You’re driving home from a party late at night when suddenly one of the headlights burns out. It can be unnerving when driving through unlit countryside. Secondly only to that feeling in the pit of your stomach finding out what it may take for a fix. Headlight bulb replacement isn’t as clear cut as it used to be, when sealed-beam incandescent headlamps were tightly regulated, and aftermarket replacements were relatively uniform in size, inexpensive and easy to replace.
Over the years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has relaxed the design standards somewhat, so now you see an array of lighting options that are as unique as the look of the car. And the variety of headlamps, from projector beams to LEDs present as equally confusing options ranging from simply replacing a bulb to having to get an entirely new headlamp module when a light is damaged or burns out.
Check the lens
This is also a good time to check if the vehicle’s lenses are cloudy, oxidized or yellowed. Before installing that replacement bulb, it’s a good time to purchase a headlight restoration kit to clean the lens to ensure maximum performance from your headlamps.
A headlight restoration kit costs about $20 and includes sandpaper and other materials. A power tool and some elbow grease are required. Your second option is your favorite garage which can clean the lenses for about $150. “Ninety percent of the time you can pretty much get them back to 90 percent of what they were from the factory,” said Jim Moritz, global technical trainer for an international automotive tool and equipment manufacturing company.
What type of replacement headlight should I get?
The first step is to determine the proper replacement bulb for your vehicle. Check the owner’s manual or visit a reputable auto parts store. The store needs your vehicle’s brand, model, year and trim. For example, let’s say the vehicle is a 2009 Toyota Camry. It’s important to mention the trim, is it the base Camry, an LE, SE, XLE or hybrid trim? A premium replacement bulb providing a wider range of illumination might be used with a particular trim.
Avoid brands that do not have “DOT” inscribed on each bulb and avoid brands you have never heard of. “DOT” stands for U.S. Department of Transportation. These bulbs without this inscription likely do not meet NHTSA’s standards, so don’t buy an unknown, low-priced replacement that might fail months after installation.
Despite what you might see on websites or hear from an auto parts store employee, none of the headlight replacement bulbs sold in the United States are certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation or NHTSA. Essentially the bulb manufacturers conform to what might be called an honor system where they submit documents to NHTSA showing they meet federal standards.
“NHTSA enforces the (standards) by randomly selecting and purchasing equipment from the marketplace and testing to the requirements of the standard at independent test labs,” a NHTSA spokesperson told Kelley Blue Book. If the bulb fails to meet its standards NHTSA can impose fines.
NHTSA said its standards include guidelines on handling corrosion, dust, humidity, extreme temperatures, vibration, inward force, connector contacts, aiming adjustment as well as other criteria.
“For headlamps, maximum and minimum candela are required to be projected in different directions ahead of the vehicle. In general, a lower beam must direct high levels of luminous intensity at angles down toward the road but is limited in the amount of luminous intensity that can be directed above the road where it will glare other road users,” the NHTSA spokesperson said.
Let’s start with bulb basics. There are four replacement headlight bulbs available on the market. The key is determining which bulb fits your car — incandescent, halogen, high-intensity discharge (sometimes called Xenon) or light-emitting diode. This story targets the last three bulbs because automakers stopped installing sealed-beam incandescent bulbs about 20-25 years ago.
Most common headlamp units use replaceable Halogen bulbs. If yours burns out, you can also upgrade the replacement that’s brighter. Also, it’s best to buy them in pairs, while one light may still work its life is likely to be limited.
“If one went, the other one isn’t far behind. They are never going to be equal brightness if you only replace one,” said Moritz.
Michael Anderson, marketing specialist at Sylvania Automotive, which markets replacement headlight bulbs, said “it goes slightly counter to how I think people look at headlights or any light bulb in general. A light bulb blows out in your house, you don’t replace them all. But in a car, especially in a safety situation, replacing both insures you have that even field of vision because all headlights, halogen and HID, do dim over time.” A halogen headlight dims between 20 and 40 percent over its life.
The average price for a halogen bulb that matches the performance of the original-equipment, factory-installed bulb is about $20 each. In many cases, automakers install what the industry calls a basic halogen bulb. However, halogen replacement bulbs range in brightness from basic to premium. The price rises as the bulb’s capability increases.
A premium halogen replacement bulb has considerably whiter light, is much brighter and lets the driver see further down the road, big pluses in terms of safety. The downside is that the bulb’s life is shorter than the basic bulb. Generally speaking, a basic halogen bulb lasts from 500 to 1,000 hours. The premium halogen bulb is less.
High Intensity Discharge (HID) bulbs
Many newer vehicles are equipped with HID bulbs. The bulb requires an electrical charge to ignite the Xenon gas in the bulb and then ballast in the bulb maintains it. HID bulbs are anywhere from three to five times brighter than a halogen bulb. A replacement HID bulb can run $100 or more; however, it can last 2,000 to 3,000 hours.
Although replacing halogen bulbs aren’t difficult for most vehicle owners, replacing HID bulbs can be a challenge. “HID is a slightly different animal. You can do them yourself, but we often say if you are not comfortable take that one to a professional. It is a high-voltage situation and they could be slightly more dangerous if you are not comfortable around cars,” Anderson said.
HID bulbs also dim over time, too, eventually casting a pinkish hue on the road. “That is usually the degradation inside the bulb. It is on its way out” and time for replacement, Anderson said.
Light Emitting Diode (LED) bulbs
LED, as in light-emitting diode, is the newest and longest lasting replacement headlight bulb, about 30,000 hours. Check with the vehicle dealer to determine if an LED replacement headlight bulb is available. It may not. More likely it will be necessary to buy a complete headlight assembly which includes a new LED bulb. But the price is very steep.
For example, the headlight module for a 2020 Subaru Forester ranges from about $600 to $900, depending on model; 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe Ultimate, $979; 2020 Toyota Corolla, $858 to $1,123; 2019 Cadillac XT5, $1,350; 2020 Volvo XC90, $2,347. The headlight module for a 2019 Tesla ranges from about $800 to $1,200. That’s just the cost to replace a burned-out LED headlight; installation is not included.
Automakers like LEDs because they emit a lot of light, require very little electric power and are small enough to give designers more options for headlamp and taillamp shapes.
LEDs last for about 30,000 hours, but the replacement cost likely will give owners of that 8-, 12- or 15-year-old vehicle in the future a financial headache. They will be longing for the good old days when a halogen headlight cost about the price of two lunches at McDonald’s. [external_footer]