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Lighting the Way Ahead

Different approaches to seeing where you are going

By Julian Edgar

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If you drive only in the city, this story won’t interest you at all. After all, in cities there are plenty of lights illuminating the way! But if you’re a country driver, and especially a commuting country driver, then having good lights becomes vital if you’re to safely and quickly get to and from work.

Having recently placed myself in the position of frequently needing to drive back country roads, often in the dark, I needed to upgrade the lights. Here’s what I did.

More Efficient Bulbs

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The first, easiest and cheapest step you can take is to fit more efficient headlight bulbs in place of the standard items.

Bulbs are available that make claims like ’50 per cent more light’, all without drawing any more than standard power. So a 50 watt high beam remains a 50 watt high beam – but more light is produced.

The fact that the same power is drawn is important for three reasons. Firstly, the standard wiring doesn’t have to supply any more than standard current, so the voltage drop is no higher than previously. Secondly, the upgraded bulbs are legal. And thirdly, the heat produced by the bulb is likely to be the same as the standard bulb, so not causing degradation of the reflector or the (potentially plastic) lens.

However, it’s hard to get something for nothing, and the greater light output these bulbs produce is often not anywhere near the claims. In fact, having tried many of these bulbs over the years, I’d suggest two things.

Firstly, buy upgrade bulbs only from reputable manufacturers like Narva or Philips.

Secondly, don’t go for ‘blue’ or other colour shifting bulbs: just get ones that have more light output. These will generally be whiter than the original bulbs, anyway. (The reason you don’t want colour-shift bulbs is that their output is usually lower than non colour-shifting bulbs.)

With my car, a Skoda Roomster, the first upgrade of the lights was to fit Narva ‘Plus 50’ bulbs. The blurb claims 50% more light and a 20 metre longer beam. However, the difference is subjectively closer to perhaps 10 or 15 per cent. So it’s worth doing - but try to get the bulbs when they’re being sold on discount and expect only a minor improvement in light output.

Higher Power Bulbs

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Instead of going for more efficient bulbs, you can go for higher power units. This approach can be taken if: (1) you don’t care about legality (and you are very unlikely to ever get pinged unless you have the headlights aimed much too high), (2) the headlights are made of glass and steel, and (3) the standard wiring is heavy duty.

All of these aspects apply to my 1979 Mercedes 230. So rather than buying replacement 60 / 55W H4 bulbs, I upgraded to 90 / 100W H4 bulbs, again from Narva.

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The heat output and current draw of the new bulbs are substantially greater than the standard bulbs, so this swap is not a great idea if you have plastic headlights. Also ensure that you increase the current rating of the headlight fuse or fuses.

In the case of the Mercedes, the upgrade is very good. I’d say that subjectively, the light output is about 50 per cent greater than before.

First Driving Lights

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The next step was to fit some ancillary driving lights to the Roomster. The best approach is to get what is generally called a ‘combination’ kit: that is, two driving lights with one configured as a pencil beam and the other as a broad beam.

I chose Narva 175 lights – I’d experienced them on other cars and, especially considering the low cost of the Narvas (check eBay for the best pricing), I’d been very impressed with the quality of the illumination upgrade. As the name suggests, these lights are 175mm in diameter. They’re also quite low in weight and have a really good mounting system.

Of course, unlike the bulb upgrades mentioned so far, driving lights operate only on high beam.

When fitting driving lights, always the wire the power and ground right back to the battery and ensure you use a quality relay. The lights also need to be mounted rigidly, and as high on your car as feasible.

If you have not driven with quality ancillary lights, you may not be aware of the massive improvement that is possible. The Narva 175 lights use 100W bulbs (which are actually illegal here in Australia). This high power, and the fact that the lights are designed for really superb optical performance rather than just styled to blend in with the rest of the car’s shape, makes them better than the standard high beam of any car that I have ever driven.

If the Narva Plus 50 bulbs subjectively added 10 or 15 per cent to the Roomster’s high beam, the Narva 175 lights added perhaps 150 per cent.

The broad beam light gives excellent road verge illumination and projects about 100 metres down the road. The pencil beam has a range of about 300 metres (and will pick out reflectors at least twice as far away).

Note: These ranges are less than those quoted by Narva, and indicate where there’s really bright illumination.

I drove with the Narva 175 lights and Plus 50 bulbs for about 12 months, then decided to upgrade the driving lights still further. However, I’d suggest that for nearly all ‘country commuters’, a pair lights like the Narvas (or of course other high quality equivalents) would be fine.

Second Driving Lights

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When the winter nights began earlier and the kangaroos seemed to be flourishing, I decided to get some bigger driving lights. After lots of considering, I stuck with Narva (I don’t get any discount; I just think they’re good lights) and went for the top of the line: Ultima 225 with HID bulbs.

Again I bought a combination broad / pencil beam kit.

The lights are 225mm in diameter – much larger than the Narva 175 designs. With standard 100 watt incandescent bulbs, the pencils are quoted as having a reach of 900 metres and the broad beams a reach of 700 metres.

However, with the High Intensity Discharge (HID) bulbs and required ballasts, the claims move up to 1100 metres (pencil) and 850 metres (broad)!

The HID bulbs and internally-mounted ballasts are German-manufactured by Osram and are rated at 35W bulb power. (Because of ballast inefficiencies, the total power draw is a bit higher than this.) I chose to buy the complete HID 225 lights from Narva, rather than getting the non-HID 225 lights and then buy an aftermarket HID kit. The approach I took is more expensive but I’ve had some unimpressive experiences with cheap eBay HID bulb and ballast kits.

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The lights were fitted where the previous 175 pair had sat but I found additional bracing was needed if the lights weren’t to shake. This bracing was added in the form of shaped aluminium straps bolted between the light bodies and the car’s bonnet locking platform.

The pencil beam’s reach proved to be so long that correctly aiming the lights (always an absolutely critical part of the installation of ancillary lights) took several nights of adjustments.

The result is quite stunning. The illumination is so bright and far-reaching that for the first time ever when driving at night, I don’t drive looking constantly at the far reach of the beam. It’s simply too far away – on straights you’d be looking literally a kilometre ahead! In fact I think that two broad beams (as opposed to the pencil and the broad combination) may in fact be better in many situations.

Again subjectively, I’d say the HID 225 lights are about twice as good as the 175 driving lights. Compared to the standard Roomster’s high beam, the result is like night and day - or perhaps night and late dawn, anyway. The HID lights are also very white, which makes recognition of shapes a little faster.

Of course, the downside is that when you switch to low beam, it’s like someone has just thrown a dark blanket across the windscreen…

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