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headlights help you navigate the road at night and improve visibility in bad weather conditions. suffice it to say, having properly functioning headlights is vital to your safety on the road. a failing headlight should be fixed as soon as possible to keep your vehicle both legal and safe.
You're reading: What are the Different Types of Headlights and Bulbs?
if you’re looking for a replacement or an upgrade, in this article we discuss the different types of headlights available on the market today.
4 types of headlights or headlight bulbs
the four common types of automotive headlight bulbs are halogen, led, xenon/hid, and laser. if you’ve ever wondered what type of headlight bulb you need, here’s a quick and easy guide that can help you choose the right one for your vehicle:
halogen lights contain a filament or a pair of filaments on single bulbs that provide both bright and dim headlamp function, but there is pressurized gas rather than a vacuum within the bulb. the bulb filaments are tungsten and the glass envelope is pressurized with inert gas and a small amount of a chemically reactive halogen gas, usually iodine or bromine, which allows halogen bulbs to burn brighter and longer without blackening the inside of the bulb. some halogen bulbs have a blue coating to make them appear brighter than they are.
most modern headlights use halogen bulbs. some sealed beam replacements for older vehicles with glass even have halogen capsules built into the glass sealed beam casing rather than the original type of filament. if one of those earlier sealed beam units gets breached by a rock, the vacuum within the sealed beam lamp will be lost and those old style filaments will oxidize and burn out almost immediately. with the halogen capsule providing the light, a small rock hole in the lens facing doesn’t matter.
halogen bulbs don’t cost much to manufacture and are usually less than $20 per bulb to replace, but you need to buy a good name brand – some brands may burn out within a month. they’re pretty easily replaced on most vehicles. some vehicles may require removing parts from the engine compartment area or perhaps the splash shield.
standard halogen headlights burn with a slight yellowish hue that measures at roughly 3,000 kelvin on the color temperature scale. there are some bulb manufacturers that make 3,400 to 4200 kelvin halogen bulbs, but those aren’t street legal in most places.
in other words, the higher on the kelvin scale you go, the whiter the light. the kelvin scale for car headlights typically begins at about 2,500 and goes to about 4,600 – overall, the kelvin scale goes as high as 10,000, but that’s the intensity of bright sunshine under a blue sky. this is a nice comfortable glow that does the job well, but if you prefer bright white lights with a bit more range, you may want to consider another type of headlight bulb that’s higher on the kelvin scale.
typical lifespan: these bulbs burn hot, giving them a somewhat shorter service life (450 to 1,000 hours) than other headlight bulbs.
average cost: $10 to $20 for a bulb, and as low as $100 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
led (light-emitting diode) headlight bulbs illuminate by a long fancy term called electroluminescence, which basically means electrons are fired towards positively charged holes in a semiconductor, thus they release energy as photons, which are particles of light.
the same technology is now prevalent on dashboard lights and screen consoles. led lights have also been used for indicator lights on appliances, bright flashlights, as well as a growing number of vehicle stop lamps, tail lamps, interior lamps, and home lighting. in other words led lights are used just about everywhere these days.
led bulbs are basically small semiconductors that can be arranged to fit tight spaces. this makes it possible for manufacturers to come up with sleeker headlight designs and allows more flexibility in styling other assembly components, such as turn signal lights.
leds can be designed to emit any color of the spectrum. they can produce a bright, white light that illuminates up to a mile ahead without blinding oncoming traffic. led lights usually range from 4,000 to 6,000 kelvin on the color scale.
lastly, they are energy-efficient and can be switched on or off quickly.
the cost of led headlights is typically higher than their halogen counterparts. this is because the structure of their assembly is a little bit different due to the heat sink that must be built into the lights to prevent the base-emitter from overheating.
typical lifespan: 10,000 to 30,000 hours (some sources put the life at 5,000 hours). compared to halogen headlights, led bulbs run cool and don’t produce as much heat. this gives them longer hours of illumination which, in some cases, could span the entire service life of a vehicle.
average cost: $100 for a bulb, and $600 to $1,300 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
xenon, otherwise known as high-intensity discharge or hid lights, is a type of headlight that is commonly installed on higher-end vehicles. these headlights contain a combination of xenon and argon gases mixed with vaporized metals that emit an extremely bright light. there are conversion kits available from some aftermarket sources to upgrade to xenon/hid headlights.
hid headlights emit light in a bluish-white hue (4,000-6,000 kelvin) which typically provides a greater (farther) range of illumination.
xenon or hid headlights have a delay of several seconds before reaching maximum output. also, they can be too bright and may blind oncoming drivers.
another possible issue is that the bluish-white glare can impair the other driver’s vision in the dark. since their light is so focused, you may not see anything else outside the headlights’ field of illumination. this can make it harder to park, switch lanes, or cross intersections.
typical lifespan: 2,000 to 10,000 hours. hid headlights can last for years because they have no filament that can burn out.
average cost: $100 per bulb, and $350 to $1,400 for a pair of headlight assemblies.
laser headlights are a recent innovation in automotive lighting technology. these lights illuminate through the process of chemiluminescence, which means they produce light by triggering a chemical reaction.
laser beams are shot through a chamber which causes the phosphorus gas inside to glow. what you see in front of your vehicle is the light coming from the gas, and not the laser beams themselves.
in other words, within the headlight unit, the lasers shine onto mirrors that reflect onto a lens filled with special gas to
write a strong light beam.
laser headlights are more efficient than led bulbs. they can produce 1,000x the amount of light for half the amount of energy that leds consume. they are also 10x smaller than the latter, which allows manufacturers to design a shallower assembly.
they are far-reaching, have good adaptability, and can easily be switched on/off as well.
while they can produce more light, they also produce more heat than leds. this means the assembly requires more sophisticated built-in cooling systems.
also, they are only currently available for use in high beams, which means they must be paired with regular halogen, led, or hid headlights.
while bmw and audi have started using these in select models, they were only approved for use in the u.s. recently. compared to other headlight types, these lights are very expensive and could set you back thousands of dollars.
typical lifespan: 50,000 hours. laser headlights require very low energy input which allows them to work for a very long time.
average cost: $8,000 to 12,000.
2 types of headlight systems
basic headlight design can be divided into two basic types. there are reflector headlights and projector headlights.
- reflector headlights have a light source that is mounted in a parabolic reflector that amplifies the light and directs it through a plastic or glass lens with a series of small, specially ground mini-lenses if you will, that directs the amplified light from the reflector to properly illuminate the road ahead.
- projector headlights have a lens in front of the light source, through which the bulb’s light is projected through a lens.
composite (plastic) headlamp assemblies replaced the old round or square glass headlamps back in 1984. federal law changed to the point that automakers could shape the headlights a lot of different ways to match the curves of the vehicle’s fenders and grille.
projector vs reflector headlights
projector and reflector headlights have their own sets of pros and cons. in terms of price, a reflector headlight system typically costs less than projector headlights. design-wise, they also take up less space and come in a more compact style. one disadvantage of reflector systems is that their output can be uneven and may produce dark spots.
on the other hand, projector headlights produce a brighter and even light output. at the same time, they are equipped with a cutoff shield that directs the light beam towards the road, preventing oncoming drivers from being blinded by the glare. hid headlights are only designed for projector systems because of this feature.
reflector headlight systems
reflector headlight systems are basically bulbs encased in a metal bowl. early headlights were sealed-beam assemblies that relied on the design of the headlight lens to direct the light beam towards the road.
bulbs in sealed-beam headlights cannot be replaced without replacing the entire assembly.
today, reflector headlight systems rely on mirrors strategically placed inside the housing. this means the assemblies no longer need to be sealed and bulbs can be replaced on their own.
projector headlight systems
similar to reflector headlights, projector headlights also come with an encased bulb surrounded by mirrors. what makes them different, however, is that they come with a lens that magnifies the brightness of the headlight.
projector headlights were first used in luxury vehicles in the ‘80s and have since become a popular choice in modern vehicles.
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