Let There Be (The Right) Light

| September 28, 2009 | 3 Comments

HID’s or LED’s?  One or Ten?  Need more power?  Learn a lot about lights, and even some dating techniques!

By Shannon Bushman    www.xxxoffroad.com

Trophy Trucks are always decked out with big lights.

Trophy Trucks are always decked out with big lights.

As a kid I was awestruck looking at offroad trucks.  All those lights made them look like they were ready for battle.  Ready to kick ass and take names. Move over slow pokes the big bad ball of light is coming through.

Some of these guys were running 10, 12, or 16 lights. Now why is that?  Do you suppose they were driving so fast they just needed that many lights?  Well the fact is they need all of those lights to achieve the right light pattern, not necessarily just brightness.

With Duning season rapidly approaching many of us are on the quest for more light.  I am a firm believer that “more” is not always “better”.  Sometimes you need “better” to get “better” and “more” is bad if its the wrong kind of “more”.

Figure 1: The Spot light literally throws a Spot on the ground.

Figure 1: The Spot light literally throws a Spot on the ground.

Lets face it, when you go for a night ride in the dunes its much better when you can see just how steep that drop is before hopping

off.  And that’s not always straight in front 100 yards out.  Sometimes I’m riding a crest look to my left trying to decide if its safe to hang a louey.

One of the first problems I encountered with offroad lighting is that much of it was designed years ago when bulbs were much dimmer.  The reflecting patterns were designed to project the light as much as possible.  In fact, we have three basic patterns.  Spot, Euro or Driving and Flood.

Three Patterns Explained, and Solutions Devised
Now each has it place but frankly the first two, Spot and Euro or Driving, are not really well suited to UTV riding.  Why?  They make a relatively concentrated pattern of light and then place it well in front of the vehicle.

The Spot literally makes a Spot of light that is quite small. (Figure 1)  And that was fine when a 50 Watt Halogen bulb was only throwing off  around 1000 Lumens.  On a race truck it would generally light up the clown in front of me in time to avoid a collision.  But today a typical 35 watt HID is tossing around 3200 Lumens.  When you put that in a Spot you have a super bright bouncing ball in the distance that really isn’t helping me navigate much at all.  We need a more evenly spread volume of light for our UTV’s.

Figure 2: Euro or Driving Lights put a bar on the ground.

Figure 2: Euro or Driving Lights put a bar on the ground.

The Euro or Driving light is somewhat better but the pattern still has the same problem.  Now instead of a ball of light I have this bright bar of light. I’ve seen a lot of guys run out and buy a certain well known HID light from a certain well known Auto Parts chain and slap them on their rigs.  Its a great cheap solution but it just that.  Its like taking your date to McDonalds.  You got the job done but the outcome probably isn’t what you were hoping for, is it?  And you’ll generally be disappointed in the long run.  Those lights give you a Driving/Euro pattern so if you put two of them on your rig you will have a pattern like Figure 2.  Two bright bands well out in head of your much dimmer stock head lights.

On a UTV both of these light patterns can be maddening.  Our short wheel base and choice of typically rough terrain make that bright pattern of light bouncing miserable in front of you, often a bit too far ahead of us to really improve my ability to drive.

Now the obvious solution here is to replace the stock headlamps with HID bulbs and ballasts and there are plenty of companies offering these.  I highly recommend shopping for which ones offer the best warranty.   We’ve all heard a boat load of stories about those cheap solutions sourced from a well know auction site dying within a season.  With the replacement HIDs you will get a pattern like Figure 3.  Now this is not a bad pattern but it still has not solved my problem of peaking over a dune and it creates a light tunnel.

Figure 3: HID Headlight alternative.

Figure 3: HID Headlight alternative.

A major problem with lighting is how to avoid creating a light tunnel. This is when you have a nice bright path ahead and little or no lighting to the sides.   Any racer will tell you that after a while driving in the light tunnel you start catching glimpses of phantom images in the darkenss in your peripheral vision.  And then they start jumping out in front of you…More than a few drivers have wrecked trying to dodge these phantom images.  This is why you see many racers with floodlights pointed to the left and right to light the peripheral vision areas.  This gives you a light pattern like Figure 4.

In addition to the light tunnel, we have the problem of passing other riders at night.  If you replace your stock headlamps with HIDs what are you going to do when passing oncoming riders?  Trust me, that huge light source is not going to make you any friends in oncoming traffic.  In fact you might just find yourself picking a fight with the wrong crowd.   In this case you need a set of “dim” lights.  These can be a set of inexpensive halogen lights.

What I Have On My RZRs
On our shop RZR-S we have a top light bar with two 6″ HID driving lights and two 4″ HID floods.  The stock headlights are replaced with HID bulb/ballasts.  All at 35 Watts.    If I had to do this all

Figure 4: Lights pointed for peripheral vision.

Figure 4: Lights pointed for peripheral vision.

over again the two 6″ driving lights would be floods.

To provide “dim” lights we have two 4″ Halogen driving pattern lights mounted on the A-Pillars.  The headlamps and the  A-Pillar mounted Halogens are wired to a two way toggle on the dash. Up is “bright” and the HID headlamps are in use, and down is “dim” and the Halogens are used.  We have the Halogens aimed close to the vehicle and not crossing the center line.  These dim lights are at least as bright as the stock headlamps were but you need to be careful aiming them for effect.

Wow, that took a lot of lights and now we look a bit like those trophy trucks.  But the pattern is fantastic and very effective and is close to Figure 4.  We have a lot of light and a great pattern solving all of our issues. But guess what?  Achieving this was not cheap and you can’t do this with that certain cheap HID  from a certain auto parts chain because they only have one light pattern…Euro/Driving.

Of course now we have eight individual lights, that need to be aimed and each draw 35 watts so we are on the verge of running out of watts on our UTV.  You need to keep in mind that your stator only puts out a certain amount of wattage and it can be used up quickly.  And if your lucky (like me) you get one light that simply refuses to remain pointing where you put it so you get the pleasure of fiddling with the whole setup quite a bit.

Just When We Get it Figured Out in Walks the LED Family

My RZRs decked out with just the right lights.

My RZRs decked out with just the right lights.

Enter the LED.  I love LED lighting.  It is perfect for offroad.  Its incredibly durable, tends to use less wattage and the light pattern is generally fantastic.  They are offered in several sizes, prices and light patterns.  Some of the larger bars have spot patterns on some of the LEDS in the center and driving or flood patterns out near the edges.   The light is evenly spread ahead of you…no super bright spots or gaps in the overall pattern and the reach is more than sufficient for UTV speeds.

I think there is a general impression that LED lighting is more expensive than HID.  Well its not.  Really its not, not at all.  Of course you can buy an HID light from that Auto Parts chain for $100 and you can get a burger at Mick Ds for a buck.  But take one look at our RZR-S and do the math.  I can tell you that the lights we used are good name brand HIDs, and the Halogen “dim” light match the HIDs perfectly but the average cost is over $200 each retail.  That adds up to $1600 plus the light bar and pillar mounts.  Some of the best LED light bars out there will give over 14,000 lumens and go for about $1400.  That is a LOT of light, in the right pattern, in a package that will make your rig look so cool your date will end the way you want.  Just skip the Micky Ds.

By Shannon Bushman.  Shannon is the author of the “Paiute ATV Trial Guide”. He can found anywhere from Colorado to California driving recklessly and shooting video or broadcasting LIVE from the trail for XXXoffroad.   Check out XXXoffroadTV on the front page of XXXoffroad.com.


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