LED Light For An Off-The-Grid Palapa

By Sam Nishek

The use of appropriate technology is a skill I learned in my early years growing up in Tanzania. My parents spent their days helping remote villages find economical, sustainable, small-scale technology solutions to problems in their daily life. Improvements were small but meaningful: manual water pumps, more efficient cooking stoves, making soil cement bricks, and small methane generators for cooking gas, for example.

This experience of making the most with the least shaped my sense of simplicity and economy in design throughout my career as an architect.

This winter, David offered me a bonus trip to his off-the-grid palapa on the Pacific Ocean in Mexico with one string attached. In between snorkeling, fishing, laying in the sun, and drinking tequila, my task was to upgrade the palapa lighting “system,” if you could call it that. My appropriate technology instincts kicked in immediately.

The new lighting needed to celebrate the amazing space, be adjustable to provide different light levels and moods, while still being very low energy use. Upsizing the existing 12V solar panel photovoltaic array and battery bank was not in the plan, so the new system had to provide good lighting without going overboard.

The existing fixtures and switches had long since rusted away and most had failed. Still working were a few bare 40-watt incandescent bulbs that used significantly more wattage for less light output. If I showed you a “before” photo, it would be people with headlamps at night, disposable battery stick-on lights, a lot of lit candles (which we still enjoy even with the new lighting), and the incandescent bulbs used sparingly.

The palapa has always been considered 5-star camping and is an amazing retreat, but as architects we could not pass up the opportunity to improve the experience.

To do any kind of project at the palapa, you have to plan and buy in advance. LED light was the obvious choice. LED light bulbs are long lasting, durable, cool, mercury-free, efficient, and cost-effective. Because of the ocean environment, I ordered moisture resistant, marine grade LED lights and dimmer switches from online retailers.

Here’s what I bought:

  • Four 3-watt Strip Lights ($100)
  • Five 15-watt Uplights ($150)
  • Two Dimmer Switches ($70)

Total Cost: $320

We carried all the lights and circuit testers and wiring tools in our suitcases without having security or customs issues. Someone may have been asleep on the job.

Over the course of a week, whenever we were off the tequila enough to stand on the tippy barstools, we worked on the lighting. We salvaged any wiring we could, splicing in new wiring for what had corroded over the years.

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Four 15-watt LED floodlights designed for boat decks were pointed up to illuminate the ceiling of the main palapa, while one was used for the ceiling of the bedroom palapa. By pointing the lights up, you do not see the bright bulb directly so there isn’t a harsh glare. Indirect lighting is a great option for lighting an overall space with a soft reflectance.

The dimmers allow you to use even less power and to adjust the amount of light, from a romantic dim “just enough to see you glowing light” to full blast “what the *bleep* kind of hairy bug is that?” light. The white color temperature of the LED light is warmed significantly by the amber tones of the palm fronds and framing.

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For the kitchen, pantry and sleeping alcove, LED strip lights with built-in dimmer switches were installed to provide task lighting. In true DIY mode, we found a wood spar to hang the LED fixture in the kitchen. In keeping with the nautical theme of the oceanside palapa, the wood spar was cantilevered over the sink with tension ropes for stabilization. The strip light was mounted to the end of the spar, providing the best lighting this sink has ever seen. No fumbling around in the dark for a shot of tequila anymore.

We were definitely proud of our work. Now David’s palapa is admired by neighbors in this 24 palapa eco-preserve as the best lit, while still having a very small solar array and battery bank. It’s a model of efficiency and appropriate technology for this off-the-grid paradise.

It’s also a metaphor for how work often gets done in this Studio: combining David’s visionary imagination with Sam’s technical know-how. It’s always a win-win and stands firmly in the principles of sustainability.

We do feel that the palapa has attained a 6-star camping rating.

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