E-Roadstar Article

December 19th, 2006

Light Up Your Life

Lighting manufacturers see a future not too far away when incandescent lights will be as outdated as 8-track tapes and 6-volt batteries.

Bette Garber‚ Editor at Large

In the last 14 or so years‚ truck lighting has quietly shifted from incandescent to LED (light-emitting diodes). In fact‚ LEDs are everywhere - in vehicles of every kind‚ homes and businesses.

"LEDs are finding their way into an increasing number of applications that were historically incandescent lamps‚" says Bob Ives‚ Truck-Lite vice president of marketing. "The focus now is looking at the newest technology from diode manufacturers‚ then balancing established codes with lights offering reliability and appearance."

He says owner-operators are some of the fastest adapters of LED lighting because of the lights' low current draw and brightness.

Owner-operator Billy Baker is certainly part of that crowd. "Five incandescent lights inside my trailer draw more power than the 160 Truck-Lite LED lights outside. LEDs are the best‚" he says.

LED vs. Incandescent

To illustrate the difference between the two types of lights‚ Truck-Lite designer Brad Van Riper offers a comparison of electrical draw on a typical 53-foot van trailer with minimum lighting.

"If you operate the lamps according to specs‚ the total current for an incandescent-lit trailer is 22.11 amps. The identical‚ but LED-equipped trailer is 2.48 amps - almost a 10 to 1 difference‚" he claims. In the real world‚ that translates into less power used‚ less fuel burned and less draw on the electrical system. (LEDs use 5% of the energy of a regular incandescent bulb.)

Also adding to the growing popularity of LEDs is their long life (LEDs outlast incandescent lamps by a factor of 10)‚ durability on the road and low maintenance cost.

The lights are typically sealed in epoxy to resist corrosion and moisture. Voltage regulator chips protect the lights from voltage spikes and burnouts.

One owner-operator quips that the only real advantage to incandescent lights was in cold weather when heat generated by the lights melted ice and snow on his trailer.

The Cost Factor

LEDs cost more‚ but that‚ too‚ is changing.

"I'm glad to see prices are coming down [on LEDs] for the drivers‚" says Carol Watson‚ the manager of America's Truck Wash and Chrome Shops.

Savvy buyers understand the benefits gained at the expense of a few extra dollars. For example‚ Grote's LED version of its Stop‚ Tail & Turn lamp currently sells for about 2.7 times the amount of the incandescent version‚ but it carries a 10-year warranty along with a long list of performance/maintenance benefits.

Grote's Steve Howser‚ new product development group manager‚ calls the "price decision" a short-term way of thinking when factors like lower maintenance‚ lower repair and replacement are considered. Grote introduced the first LED light to the trucking market in 1989.

Incandescents continue to outsell LEDs‚ except at companies that specialize solely in LEDs. At America's Truck Wash and Chrome Shops‚ sales to drivers run "neck and neck‚" says Watson.

LED life expectancy is anywhere from five to 10 or more years‚ and as high as 100‚000 hours of performance. These numbers do vary‚ depending on the size and intensity of the diode.

In the truckers' store at Oak Grove (Mo.) Petro‚ manager Micah VanderTuig says‚ "LEDs' huge selling point is the lifetime warranty. They are pricier than incandescent‚ but prices are coming down. It's two dollars more than for incandescent lights."

Safety & Legal Issues

Unlike incandescent light‚ which takes 2/10 of a second to reach 95% of full brightness‚ LED light produces 100% output in 10 nanoseconds. In other words‚ instantly.

This instant-on capability translates into a meaningful safety bonus. Someone following a truck equipped with LED brake lights sees the brakes come on two-tenths of a second faster and can respond that much faster‚ providing a safety edge of 18-20 feet stopping power‚ depending on reaction time.

Another safety consideration: Because LED lamps display a more intense light than normal incandescent lamps‚ a vehicle becomes more noticeable to other motorists.

Incandescent light warms into a wide-angle glow. It has no color of its own‚ hence the need for colored lenses. LEDs produce a monochromatic pinpoint of light in a single color‚ such as red or amber. Lenses can be clear because the light itself holds the color.

Earlier on‚ these clear lenses posed a problem with DOT inspectors. Stories still surface - albeit only occasionally these days - of problems with DOT officers who are not familiar with the lights.

An officer in the California Highway Patrol's Commercial Vehicle Section responded this way‚ "The question is‚ 'Do [the lights] meet FMVSS standard No. 108?' There is no requirement for color except when lit. It's the lighted color we are concerned about."

Lighting Evolution

Like a lot of lights on a truck? Today's lighting catalogs are chock full of LED choices. Low-power draw on LEDs and those lifetime guarantees mean more lights can be piled on with fewer repairs or replacements to worry about.

Grand General Accessories' Spyder LED lights glisten and shimmer like jewels. "The four-inch combination Spyder can't stay on the [store] shelves. It sells right out‚" says sales manager Jack Beehler. The unique look comes from the reflector's micro-cut facets reflecting and amplifying the high intensity LED light‚ thereby creating beautiful jewel-like effects.

After introducing the Spyder stop/turn/tail (S/T/T) lamp in 2002 in incandescent‚ the company brought it out in LED and watched sales soar. They have expanded their patented Spyder technology into a growing array of sparkling lights featuring the signature look.

New at Maxxima Technologies is its Vantage Series of high output lamps that use larger diodes in smaller numbers. For example‚ while some S/T/Ts have more than 40 small diodes and as many as 54‚ the Vantage light uses 32 bigger diodes with different photometrics to give a wider‚ brighter spread of light. In a smaller light typically using 12 standard 5mm diodes‚ the equivalent Vantage lamp uses five diodes that are just as bright as the higher number of LEDs.

Maxxima offers LED lighting in a variety of sizes and lens optics designs. "It is what the market is asking for‚" says Dov Sassoon‚ customer sales coordinator.

Clear lens side marker lights are coming soon to Maxxima‚ he notes. "It's the hottest thing going in LED lighting to dress up the side of the cab. The clear lens gives a neutral look to the truck by day and full color at night‚" he says.

"We also do pre-wired air cleaner light bars in stainless with chrome covers and Vantage LEDs in them. We have a six-light style and we're coming out with an eight-light."

While not a light manufacturer‚ Panelite Custom Truck Accessories has defined the custom look of lights and shine on trucks for almost 20 years. In 1999‚ owner Les Barnhart released a patented decorative light of his own design‚ an elliptically shaped light set in a sleek chrome-plated bezel. Available in incandescent and LED‚ amber and red‚ the "Millennium Series Light" would prove wildly popular and become widely copied under a variety of names.

Shawn Whitfield‚ Panelite sales manager‚ says‚ "We designed the Millennium Light and contracted to have it built and branded as a Panelite product with our logo embossed into the lens."

The original 6.625-inch M-1 light continues to be a big seller in both versions. Three more styles have since been added: M-2‚ a stylish 5.5-inch variation on the original with a hint of visor in the bezel‚ the 3.0-inch M-3 and the grand 9-inch M-4‚ best suited to bumper light brackets and rear frame fillers. "More Millennium styles and options are right around the corner‚" Whitfield adds.

At Grote Industries‚ about 15% of all exterior lamps sold have LED light sources‚ notes Howser‚ the new product manager. The gap will close as LEDs become more efficient‚ he says. Grote introduced the first LED light to the trucking market in 1989‚ Howser says.

"Active Reflector Products" with LED lights are the newest product from Grote. The manufacturer recently launched an LED side turn light with an amber lens that uses an interior reflector but no fresnel optics in the lens. Instead‚ the shiny‚ metallized and faceted reflector surface bends the LED light to meet specified photometric requirements. It's called an Active Reflector because the reflector does the optic work that the fresnel lens used to do.

Another Grote product is a white light diode license plate lamp with an active reflector to distribute the light. Interior LED dome lamps are now available in white light as well.

To ease the transition from incandescent to LED‚ Grote designs their LED lamps with the same male pin plug socket as incandescent lamps. "That way the customer doesn't have to buy an adapter or splice in a new pigtail‚" Howser explains.

Whelen Manufacturing is introducing four or five new Class 1 LED lights a month. LED light bars with a variety of built-in flash patterns are popular‚ notes Whelen's Chip Sawyer‚ sales manager for the Amber Products Division.

Oak Grove Petro confirms that Whelen's foot-long light bar is a big seller to truckers looking for something different. "It has 14 different flash patterns. It's bright‚ versatile and comes with a good warranty‚" says the store manager.

Whelen LED lights have evolved with the technology. "Good‚ better‚ best" versions of popular LED lights are now available: Level 1 - the original 5mm diode; Level 2 - super LEDs to maximize light output; Level 3 - super LED products embedded into a patented reflector that produces excellent off-angle lighting.

The torrent of new LED lights are highlighted on Whelen's web site‚ on the "New Product Showcase." At last check‚ we found the Talon Series‚ among others. These Linear8 Dash and Deck Lights are small warning lights with full-size Linear8 Super-LED power that rivals strobe intensity. They come in three colors and clear.

One of Truck-Lite's hottest new lights is a Single Diode Super 66 LED S/T/T lamp‚ available with or without a DiamondShell Hardcoating for extra protection.

Truck-Lite's Model 60 LED Strobing Lamp eliminates the need for a separate control module or power supply. An optional metallized reflector version creates more intense focused light and dual or quad flashing patterns are available. Creative drivers can legally mount the light vertically or horizontally.

Brand new to the market‚ totally different‚ patent pending‚ and already generating word of mouth is the "Running Lites" integrated LED lighting system by Nexlite. These are straight lines of single super bright LEDs on a track‚ anchored at each end with a 12-diode marker light capped in chrome.

The lights draw 0.48 watts per foot. Thermal sealed connectors are waterproof and prewired. Lights can outline a trailer in conformance with FMVSS 108 and get a look totally unlike current corner markers.

Piranha LED lights by Peterson Manufacturing are also big sellers‚ says 4-State Trucks' purchasing manager Brad Taylor. "We sell a lot of the Peterson Piranha 39-diode LED rear turn signal lights."

Hot Piranhas also include the 420 Series auxiliary oval LED strobing light with an alternating or random triple-flash function and built-in control unit. The internal control unit means the lights are plug-n-play‚ and do not require an external unit to order strobe firing. According to Peterson's Mark Osmucher‚ the triple-flash function meets SAE J1318 specs for emergency vehicles‚ construction equipment‚ and refuse vehicles - but they are often seen tricking out the under carriage of other working and show trucks.

Jewel-like "crystal clear" lensed LED lights from American SuperLite round out the top light makers. These lights‚ sold with an unlimited warranty‚ have a signature "bubble" appearance. The 4-inch S/T/T lamp holds 15 LEDs‚ offered with red or clear lens. Also popular‚ the amber 4-inch front/park/turn with 15 LEDs‚ with amber or clear bubbled lens. The company offers a "designer" series of flanges‚ one a shiny circle with reverse scallops.

What About Neon?

Neon is still popular at America's Truck Wash and Chrome Shops‚ "but it is hard to find reliable products‚" says manager Carol Watson. "SpectraLite neons are the best made - a good product‚ durable and reliable."

SpectraLite inventor Jeryl Thayer has seen his bars of golden neon accent some of the country's showiest trucks. He notes the lights are still working on trucks he equipped close to a million miles ago.

Over the past year he has been perfecting a new neon bar that fits inside a stack guard.

"It's just beautiful light‚" he says. "When people see them‚ they are knocked out with the look. They are easy to install and very durable."

The light - 48-inch tall and featuring full length stainless steel reflectors - fits into factory brackets holding the stack guard and clamp on. Low voltage requirements and a lifetime warranty for the original owner are added benefits.

Neon lighting by StreetGlow is doing well at Oak Grove Petro. Inspired by The Fast and The Furious movies‚ these are interior and exterior products designed for cars‚ but truckers are buying them‚ too. Popular are underbody light kits in blue‚ red‚ purple‚ interior accent neon for under seat or under dash. The company also makes LED-lit valve stem caps that create a circle of light moving around the tire.

"StreetGlow products come with a lifetime warranty‚" says Oak Grove's VanderTuig. "It's why they are so popular."

At I-75 Chrome Shop‚ sales manager David Farkas is not doing much with neon. "It's out of date‚" he says. "Maybe it's because it's hard to keep them working. Some drivers still use neon inside‚ but mostly it's LEDs because they are more durable and put out more light."

Future World

"A robust headlamp is extremely important to any truck operator‚" says Truck-Lite designer Brad Van Riper. "Some operators with big fleets are experiencing failures as frequently as one headlamp per vehicle per month. Whether you have 30‚ 300 or 30‚000 trucks‚ it is staggering to think about."

Producing white light of an intensity suited to headlamps is the last hurdle for LED lighting. Already available in small uses like license plate and interior dome lights‚ a white light diode with the intensity needed in a truck headlamp is still some years away‚ Van Riper notes.

"[White light] is beginning to grow in lumens per watt and efficiency. I expect within five years you'll see a white LED headlamp for trucks."

More good news: The Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) and Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) are working together to develop a universal "lamp to connector interface."

Van Riper is on the committee to help effect this change to standardized connectors. Biggest benefit -- purchasing a lamp in the field without fear of compromising the light seal or connection.

What Drivers Value:

Reliability‚ Good Warranty‚ Price‚ Look

Truckers participating in the light show competition at Walcott's 2003 Trucker Jamboree talked about their light choices:

Jim Brinkerhoff's 1998 Eagle 9300 wears 111 lights‚ 25 of them on the front bumper. His "beehive lights" are Grote LEDs. Benefits: "They're long-lasting and take little power so they don't tax the alternator." His Maxxima LEDs on the back "look great when they flash." Truck-Lite turn signals and markers fit perfectly on the end of the back bumper.

He carries spare lights‚ "but that's only out of habit."

Billy Baker favors LEDs over incandescents‚ but still retains a few incandescents on his showy 1982 Peterbilt. There are 340 lights overall: Panelite Millennium LED lights on the deck plate and sides‚ Truck-Lite LEDs on the trailer.

Still incandescent: Wagner 1003 bulbs in his glass-lensed bullet lights. "They are really bright and look neat at night."

Also incandescent: trailer interior lights and antique style blue-button lights on the back of the sleeper. His biggest compliment to LEDs‚ "No more burned out alternators."

Rusty Wyrick's "French Quarters" dazzles with 1‚142 lights. All LED lights are Petersens. Purple bullet accent lights are fiber optics by Grand General with interchangeable colored lenses. Mardi Gras neon colors are by StreetGlow.

He is happy with the performance and brilliance of his Petersons. He uses clear lenses over the LEDs. "I get asked all the time where to buy them‚" Wyrick says. (He bought them at Joplin Petro.) The purple square lights on the fairing wing are Road Pro Light Rods.

Owner-operator Darrel Madden drives a 1986 dark metallic blue Mack decked out with more than 100 LED lights from a major manufacturer. He has been less than impressed with their performance‚ has had to replace many of them several times‚ and he's irritated by difficulties encountered in swapping them out at truckstops. His experience was the only negative one encountered for this story.

"They are warrantied for a lifetime‚ but if you go into a truckstop and don't have the receipt‚ forget it. I can't carry around all my receipts. The manufacturer says to send the light back for replacement. The truckstops don't want to be bothered."

He is removing them all and installing "Running Lites" by Nexlite Corp.

"One side of a full fender 76-inches long cost me $81 and the other LEDs were $135. The look on these "Running Lites" is awesome. The lights are on an aluminum track that bolts to the truck."

Advanced Transportation has had better luck: 336 LED lights on a Red Raspberry Pearl‚ 2002 Kenworth W900 Day Cab have been on for two years and have yet to be replaced. LEDs are a combination of Peterson Piranhas‚ YAD and Trux lights. The driver is Keith Waden‚ owner‚ Mike Ungerbuehler.

"Desert Breeze‚" owned and operated by Mike and Ruth Knezevich‚ lights up proudly with 218 LED lights‚ mostly Au and Maxxima lamps. "The price is reasonable‚" Mike says. "They are guaranteed readily available and that's important."

Kary Winebrenner's 2000 Peterbilt is dressed in Maxximas except for Peterson Piranhas on the back. "They are cheap‚ work good‚ are easy to replace. I've had no problem with the LEDs‚ so I have not tried the warranty."

Bruce Miller likes his "cheap generic lights‚" which he purchased from Iowa 80 Truckstop. He dubs them‚ "very reliable." His 1996 white Freightliner FLD 120 wears 14 "double bubbles" on side‚ nine in front plus LEDs on the visor. Peterson incandescents light up the back and the cross is lit with LEDs.

Green is the signature color on Dan Greenplate's 2002 white International. There are 10 green lights on the front‚ 13 on each side and green rope lights from Wal-Mart spelling out the initials for Continental Express. About the rope he says‚ "It's cheap and it wears well."