’s going to be an overkill. Sunshine is so strong that there will be necessary a good experimentation previous to achieve results.
    Thanks for your contribution! truly appreciated. You may want to stay tuned to check the results.

Leave a Reply