Some car owners do not pay much attention to the light emitting from the front of their vehicle. That is, until they notice they can no longer see what is in the road in front of them while driving at night. Xenon headlights provide better and brighter illumination than conventional halogen headlights. But for the uninitiated, this type of vehicle lighting can be very unfamiliar. In this article, we’ll look at what xenon headlights are, how they work, and the pros and cons of installing them in your car.
Understanding What Xenon Headlights Are
Unlike traditional halogen headlight bulbs that utilize halogen gas, xenon headlights use xenon gas. This is a gaseous element that can emit a bright white light when electricity passes through it. Xenon bulbs are also called high intensity discharge or HID bulbs. This is in obvious reference to the intensity of the brightness that xenon gas produces.
The 1991 BMW 7-series sedans were the first cars to use the xenon headlight system. Since then, major car manufacturers have been installing these vehicle lighting systems in their models. In general, installing xenon headlights can increase the premium on the vehicle.
Xenon headlights come with several components.
- Gas Discharge Lamp
This is the xenon bulb itself that contains the xenon gas as well as other gasses. When electricity reaches this part of the system, it produces the bright white light we all love about HID systems. It contains electrodes where the electricity gets “discharged”.
- Xenon Ballast
This device is what ignites the gaseous mixture inside the xenon bulb. Fourth-generation xenon HID systems can deliver up to 30 kV of high-voltage pulse. This component controls xenon bulb start-up, allowing it to reach its optimum operating phase quickly. Once the bulb is operating at its optimum brightness, the ballast controls the power that goes through the system to maintain the brightness. The ballast contains a DC converter, allowing it to generate the voltage necessary for powering the bulb and the other electric components of the system. It also contains a bridge circuit, which provides the system with a 300 Hz alternating voltage.
- Ignition Module
As the name suggests, this component triggers the delivery of a “spark” to the xenon light module. It connects to the xenon ballast and can contain metal shielding, depending on the model generation of the system.
How Xenon HID Headlights Work
Conventional halogen bulbs work by passing electricity through a tungsten filament inside the bulb. Since the bulb also contains halogen gas, it interacts with the tungsten filament. It heats up the filament, allowing it to glow.
Xenon HID headlights work in a different manner. For starters, HID bulbs do not contain a filament to pass electricity through. Instead, it works by ionizing the xenon gas inside the bulb.
There are three stages of how xenon HID bulbs work.
When you switch on the xenon headlight, electricity passes through the ballast and to the bulb’s electrodes. This ignites and ionizes the xenon while also creating a “bridge” between electrodes.
- Heating Up
The ionization of the gas mixture leads to the rapid elevation of temperature. At the same time, there is a reduction in the resistance between the electrodes.
- Bright Light
The xenon ballast supplies the bulb with constant power of about 35W. This allows the bulb to operate at full functionality, delivering bright white light.
It is important to remember that xenon gas only gets used in the initial phase of illumination. As other gases inside the bulb gets ionized, they take the place of xenon in providing bright illumination. What this means is that it may take some time – often a few seconds – before you can see the bright light you are expecting from a HID headlight.
Advantages of Xenon Headlights
There are several advantages to using xenon HID headlights over conventional halogen bulbs.
- Brighter, More Natural Light
A 35-watt xenon bulb can produce up to 3,000 lumens. A watt-comparable halogen bulb can only muster 1,400 lumens. The color temperature of a xenon system also mimics that of natural daylight, which is about 4000 to 6000 Kelvin. On the other hand, halogen bulbs produce yellow-white light.
- Broader Coverage
Not only do HID lights produce brighter, more natural light; they also provide illumination further down the road. HID lights travel wider and farther than halogen bulbs, allowing you to drive a lot safer in the night at high speeds.
- More Energy Efficient
It is true that xenon bulbs will require more energy during start-ups. However, during normal operation, they use far less energy than halogen systems. This makes them more energy-efficient; although the advantage may be too small to recognize.
- Last Longer
An average halogen bulb can last anywhere between 400 and 600 hours. Xenon HID systems, on the other hand, can last up to 5,000 hours. Unfortunately, it still lags behind the 25,000-hour lifespan of an LED system.
Downsides to Using Xenon Headlights
While xenon headlights provide exceptional natural daylight-like brightness, they do have some drawbacks.
- Quite Expensive
Xenon headlights cost more than halogen bulbs. And while they cost less than LED systems, their average lifespan means you will need to replace a HID system at least 5 times before you start replacing an LED headlight.
- Strong Glare
HID lights can produce very bright light which can be dangerous to incoming motorists. The glare can blind drivers and cause a traffic accident.
- May Require Retrofitting Existing Halogen Headlights
If you already have a halogen headlight, installing a xenon lighting system can be quite challenging. While there are xenon retrofit kits available, you will have to have basic knowledge of automotive electronics to get the setup right.
- Requires “Heating Up” to Attain Full Brightness
Turning on a halogen headlight gets you full brightness in a snap. For a xenon HID system, you will need a few seconds to “heat up” the bulb and get it to full operating capacity.
Xenon headlights are very popular nowadays because of the brightness that they provide. Like everything else, this type of vehicle lighting system has its own share of pros and cons. You have to weigh these factors to determine if xenon headlights are what you need.