Convert a Pinball Machine to LED’s

Last update: 01/172/2018.
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Important Information about LED’s

Any pinball machine can be converted from incandescent bulbs to LED’s.

Reasons to convert:

  • They are brighter.
  • LED’s last much longer, draw less current (connectors don’t burn) and generate a lot less heat.
  • They look great.

Reasons not to convert:

  • Expense. It can cost $100 and up to convert a game.
  • Not easy. Many of the bulbs are difficult to get to.
  • Brighter is not always better. Many people go overboard. Making a 30 year old pinball machine as bright as a new Stern looks silly.
  • Not all machines do well with LED’s. May need new boards, extensive modifications, or special bulbs.

Suggestions of what to do and what not to do:

  • Always use ‘warm white’.   ‘Cool White’ or ‘Natural White’ is just, well, unnatural. Other color temperatures are too blue for older pins.
  • Stay with frosted. They diffuse the light like regular bulbs.
  • Go with single LED’s. Or 1 SMD (surface mounted device / diodes). Don’t go overboard. It is like turning up the color on a TV and going ‘oh wow’. You will get tired of it.
  • Flashers do not have to be converted. Flasher bulbs are bright, last a very long time and do not use much power. If you want to save some money, skip those.
  • Color matching is controversial. I do it. Yet orange LED’s are weak and I use white there. The alternative is to use brighter white LED’s on darker colored inserts.
  • Spot lights / flood lights can use brighter LED’s and can work out well. Because spot lights usually light up broad areas of a playfield, sometimes brighter is better.
  • Kits are great, especially if doing one game. But they are more expensive.
  • If the bulb under the insert is not pointed up directly into the insert, a regular LED might not be bright looking. Install a single LED on a flexible wires so it can be pointed into the insert.
  • Make sure your LED’s work on AC circuits. All but the least expensive do. DC LED bulbs are becoming rare, so not much of an issue anymore.
  • Don’t listen to the fanatics that love to make their games blinding bright. They are idiots.
  • A well done brightness comparison.

Sideways lamp
This sideways lamp would be better served with a
flexible lead LED.
Flexible LED’s work better in inserts when the
lamp holder is not pointed directly into the insert.
(Photo from PinballLife).
Which are switched lamps?
Which of these lamps are switched?
Enter the service menu to find out.
Answer: Not the star rollover. All the pop bumpers. The above playfield lamps to the left of the ‘2X, 3X…’.
Floodlights
Spot lights or flood. They might work with brighter LED’s.

 

Where to purchase LED’s:

  • Cointaker – A pioneer in pinball LED’s. Perhaps the best selection of kits with exactly the right type and color of LED’s for a specific game.
  • Comet – Perhaps the largest selection of LED’s. I use their lower priced LED’s in non-ghostbuster applications.
  • Pinball Life – Great LED’s at slightly lower prices.
  • Action Pinball – They look fine but I do not have any experience with them.

I generally do not recommend purchasing LED’s and kits from general pinball parts suppliers. They are higher priced and do not have as good a selection.






Game / Manufacturer Specific Information:

General Information:

Ghostbuster or anti-ghosting LED’s are required on newer Williams (WPC), Sega/DE and Stern pins for the switched lamps only. If using regular LED’s on those pinball machines, the LED’s may glow faintly when they should be off.

LED’s, by design, work on DC (direct current). That means they may flicker when on AC circuits for GI (general illumination). And the wiring has to be correct for them to work on switched circuits which are DC. Most LED bulbs are now modified with internal circuits so they work on AC and do not have to be on correctly wired circuits.

GI – General Illumination. These are on all the time (some machines may dim or turn them on or off). Any cheap AC bulb will work just fine in the GI circuit.

Switched lamps – These are lamps that are turned on and off during game play. These may require special circuit changes or anti-ghosting LED’s. Or not. See notes on the specific games, below to see if you must use anti-ghosting bulbs.

Most, but not all, inserts are switched lamps. Most of the rest are GI. The best way to tell is to go into your service menu and select testing lamps. Have all switched lamps turn on and off. This will identify which are and are not switched lamps. Note that some pins use a relay to turn on and off GI lamps. They are still GI lamps, not switched, and never need special anti-ghosting bulbs. Another way to tell is to look at the wiring. All GI lamps use the same two wires and are ‘daisy chained’ from lamp to lamp. Look at the back of the wood inset in the backbox to see the difference in wiring of GI vs. switched lamps.

Strobing – Incandescent bulbs glow and slowly get brighter and dimmer. LED lamps turn on and off very quickly. This leads to a strobe effect that some find unnerving or even upsetting. If this happens in a game, the only way to get rid of it is to go back to incandescents or put in a lamp board designed for LED’s.

DC vs. AC LEDs – All LEDs run on DC (direct current). GI circuits are AC (alternating current). When hooking up the original LED bulbs, these DC LEDs flickered, like bad fluorescent lights. In switched circuits, which are DC, they worked fine unless the sockets were wired incorrectly. To solve those problems, manufacturers installed tiny circuits in the bulbs to convert AC to DC so the bulbs would work on AC. Almost all LEDs sold now contain those circuits so this is no longer an issue. But always check with the seller to insure you are getting AC compatible LED bulbs.

SMD LED's.LED vs. SMD – LED’s are light emitting diodes. SMD’s are Surface Mounted Devices that are chips and supposed to last longer than the original LED’s. There are also SMD’s that can be much brighter (a bad thing) than a single LED. In the photo to the left, the lamp has 24 SMD’s.

SMD’s may also be referred to by an ID number. The most common are 3528 and 5050. 3528 contain one LED per chip. 3528 are somewhat comparable in brightness to the traditional LED (although they can be a little brighter). 5050 SMD’s contain three LED’s per chip. Therefore, they are much brighter than 3528 or regular LED bulbs. 5050 SMD’s are quite useful when installing multicolor lights as each LED can be one of the three primary colors.

Generally, stay away from the 5050 SMD’s as they are too bright. The exceptions would be if installing a color changing LED, or in certain applications such as spot lights (see above).

Newer LED’s are coming. They include 3014, 3020 and 2835 (in order of increasing brightness) and still others. They are smaller and more efficient than the older LED’s, so they can be even brighter without generating as much heat.
Put on your sunglasses!

EMs:

EM (electromechanical) machines can be easily converted. If you feel the need, be sure to use single LED or ‘retro’ LED’s. But why bother? Connectors do not burn. And incandescents do not burn out often enough in home use to make this a priority. I would not convert EM pinball machines to LED’s.

Early Bally Solid State and Stern:

Lamps
Lamp Sockets with 470 ohm resistors installed.

If you have an early Bally SS pin and it is a AS-2518-17 or AS2518-35 or Stern M-100 or M-200 MPU (go here and select the list under ‘MPU’), you have a challenge. The lamp circuit design will not work with LED’s. You have three options:

  • Buy a new lamp circuit board such as this, this or this.
  • Install a special adapter on your current lamp board.
  • Or solder a 470 ohm resistor across every single switched lamp on the pinball machine. Note: switched lamps are those that turn on and off with game play. GI lamps stay on all the time and do not require any special modification.

Once these modifications have been made, you can slap in any AC LED in there. They do not need to be ‘Ghostbusters’ or anti-ghosting LED’s.

Early Williams Solid State:

To the best of my knowledge, early Williams solid state – system 3 – 7, 9 and 11, do not require any modifications nor do they have to be ‘Ghostbusters’ anti-ghosting LED’s so any AC LED can be used in these games.

Gottlieb System 1 and 80:

These early Gottlieb pinball machines can use any AC LED’s.

Williams WPC, Gottlieb System 3, Sega, Data East and Stern:

If you have a Williams / Bally WPC, Gottlieb System 3, you will need to use non-ghosting LED’s on the switched lamps. Also Data East/Sega/Stern* or Stern** from 1989 until they started being manufactured with LED’s, will require non-ghosting LED’s on the switched lamps. The GI lamps can use cheaper non-ghosting LED’s.

Note that many of these games have an auto dimming selection for the GI’s, to turn them down when the game is in standby. Turn that off (leave GI at full brightness) when using LED’s, or else LED bulbs will flicker.

An alternative to purchasing non-ghosting bulbs is to purchase a newly designed lamp board specifically designed for your model machine. These are available for Bally Williams WPC, and Stern SAM, Stern Sega Whitestar. Those boards are made to work with regular (NOT non-ghosting) LED’s. The added benefit is that these boards are supposed to ‘soften’ the on / off of the bulbs so that it is not as harsh and does not cause a strobe effect.

* Data East / Sega pins from 1989 (Version 1 through 3b) plus Sega / Stern Whitestar require non-ghosting lamps.
**Stern ‘SAM’ systems require non-ghosting LEDs in machines that were manufactured with incandescent lamps.

Bulk supplies
Buying bulbs in bulk can save over kits.
Great if converting multiple pins to LED’s.

 




Recommendations

If looking for the quick, low risk, and easy, getting a Cointaker kit for your one pin is the way to go.

If willing to work a little more and, perhaps, doing more than one pin, I shop around and buy in bulk to get a discount. I like:

Comet single LED warm white frosted domed bulb. A hundred pack is $26 as of 12/17. I use them in all GI lighting and switched lamps where non-ghosting is NOT required. Comet warns that these bulbs will not last as long as the newer SMDs, but for home use, I find it difficult to believe that they won’t last for a very long time.

For pins that require non-ghosting, Terry at Pinball Life does a great job of providing quality products at reasonable prices. Do not use their least expensive bulbs as they are DC and flicker in AC GI applications. But their anti-ghosting ‘Ghost Buster’ are great bulbs at a slightly lower price.

But if I were just doing one pin and wanted the least hassle, I would just grab the kit at Cointaker (or, if it available, at Comet) and be pleased as heck.

There is no science that went into these recommendations. And with the changes going on in this high tech market of LEDs, things will change quickly. None of the distributors of these products will steer you in the wrong direction – they are all great people. Make your decision and go with confidence with any of them.