How to retrofit xenon headlights – Extra challenging, but still special project

How to retrofit xenon headlights - Extra challenging, but still special project

Xenon headlights appeared on the market some 20 years ago, and made up a small revolution. The bright lights introduced in the luxury class cars, caused a great deal of enthusiasm among drivers. As with all innovations xenon light gradually appeared in all classes and now can often be found in compact class cars. This market has discovered the accessory trade, offering kits for retrofitting xenon headlights. It is important to be careful. A conversion to xenon is not as easy as you think and several legal risks are involved.

Noble light with noble gas

xenon headlights vs ledXenon is a noble gas, like argon or helium. Just like neon it can be used as gas for lighting. It is put under high tension in a small reactor, causing it to light up. That is why a xenon headlight can’t be powered by the usual in-vehicle voltage of 12 – 24 Volt and requires a transformer.

advantages of xenon headlightsIn xenon headlights this transformer is alternatively called ballast. It generates the necessary 25 000 Volt tension for the xenon lamp.
Its installation is for the functioning of xenon lighting the least problem.

Advantages & disadvantages of xenon headlights

Xenon headlights wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t have several considerable advantages. These are:

Better light power: The main advantage of xenon headlights is the considerably improved lighting in comparison to H4 light bulbs. They shine so brightly and clearly that their light colour is like daylight.
Saving electricity: Despite the higher working voltage and improved light power, xenon headlights are considerably more economical in their power consumption than light bulbs.
Life span: A xenon lamp generally lasts a car’s life span, at any rate much longer than 100.000 km.

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On the other hand there are the following disadvantages:

Costs: A retrofitting kit costs ca. 1500 euro. The problem is, modular replacement is hardly possible. In case of defect, the entire system must be replaced. The lamps with 150 euro are also considerably more expensive than even the most high-grade H4 light bulbs.
Maintenance and repair: Repair of xenon lighting is a case for the garage. It goes without saying that garages don’t like working on DIY installations. Therefore, also in case of retrofitting a garage should be consulted. Not only do you get guarantee but also extensive service in case of a defect.
Endangering other traffic participants: The most important disadvantage of xenon headlights is the danger they potentially constitute for other road users. As soon as its window is dirty or the lamp’s adjustment is faulty, oncoming vehicles are blinded. Regulations for xenon authorisation are therefore very strict.
Complicated assembly: A xenon system is composed of several components which only indirectly affect the lighting performance. Especially the headlight levelling and the washing system are technically complicated and their assembly a great challenge.

Efficient, but sensitive

disadvantages of xenon headlightsBecause xenon is so bright, it must be made certain that the light is directed correctly. If headlights are not properly adjusted, they constitute a danger for oncoming traffic. An incorrectly adjusted or dirty xenon lamp is just as inconvenient for other traffic participants as a high-beam headlight. Xenon headlights receive plenty of attention at the MOT check. The inspection is even stricter if it is a retrofitting kit. The most sets available at the dealer are not allowed for road traffic. Often, two important components are lacking.

Xenon only with washer system and headlight levelling

xenon headlights levellingThe traffic use of xenon lighting requires a washer system for the headlight lenses. Nowadays this is done with high-pressure spray nozzles. The mini-wipers, very popular in the 70ies, are no longer used for several reasons:

Shape: The shape of modern headlights is too complex to enable cleaning with a wiper.
Reliability: A mini-wiper is very susceptible to wear. Its wiping performance is very soon no longer sufficient or even becomes damaging to the headlamp.
Material: Modern headlights nowadays are covered by a plexiglas cover. This material scratches easily and quickly wears through cleaning by an electric driven wiper.
Therefore, only automatic high-pressure spray nozzles are used. The sprayers also have a pump, a wash-water tank and electronic control, activating the washing process when necessary and enabling manual control as well. For this, a dashboard switch is necessary.
The headlight levelling system on the other hand is considerably less problematic. This feature is obligatory equipment for all cars built as per construction year 1990 and therefore headlight levelling is often present when switching to xenon lighting. Still, installation of headlight levelling requires a level sensor, enabling the level to automatically adjust to the conditions.

Legal consequences of illegal xenon lighting

xenon headlights regulationsThe use of non-approved xenon lighting, entirely or partly, bans the car from use in traffic. The car can be suspended for use by the police until it is re-equipped. A high fine up to £220 can also be expected. Even more serious are the consequences in case of an accident: the liability insurance could initially cover the damage, and afterwards recover all payments from the perpetrator.

No advertising: by now only Hella

oem xenon headlightsThe only manufacturer presently offering retrofitting sets for xenon lighting suitable for use in traffic, is Hella. This manufacturer of geniune parts and OEM-parts has the competence, experience and legal background required for development of high-grade products. Until now all other manufacturers do not have an approval for road traffic. We strongly recommend checking the information on the packaging. Legally the general approval for use in traffic must be explicitly stated. If it only mentions “Solely for rally purposes” or similar, this means, the lighting is legally inadequate for use in traffic. In this case we canonly say to tuners: hands off.

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Still better: original parts

xenon headlights from used carsThe simplest way of obtaining a xenon light system is getting it from a used car. This technology has been on the market for 20 years and the used car market offers plenty of “victims”, eligible for technology donorship, although this is only possible within the same car type. Using second-hand parts can still save a lot of money. The lamps themselves are expensive enough. Including the entire technology, a xenon lighting system costs several thousands of pounds as a new component.

Conclusion: consider carefully

xenon headlights what to considerWe would be negligent, emphasising the advantages of xenon lighting without simultaneously pointing out the difficulties at installation. All in all the project “changing to xenon” is a special challenge, requiring careful consideration. The advantages may be considerable due to the better lighting performance, its purchase is expensive. If the car does not justify the retrofit because of its basic value, other tuning measures are more suitable.

Modern H4 bulbs also offer an interesting lighting performance, and therefore it does not necessarily have to be xenon. Until now, LED is not an alternative yet. Although this technology is available for torches, car manufacturers lag behind: real, high-performance headlights on LED-basis are not yet available as a retrofitting set. Technology is however pacing forward very quickly.

Therefore, waiting two or three years is worthwhile. LED is generally much easier to maintain than xenon. Certainly, very interesting innovations are on their way.

Foto: MargoLev, Sunny_Images, antpkr, frees, oYOo, Mikbiz, Corepics VOF /
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