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Lighting the Way: Headlamp Bulbs

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By Tracy Junker

As we approach winter, the darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, let’s look at some of the more recent headlamp technology automakers employ to light the way.

Replaceable Headlamp Bulbs

Automakers began using replaceable headlamp bulbs in 1983. There are three types: halogen bulbs, halogen infrared reflective (HIR) bulbs, and high-intensity discharge (HID) bulbs. Halogen bulbs are the least expensive and last 450 to 1000 hours.

halogen bulbs

Halogen bulbs

Halogen-Infrared Reflective Bulbs

Halogen-infrared reflective, or HIR bulbs, are brighter and last longer than halogen bulbs. They are also more expensive than halogen bulbs. In most cases, an HIR bulb can be a direct replacement for a halogen bulb, but they are too long for some applications.

Halogen-infrared reflective (HIR) bulbs

Halogen-infrared reflective (HIR) bulbs

High-Intensity Discharge Bulbs

The HID bulb is also known as a Xenon bulb. This is the most expensive replaceable-type of headlamp system and includes ballasts. High-intensity discharge (HID) bulb manufacturers claim the bulbs are brighter, use less power, and are more shock resistant than halogen-type bulbs. The HID bulbs typically last about 2000 hours. Kits to retrofit halogen to HID can render a vehicle no longer street-legal in some areas.

High-intensity discharge (HID) bulb

Light-Emitting Diode Bulbs

Another type of headlamp type is the LED system. Light-emitting diode (LED) headlamp use began as low-beam only in 2006. High- and low-beam LED systems were first sold in the United States in 2009. If LED junction temperatures get too high, it reduces the life of the LEDs, so they require heatsinks or cooling fans which increase the cost of the system. LEDs can also be too bright in low ambient temperatures because LEDs produce more light at lower temperatures than at higher temperatures. This system is expensive, but the bulb life is longer than the replaceable headlamps so more manufacturers are beginning to implement LEDs as they figure out how to keep the lumens consistent across ambient temperature ranges.

Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs

Headlight Use Guidelines

Headlamps are a safety feature. States with inspections regularly check them. Headlamp use varies a little from state to state, but here are some general guidelines of when headlights must be on:

  • From one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise in most states.
  • When visibility is reduced. Reduced visibility varies from 500 to 1000 feet for most states, but a couple of states define reduced visibility at 200 feet.
  • When windshield wipers are in continuous use. This is not required in all states, but is a good practice as the wipers are usually only in continuous use when visibility is reduced.

As you prepare your vehicle for winter, don’t be left in the dark. Chilton is adding more body repair information, including all lighting, to late-model coverage. You can check what’s covered for a particular model at ChiltonDIY by selecting the model and then clicking on the plus signs of the outline. Let Chilton’s step-by-step procedures, specifications, and technical service bulletins help light your way.

Tracy Junker portrait, Chilton

An automotive editor with more than 15 years automotive industry experience, Tracy Junker's father owned and operated a garage for about 30 years. Though too young at the time to work in the garage, she worked with him later at home on the family’s vehicles and those of former customers that would not trust anyone but her Dad to fix their cars correctly. Tracy says, “My interest in cars began because I loved working with Dad on whatever project he had going.”




  • According to Mercedes-Benz, its 2016 S-Class is the first modern vehicle without a single light bulb in it. - via @MercedesBenzCDN

  • So many info about Bulbs.  Good article.