Upgrading Halogen Headlights to HIDs or LEDsLast Updated January 17, 2024 | Meghan Drummond
One of the easiest safety modifications you can make on your vehicle is as simple as changing a light bulb—literally. Upgrading your halogen headlights to either HID or LED headlights can improve visibility and decrease your odds of being in a nighttime accident. Brighter lights are especially important for people who drive frequently at night or have to navigate rural roads without street lights
Over 80% of vehicles still have halogen headlights. They are by far the most common type of headlight available and are still the factory default for most vehicles.
Halogen headlights are very similar to the incandescent light bulbs commonly used in houses. The bulbs have a wire filament which heats up and produces light when an electric charge is passed through it. The halogen gas in the bulb allows the filament to glow brighter.
Halogen bulbs are by far the cheapest but also the least bright solution. There are some other downsides as well. Halogen lights are incredibly sensitive to the oils in your hands, so care must be taken when installing them. They also have the shortest life span of all the available headlight options, so you’ll be reinstalling them more often.
Halogens and their reflective housings come standard in most vehicles, so people tend to be reluctant to switch over to projection style headlights despite the various benefits provided by each. Thankfully headlight conversion kits are available in order to make that process easier.
Projection vs Reflector Headlight Housings
Most factory halogen headlight housings are reflector housings. In reflector housings, reflective material lines the bulb’s housing in order to spread light. This is important to take note of because HID and LEDs are both projection headlights.
Projection headlights don’t use a reflective material and instead project their light in a spread. This means that if you don’t change headlight housings when you upgrade your headlights, you’re not only going to be missing out on some benefits, but you’re also going to be blinding other drivers, which is unsafe and just mean.
A first step to upgrading headlights is finding out what type of headlight housings you have and determining whether or not you’ll need to replace them. Thankfully this is super easy to check. Is there a reflective lining in your headlight? If so, it’s a reflector. If not, it’s a projection.
HID stands for high intensity discharge, which is a pretty accurate description. HID lights are sometimes labeled as xenon lights. Xenon gas, rather than halogen, is passed over an electrical charge to create a light that is remarkably intense. HID bulbs have been available since 1991, but they undoubtedly owe some of their mainstream success to The Fast and Furious movies, which first made car modders start searching for how to acquire their own bright blue lights.
Halogen bulbs produce about 1400 lumens. HID’s double that to an impressive 3000 Lumen output. HID lights are undoubtedly brighter, and bluer, than their halogen counterparts, but there are some disadvantages. The first is that if improperly installed they can blind oncoming traffic and have subsequently earned a pretty bad reputation. This reputation has made installing aftermarket HIDs illegal in many states. A well-installed light shouldn’t blind other drivers though, and it’s primarily an issue of adjusting the direction of the headlight.
HID lights also, when properly installed, have a significantly more complex setup than their halogen counterparts. HIDs require ballasts to provide the voltage necessary to initially light the bulb. Even with the ballasts though, HIDs require a warm-up period to get to full brightness, a disadvantage for people who make many short trips.
A properly installed HID light can last 2,000 hours compared to the 800 you’ll get from a standard halogen bulb, and they are certainly the brightest option.
- Significantly brighter than halogens
- Last more than twice as long as halogens
- Provide a warmer light
- Require a warm-up period
LED (short for light emitted diode) lights used to have one major disadvantage: cost. As the cost has plummeted, more automakers have embraced these lights. They aren’t as bright as HID lights, but they can last from 30,000-50,000 hours…which basically means you’ll need a new car before you need new headlights. Like HID’s, you may need to adjust your headlight housings to really make the most of the brightness and ensure that you’re getting light where you need it most.
LED lights are small and customizable, which has led to automakers getting creative with the design of their LED head and taillights. Since you can get LEDs in a variety of colors, they can be exactly as blue as you would like them to be if that’s really your thing. LEDs also allow for some pretty cool effects like sequential turning signals or color changing turn signals.
LEDs also use less energy than halogen or HID lights. They do, however, run much hotter. You won’t need a ballast for these lights, but you will need a fan. This fan produces a noise that can bother those with incredibly sensitive hearing, but honestly, you’d have a hard time hearing it over your radio. Some companies like Oracle are making fan-less LED lights that are performing well, so if you’re one of the few who can hear and are bothered by the fan, that’s an option available to you.
- Significantly brighter than halogens
- Can last 15x as long as HIDs and 30x longer than halogens
- Don’t require a warm up period
- Can be expensive
HID and LED headlights are both considerable upgrades from halogen. If you’re not sure about upgrading to a new technology, you can also try a higher quality halogen bulb which can help to increase your visual field in low light driving scenarios. The benefit of a better halogen bulb is that you can install it yourself since it doesn’t need new housings or additional equipment. Upgraded halogens are still a significant upgrade from standard halogens, and should help to increase your range of vision during late night drives. If your lights are still dim after upgrading, it might be time to restore your headlight housings.
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