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"Four Wheel", March 1, 2013



BY Harry Wagner


IT IS A FACT OF FOUR-WHEELING that things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we have to set up camp in the dark. Other times a trail fix has us blasting down a dirt road at night to catch up with the rest of the group. Fortunately there is a staggering array of off-road lighting options on the market to fit any need or budget, and we are here to help you make sense of it all. To start, know that lights fall into three basic categories: halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID), and light-emitting diodes (LED).

Halogen is the most common and least expensive option, using a traditional bulb that has a tungsten filament within halogen gas. The filament heats up and creates light. You can pick up a pair of quality halogen lights for under $100 at nearly any town in America.

HID lights use a reflector similar to halogen lights but take a lot of voltage (on the order of tens of thousands of volts) to arc across the electrodes. HIDs send an arc across a pair of tungsten electrodes to create light. This design is far more efficient than halogen lights and draws less amperage, producing approximately four times as many lumens per watt as traditional lights and lasting five times as many hours. If there is a downside to HIDs it is the expense and size.

LED lights draw even less amperage than HIDs, using a semiconductor diode that emits light when voltage is applied. LEDs also resist vibration and impact, since their construction uses no glass or filament. The biggest downside to LEDs is that they are expensive. The light is also hard to direct and focus, and the market is becoming flooded with overseas LED light bars of questionable quality.

Once you have decided on a type of light, what else should you look for? When choosing beam pattern, consider the speeds that your vehicle travels off-road. Faster speeds require long-distance lights with a spot pattern, while slower wheelers and crawlers can appreciate the wide beam of light from flood- and foglights.

Size and fitment are critical, as all HID lights used to use external ballasts, but as technology has advanced these ballasts have gotten much smaller and are now often integrated into the housing. This makes for a cleaner, more compact installation. The same concerns hold with LEDs, which can be had in various shapes and sizes. Also check to see whether the lights come with all the necessary wiring, switches, and relays or you must purchase them separately.

1 Floodlights and those with similar patterns are best mounted down low at the front of the vehicle, but be mindful not to block airflow to the radiator. Pencil beams are best mounted up high where they reach as far as possible.

2 Lens material is perhaps the most controversial topic concerning HID lights. Manufacturers who use glass lenses claim that they offer better optics, are stronger, don’t discolor over time, and resist heat better. Proponents of composite lenses cite the fact that they are lighter and more impact resistant.

3 The compact shape and size of each LED means that they can be mounted in nearly any location, create very little aerodynamic drag, and do not require a ballast as HID lights do.

4 Mounts can be considered suspension for your lights. You want them mounted rigidly enough that they do not vibrate, but solid mounts could lead to cracking under tough conditions. Quality lights will mount solidly and be easy to adjust for varying conditions.

5 The color of light, or color temperature, is rated in degrees Kelvin (K). Sunlight is the most efficient color temperature for the human eye, at approximately 4,000 to 5,500 K. Incandescent bulbs have a warmer (lower) light temperature, around 2,700 K, while HID and LED lights vary from 4,000 K all the way up to 8,000. Your eyes will thank you if you skip the purple HIDs and stick to around 4,500 K.

6 The low cost of halogen lights make them good for trail lights. However, the small size and low amperage draw of LED lights have them gaining popularity and taking market share from halogens

7 Even though they don’t look as impressive as a big row of lights, details like inline fuses and relays can make the difference between lights that work and those that don’t.

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