Darkness I have seen…
Motorcycles typically have less than stellar headlamps, especially if you ride at night, in the rain. Here in the Great Pacific Northwest, hardcore riders do that all the time, else they get precious little riding done October to March.
A quick mental survey of bikes I have owned, and the darkness I have seen runs the gamut:
- Any 6-volt BMW or British iron, where you have to light a candle to be able to see well enough to ascertain whether or not the headlight is actually producing it’s feeble orange glow.
- A ’76 Honda CB500T whose headlight so poor that I actually rode off the road on Scholls Ferry Rd in SW Portland one rainy night, taking a shortcut through the ditch. Not healthy.
- The early BMW K1200LT; a supremely capable touring bike, in a just universe, it should have had a Headlight For The Ages. Instead, it was so bad that I had to replace the bulb with an HID unit, and add 4 (yes 4!) additional PIAA halogen lights. I was told it looked like the Mothership coming up the road. I still couldn’t see very far though. How sad.
- The KTM 950 Adventure, whose DOT-spec unit met the letter of the law, but did little to actually illuminate things. (The Euro unit was much better, even more so with an HID envelope in place.)
- And the high-tech proof that motorcycle illumination can be oh, so glorious: the BMW K1600. An auto-leveling HID main beam, flanked by 2 H4 halogen high-beam lights. Add in the fancy ‘tips into corners’ option, and you have the ultimate stock lighting package. Even on a dark, monsoon-infested commute, it shows you the way home.
Ok, let’s say you don’t want to part with the substantial pile of dead presidents needed to put a new BMW in your garage. You still have options to improve your path in the dark.
Starting with the simplest and least expensive. If your bike has a standard incandescent bulb replace it with a halogen bulb. This is a simple 15 minute DIY project on most bikes. Halogens are the most efficient incandescent bulb available. Common types include H4, H3, and H7. Halogens produce more lumens per watt of electricity. The brighter, whiter light helps you see farther. Be aware that some halogens draw more current than a stock headlight. You have to careful about the size of wiring and fuses involved. In some cases this requires sometimes adding an extra set of wires and a relay, taking this option out of the DIY in a few minutes category.
You might also look into the availability of a Euro spec headlamp assembly for your bike. These are often an improvement over the DOT spec items, often coming with upgraded bulb systems. This option can be costly or unavailable depending on your bike.
For better light at the cost of a bit more money than the halogen bulb you can replace your stock headlight bulb with an HID envelope and ballast/drive unit. High-Intensity-Discharge lights, common on European cars and some bikes, use high-voltage to ignite an electric arc in a Xenon gas-filled envelope, or bulb. (Don’t fall for the ebay scammers trying to sell you a blue-colored halogen “Xenon” bulb as HID.) True HID setups produce a very pure, white light, that is much brighter light than Halogen bulbs, on about 1/2 the energy budget. A single HID headlamp unit consumes 25-30 Watts of energy, compared to the standard 55 watts of a Halogen bulb. This generally avoids any concerns with the capacity of your wiring. I’ve taken this approach on several bikes, and it makes a big difference. The pitfall to watch out for here is that since the HID ‘bulb’ is a different shape than a Halogen bulb, the projection pattern of the headlight will change slightly, sometimes becoming a problem. As an example, the KTM 950 Adventure mentioned above; The European headlight assembly, with an HID bulb in place produces good illumination of the road ahead, but it also sends a portion of light straight upwards, from the bottom, forward part of the headlight lens. That light directly illuminates any raindrops of fog right in the face of the rider, reducing visibility.
For even more forward-looking light and to suit your illumination exactly to your riding style and conditions, you can also add auxiliary lights. In the distant past, we were limited to fragile and expensive lights, borrowed from the off-road 4-wheelers. Power hungry, and styling-challenged. They lit up the road, and blinded oncoming drivers, to boot. A handful of years ago, halogen projector-type lights became common and relatively affordable. They can be purchased in a variety of configurations, giving you light patterns that range from wide, low fog lights, to narrow, focused pencil-beam “driving lights”. These are a good choice where cost is a strong consideration, and electrical power is available to run them without overtaxing the bike’s generator or alternator.
Most recently, auxiliary HID and LED lights have become widely available, and are coming down in price, while increasing in output and capabilities every year. If maximal light is your only concern, the auxiliary HID lights are the way to go. If you’re looking for maximum efficiency (ie. you don’t have a lot of excess alternator capacity on your current ride) and controllability (LED lights typically can be dimmed, either as a built-in feature, or via an extra controller), then LED lights are a great way to go.
Installation of auxiliary lights is a DIY project within the grasp of most shade tree mechanics. But if you’re not comfortable messing with your bike’s wiring there are specialists that can do the work for you.
So there’s a quick survey of how to see your way clear in the dark. Next installment: increasing the visibility of your bike in the dark. or “how to avoid becoming a Volvo hood-ornament”.