for Your Custom Ride
With all the cool aftermarket lighting options for both head lamps and tail lights, you might feel like you need a degree in electrical engineering just to be able to select the right type and kind. But you don't. You just need this quick lighting guide.
So Many Lighting Options
One of the most common issues customers report to us is simply that they are not sure what the different between all the different lights and lighting options and styles really are. Depending on what site you are looking at, some folks praise HIDs or LEDs or Halos or are they called Angel Eyes? Should they actually be referred to as Demon Eyes though depending on the color? What about halogens? Are my stock lights halogens? And before you know it, between the terminology and the different looks, you may be completely overwhelmed. Like you're seeing a double rainbow for the first time ever, only actually you're just staring at pics of cool headlights on Google Image search, losing your sheat because you know what you want to see, but you can't seem to figure out what those style of lights are called. I've been there. I saw a really sweet ride coming down the road outside my friend's house. We were having a BBQ, and I turned to see these glowing green headlights coming towards me, and I was mesmerized. But after they truck turned the corner, I turned to my buddy and asked him what kind of lights those were. He just said, HIDs, I think. Of course that doesn't help me with the shape of the lights or the color or the style or, well, probably anything at all, cause they were actually Halos with tinted LED Headlights backing them up. Sigh. Let's breakdown what each of these styles are actually called and what the different lighting terms really mean in this Lighting Guide.
Buzz Words & Lighting Terms
A Quick Overview of Everything from Halogens to LEDs
As of this writing, the most common stock headlights on the market are still Halogens, but even this term can be broken down and explained, and often times your stock halogens are slightly different than any replacements you might get installed down the road. HIDs are growing in popularity because of their intense light output. Once you know what that acronym means, this will become a no brainer so to speak. Xenon, a subset of HIDs that have become so popular that they are quickly becoming synonymous with HIDs themselves, are those blue tinged HIDs you've likely seen on the roadways at night. As with other HIDs, they cover a wide swath of roadway and are very bright. Also, many consumers find the blue tinge to be "neat." The relative new comer to the marketplace, the LEDs, are also gaining in popularity, but their initial price tag often complicates customer's buying decisions. I mean, how much are you really willing to pay for your headlights? It's not like they light up the roadway at night and during storms to help you prevent accidents or anything super important like that. Tee-hee!
Disclaiminator: "Lamps" for the purposes of this article are the same as "Headlights," and in much of the industry, yeah, interchangeable.
Picture Note: Thanks to Diode Dynamics, Anzo, and Recon for all the great pics of vehicles and light bulbs in this article.
Three Main Types of Bulbs
When considering what kind of bulb to go with, most of the time in the automotive universe, we will be concerned with headlights. While all three of these main types of bulbs can also be used on your tail lights, seeing as headlights are likely the most important lighting elements on your vehicle, I thought I'd really focus there. But imagine that when I talk about brightness and lumens for headlights that the same applies for tail lights as well as the price tag. We find most consumers do research on headlight replacement before following suit with tail lights.
Numbers and Terms
Lumens: How bright the bulb is when lit up.
Power in Watts: How much energy you need to turn on the bulb.
Longevity in Light Hours: How long the bulb will last on average in hours turned on.
Time to Maximum Brightness: How long it takes in (micro-)seconds to completely light up.
Range of Color Temperature: Not temperature of bulb, but of the light itself, in K (Kelvin); the higher, the closer to daylight and the "brighter" it appears to the human eye.
Bulb Temperature: Actual temperature on the surface of the bulb (so don't touch the hot ones!).
Additional Notes: If there's anything else that is significantly different than the rest, we'l note it here
Cost: How much per bulb are you on average going to spend today on a pair of these bulbs.
Also please note that while some of these are pretty certain, like color temperature, the rest are in general averaged.
Lumens: 1,400 Lumens
Power in Watts: 55 Watts
Longevity in Light Hours: 500-1,000 Light Hours
Time to Maximum Brightness: .5 Second
Range of Color Temperature: 3,200K "Soft White"
Bulb Temperature: 127 degrees (HOT!)
Cost: $10-20 each
Additional Notes: Most Stock Bulbs are Halogen.
HIDs (High Intensity Discharge)
Lumens: 3,000 Lumens (not always street legal)
Power in Watts: 35 Watts
Longevity in Light Hours: 2,000-10,000 Light Hours
Time to Maximum Brightness: .5 Second
Range of Color Temperature: 4,500K "Cool White"
Bulb Temperature: 95 degrees (still pretty warm!)
Additional Notes: Requires HID Conversion Kit.
LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes)
Lumens: 1,600 to 2,000 Lumens
Power in Watts: 3-12 Watts
Longevity in Light Hours: 15K-50,000 Light Hours
Time to Maximum Brightness: .000001 Second
Range of Color Temperature: 6,000K "Daylight"
Bulb Temperature: Nada. Room temperature.
Additional Notes: Heat sink included.
Halogens (Stock & High Performance)
Some words on Halogens. First, most of your stock lights are going to be Halogen, at least at the time of this writing. However, many turn signals, running lights, indicators, and even some tail lights now come stock as LEDs because of their affordability and efficiency, plus their size, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Most vehicle owners will have to replace their halogens headlights several times over the life of their vehicle. The reason is simple and obvious, the same reason you've ever replaced pretty much any old school light bulb. Halogen lamps push electricity through a tungsten filament which creates light as it heats up. Easy. But just like old school light bulbs, that filament doesn't last forever. Most of the failure is due to heat. These traditional halogens get hot, upwards of 2,500 degrees Celsius at the filament, more like 127 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface of the bulb. DO NOT touch these bulbs, ever. First off, if they are on, they could burn you. Second, the oil from your skin will distort and even damage the light output of these bulbs. Don't touch them. They heat up so much because they are highly inefficient. A large amount of the energy put into these lights is released as heat. Heat causes particles to cling to the filament. The filament eventually breaks down.
Many customers complain that their replacement halogens don't seem to last as long as their stock ones, and that's actually pretty true. Here's why: many replacement halogens are "high performance" or brighter than stock, which also means they heat up even more, which means--you guessed it--they break down even faster. Talk about lose-lose.
The Transition to HIDs and Xenon HIDs
And that used to be the end of the story. The traditional automotive industry wants you to buy replacement parts that constantly breakdown, so you have to buy more. Done. Until... enter innovative designers and aftermarket parts companies!
The race was on. Who could find a better designed head lamp that would light up better than traditional halogens and even last longer than them? Industry innovators and disrupters entered the market, determined to do better than their predecessors, and in many ways, they did just that. In the 1990's HIDs started to hit the market. However, early versions of these High Intensity Discharge lights were expensive to produce and only lasted around double the amount of time that traditional halogens did. However, they were also around double the brightness. Score, right? Kind of. Well, a start at least.
Then HIDs started to use Xenon gas instead of various other options inside the bulb. This proved a game changer (in the late 90's, that is). Xenon gas HIDs eventually increased their longevity to upwards of 10,000 Light Hours. Now we're talking. These new Xenon-HIDs gave off a distinct blue tinged light that was super bright.
Be cautious though. If you are in the market for HIDs, many "shady" manufacturers started producing knock off Xenon's. Here's what happened. They realized they could put a small amount of Xenon gas into their tungsten-halogen bulbs and then market them as Xenon bulbs. Sometimes they would even tent the glass of the bulb blue to give that same tinged light effect. However, these weren't HIDs. They were halogen knock offs. Buyer beware.
High Intensity Discharge Headlights (& Xenon)
And suddenly we had a new standard to judge our headlights by. The Xenon HIDs blew everyone else away. There were only a few problems. First, they destroyed your pocketbook too. Xenon HIDs are expensive, and while the price has dropped a little over the years, they still are fairly expensive compared to their competitors largely because many of the elements involved in their manufacture are rare. This is partially due to how they work. Whereas a halogen bulb lights up a filament, in a Xenon HID, the electrical current actually jumps through the "space" between anode and cathode via the Xenon. In other words, it lights up the Xenon gas itself. Pretty cool. This creates one of the brightest lights on the market today. And if you want brightest, go for it.
However, this also lead to another couple problems. First, glare. When we speak of glare in the automotive light industry, we mean really bright lights that blind incoming traffic. If you've ever seen those cool blue tinged lights coming towards you and they seemed like the driver had the brights on and you flashed yours to get them dimmed and got no response, well, it might not have been the driver's fault. Those lights probably were the dims or lows. They were just HIDs. And HIDs glare into the opposite lane, causing dangerous situations. This is still a major problem today, and likely the number one reason why HIDs in many States in the US are not technically street legal.
So, let's talk about explosions. While not super common, I would feel remise if I didn't talk about the early failures of true Xenon HIDs. One of the most frightful issues was actual explosions of the bulb. While we aren't talking Hollywood blockbuster, James Cameron style, fire-ball in the sky explosions here, we are talking damage your light housing and obviously ruin your expensive Xenon HID explosions. Here's what sometimes happened and why: Xenon lamps must be kept under pressure that is upwards of 100 atmospheres, which translates to 100 times our normal air pressure that we exist in. Couple this with massive voltage that heats and expands various elements and occasionally you get--well, kaboom! Rare? Sure. Unheard of? No. Certainly something I'd want to know before buying a brand new expensive headlight kit and getting it professionally installed? Yes, please.
And price and legality weren't the end of the struggles for Xenon HIDs. The hidden cost of installation inflated the price even more. Most early HIDs required professional install. Today, there are many kits out there that the average consumer could use to try to convert to HIDs, but most of them are either expensive or a pain in the butt to do yourself or both. Yet if you were looking for the brightest and coolest headlights on the market, this was the only real alternative until recently.
Enter the LED
The hyper efficient and versatile technology of Light-Emitting Diodes entered the auto market in the early 2000's. And there were... hiccups. First, the price. The early LEDs for headlights were expensive and often required install kits and/or professional install. We're right back to where Xenon HIDs left us. Until, again the innovators and disrupters entered the scene. Companies like Diode Dynamics devoted hours of research and development until we ended up with next generation LEDs that were brighter than halogens, more efficient and easier to install than HIDs, and cost effective to purchase. How did they do it?
Heat sink and custom fit design emerged, creating a plug-and-play product in the SL1 LED line that any old average consumer can install without any tools at all. Done and done.
One of the bonuses to installing LEDs is added reaction time. The time it takes to fully light up a halogen or HID bulb is about half a second. While that seems negligible, LEDs light up in a millionth of a second. Studies have shown that this actually can increase reaction time of your fellow drivers by upwards of 30%! And here's the real reason why LEDs have started showing up stock in tail lights and indicators. Vehicle manufacturers see the added value in this quick reaction time which prevents accidents and protects your investment. Win-win!
Now, not all LEDs are created equal. Just like with the knock off HIDs and Xenons, buy carefully and only from well respected manufacturers and distributors. Just throwing an LED into the product, doesn't mean the light will be focused on the road ahead and light up as well as say these Diode Dynamics Stage Series Light Bars do. You need LEDs that are properly focused and directed. You can say this about any product though. The same is true with HIDs. If they aren't properly directed, then they won't light up where you're going.
Another great added feature of these new age LEDs is that their color temperature is extremely close to Daylight. This means that the beam of light they put out makes the surrounding area look as close to daylight as you can get. Couple this with hyper-efficiency, and you've got an excellent product. It only takes a fraction of the power to put out similar brightness with LEDs compared to halogens or HIDs.
And LEDs are much less likely to blind incoming traffic compared to overly bright HIDs. With all these innovations, it is pretty clear that LEDs are destined to dominate the aftermarket lighting market, if not completely take over stock. One of the only reasons why I don't think LEDs will become the only stock lighting option, however, is that it is possible that top-quality LEDs may actually be the first ever lighting option that will last the life of the vehicle.
Longevity & Cost Breakdown
Now that you know the terminology & types of lighting options, it's time to help you decide what's best for you & your vehicle. Now it would be easy just to say, well, LEDs are the bestest and the newest so just buy those, but the truth is that it might come down to your individual vehicle make and model, how old or far into the life of the vehicle you are, & even how much night driving you do or whether you ever off-road at night. I can fairly definitively say at this point though that if you are considering replacing your stock halogens on a brand new or fairly new vehicle that you plan to have for 5 years or more, you should probably go ahead & invest in some quality LEDs, unless if it never rains where you live & you only drive during the day.
Let's say you're a red blooded American and hence care about the blow to your pocketbook that your new headlights are going to cost you. Don't worry, I'm one too. No judgement. We tend to go looking for the best deals and the best prices. That's just how we were raised, am I right? But here's the thing: not all products are created equal. Look at it this way. Have you ever been shopping at the store and you look at price of two items. Let's say we've got 2 six packs of beer, just to keep things simple here. One is in bottles, the other cans. The bottles cost $6 for the six pack, cans only $5. Now maybe I'm a bottle guy. Maybe I go for the cans because I recycle them to get more beer money twice a year. But if I really broke down the cost per ounce of beer I'd see that I'm getting more value from those cans, right? This is an easy example to use. Now I might then look at the cost of say a Halogen vs an HID and come to a similar conclusion. The question is, how do we measure? It's easy to compare two six packs of the same beer. But now we are looking at different quality of light production all with different costs and installation requirements. I mean, those HIDs are gonna be harder to install than those halogens, but what if they last longer? How much is the better product worth to me? And how much hassle am I willing to go through installing them? But the real question, the big one, is this: How much am I really paying per light hour? In other words, how long are these gonna last?
Longevity: How long are these lights gonna last?
I feel like this chart really puts it into perspective. Even the advanced Xenon HIDs really pale in comparison to the massive life expectancy on some of these higher end LEDs. Keep in mind that LEDs in headlights are still pretty new, so some companies are reluctant to make these huge claims of upwards of 50,000 Light Hours per bulb. Some make more conservative claims, like 15,000 Light Hours, but even then at their slightly higher price than those Xenons, they are still worth it even on the lower end, costing about a penny per light hour. The other thing to consider is this: every light hour estimated life above, save those LEDs, is based off of when half of the bulbs manufactured will be burnt out or stop working completely. This shows us two things: first, almost half of the bulbs will fail before those numbers above then based upon this. Secondly, nearly all the remaining Halogens and HIDs fail within about 100 Light Hours of that maximum number shown above. This means that those estimates are actually much closer to the maximum number of light hours you're gonna get out of a bulb than the average. The LEDs though don't burn out like more traditional bulbs because they aren't heating up a filament or a gas to create light. So that 50,000 light hour mark is actually the point when the light coming out of the LED will degrade to about 70% of its initial brightness. 70% as oppose to no light. While I don't necessarily recommend driving with only 70% of your headlights, the point is this: those LEDs might last even longer than that estimate above, whereas everything else is going to have already failed or be about to by the time it reaches its max light hours listed above.
Cost Comparison: How much am I actually spending?
Alright, fine. So the LEDs are going to last the longest. Whoopidy! So what? They are still the most expensive, right? Technically, that is correct. Looking at an average cost of products we have carried and purchased ourselves over the years, we came to the conclusion above. If you actually compare the cost of each headlight compared to the amount of light hours you're going to get out of it, you'll see that actually LEDs are also the most cost effective. Why? Because they last longer! Even if we take the more conservative estimate that the LEDs may hit 70% efficiency at 15,000 light hours, we still match the Xenon HIDs then at a penny per light hour. And keep in mind that the newest LEDs on the market, Diode Dynamics SL1's are currently priced at $75 each and don't require a special installation kit, unlike those $50 Xenon HIDs. So which is actually cheaper? The LEDs, clearly. Now, let's caveat this situation a bit. Again, I'm assuming that your vehicle is new enough that it is going to last at least as long as the life of the LEDs or close to it. Of course, we can never really know when a vehicle is going to crap out or if you're going to get in an accident or something. But assuming you're planning on having your vehicle for several years, then those brand new LEDs are a great upgrade option for your truck or Jeep. If you think you only have a year or so left in your vehicle, go for the cheap Halogens. There's nothing wrong with that. But the next time you buy or plan to replace your headlights, do yourself a favor and buy the most efficient, most effective, highest power headlights on the market which are also going to last longer than just about anything else out there: get you some LEDs!
Information for this article came from a number of sources including my head and my own number crunching. Fun times. Here's the outside ones for you to look into yourself:
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"Heat Test of HID Xenon Lamps." StylingWebben.se, 2017, http://www.stylingwebben.com/page/view/18. Accessed 20 Dec. 2017.
Joan, Ben. "Difference Between Xenon and HID." DifferenceBetween.net, 8 Jan. 2010, www.differencebetween.net/object/difference-between-xenon-and-hid/. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017.
Laukkonen, Jeremy. "How Long Should Headlights Last?" LifeWire, 12 Jan. 2017, www.lifewire.com/how-long-should-headlights-last-4117128. Accessed 20 Dec. 2017.
Markus, Frank. "Blinded by the Light? Comparing New LED Headlamps with HID/Xenon, Halogen." MotorTrend, 16 Oct. 2008,
www.motortrend.com/news/blinded-by-the-light-comparing-new-led-headlamps-with-hidxenon-halogen-2069/. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017.
Taub, Eric A. "How Long Did You Say That Bulb Would Last?" NY Times, 11 Feb. 2009, bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/11/how-long-did-you-say-that-bulb-will-last/. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017.