Bottom Line
Modern Trucking Techniques
The new era of lights
Despite higher up-front costs, today's lighting systems can save you time and money in the long run

By Paul Abelson
senior technical editor

For decades, lighting costs were the No. 2 maintenance cost behind tires. Tires are big, expensive things and lights are small, inexpensive things. But, the number of lights, frequency of burnout and hours consumed changing them made them costly.

About five years ago, maintenance managers started noticing that lighting was no longer an issue. Those who converted to light-emitting diodes – commonly referred to as LEDs – rarely experienced burnouts and the costs associated with replacement. Recently, one manager said, “Lighting isn’t even on our radar any more. We trade equipment without ever changing a lamp.”

Because of the high, front-end cost of LEDs, owner-operators at first avoided switching and did not take advantage of modern sealed-wiring harnesses and other improvements. But over time, owner-operators have realized the potential cost and time savings of LEDs and advanced wiring systems.

Sealed lamps cost almost twice as much as bulb-replaceable, but last about six times longer. And, while LEDs cost significantly more, they have the greatest payback.
At least a couple of domestic suppliers now offer lifetime limited warranties on some LED systems. That points to the reliability and longevity manufacturers experience with properly specified lighting.

Foiling failure
There are several ways owner-operators can reduce costs associated with lighting, according to Dominick Grote, vice president of sales and marketing of Grote Industries. He is president of the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute and has been very active in improving standards for all commercial vehicle lighting.

In many cases, he said, lamps have not failed. Problems with wiring actually cause many failures. Even when bulbs burn out, human input is a factor.

Curbing corrosion
One problem, corrosion, occurs when water, road salts or dirt contact wiring, often where wires are spliced or grounds are connected to the chassis. Grote suggested sealing all electrical connections with dielectric grease, especially at areas like electrical contacts, circuit switches and junction boxes. He also recommends using sealed connectors.

Wiring integrity should be protected at all times. Never push a test probe through wire insulation. The pinhole that remains allows moisture into the wiring. Once in the strands, wicking action moves it to corrode both wire and connections.

If splicing wires, use crimp connectors with heat-activated sealant and cover with heat-shrink tubing. Sealed lamps have shock-mounted bulbs that lessen the transmission of impacts to their filaments. Rubber-mounting grommets help absorb vibration.

Contact can be lost because of corrosion or loss of spring tension with J-slot bulbs. Sealed lamps do not usually experience contact loss.

The juice
Perfectly good lamps may not light if the voltage is too low. Long, undersize and corroded wires as well as broken strands increase resistance reducing voltage. Before replacing lamps, test them with a purpose-made tester. If the lamp works, look elsewhere for problems.

Like water flowing through hoses, the smaller the wire, the more resistance to current flow. Smaller gauge wiring increases resistance, heats wires and lowers voltage to lamps.
Voltage in excess of designed voltage also shortens bulb life. Just 1 volt more reduces filament life more than 50 percent.

Sustained, high voltage burns out filaments sooner. Voltage spikes can blow them instantly. Before starting your truck, generator or APU, turn off all lamps.

Cool it
Heat shortens lamp life. Parking against a dock seal traps heat. If the lamp does not burn out, it could start a seal fire. Deformed or melted lenses mean excessive heat. Even LEDs can be damaged that way, according to Grote. His company uses aluminum housings to help dissipate heat. But the best thing is to turn lights off before backing in.

Lamps may be damaged by impact. The most vulnerable is the front upper trailer clearance lamp. Brush guards protect lamps from tree limbs, the most frequent cause of damage. New designs of light are also eliminating this problem.

For example, Truck-Lite developed the Mini-Marker, a side- or corner-mounted LED less than ¾-inch diameter, designed to fit inside channels, flush with the surface. Impact is absorbed through the trailer structure.

Polycarbonate material, the resin used to make helmets and aircraft canopies, is used for most sealed truck lighting. It’s worth the few extra dollars to get polycarbonate lamps. Almost all LEDs are made of it.

The right stuff
You can avoid most lighting problems before they occur, according to Brad Van Riper, vice president of research and development at Truck-Lite.

When buying new or used equipment, specify components and assemblies that reduce maintenance. Money spent upfront for LEDs, heavier wiring and sealed connectors will pay for themselves many times over.

Van Riper said, before buying, you should start by comparing trailer specifications against the regulations. If you are inspecting a new equipment purchase, review the bill of materials. Make sure products are up to your quality standards. If used equipment, list all electrical components and decide which will need to be upgraded – and negotiate that upfront with the seller if you can.

A close look
Once you’ve determined the lights included in the purchase are the parts ordered and of proper quality, it’s time to take a look at the installation methods used.

“The way harnesses are routed can be as important as the harnesses themselves,” Van Riper said. “Wiring should be routed according to the specification drawings. Assure wire and pigtails are ‘dressed’ properly using wire ties to hold them in place.”

He suggested making sure there is excess wire at all connections so wire can be formed into “drip loops.” Downward loops of wire provide a path away from sockets and connectors for water and corrosive chemicals.

Make sure all connectors are fully engaged. Except for new triple-seal connectors, dielectric grease should be used to keep moisture and corrosives out.

Check to see that the proper lights are correctly placed and mounted. For example, corner mount lamps look like front or side mount but have different optical properties. Improperly mounted lamps could result in a ticket.

To avoid additional problems, look for lamps with the proper certification and markings. Non-approved lamps do not meet photometric requirements.

Make sure grommet rubber is soft and supple. Sunlight can dry rubber, resulting in lost lamps. If screwed in place with anti-theft rings, fasteners must be torqued within limits to avoid stressing lamps.

Check holes drilled through frames and cross members, and any brackets used to position harnesses. Holes should be grommeted to protect wiring from chaffing and abrasion. Burrs or sharp edges should be filed to avoid slicing wiring. If there are areas where snow, ice or rain could collect around electrical components, such as around nose boxes, make sure there is adequate drainage.

Some paints are incompatible with plastics used for lights. If repairs have been made near lamps, look for signs of chemical reaction.

Glare is a big complaint with truckers – and one being taken seriously by light manufacturers in the industry.

Tim Murphy, vice president of engineering at Peterson Manufacturing, serves on a Society of Automotive Engineers committee and is director of TSEI. He is working with SAE, evaluating ways to improve forward vision without causing glare.

Although high beams provide significantly more light than low beams, Murphy said NHTSA studies indicate they are used less than one-fourth of the time that conditions would allow. The study did not reveal why the high beams are being under used.

Some people may be concerned about the aim of their headlights causing glare. Murphy breaks glare into two types – discomfort glare and disability glare.

Discomfort glare, annoying and distracting, is temporary and does not affect your ability to drive. Examples include momentary reflection of sunlight from a passing car’s window or a brief moment before an oncoming car dims its lights.

Disability glare relates to dazzle. It leaves you with a blind spot for a few seconds before you see normally. Disability glare can come from driving toward the rising or setting sun, or having poorly aimed headlights shining into your eyes for longer than a brief instant. To minimize the impact of disability glare, most of you know to look away from the source or scan across it.

Taking aim
You can reduce glare problems for others on the road by making sure your headlights are properly aimed.

To aim headlights, Murphy said to find a blank wall with space around it. Park as close as possible, perpendicular to the wall. Turn on your headlights and mark where the hot spot is with masking tape or a washable marker.

Back up 25 feet and repeat the process. The hot spot should be no higher than the original mark. Preferably, it will be lower, but not more than two inches lower for every 25 feet from the wall. If you’ve pulled back perpendicularly from the wall, the hot spot should be directly below or just slightly to the right of the original hot spot.

In the future, we will use lighting as advanced as other vehicle systems.

Until that happens, make the best of the lighting you have by keeping it maintained and protected, and in the case of headlights, properly aimed.


Smart headlights?

Ever wish your headlights knew what to do and when to do it?

Tim Murphy, vice president of engineering at Peterson Manufacturing, who serves on a Society of Automotive Engineers committee and is a director of the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute, recently described advanced electronics that will help improve forward vision for future vehicles.

The adaptive lighting may use LED headlights, turning on and off specifically aimed diodes to shine into curves, so drivers will see where they’re headed. He described lighting needs for four distinct conditions:

  • Town light, as the name implies, is for use in urban areas where there is ambient light and a good deal of oncoming traffic.
  • Country light is unlimited, shining farthest when there is no oncoming traffic and a need for maximum light.
  • Motorway light is for highway settings with a good deal of oncoming traffic coupled with high speeds.
  • Adverse weather light, with sharp cut-offs, keeps light from being reflected into drivers’ eyes by snow or fog.

In the future, we will be better able to gather information visually for better decision making, using lighting as technologically advanced as other vehicle systems.

Paul Abelson may be reached at


Don't get burned

Shining some light on aftermarket LEDs

By David Tanner
staff writer

You pull into a truck stop late one evening and another driver tips you off that you have a taillamp burned out. It’s awfully tempting to head inside and grab something off the shelf to replace it, right?

But, before you grab the cheapest replacement lamp, stop and think a minute, and consider that not all lights are created equal. More importantly, not all aftermarket lights meet federal regulations.

Light-emitting diodes – or LEDs – light up our wrist watches, alarm clocks and a number of functions on a truck, including just about any lamp you could possibly need or want. And while it’s quick to fix one that burns out, one industry expert told Land Line Magazine that a buyer should beware of potential counterfeit products lurking around the market.

“With anything else, even when you’re buying replacement lamps, you have to make sure that you’re getting a part that was manufactured by the original company who made the part,” said Jeff Erion, spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Lighting Council. “If you’re going with an aftermarket product, you’re on your own.”

Erion recommended asking a lot of questions and sticking with reputable manufacturers.
Parts are easy to get for LEDs – which are solid-state devices and not incandescent lamps – and they are easy to assemble. Many fly-by-night manufacturers buy bulk parts and assemble their own products.

“Just because you put a bunch of amber or red LEDs into a lamp and they turn on doesn’t necessarily mean you have a stop lamp or a turn lamp or any other automotive signal. There are regulations that dictate exactly what the output is and where the light goes, and the colors that they use,” Erion said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has attempted to crack down on the fly-by-nights, and have even stopped certain companies from selling lights for vehicles.

And, before you decide to roll the dice and chance it that the light meets the federal regs, you need to understand that safety can be a huge issue.

LEDs do not put out heat themselves, but if they are improperly assembled, the assembly can produce heat.

“When an LED gets hot, its output drops as much as 50 percent,” Erion said – another reason to make sure you buy a good product.

More and more truckers and fleets are relying on LEDs for their lamps and signals because the good ones last longer than incandescent lamps.

“Instead of having to replace a bulb every year or two, it may go five or 10 years,” Erion said. “In fact, it might break before it actually encounters a failure of an LED.”

Erion recommends using products from reputable manufacturers of LEDs, a list that includes Truck-Lite, Grote and Peterson Manufacturing.

“They meet the requirements without question,” Erion said.

Knowing how to spot a counterfeit light will help you avoid safety issues, warranty problems and, simply, bad lights. The Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association offers some tips to protect you from the potentially dangerous phonies:

  • Is there a customer service number on the packaging? If not, more than likely, it is a counterfeit product.
  • Where does the product come from? If it says “Made in the U.S.A.” or “Made in Taiwan,” check out the manufacturer’s Web site or call the customer service line and see if that’s where it’s really made.
  • If you’re buying parts out of the back of a truck in a parking lot, they are probably not the real thing.
  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Does the lettering on the package of that familiar brand look slightly off? Is the brand name spelled correctly? Are the part numbers and codes accurate? If not, it’s probably not the real deal.

There’s also new legal protection in the area of counterfeit lights.

In March, the “Stop Counterfeiting in Manufactured Goods” bill was signed into law. It extends federal seizure authority to include not only the infringing product, but also the tooling, equipment and supplies used to produce and traffic counterfeit goods and criminalizes production of stickers, tags, boxes or other items used to traffic fake products, according to MEMA.

The law requires courts to order the destruction of all counterfeit products seized as a part of a criminal investigation. The bill requires convicted counterfeiters to turn over their profits, as well as any equipment used in their operations.