Choosing the Right Light Bar: The Power of The Sun
Your cheap eBay special LED light bar sucks. Here’s why (and how to fix it).
There are several major factors that drive the cost of the ‘premium’ light bars, including Construction, Drivers and Thermal Management, Diodes, and Optics. We are going to focus on all of these because they’re all important. Why’s that? Because you should be looking at your LED purchases as investments: their used, for sale prices on the premium brands are not far off of what they were when they were brand new. Beyond that, why would anyone want to spend their hard-earned money for something that earns the recognition of, “That’ll do”? With that being said, here’s our guide to choosing the right light bar for your rig. (Plus, we threw in some of our favorite products, too.)
Most LED bars are nearly identical on how they look. The bodies are made from extruded aluminum pieces, with stainless hardware, polycarbonate lenses and large heatsinks on the backside. What you don’t see from the surface though, is how they are sealed and what level of isolation the circuitry has on the inside. These may be solid-state devices, but the circuit boards must be properly isolated to ensure a long life. Keeping these circuit boards cool, dry, dust free and rigid are paramount to extending the life of the light. To keep these lights well sealed, various grades of rubber gaskets and sealing compounds are used to keep your lights locked up tight, and in turn, these lights earn various IP Ratings. Let’s break that down.
About IP Code:
The IP Code, IEC Standard 60529, classifies the rates and degree of protection provided against intrusion of contaminates by mechanical casings and electrical enclosures. The standard was created to provide consumers with more information than vague marking terms such as waterproof or water-resistant. The digits that follow the IP code indicate what level of ‘proof’ the product is rated to by the IEC Standards. Where there is no information available on the level of protection provided, an X is used. When there is no protection at all, a 0 is used.
The scale for dust and particle contamination is 0-6, while the scale for water contamination is scaled 0-8. So, a product with that is fully dust and waterproof would carry the code IP68, while one that offered lesser protections would have lower numbers. It is also important to note that IP codes that have no hyphens in them, so a code that would hypothetically read something like, IPX-8 is a fake code from a supplier looking to trick consumers.
These IP ratings are imperative to maintaining the life of the circuitry, which is the life force behind these lights. Anyone who has ever dropped their cell phone in water can attest to the speed that water will kill electronics.
Drivers and Thermal Management:
It is relatively common knowledge that heat is what produces light, however LEDs are tricky: while they produce nearly no forward heat from the face of the diode, the backside where the circuitry rests produces enormous levels of heat. Pure and simple, heat kills electronics—LEDs are no exception.
The huge heatsinks on the rear of these lights are a good start to dissipating the heat that operating them generates, but there is more to it than that. Here is where the drivers come into play. The driver is the computer behind these lights, it keeps them alive and running. It regulates the voltage and the intensity, everything that makes that light run comes back to the driver. However, the driver and the thermal management go hand in hand. When the heat-syncs can’t keep up with the heat, they will reduce the output. Less output = less heat.
The drivers are so advanced, that they will flash the diode on and off, faster than your eye can see. The benefit of this is that the light is not on for fractions of a second, effectively reducing its heat creation while minimizing the output lost. While this will create a slightly dimmer light source, you’re ensuring the 50,000-hour, always ready, tough-as-nails diode a lifetime the manufacturer promised. Cheap manufacturers don’t even have drivers. They just use a voltage regulator and call it good, all the while the premium brands go even further and use thermal transfer paste and copper heat transfers to guarantee that those huge aluminum heat-syncs get every ounce of heat. Yeah! Science!
This is a pretty simple one. Most of your quality manufacturers will be using high-level name brand diodes like Cree or Phillips or whatever. The point is, if it looks crappy, it probably is. Your lowest output LED bars will use 3-watt didoes, while your top-shelf will be using 10-15-watt diodes.
Optics are huge; insurmountably huge, when choosing the right light bar. They’re where your lights matter: because your optics are where the light emitted from those sweet, 10-watt Cree, made in USA, computer-processor-driven white-hot bad boys is going before it’s thrown out into the darkness in front of you.
Many of your cheap lights are going to just set an angle that works with the diode to throw the light into a place that falls in the category of spot or flood or whatever works. What you really want is to buy from a company that put R&D time into the development of reflectors and projectors that do everything they can to maximize the efficiency of the diode. What’s a big 10-watt LED worth if it has a crappy reflector and only gets 60-percent of the light down range?
Companies like Rigid, Wurton, KC HiLiTES, Hella, ARB, VisionX, and Baja Designs drop a ton of time and money into the development of these reflectors and projectors. Take Hella for example. On their flagship Rallye light, they reversed the diodes, and pointed them backwards towards the reflector in an odd, flux-capacitor style in an attempt to get as much usable light possible to emit from the diodes.
These optics are arguably the most expensive part of the light. It’s what has taken the most engineering time and costs a significant amount. Cheap versions all use generic chrome-plated plastic reflectors, while these should be, in most cases, aluminum stampings that have hardened phosphate mirror polished reflectors. It’s not all about lumens, if that light isn’t getting to the place you need it. Take a look at this video to see how much those generic light bars on eBay and Amazon perform compared to the real deal:
Choosing the Right Light Bar
In closing, when you’re choosing a light bar for your rig, it’s easy to say to yourself, “I won’t use it that much, so what’s it matter?” That’s up for you to decide. On the other hand, knowing that it’s going to work exactly how you need it to, every time, goes a long way. And hey, maybe that expensive light bar will save you money down the road when the cheap one breaks and you have to buy another. So, pony up, Buttercup.
Here are some of our current favorite light bars on the market:
Rigid Industries SR Series Light Bar
MSRP, 20-inch: $793.09
KC HiLitTES Gravity Pro-6 Light Bar
MSRP, 20-inch: $874.99
Baja Designs OnX6 Off-Road Light Bar
MSRP, 20-inch: $769.95
Editor’s Note: A version of this story previously appeared on treadmagazine.com in April 2018.