This is why you should stop retrofitting LEDs in old headlights

This is why you should stop retrofitting LEDs in old headlights
PHOTO: sgCarMart

Modern cars, especially the ones with a higher trim package, tend to be fitted with LED head lights. Meanwhile, smart systems like the Matrix LED head lights (which can shut off individual sections of the light beam) are only possible with the use of LED technology.

LED can also be made to emit bright lights in a variety of colours without the need for the bulb to be tinted — this allows designers to create totally colourless taillight units such as on the Spectre. While these characteristics make it seem like a great idea to retrofit LED bulbs to your ageing car that came with halogen units, you really shouldn't do it. Feeling puzzled? Read on and you will understand why.

Retrofitting LED head lights is illegal in Singapore

Although the integration with smart systems doesn't apply to retrofitting LED bulbs in older cars, LEDs do offer various advantages over the conventional incandescent bulbs to justify the switch.

Not only do LEDs consume less energy and tend to have a longer lifespan than normal halogen bulbs, they are also able to emit extremely bright lights. The Land Transport Authority (LTA) acknowledges these benefits on it website (One Motoring), but it also clarifies the importance of head light levelling, alignment and international standards — among which it states that "LED headlamps must meet international standards and be factory-fitted by vehicle manufacturers, to ensure that they are properly aligned and operate safely".

Hence, LTA's stand is clear — retrofitting LED bulbs to a car that is originally equipped with halogen head lights is not allowed as it isn't factory fitted.

Poor beam pattern

The way that LED bulbs emit light is different from how an incandescent bulb (such as the halogen bulb) does it. A halogen bulb produces light from a heated tungsten filament within its glass globe — as a result, the light emitted is omnidirectional, and is effectively directed towards the road with the use of reflectors within the head light housing.

Meanwhile, LEDs generate light by passing an electric current through a diode. While they can emit extremely bright light and are able to operate much more efficiently, they do come with some limitations.

Unlike filament bulbs, the light emitted by the LED chip is much more directional and will require the use of specially designed projector housings to work properly.

Therefore, if you install an LED bulb in your old car's halogen housing, your head light's performance will likely be worse than before, with a poor beam pattern that won't reach as far as your original head light.

Glare for oncoming vehicles

Poor head light performance isn't the only concern when retrofitting LED head lights. Another consequential effect of installing an LED bulb in the wrong head light housing is the blinding glare it creates for oncoming vehicles.

In properly engineered applications, LED head lights will have a well-defined beam pattern with solid cut-off lines. As such, they can be designed to keep glare to a minimum for other road users by aiming the beam of light on the road in front, and not into the oncoming lane.

However, when installed in inappropriate reflector housings, the powerful light from the LED will scatter randomly and cause unwanted glare to other road users, all while offering subpar visibility.

Installation troubles

While LED chips are small, they also require other components such as a heatsink and fans to keep their temperature in check, along with an LED Driver to convert the electricity from the car to suit the LED chips . As a result, the entire package could be rather bulky and might make installation less than straightforward.

Most modern cars use a Controller Area Network (CAN) bus system that allows all the devices and systems within to communicate and work together. This means that features ranging from the indicators, wipers, head and taillights, to more complicated functions such as driving assist systems, are all controlled by the car's computer unit.

As LED chips draw a much lower power as opposed to conventional halogen bulbs, the computer that was programmed for the halogen hardware will assume that the bulb has malfunctioned and throw up an error code.

Although this can often be resolved with LED bulbs that are designed to circumvent the CAN bus error problem, it is a potential complication for people who want to install LED bulbs.

High-performance halogen bulbs are the smarter choice

Putting LED bulbs in your old halogen housing won't necessarily give you better visibility in the dark. It is also illegal and might cause inconvenience to other road users and yourself. If you want to reap the benefits of using LEDs, you could source for head light housings that are designed specifically for them. However, that will not solve the issue of it being unapproved for use by the LTA.

If you want to improve your car's head light performance, opting for high-performance halogen bulbs that are designed to glow brighter and cast a wider-reaching beam will be the best option. High-performance halogen bulbs are available from various brands such as Osram and Philips.

These are offered with varying brightness and colour — you could also get halogen bulbs that shine a whiter beam to give your car a fresher look as well! To ensure compliance with LTA's regulations, you'll have to stick to bulbs that do not stray too far from the original warmth or colour (typically, you'll want something that casts a slightly yellow beam that's lower than 4,300k).

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This article was first published in sgCarMart.

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