What Are HID Headlights?
*Jerry Seinfeld voice* “What’s the deal with HIDs?” [Headline updated 1/26/2021]
- Cars 101
- Guides & Gear
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The headlight aisle at your local auto parts store is daunting, full stop. It seems every time we return it’s expanded with new colors, new names, new technologies, gold, platinum, vibranium, etc., etc. It’s a sea of little glass bulbs marketed with multi-font text claiming the clearest view of the road you’ve ever experienced in your life. Even better than the view through HD Vision Special Ops glasses *wink*.
The savior in that aisle is the thick-boi booklet that tells you exactly which style of bulb you need, but even that only provides so much. It doesn’t, for example, tell you whether or not you can or should upgrade your halogen bulbs to HID, or even LED headlights.
Adding more acronyms to the picture might seem like complicating the matter, but you might find that these newer technologies actually suit your needs better than your current situation. To assess where you stand and what you need, its’ best to learn all about headlight technology. The Drive’s bright-eyed editors are here to light the path for you, so let’s get to it.
What Does HID Stand For?
HID stands for High-Intensity Discharge.
What Are HID Headlights?
HID headlights, sometimes referred to as xenon headlights, are a modern type of automobile headlight that uses an arc of electricity instead of a filament. They are known for their extreme brightness and a common blue tint.
What Are The Components of HID Headlights?
To understand how they work, it’s important to understand how they’re built. An electrical signal goes through the ballast, then to the igniter, then to the bulb.
The ballast limits the amount of electrical current along an electrical line. It also maintains the light once it’s lit.
The igniter boosts the electrical power in order to jump the arc inside the bulb.
The bulb, which is commonly made of quartz, houses the electrodes and gas capsule. This is where the illumination occurs.
How Do HID Headlight Bulbs Work?
Within an HID headlight bulb are electrodes and a small pocket full of gas, chemicals, and/or metals. After electricity passes through the ballast, it goes up to the bulb, where it creates an electrical arc. That arc lights the mixture inside the pocket and turns into a light-producing plasma.
Differences Between HID Headlight Types
HID headlights are typically labeled D1S, D1R, D2S, D2R, D3S, D4S, D5, and D6, and so on. Each type is for a specific car variant, so check your book for your exact needs.
Igniter or No Igniter?
As design has changed throughout the years, HID replacement headlights have become available with or without the igniter attached.
Mercury or No Mercury?
Most HID headlights originally contained mercury, but they are now available without it. Woot!
Base Trim Alignment
Different types of HID headlights slot into their housings differently. Not the label to be sure yours will pair.
As HID technology has advanced, some replacement bulbs with lower voltage ratings have become available.
Not all replacement HID headlights connect to your car’s electrical system the same way. You might need an adapter, so check that out when buying your bulbs.
Alternatives To HID Headlights
There are a few alternatives to HIDs, let’s talk about the most common three.
Halogen headlights have been around for decades and are still a common type of headlight used on many mainstream consumer vehicles. They are duller than LEDs or HID headlights.
LED which stands for Light-Emitting Diode. LEDs have been around for a while now, but they’re taking over every aspect of life due to their low energy consumption, long-lasting durability, and brightness. Aftermarket LED lights can be found online or at some auto parts stores.
While LEDs are the near future of headlights, laser technology is the future beyond. BMW and Audi have already used lasers for high beams, and it’s sure to work its way into regular headlights eventually.
How Do I Find Bulbs For My Car?
There are a few ways you can identify which bulbs you need for your car. You can check your dusty owner’s manual, call the dealership, check the gigantic book at the auto parts store, or use an auto parts headlight finder online. Be aware some new technologies such as LED headlights might not fit all vehicles or even work.
Installing HID Headlights
The headlight installation process is different for every vehicle. Some require you to remove extra parts within the engine bay for easier access, while others are easily accessible. Some have dust covers, others do not. Some use clips or clasps, others do not. Read your owner’s manual for the exact process, and always make sure your car is off during replacement.
Additionally, changing types of headlight bulbs might require new housings to properly work with those new bulbs. You must first identify whether your car has projector or reflector housings.
FAQs About HID Headlights
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q. So Is It Illegal To Have HID Headlights?
A. In general, no, plenty of new cars come with OEM HID headlights these days. However, the same cannot be said for all aftermarket parts. Always check that they are approved for road use and not just for show.
Q. Yeah, But How Do I Know If I Have HID Headlights?
A. A quick look should tell you. Halogen lights have filaments, while LED headlights don’t even use bulbs. The blue tint that comes from HID headlights is also a good indicator.
Q. Then Can I Replace My HID Headlights With LED?
A. Theoretically, yes, but the way your car is designed might make it difficult or prevent it. Because every car has a specific attachment/adapter design, aftermarket LED headlights might not always fit, or allow for secure attachment.
Q. Why Are HID Headlights So Expensive?
A. HID headlights use updated technology that is billed as better than the previously used technology. For that upgrade, you pay more.
Q. How Do I Know If My HID Ballast Is Bad?
A. If only one headlight is out, you know your power supply is good. If you swap a good bulb into the bad light’s place, and it works, you know it was a bad bulb. If it doesn’t work it’s likely an issue with the ballast or something in the wiring/connector.
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