Back in the 70’s and 80’s my parents did a lot of camping; this means they had a lot of camping gear. Recently my dad found an old portable fluorescent light they used at the time they did all this camping. This time in my parents’ life was before I was born, but my older sisters remember using the light. This light was made by the Burgess Battery Company (1), sadly this company closed in 1989. The model that I now have is a Safari Lite 165/2. This light was produced from 1966 to 1971 (2), this makes my light at the time of writing this in 2020 close to 50 years old at the minimum! The second generation of this light is the 165/3 and it was produced from 1971 to 1975.
This light used a special made battery pack by Burgess that contained two 69 volt DC batteries. These batteries powered a 12 inch fluorescent light for up to 80 hours before needing recharging. Included with the light is a cord that charged the batteries from a standard 120 volt AC home receptacle, and could also power the light directly if you were close to a receptacle. There is a switch that allows you to choose between the battery or the AC plug. For a short time other companies made batteries for this light, but all production stopped many years ago as the popularity of this light declined. A nice feature of this light is that it had a Hi and Lo option for the light. This gave you the ability to make the battery last longer. My father removed the battery years ago before putting the light in storage; the batteries had already worn out from use. This light still works with the included power cord. You can find many places online that sell this light used, pricing ranges from $10 to $50.
Now that I have given you the history lesson you may be wondering “what is the point of all this”? I could just go buy a new, really nice flash light that would operate longer and be brighter than this old light. But where is the fun in that?? My parents are getting “older” as my mother says. They are in there late 70’s. So they are not just getting “older”, they are just old. I may not remember using this light but it is a small piece of my parent’s history that I would like to keep. I am not a collector type of person that likes having items on display in their original condition. If I have something I want it to work and be usable. This light is in great shape for its age, but can only be used with the cord plugged in.
My family does not go camping. So why would I want to use this light? Because we live out in the country side on a farm, and when the sun goes down it get really dark! I have a lot of other flashlights, but remember I am doing this rebuild for nostalgia purposes. And since this light is large it is made to sit and not roll away like most of my flashlights do, or my kids “accidentally” loose them outside. If you have kids you’ll understand how everything is just an “accident”. If this light gets left out someplace it should be easier to find.
By trade I am an electrical maintenance and machine builder. For me to upgrade this light is not very difficult physically. The difficulty was deciding how I was going to upgrade this light. There are so many options. Since I can no longer get the proper batteries should I build a battery pack? I could, but who knows how long those old electronics will last and I would be back at the start again rebuilding it when they die. This means I am also going to remove all the electronics now and start with an empty case.
My first thought was to use a 12 inch LED tube that would fit into the original bulb holders. These tubes come in 12 volt DC and up to 120 volts AC. That’s a large range of voltages to choose from. And I have to build the battery pack, and have a way to control and charge it. This means that I would have to convert back and forth between AC and DC power depending on what components I wanted to use. That is when I decided I wanted to stick to all DC voltage, but that still leaved several options. 12v? 24v? 36v? Even higher? I could rebuild this light in any of these voltages. The thing to remember is you need a charging circuit, battery over charge protection circuit, battery discharge protection circuit, a charger, and the controls to turn the light on and off. The higher the voltage the larger all these components have to be and the heavier they get. So is there another option to using an LED tube and the needed components?
After talking with several people in my trade, some internet research, and looking at other lighting projects I have done around the house it hit me. What about using LED strip lights!? Here we go again with the voltage options! 5v? 12v? 24v? I found some left over strip lights from another project. They happen to be 5 volt DC; 5 volts DC are what USB items operate on. These are the kind of lights you can just cut to length with a pair of scissors at the marked locations, that is the black line running through the 2 copper colored ovals.
This strip is made to work off a USB port. I found an old USB cable and soldered it onto this left over strip. I took out the fluorescent tube, and laid the strip in loose just to test the lights and see how bright they were. When it got dark I plugged the lights into a cell phone charger block and to my surprise the light was much brighter than I expected. This strip was just lying in the reflector, not even facing the correct way for the light to shine. That was it; I am going to use this LED strip that I already had. Now, what do I need to power them?
Remember earlier all those components I said I needed to operate the light and protect the battery? Even though this is only a 5 volt system, I still need all those components. I started looking at batteries and control circuit boards. I thought it would be relatively cheap to buy the parts and assemble them myself. It turns out that batteries can get expensive easily, take up a lot of space, and add a lot of weight. The control circuit boards are not priced to high. As I was looking at parts on my phone I got a low battery warning. I was at my daughters dance class and did not have a charger. So I ran out to my car, grabbed my battery bank, and returned to my seat. I plugged my phone in and continued to search for parts.
That’s when it hit me, a battery bank! It had everything already in side it. A charging circuit, battery over charge protection circuit, battery discharge protection circuit, and it put out 5 volts DC. I wouldn’t have to spend hours soldering together batteries and circuit boards, just find a suitable battery bank. As it turned out it was much cheaper to buy a battery bank than it was to buy all the individual components to build my own battery pack of equal size. I had to try a few battery banks because some operate differently. Some battery banks need to be turned on before they would work, and nots not how I wanted the light to operate. This is the battery bank I decided to use because it will give power as soon as a device is plugged in and not need to be turned on first. It came as a 2 pack of 20,000 mah banks.
There was another advantage to using a battery bank, convenience! USB’s are everywhere now, in your home, in your car, public places, almost anywhere. That makes it easy to recharge the battery bank. If I was to go out camping or hiking where there was no power available to recharge the battery bank I would also have the ability to recharge using a portable solar panel. There are many small solar panels that fold up and come with USB connections for charging small devices.
There is a down side to using a battery bank, the operating hours. If you remember the original battery had up to 80 hours of operating time. To get a battery bank that has that much operating time is a lot more money than I am willing to spend on this project. In the $20 to $30 dollar range I can get a battery bank that will operate the light on high for 10 to 12 hours. I have been watching Amazons “Today’s Deals” to find a larger battery bank on a great deal. 10 to 12 hours of operation compared to the original 80 is a large drop, but for my needs this is plenty of operating time between charges. On the positive side, if I needed more operating hours I can install a larger battery bank. Since I am wiring everything up to USB plugs it would be nothing more than unplugging the old battery bank and plugging in the new battery bank.
Now that I have decided I am going to power the light with a battery bank, it is time to decide how the light operates. I want to make the light operate similar to how it originally operated. I can use the battery, or plug it in to power the light and charge the battery bank at the same time. I am also going to have Hi and Low light option. The light strip will be cut into 4 pieces the length of the reflector. The Low setting will power the 2 inside strips of lights, and the Hi setting will power all 4 strips of lights. Since the battery bank is made to charge portable devices I am going to add an external USB connection for charging.
Now that I know how the light needs to operate I set down and worked out how it needs to be wired. I needed 3 switches, a few USB cables, and some short pieces of wire to make it work. Below is the wiring diagram that I used.
The first step was to prepare the light strip, I cut it into 4 pieces the length of the reflector. Then I soldered short pieces of wire onto one end for the power connections and covered them with shrink tube. Red wire is +5 VDC, black wire is 0VDC. On the other end I covered the end with shrink tube so there were no exposed conductors. These light strips have a tape strip on the back of them. You peel off the protective cover and stick them down.
Now that the reflector is done with the lights it is time to work on the case. I have a laser engraver so I made new switch plates to replace the old switch plates. This way it has a clean look and all the switches and connections are labeled. After removed the old metal switch plates I fit the new switch plates into place and marked everything that I needed to cut out. Then I assembled the switch plates. In the image below you can see the original on the left, and what it looks like now on the right.
The original electrical controls were all inside of a box in the upper part of the light. I removed all the original controls and replaced them with the new parts I bought. Below is what is inside the original control box.
The image below is what is now inside of the light. Because the housing of the light is made in 2 pieces I put a crimp on fitting in the +5VDC wire and the 0VDC wire. This way I can solder each half of the housing up easier. When I was ready to final assemble the 2 housings I just plug them together. Black to black, and red to red. If I ever need to work on the light again it will be easy to take apart because of these crimp on connectors.
Because the new battery bank is so much smaller than the old batteries I had a lot of space to fill to keep the battery bank from moving around. I had some old green foam scraps from another project so I cup pieces to fill in the empty space. It is not pretty, but once the light is all reassembled no one will see the foam. In the left image you can see the white battery bank, in the right image I put the foam filler in the bottom.
Now it is time to put the light all back together and test it. My goal was to keep it mostly original looking. I think it came out very well. It can operate off the battery, or it can be plugged in to a USB source such as a cell phone charger block and operated.
The next image is the light shining on my garage door at night. The left image is the original fluorescent bulb on high; the right image is the new LED lights on high. My goal was to have the LED lights be equal brightness or brighter than the old fluorescent bulb. The new LED lights have a much more white light. The old fluorescent light had more of a yellow light. The images look very similar in brightness, but in person the LED lights look much brighter.
I am happy with how this light turned out! My parents were very surprised at the results. They are also happy that this old light that they used for years now will be used for many more years! This project cost me more to rebuild than just going out and buying a nice light, but remember I was doing this for nostalgic reasons. Since this is now up to current standards of technology it will last for years to come. I hope you have enjoyed reading this article. I also hope that this article will give you the inspiration for a project of your own. Thank you for reading!
Below is the main parts I bought to complete this project. There are links to Amazon for the parts I used in rebuilding this camping light. Check the links if you would like to use any of these parts for your own project.
Links to sites I found the history of this light.