Shine Your Light On Me – Jeep Lighting
By Justin Banner
It was the revolution that brought about the modern headlight. However, what is this mysterious thing called the halogen light bulb? How does it differ from HID lights and LED lights? Which one is best for your Jeep? Let's answer those questions, right now.
While it seems like lights are a simple thing to deal with considering how long we’ve had them and how cheap they can be – there is a lot of science involved with making those photons shot down the road correctly. A lot of that relates to extending the life of the light while also continuing to make it brighter.
US Headlight Standards
Headlamps in the US were basically locked to the standard filament bulb from 1940 to about 1968 and the establishment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Europe, however, wasn’t locked to a standard and introduced the first halogen lamp for automotive use in 1962 with the H1 bulb. Even though it was proven to be a better light that lasted longer than the sealed beam, they were prohibited in the US.
Evolution Because of Fuel Shortages
Once the fuel crisis hit, US law makers began to face pressure from the public and automobile manufacturers alike to finally allow new headlight standards and the “new” technology of the halogen bulb. However, halogen lighting was limited to being stuck inside a sealed beam until the 1980s and the introduction of the 9004 bulb.
The original H1 bulb, the one Europe had since 60s, wasn’t approved for use in the US until 1997. Since then, we’ve have a slew of H-types used and approved in the US. What we’ve also gained are more aerodynamic front ends that allow for better fuel economy and performance.
Though, this also meant we lost the iconic pop-up headlamp in 2004 with the C4 Corvette and the Lotus Esprit ending production in that year. With smaller, slimmer shapes, the need for lowering the headlight to match the drastic angle of the front end was no longer required. Housing designs, better reflectors and increased candela power of halogen bulbs, meant that we no longer had to have a big bulky light on the nose of our cars and trucks.
Halogen lighting is the typical light you see on most vehicles that aren’t a premium brand. From headlights to fog lights to auxiliary and off-road lights; halogen is the inexpensive go-to for lighting on nearly anything with wheels. Essentially, the way it works is that there is a tungsten filament that heats up and burns to produce light.
Normally, that filament would evaporate away until either the bulb was black or it broke. Halogen creates a reversible chemical reaction cycle with the evaporated tungsten and allows it to stay at the same output until it eventually burns out, usually after 250-hours.
Halogen bulbs are a great and inexpensive way to get lighting if all out performance isn’t critical and you’re fine with changing a bulb. However, if you’re looking for more power and are approaching speeds of over 100-miles-per-hour, you really need a High Intensity Discharge, or HID, light. That being said, the halogen light bulb probably isn’t going away for some time yet.
High Intensity Discharge
Now, if you’re going fast – anything over 90-MPH, mind – or setting off in the pitch dark of the desert, you need a light that will keep up and put light far down range. You need the High Intensity Discharge (HID) light. Getting light beyond the mid-range you need lights that are brighter than what even a 100-watt halogen is capable of.
“The HID Light opened up the entire world of what a light can do and being able to drive off of it,” says Trent Kirby, operations manager of Baja Designs, “because it produced more performance and a brighter light in the same power consumption of a halogen bulb, it opened up the world to distinct types of beam patterns. It allowed us to go beyond your traditional Euro beam and spot lights.”
What Makes HID So Great?
What makes a HID perform better and brighter is that, instead of a halogen/tungsten chemical reaction, it uses the electrical arc of two tungsten electrodes inside a tube filled with gas and metal salts. Once that arc starts, the metal salts become plasma and increases the light produced by the arc and begins to reduce the power consumption of the light.
The ballast is needed to start the arc and maintain it, but the power required to drive the ballast is within the typical automotive electrical system. Yes, this is including vehicles that used halogen lights originally. It also lasts longer than halogen with most HID bulbs lasting from about three- to five-thousand hours.
There’s Always A Catch
A HID system does come with some complications over a halogen bulb and you must think of things like packaging, waterproofing, and dealing with the initial surge and warm-up of the plasma inside the bulb. There are a couple of different configurations of HID lights. One is where you have an external ballast and that sits near the back of the light or you can put it in the engine bay. The other allows you to have an internal ballast.
Internal vs External Ballast
The internal ballast has a huge advantage for harsh conditions, because it won’t allow the ballast to be exposed to the environments, especially off-road drivers, because that decreases reliability and longevity versus an exposed ballast. It can also make for one less part to have to package, but the internal ballast light might be bulkier. Again, it’s something you must plan out when building your lights.
One of the first cars to appear with HID lights was the 1991 BMW 750iL – in low-beam only – and was known as Litronic. The 1996 Lincoln Mark VIII was the first effort by a US Domestic manufacturer and was the only car with direct current (DC) ballast HIDs. Most ballasts at the time, and in use today, use an alternating current (AC) inverter.
This allows the current to flow through both electrodes equally. While DC allows for simpler ballasts, it does wear the electrode that gets constant power quicker over the one that acts to complete the arc. In contrast, an AC HID system can allow for more equal wear, less fluctuations, and reduction in flicker. Even so, the light you get out as either a headlamp or an auxiliary light like a fog or off-road light allows you to see much further than standard halogen bulbs. Never mind the advantage over the sealed beam filament light.
Bright Times even in Beam High – LED Lights
If you want bright lights but don’t want them the size of Texas, you didn’t have much choice but to buy HID lights for your specific needs. However, a new light has been on the market and has constantly gotten better and less expensive with age. It’s the LED Light.
What Does LED Mean and How Does It Work?
LED, or Light-Emitting Diode, is the latest and greatest technology in lighting now. It uses a two-lead semiconductor light source that works like a p-n junction diode. If you don’t know what that is, imagine two plates sandwiching two types of conductive material. One material has electrons from the voltage applied to it while the other material has electron holes. When enough voltage is applied the electrons recombine with the holes and produces energy in the form of photons and you get light.
LEDs Greatest Advantage – Packaging
With halogen and HID, you can’t combine multiple patterns into one light source. You can’t have one eight-inch light that was both spot and driving – it’s one or the other. With the size of LEDs, you can get many different light patterns on the same source. Despite how bright they are, LEDs are very small usually no smaller than your pinky nail (or smaller if you have big hands).
That yellow dot you see on most light circuit boards is the LED or it may be a cluster of LEDs on a single chip on board (COB). Despite its diminutive size, it has the brightness and power to outclass many HID lights you see right now. Thanks to that you can package a very powerful light system on your vehicle without having to clutter it up. The other bonus it has over HID is that it’s instant power up – you don’t have to wait for the plasma to build and warm up because there isn’t one.
So, What’s the Bad News?
However, even LEDs, for their size and positives, have some drawbacks. LEDs are prone to producing more heat and manufacturers must take that into account when designing their lights. That includes the housings and circuit boards. That’s what adds costs to the housings because it must be water proof, the LED can’t be exposed to outside elements, and there can be vibration issues. Even with its high cost, you can’t take away that its instant power, it can last 50-thousand-hours (if you buy from a reputable manufacturer), and you can buy less lights but can light up more areas.
Which Should You Get?
So, if you’re looking to get your first set of off-road lights, which way should you go? Should you still use halogen? Save a little more for HID? Or are LEDs the better investment? While there will always be other factors, saving your money and getting a good, high quality LED setup isn’t a bad idea. It’s getting to the point where it’s not worth investing into a halogen or HID system because you can get so much more performance and longevity out of an LED.
With halogen lights, you get 250- to 300-hours of life out of them. With HID, it’s 3- to 5-thousand-hours. LEDs from a reputable company that engineers the product from start to finish will last up to 50-thousand-hours. You’ll probably go through several cars with a quality LED light. The only limitation is if there is an LED application for your vehicle outside universal products.
There is always someone who makes an LED bulb or a full housing to replace your headlights, fog lights, turn signals, and many other lights. They’re the future for everyone. While initially more expensive than halogen – usually just about the same cost or just a little less expensive than HID – LEDs feature longer life and better performance than either one. If you’re considering going LED for your project, it should be no a brainer.