Blinded by the light: Have LEDs finished off HIDs?

8th September 2015 3:29 PM
Eddie Wilson

Have LEDs finished off HIDs for good? Or is there still a space on your bullbar for the former champ?

If you have spent any time behind the wheel of your 4WD after dark then you would already know that most factory headlights are as useful as a screen-door on a submarine.

They often leave us scratching our heads wondering why on earth the factory lights are so inadequate. Sure they're fine around the streets where you have plenty of ambient light, but what about the dead of night in the middle of the forest or desert?

Luckily there is always the option of aftermarket auxiliary lighting, and it is often one of the first accessories you will add.

Once, the most popular lighting choice was a set of you-beaut round spotties, but thankfully aftermarket lighting technology has improved in leaps and bounds with HID and LED systems illuminating the way. Lights also now come in an array of shapes and sizes, with endless options including beam patterns, filters and even light colour.

Now the sole reason for buying aftermarket driving lights should be to help you see in the dark, but with so much marketing hype around certain products it is easy to be swayed by appearance and brand names.

We are not going to don the lab coats and scientifically test each light on the market but we will give you the facts so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

A pair of halogen driving lights were one of the first upgrades every 4WDer made Eddie Wilson

Light output

Before we begin discussing the merits of each type of driving light it is important to understand what the numbers actually mean.

A few terms are often thrown about in the marketing hype and paid-for reviews, Candlepower, Lux and Lumens most commonly. Lumens seems to be the buzz word of the day so we'll concentrate on that.

The difference between halogen headlights and LED light is chalk and cheese.
The difference between halogen headlights and LED light is chalk and cheese. Eddie Wilson

Now there are two ways to measure Lumens, potential and actual. The potential Lumens is often a figure direct from the globe, or diode manufacturer, and is always the highest number - think perfect conditions. Unfortunately in the real world things like lens design and manufacturing inefficiencies mean we rarely see anywhere close to the boasted figures. 

Think of it like a flash new top quality turbo, trying to breathe through a restrictive exhaust and an intercooler setup that closely resembles a bowl of spaghetti, all of a sudden the potential output of the turbo is irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is real world performance.

Lumens, and light output in general work exactly the same.

The colour of the emitted light is also as important as the light's output. The colour temperature is rated in Degrees Kelvin. 4000K-5500K is equivalent of sunlight, which is the most visible to the human eye. Sure you can go for lights offering a colour temperature of 6000K or more but that super cool blue lights will produce fewer Lumens and ultimately less visible light.

Old faithful

Halogen or incandescent lighting is commonplace in most 4WDs. The technology has been around since the mid 1800s and while there have been improvements in design such as tungsten filaments encased in a bubble of halogen gas, the basic principle remains unchanged. Electricity passes through a thin filament causing it to glow: The higher the temperature, the brighter the light.

The abundance of halogens worldwide and their ease of production make them inexpensive, though this often comes as a trade-off for efficiency and durability.

Their performance does leave a lot to be desired; halogens only produce light from around 5% of the electrical input to the globe, with the other 95% shed as heat. This highlights the importance of wiring your lights properly, which in most cases requires an upgrade to thicker gauge wire or an aftermarket loom. Unfortunately for the poor old halogen, the globe will wear out through the effects of filament degradation, vibration and the extreme heat; the globes can reach around 400 degrees Celsius when in operation.

On the black top, you can expect to see a working life of anywhere from 500 to 1000 hours from a halogen globe. In off-road conditions, a 55W halogen headlight may last for only 200 working hours, but a 100W driving light as little as 50 hours!

The former champ

When High Intensity Discharge lights (HID) lights hit the market, it was like the dawn of a new era in off-road lighting. The technology wasn't new, but the cost of production was so high that the first sets of HID driving lights would set you back thousands of dollars.

Thanks to our northern neighbours, manufacturing costs (and in some cases quality) dropped dramatically and now you can upgrade your old halogen spot lights for a lot less than you think.

HID globes produce daylight quality light
HID globes produce daylight quality light Eddie Wilson

One of HID lighting's greatest benefits is its efficiency, which is due to its high output and low current draw. They produce a daylight quality light (4200K-5000K), brightness (3200 lumens) and last for over 2000 hours.

Aftermarket HID upgrade kits require the fitment of an external ballast to regulate voltage Eddie Wilson

A single HID bulb produces the equivalent of 250 watts of Halogen lighting power, while consuming only roughly 45 total watts of electricity and generating far less heat.

Instead of a filament, HID bulbs fire a charge between two electrodes encased in a Xenon gas filled bulb.

Although they produce useful output when first ignited, HIDs aren't without their drawbacks. A HID light requires a few seconds to come up to full power which is the colour change you observe.

In addition, if power to the lamp is lost or turned off, the arc tube must cool a little before it can be used again.

It can also be quite unnerving changing between HID driving lights and standard Halogen headlights.

New kid on the block

Like HID, LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting has been around for many years, but its influence on off-road lighting has only recently gained traction.

Putting it simply, an LED is a semiconductor chip that converts electrical energy directly into light. As with HID, advancements in technology and production has made it possible to produce high-output LED lights at a competitive price.

50in LED light bars can produce over 20,000 lumens
50in LED light bars can produce over 20,000 lumens Eddie Wilson

Available in many varying sizes and shapes, LED lighting has challenged traditionalists, their versatility apparent by the multitude of mounting options and applications.

A distinct advantage of LEDs over halogen and HID is their lifespan, with many reported to last for over 100,000 hours (that's over 11 years of straight run time). Their robust construction also leads to them being very resistant to shock and vibration, with no delicate parts such as globes or filaments.

But buyers beware, you do get what you pay for and not all LED lights are created equal.

Their performance is characterised by smooth white light that is spread evenly throughout the visible range. In a 50" Lightbar you can expect to be over the 20,000 Lumen mark (Potential, not Actual) with no warm-up time required.

LED lights can be flicked on and off when required, handy when dipping lights as to not burn the retinas of oncoming drivers.

LED light bars are common place on the front of 4WDs nowadays Eddie Wilson

Proof is in the pudding

These days you would be hard pressed not to see a 4WD with an LED light bar affixed to it somewhere. Not all, but most have taken to this new technology and are embracing the aforementioned benefits. Their popularity has led to the pending amendment of Australian Design Rule 13/00 that will allow use of single light bars.

Their design lends them to easy fitment which can in turn free up valuable real estate in front of the radiator (think air flow and your radiator). Their price, longevity and the fact that they are also more efficient than either halogens or HID lights means that they are the most cost-effective purchase over time.

Traditional driving lights take up a lot of real-estate in front of your radiator Eddie Wilson

That's not to say you should go out and remove those HIDs you own; there is still space on your bulbar for the former champ but it's slowly diminishing. Mostly HIDs still out distance LED Driving lights, especially at the lower end of the market.

But a few high end companies, such as Baja Designs, are having success with their latest generation bars pushing well out into the distances normally only reached by HIDs and dominating all but the highest performers with a clearer, whiter light, something we'll be having a closer look at.

If you are looking for more light, then really consider the most cost-effective option. If you still run aftermarket halogens then you're literally in the dark and it's time to see the light and upgrade sooner than later!

Beam me up

Regardless of whether your lights are measured in candlepower or lumen, the light measurements are worthless if the light is not where you need it. This comes down to the design of the light and the beam configuration. The variety of illumination patterns can be boiled down to one of three main types.

 

Pencil or Spot Beams

Pencil beam HID lights can penetrate a distance of up to 1000m Eddie Wilson

Provide a longer and narrower beam that focuses the pattern further down the track.

 

Broad Beams

Offer better peripheral vision than spotties while maintaining good distance projection.

 

Wide or Spread Beams

Offer far less distance than a pencil beam but throw the light more widely, providing better vision around your 4WD.

 

What works best is down to your style of driving and preference. If you spend your nights at high speed racing across the desert then you will receive the full benefit of a pencil beam. If you're a crawler type and tend to keep the stubby stick in low range, you will be better suited to a spread style beam.

For the majority of us that spend our nights looking for a suitable camp site or the like, then you'll be most happy with a set of good Broad Beams or a combination of the other two.