What Headlight Bulb You Need and How to Change it

There are a lot of parts in a car that get taken for granted, and we all flick that little switch in the evening to light the road ahead and keep us going along safely. But what happens if you flick the switch and one of your lights, or worse, both, refuse to come on? It’s time to get a new bulb installed as quickly as possible – but how do you know what you’re looking for when it comes to getting a new bulb? 

Close up of a car headlight

What Headlight Bulb do I Need?

If you were to walk into your nearest car parts shop and just say “I need a headlight bulb, please”, it would be a minor miracle if the shop assistant was able to pick exactly what you were looking for straight away. Not only are there a wide range of different types of bulbs you could be searching for, such as high or low beam, daytime running lights or fog lamps, to name just a few, but you’ll also need to know what kind of fitting you require. You’ll be able to find out which fitting you need for your car by checking your vehicle handbook, although most retailers offer an online service where you can learn which bulbs you need by inputting your car’s details.

What Type of Headlight Bulbs are There?

There are three main types of headlight bulbs available for cars, however two of these types are only legally allowed on the road for specific vehicles.

  • Halogen: The most common bulb seen around, the halogen bulb has been used for over 50 years and is the cheapest to both produce and replace. Using a similar tungsten filament you’d find in a conventional household bulb, these bulbs are filled with halogen gas which helps the filament glow brighter and last longer.
  • Xenon/HID: HID, or high-intensity discharge, bulbs have an arc between their two electrodes as opposed to a filament. The law states these must be working at 80% capacity within 4 seconds of being switched on, so they have a high-voltage starter to ignite the gas and a control unit to keep the light shining. When Xenon lights first joined the market the law stated they needed headlight washers and a self levelling mechanism (to keep the lights pointing down under any load), making them very expensive to produce. However since neither of these are required and costs cut in half as a result, more and more smaller and cheaper cars are starting to favour Xenon over Halogen.
  • LED: Many manufacturers are now beginning to replace Xenon lights with LEDs thanks not only to their longer lasting and energy efficient nature, but also their ability to allow lights to be positioned in signature designs, making them instantly recognisable on the roads. Rather than a filament or arc in the previous bulb types, electricity passes through a light-emitting diode (hence LED), producing a similar brightness to a Xenon bulb, but without the excess heat, making them more efficient and cheaper to run.

The life expectancy of each bulb type grows as technology has advanced, with a Halogen bulb likely to give you 2000 hours of light, against 10,000 hours for a Xenon and 30,000 for an LED. However, it’s important to note that unless your car was fitted with a Xenon or LED light when it was first built, you will not be able to fit these on your car without breaking the law.

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How to Remove a Headlight Bulb

Removing a headlight bulb is relatively simple, but the trickiest part can often be getting to the bulb itself. Fortunately, most headlight bulbs are accessible by just opening the bonnet and removing the connections at the back of the headlight housing, with some even providing space to make the changes with movable panels inside the wheel wells.

Some cars, however, are a little less helpful and can sometimes require you to remove various items before you can access the headlights at all, so it’s always best to make sure you have some tools and a pair of gloves to hand, just in case.

How to Replace/Change a Headlight Bulb

  1. Identify which light you need to change. While this seems like a fairly basic point, it may not be obvious from your driver’s seat as to which headlight is not working. Carrying out a simple check of all lights will help you narrow it down.
  2. Find the right replacement bulb. Now you know exactly which bulb it is that has failed, you can pinpoint which type of bulb you need to buy to be able to carry out the replacement. If you can, it’s best to replace bulbs in pairs, as not only is it ensuring that both lights will be of a similar age, but it can often be more cost-effective to buy them together.
  3. Locate the faulty bulb. Open your bonnet and remove your headlight cover. Some cars have multiple light sets at the front, so just make sure you’re replacing the right bulb.
  4. Disconnect the bulb. Most bulbs are held in place with a locking mechanism, which can be either a metal clip, plastic catch or a screw cap, depending on which car you’re working on. After you have disconnected the power wires from the bulb, release this locking mechanism to be able to fully remove the bulb.
  5. Connect the new bulb. Effectively repeating the previous steps but in reverse, reconnect the new bulb to the system – but note the following:
    1. Always wear gloves. Oil from your skin can cause the bulb to burn out as soon as you turn it on.
    2. Ensure the bulb is correctly placed in its holder. Failure to do so could mean it is not sitting in the correct direction and potentially dazzle other road users.
    3. Secure the bulb cover when finished. If you do not secure the cover, water can get into the bulb housing and, as everyone knows, electrics and water do not mix well.
  6. Check the new light. Close your bonnet, turn the car on and check to ensure all of your hard work has paid off.

Does it Matter What Headlight Bulb I Use?

When looking at connections, yes it does. If you buy a bulb with the wrong connection then you simply will not be able to fit it to your car. However, when it comes to LED vs Halogen vs Xenon, as long as you are driving a car which allows LED or Xenon bulbs, then it comes down to a question of price against performance. A cheaper bulb will probably need replacing sooner, likewise a brighter bulb may not last as long as a lower-wattage option. 

Car repair and service. The man holds in his hand a halogen light bulb against the background of the headlights on

What Headlight Bulbs are Illegal?

Of the three options available to you, the only bulbs that you can buy and install with absolute confidence that you’re not breaking any laws are halogen bulbs. Only cars that have been fitted with Xenon HID or LEDs at their manufacturing stage are legally able to use those lights, so even though a Xenon may give you brighter visibility and last longer, you could be breaking the law if you install it. 

Are Headlight Bulbs Covered Under Warranty?

Lightbulbs are considered wear items on a car, so you will not find them covered by your warranty. It’s best to make sure you are prepared for the eventuality by making sure you know which type of bulb you’re looking for so when the time comes you can fix the issue as soon as possible.

Do Petrol Stations Sell Headlight Bulbs?

There was a time when the petrol station would be your easy guarantee if you’re searching for some of the smaller spare parts – bulbs, fuses, wipers etc, and were usually stationed next door to a garage so could probably assist fitting them, too. However, with so many varieties out there, and the growing number of petrol stations now becoming mini supermarkets, there isn’t enough space on the shelves for everything. While you may get lucky and find a petrol station stocking bulbs, your best bet is to find your nearest car parts shop.

For more hints and tips on how to keep your car running and ready for the roads, then make sure to visit our Car Care hub where we talk you through everything from lightbulbs to driving lessons and MOTs to driving in wintry conditions.

If, no matter how much work you put in, there’s just no way you can get your car back on the road, then visit Scrap Car Comparison’s online quote generator. We can secure you the very best offer going for your car, so why not get started today?

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