If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably used past articles you’ve read on aftermarket automotive lighting as a cure for insomnia. After all, lighting stories have never been particularly interesting, mainly because there wasn’t much to discuss that you probably didn’t already know. But as you’ve likely noticed, great strides have been made in lighting in recent years on the OEM and aftermarket fronts. High Intensity Discharge (HID) technology, brighter headlight bulbs and a wide array of driving and fog lamps have not only made aftermarket lighting more meaningful, but stylish as well.
By far the most significant achievement in automotive lighting since the advent of the halogen bulb is HID headlamps, also referred to as Xenon headlamps. Unlike halogen headlamps, or the incandescent units that preceded them, HID headlamps do not use a filament; instead, a ballast is used to start the light, which is created from an electrical discharge between two electrodes in an environment of Xenon gas. HID lamps are more efficient than incandescent or halogen designs, requiring only 65 percent of the power used by halogen bulbs. HID lamps last long, too – up to 10 times longer than a conventional halogen bulb. Considering the stock halogen bulbs in a modern-day truck or SUV routinely last more than 10 years, it is conceivable that HID lamps could outlast the car and the driver.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the brightness of HID lighting that makes it so effective; very specific Department of Transportation (DOT) guidelines limit the amount of lumens (a measurement of light output, or brightness) an automotive light can produce. Rather, it is the higher color temperature, measured in degrees of Kelvin, that HID produces. For purposes of comparison, a typical automotive halogen bulb runs approximately 3,200-3,600 degrees Kelvin, while HID lamps run between 5,000-6,000 degrees, which is very close to natural daylight. As the color temperature increases, the light shifts to a blue color, which makes things appear more vivid as the light spectrum rises. An incandescent or halogen bulb appears almost yellow when compared to an HID – older bulbs look even more yellow.
The bluish light produced by HID bulbs in high-end cars like Mercedes and BMW immediately drew the attention and curiosity of the public, many of whom wanted the same look and vivid output on their own vehicles. This led to the arrival of “HID conversion kits,” which are still available, but also technically illegal (we say “technically” because they are against federal motor vehicle safety standards, but many companies continue to sell them online). The reason is that headlamps are actually a system, consisting not only of the bulb, but also the housing and reflector. When an HID bulb is inserted into a housing designed for halogen lighting, the results can be stray light and odd beam patterns. Needless to say, such a problem may not be a concern for the vehicle owner, but oncoming traffic can be temporarily blinded.
Properly engineered HID lighting is a packaged system, which is precisely the reason we haven’t seen legal HID lighting retrofit kits. OEM suppliers such as Sylvania and Philips offered such kits for limited applications a few years ago, but have all but abandoned the idea due to the excessive costs associated with engineering complete HID systems for individual applications.
So what’s an RVer to do? The most popular, simple and inexpensive solution is the “super white” replacement bulb, which can have a variety of brand names. For example, Hella offers its High Performance Xenon Blue bulbs, Sylvania has long been known for its SilverStar and SilverStar Ultra bulbs, and Philips recently introduced its X-treme Power bulbs.
Which to choose? A lot of this depends on whether you are more interested in the way your headlights look, the way they perform or both. The main thing to consider is where the bulbs fall on the Kelvin scale – the higher the number, the whiter the light. Most of the performance headlamp bulbs we came across fell in around 4,000-4,100 degrees Kelvin, which should represent a marked improvement over the standard halogen bulbs.
To find out, we obtained a set of Sylvania SilverStar headlight/ fog light bulbs and Philips’s new X-treme Power headlight/fog light bulbs for testing in a 2006 Dodge Ram pickup. Sylvania claims that the SilverStar bulbs are up to 35 percent brighter, shine up to 30 percent farther and produce a pattern that is up to 35 percent wider than the original-equipment bulbs. It should be noted here that the SilverStar Ultra bulbs are claimed to be up to 50 percent brighter, shine up to 40 percent farther and have a pattern that is up to 50 percent wider, but these were unavailable for our headlight test (should be in stores by this fall). Philips, meanwhile, claims that its X-treme Power bulbs produce up to 80 percent more light.
While it is difficult to offer a definitive comparison between these two products, it is easy to tell you that they are both a great deal better than the stock bulbs, which are only a few years old and still in great condition. The performance bulbs do indeed shine farther, but what impressed most is how much wider they shine. With the stock bulbs on a two-lane highway, the light would illuminate the lane, but not the shoulders where critters can hide. With the SilverStar and X-treme Power bulbs in place, we could clearly see both lanes and the shoulders. And with the fog lights on, the headlight pattern was a solid wash of white light.
Obviously, this means you can see a lot more of the roadway, but this tester experienced a benefit that would seem less obvious: Reduced eye strain. After driving for more than an hour on darkened rural roads, I found that my eyes felt better because they could see more easily. When you think about it, it’s no surprise, really – after all, it’s much easier to read under bright, white light than under a dimming incandescent bulb. And even though the bulbs seemed significantly brighter to me, not once did I get “flashed” by oncoming drivers who thought my high beams were on. This is a testament to the engineering that goes into DOT-compliant bulbs like the SilverStar and X-treme Power products.
Which begs the question: If these performance bulbs are so much better than the stock bulbs, why aren’t they installed from the factory – especially considering that Sylvania and Philips already manufacture bulbs for the OEMs? The reason is life expectancy. On average, the stock halogen lighting lasts 5-6 years, but can last more than 10 years, depending on the application. The filaments in performance halogen bulbs burn so bright, they last between 1-3 years on average. But considering the difference in performance, and that a set will typically only set you back around $40, we think the increased replacement interval is definitely worthwhile.
Headlamp Auxiliary Lighting
For those who simply want more visibility than headlights alone can provide, the aftermarket offers more auxiliary lighting choices now than ever before. It used to be that when someone mentioned “fog lights,” the vision of square, yellow lights came to mind. Today, enthusiasts can choose from a wide array of driving and fog lights.
It is common for drivers to confuse fog lights with driving lights, and vice versa. But there is an easy way to distinguish the two: think of fog lamps as a supplement to your low beams, and driving lamps as a supplement to your high beams.
Fog lamps are designed with flat, wide and short-ranged beams that are mounted low to produce less reflected glare back into the eyes of oncoming drivers while driving in fog, smoke or other low-visibility situations. Driving lamps produce an intense, longer-range beam that allows the driver to see farther ahead during night driving. These should be mounted at the level of the headlamps to provide the best performance. Just remember that, while there are many aftermarket fog lamps that are DOT legal, we didn’t come across any driving lamps that had DOT certification, simply because they have greater potential to blind oncoming drivers, especially if they are not properly aimed.
If you spend most of your time driving in the city and on the expressway, then fog lights are the only answer. If you frequently venture into rural areas where oncoming traffic isn’t a concern (read: off-road) then driving lamps are going to provide all the night vision you’re likely to need.
You may have noticed that there are more shapes and sizes available than ever before, and even the smallest units deliver incredible brilliance; these are both benefits resulting from computer-aided design. Traditionally, lamps had parabolic reflectors with fluting or patterns in the lens, which distributed the light in the desired pattern. More recently, free-form design has allowed the elimination of lens fluting in many designs, as the beam pattern is completely determined by the reflector shape. This results in a very tightly controlled beam pattern and higher output.
Headlamp Installation Considerations
Whichever lamp you choose, there are two main points to consider: power requirements and proper aiming. Any time high-output lighting is added to a vehicle, it is recommend that a relay be used to make sure that the proper amount of current is available to the lamps. This will allow the lamps to operate at maximum efficiency in addition to protecting switches and wiring from damage. Always make sure that the wiring is in good condition and that all grounds make good contact.
That said, remember that there are laws regarding where and how auxiliary lighting is mounted, and they can vary from state to state, so make sure you check your local laws before you commence with your installation. Once in place, proper aiming is crucial – not only for maximum performance, but to prevent blinding other drivers.
Headlamps of the Future
HID technology is still relatively new, but don’t expect its reign to last as long as the
halogen bulb. LED is poised to take the place of HID lighting in the not-too-distant
future. It is widely known that LED is more efficient and lasts longer than other light
sources, but as the technology continues to evolve, it is proving to be as bright and white
as HID as well. The Toyota Prius already uses low-beam LEDs because of the low wattage they
consume, and Audi’s supercar, the R8, offers a full-LED headlight system.
As the economy of scale catches up, more and more vehicles of the future will come with, or be available
with, an LED lighting system. Whether or not it will become inexpensive enough to be
offered as standard equipment on lower-priced cars remains to be seen – and because LED
faces the same challenges as HID with regard to retrofitting, don’t expect to find LED
headlight kits for your older truck anytime soon (though you can find LED taillights).
With all of the choices in lighting today, there’s simply no reason to squint down a dark
country road, wondering what might be around the next corner.
Hella Inc. USA, (800) 247-5924, www.myhellalights.com.
Mothers Polishes, Waxes, Cleaners Inc., (800) 221-8257, www.mothers.com.
Philips Electronics North America Corporation, (800) 555-0050, www.usa.philips.com.
Sylvania Automotive Lighting, (800) 347-3420, www.sylvania.com.