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Halogen, HID or LED: Which light is right for your 4x4?

Posted in How To: Electrical on July 21, 2016
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Photographers: Courtesy of the manufactures

When driving off-road at night or even down rural roads, it becomes very apparent that the factory headlights and fog lights leave a lot to be desired, even with the high beams on. In the past, aftermarket off-road lights have played both the part of a functional accessory and as cosmetic 4x4 jewelry. Modern-day aftermarket off-road light offerings are brighter, more compact, and more efficient than ever before. A couple decades ago there were only one or two types of light options. Today, there are three different affordable lighting technologies. These include halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID), and light-emitting diode (LED) off-road lights. Each technology has its advantages and disadvantages. Which light technology is right for you depends on the application and, of course personal preference.

The 6-inch KC HiLites (kchilites.com) Daylighters have been the quintessential halogen off-road lights for decades, and they are still available today. This particular model has a fluted floodlight/work light lens. This type of lens allows the immediate area around your 4x4 to be well lit.

Halogen
Halogen lights are the oldest and least efficient of the three prevalent off-road light designs. They were the only game in town for several decades because the other off-road lighting technologies had not yet progressed and become affordable. Halogen lights function similar to a traditional incandescent light bulb, where electricity is used to heat a tungsten filament and create light. However, the design and function of a halogen bulb makes it more vibration resistant and allows it to last longer and shine brighter than an incandescent bulb. So you can forget about duct taping grandma’s vintage desk lamp to your front bumper. Halogen lights are available in many different wattages; the most common being 55 and 100 watt. The higher the wattage is, the brighter the light will be. As expected, the higher-wattage lights draw more current too. A typical 12V 100-watt halogen light will draw slightly more than 8 amps. By itself, one light is not all that big of a deal. However, when you mount four 100-watt lights to your 4x4, they have the potential to consume more than 33 amps. Combine this with the engine ignition, fuel pump, heater blower motor, and the other electronics in your 4x4 and you could be challenging your charging system. Of the three light technologies, halogen lights consume the most power and place the greatest demand on an electrical system. This high-amp draw requires the use of heavy-gauge wiring and relays. It is unwise to run even one or two 100-watt lights off a simple switch in the dash without the use of a relay. With this many amps, poor wiring and mismanaged electrical draw can create heat and could cause a fire under the dash of your 4x4. At the very least you could end up melting wires. Halogen off-road lights vary in price but typically cost as little as $20 each. Higher quality halogen lights run around $100 apiece.

Hella (myhellalights.com) Rallye 4000 Xenon Series were some of the first HID lights made popular by professional off-road racers in the ’90s. At more than $600 each, they were outside the reach of most off-road enthusiasts. Today you can regularly find them new for $400-$500. This particular light features a euro beam pattern, which is a hybrid lens that projects a narrow pencil beam for long distance vision and a floodlight for cornering. The distinctive red ring is often mimicked by other manufacturers.

HID
HID (high-intensity discharge) lights are also known as Xenon lights because of the inert noble gas used inside the bulbs. HID off-road lights have been available since the ’90s. However, their high cost kept them out of the reach of most 4x4 enthusiasts. They did find their way onto high-end off-road race vehicles, though. HIDs are a type of arc lamp, so there is no delicate filament that heats up. Instead, light is produced via an electric arc between two tungsten electrodes housed inside an arc tube. The translucent tube is filled with both gas and metal salts. The gas facilitates the arc's initial strike. Once the arc is started, it heats and evaporates the metal salts forming plasma, which greatly increases the intensity of light produced by the arc. HID lights do not run directly on low-voltage DC current. They require an ignitor and ballast to bump up the voltage. Most modern HID lights have the ignitor and ballast built into the light housing, but some off-road HID lights have an externally mounted ignitor and ballast, which makes installation more complicated.

HID lights have many advantages over traditional halogen lights. Most importantly, HID lights are about 2 1/2 times more powerful than a comparable halogen light. They can produce a white hot beam that rivals sunlight. When mounted side by side, a lit 100-watt halogen bulb seems yellow and dim next to an HID. The HIDs will reach out much further than a halogen light too. Another advantage of HID lights is the low power consumption. They generally draw 60 percent less current than a standard 100-watt halogen light. A typical 12V 35-watt HID light draws about 3 amps. You could very easily run two of these lights to a switch in the dash without a relay, although using a relay is still a good idea.

HIDs may sound like the perfect off-road light, but they do have some disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of HIDs is that most do not instantly light up to full power when switched on. It takes a few seconds for them to ignite. The lower cost lights are usually slower to fire than the higher-end HID lights. If you aren’t in a hurry, this isn’t a big deal. High-quality HID lights with metal housings are not as expensive as they once were, but each light still runs $275 and up. The low-buck imported HID lights have plastic housings and can typically be picked up for around $100 each. They usually aren’t as durable and don’t stand up well to the elements, but you could replace them several times over for the price of a high-end HID.

Companies such as Baja Designs (bajadesigns.com), Pro Comp (procompusa.com), Rigid Industries (rigidindustries.com), Warn (warn.com), and many others offer LED lightbars in different lengths in straight, curved, and multi-row models to help disperse light where it’s needed. Many of the longer models feature both flood and spot lights to brighten the trail at the front and sides of your 4x4.

LED
If you haven’t seen an LED lightbar on a Jeep or other 4x4, you’ve probably been living under a rock. The popularity of LED lights has skyrocketed over the last few years. Their compact size, durability, long life, low amp draw, and absolute brightness are among the reasons. You also can’t discount the fact that many people simply think the long thin light bars mounted above the windshield look cool. The availability of low-quality imported LED lights has certainly helped fuel the fire. LED lights are a two-lead semiconductor light source. They are illuminated solely by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material. LED lights are generally extremely shockproof and waterproof. Another really cool advantage of LED lights is that many of them can function properly on multiple voltages without any modifications. Like halogen lights, LED lights also come in several different wattages. The higher the watts, the brighter the lights will be. Lower quality lights usually have a lower wattage rating, so don’t be fooled by a less-expensive LED lightbar that looks essentially the same as a more expensive version. It’s generally accepted that lights built with Cree LEDs are of a higher quality than some of the other LED lights on the market.

As with all off-road lighting options, LEDs have disadvantages, too. LED off-road lights are typically made up of several LED light elements mounted to a circuit board. Each LED is designed to last just as long as a standard transistor, which means the lifespan of an LED surpasses the short life of an incandescent bulb by thousands of hours. However, if one of the LEDs does burn out for some reason, you end up with a dead spot in the middle of your LED light that can’t be repaired easily. The price of LED lights is all over the map. Because of their versatility, they come in many different shapes and sizes. A single LED interior light can cost as little as a few dollars, and a massive 60-inch lightbar may set you back anywhere between $300 to $3,000, depending on quality, light output, and other features.

The 90-watt Vision X (visionxusa.com) 8.7-inch Light Cannon LED off-road light is the first single-source spotlight to reach out to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) with usable light. Single-source LED lights often have large high-quality reflectors to direct the bright light, and they look more like traditional off-road lights.

What Works Best Where
If you aren’t already thoroughly confused as to which light design is best for your application, let us help you simplify the selection process. Consider color temperature when selecting your lights. Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin. Our eyes see best at noon on a sunny day, which translates to a color temperature of 5,000K. Off-road lights with a color temperature of 5,000K greatly reduce driver fatigue and increase terrain recognition at night. A l00-watt halogen bulb produces a 3,000K color temperature. HID lights are typically 4,000K-5,000K, while LED lights usually produce a 5,000K-6,000K color temperature. A 3,000K temp is yellowish, a 5,000K temp is bright white and 6,000K is blueish. The 4,000K-6,000K lights provide the best light for most off-road applications.

For basic low-cost night wheeling, it’s hard to beat the simple halogen off-road light. Although, if you are looking at the high-end halogen lights, you might as well step into a low-buck HID. The HID wiring will usually be much less complex to install because HIDs draw fewer amps. The brighter light that the HIDs provide will be an added bonus. The only real reason to stick with a halogen light is if you simply like the looks of a particular model more than any of the available HIDs.

HIDs really shine in long-distance lighting. If traveling at high speeds off-road is your thing, then HIDs might be the best option for you. Dollar for dollar, an HID will reach out further into the darkness than a comparable LED light in most cases. There are LED lights that match and go beyond the reach of HIDs. However, they consume much more power and are significantly more expensive than a low-buck HID. The low amp draw of smaller LED lights makes them a great choice for floodlights. Low-wattage LED lights can be left on for extended periods of time without restarting the engine or killing the battery, making them perfect for use as camp or rock lights for low-speed wheeling and nighttime trail repairs. Now, if you simply like the look of the LED lightbars, your decision is already made—there really isn’t a comparably shaped Halogen or HID light available.

The Lightforce (lightforceusa.com) HTX provides the best of both worlds. It features a 70-watt center HID light that reaches out to 5,800 feet and 20 perimeter LED lights that brighten the immediate area around your 4x4.

Beam Type
There are two basic beam types to choose from when selecting your off-road lights. There are spotlights (sometimes called pencil beams), and there are floodlights, sometimes called work lights. There are also some lights that are a hybrid of spot and floodlights. These are sometimes called driving lights or euro beams. For throwing light as far out as possible in a focused beam, you’ll want spotlights. These are ideal for high-speed use where you can see far out in front of you. For slower driving with more technical turns and obstacles like large trees and rocks, you’ll want to go with floodlights. The floodlights will project light widely and evenly over the immediate area, making them a great choice for rock lights mounted underneath your 4x4. If you do both wide-open high-speed driving and slow technical crawling, you can mix and match pencil beams and floodlights, or go with a euro beam off-road light. Many LED lightbars have both spot and floodlights built into them, making them extremely versatile.

Light tech junkies often want to argue about the importance of Lumens. A Lumen is a unit used to measure light output. It’s argued that more Lumens is better, but this can be deceptive. The pattern at which a light beam is thrown can make a much bigger difference to your visibility than more or less Lumens in some cases. Ultimately, picking the correct beam type for the application is more important than selecting the light with the most Lumen output.

You can’t beat LEDs when it comes to lighting in confined areas. These KC HiLites Cyclone LEDs are compact enough to be mounted nearly anywhere on, in, or under a 4x4 to provide necessary close-range lighting.

Where to Mount Them
Selecting the correct mounting location for your new lights should have a lot more to do with where they will be most effective rather than where you think they look the coolest on your 4x4. Even though massive lightbars across the top of the windshield significantly change the look of your 4x4, the front bumper is typically the best location for your forward-facing off-road lights. Although, if the lights are large enough, they can impede airflow to the radiator and cause overheating on 4x4s with borderline cooling problems. LED lightbars mounted to the A-pillar above the windshield allow light to be cast far and wide, especially with the curved lightbars and those that have the LEDs at the ends pointed outward slightly. However, mounting lights high on the windshield or on the hood does have some negative effects. It can cause increased wind noise and a blinding glare off of the hood, especially in extremely dusty or foggy night conditions. To combat this, racers will paint the hood flat black or install shields on the lights to shadow the hood area. If better vision in mist and fog is what you are after, you’ll want to switch to amber-colored lenses and mount the lights as low as possible, preferably below the front bumper. This helps you see the road without the fog reflecting the light back in your face and decreasing visibility.
END

Larger LED lights usually feature multiple light sources like this ARB (arbusa.com) Intensity off-road light. It gives the light a completely different look. The ARB Intensity lights are available in both spot and flood beam patterns.

Companies such as PIAA (piaa.com), Poison Spyder (poisonspyder.com), Rugged Ridge (ruggedridge.com), Rigid Industries, Rough Country (roughcountry.com), Smittybilt (smittybilt.com), and more offer vehicle-specific A-pillar mounting brackets for all the popular 4x4 models. The smaller individual lights can be aimed in any direction you desire for best nighttime visibility.

OC Motorsports (ocmotorsports.com) did a slick installation with these Rigid Industries flush-mount LED lights. It’s a subtle look, but with four LEDs mounted all around in the factory rear bumper, there is always plenty of light.

The KC HiLites Flex Array LED lightbars are made up of individual LED lights that can be connected like Legos. Brackets and additional LEDs are available for endless linking and stacking. As an added bonus, if one of the LED lights should eventually die, you can simply replace one light or section, rather than replacing the entire lightbar. The linking feature also gives you the ability to integrate spot and floodlights exactly where you want them in your personalized lightbar.

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