Headlights 101 – A Short Guide to Your Car Headlamps

From Candle and Oil Carriage lamps in the late 1880, Headlights have come a long way. The need to travel faster at night necessitating the development of better brighter headlights for greater down-road visibility. This has led to the development of newer, better options for headlights so much so that vehicle owners can now pick headlights not only for their brightness/ effectiveness but also for their aesthetic appeal.

There are three main types of modern headlights in use today. These are:

a.     Halogen

b.     Xenon/HID/Arch

c.     LED


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Halogen are improvements of incandescent headlights (sealed beam lights) that are still used on Classic cars. Halogen (iodide and bromine) are monovalent elements (gases) that readily form negative ions. These gases protect the tungsten filament within the bulb and prevent soot formation. This keeps the bulb bright and lasts a long time.

Halogen headlights are the most widely used headlights among car makers as they are comparatively cheap but produce a lot of heat making handling them while in use quite difficult.

Colour temperature is usually around 3,000K resulting in a yellow hue while Lumens are fairly low at about 1,500 meaning that although it is bright a few meters ahead, its down-road visibility is sacrificed.

Xenon or High Intensity Discharge (HID)

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Xenon Headlights do not use a metal filament to create light. They instead create a high voltage arc between 2 electrodes. You can think of them as a controlled bold of lightening happening in a small tube.

The bulb is filled with Xenon gas and as it ignites as a result of the “lightning”, it produces a bluish/ white light. This process creates far less heat as compared to Halogen. However Xenon lights need a warm up period before achieving their maximum brightness. Once up and running, they can get extremely bright and this has led to some xenon headlights being banned in some countries due to blinding on coming drivers.

Xenon are far brighter than Halogen producing about 3,000 Lumens to Halogens 1,500. They however have a lifetime of about 2,000 hours and can be quite expensive.


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Although the technology is not new, having been used in electronics as far back as the late sixties, its application to headlights and other general lighting solutions is surprisingly recent.

Light Emitting Diodes (LED) are popular in newer cars. They work by converting electricity into light through diodes in the headlight via a process known as electroluminescence. This method is very energy efficient as little to no heat is created; almost all energy is converted to light making it quite bright and able to last a long time.

LED headlights are a bit more expensive than the other two but last longer than both under normal use. They have a range of between 4,000 and 12,000 Lumens thus vastly improving down road visibility. Their small diodes allow for controlled light emission significantly reducing glare on oncoming drivers without compromising on effectiveness.

Numerous options are now available for older models and are easy to retrofit.

In Conclusion

These are the three most popular types of headlights available in the market. It is however important to note that new technologies continue to be developed and are being introduced into the market. One of these key advances is BMW’s Laser headlight technology which is available on its latest model as an add on for $10,000. They are only equipped as brights as the laser light cannot be regulated (Dimmed). They are either on or off.

For now though, LED remains king of the headlights due to its versatility, ease of use, longevity and good looks. It is definitely the choice for you.

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