LED Light Bar Buyers Guide
With the trend going towards LED in lighting both for ambient and for driving, there has been a bit of a “flood” of products to sweep the market. Let us take a lot of the guess work out and make your purchase easy and right the first time with our LED Light Bar Buyers Guide.
LED Light Bar Types
LED light bars may contain one LED or dozens. The LEDs within a single bar are usually the same size but power sizes and colors can be mixed. For example, a police vehicle light bar may contain white, amber, red and blue LEDs of various strengths. Some or all of these may flash.
Mini Light Bars
The smallest light bars are often referred to as light pods. They are used as side lights, work lights or portable spotlights. Cubes of 4 LEDs are regularly used as fog lamps.
Full-size Light Bars
These are rectangular, enclosed arrays of up to 96 LEDs in a single bar. The LEDs may be arranged in single, double or quad rows.
The best LED light bar used for road or job site illumination has LEDs with a color temperature of 5000K, which simulates sunlight on a clear day. Custom reflectors or lenses spread, focus or diffuse the beam. Two or more beam angles are created in combo bars.
Low-Profile Light Bars
These light bars contain a single row of LEDs and are usually under 20 inches long. Their low profile makes them ideal for vehicle grill mounting.
Colored LED Light Bars
The range of colors available for LEDs runs from deep red to hot blue. There are even LEDs that emit UV and IR light, which often find application at your dentist’s office or for trail cams, respectively
What Is a Cree LED Light Bar?
In your search for the best LED light bar, you will come across the term Cree light bar. Cree refers to the LEDs in the light bar, not to the brand of light bar. All the light bars in this guide’s LED light bar reviews use a version of Cree LEDs.
Cree, Inc., located in North Carolina, manufactures these powerful, highly efficient LEDs. They are the highest quality, longest lasting, and most efficient LED lighting for homes, businesses and roadways.
The finest Cree LED light bars have an efficiency at the top end of the scale for LEDs approaching 120 raw lm/W. With proper current control, they have a lifespan over 50,000 hours. Unlike cheaply made LEDs, Cree LEDs do not fade early. Despite higher initial cost compared to other LEDs, in the long run they cost less to operate.
As an example, a popular light bar choice is a 20″ Cree LED light bar that contains 40 3-WCree LEDs. This runs at 120 watts and produces 9600 effective lumens.
Flood, Spot or Combo – Which LED Light Bar Do I Need?
Unlike standard screw-in home bulbs, which throw light out in all directions, LED light bars concentrate their light in one direction.
The way the light beam is formed depends on each LED’s reflector and the shape of the lens. Modern light bars use computer-aided designs to achieve specific lighting patterns.
The lighting pattern trade-off for light bars is between distance and beam width. For the same luminosity, more distance requires less beam width and vice versa. When a design favors a wider beam width, you have a flood light. More distance is achieved by narrowing the light beam into a spot pattern.
A flood LED light bar typically has between 40 and 120 degrees of beam width. Spots are around 10 to 30 degrees. Keep in mind that flood and spot degrees vary between different models of led light bars.
So which one is best? It depends on the application. Both are useful and a common choice is to buy one of each or purchase a combo bar that has spot and flood functions combined.
A combo works by assigning the jobs of the spot and the flood light to different sections of the light bar. It can do this by dividing flood and spot reflectors along the bar’s length or by splitting the functions between rows. The best LED light bar of one manufacturer allows you to custom design your flood to spot ratio with swappable reflectors.
Factors to Consider When Evaluating the Best LED Light Bar
Light Bar Length
Enclosed LED light bars typically come in the following lengths: 4 inch led light pod, 6 inch led light bar, 10 inch led light bar, 20 inch led light bar, 24 inch led light bar, 30 inch led light bar, 36 inch led light bar, 40 inch led light bar, 50 inch led light bar.
Light bars can be round, rectangular or square. Round ones are able to fit more LEDs in a smaller area and may complement your vehicle’s design better than square lights.
As discussed previously, the beam angle dictates the width and depth of the area of illumination. For driving, deeper penetration is usually better and to light up work sites a wide angle works well.
For LED light bars, brightness is expressed in lumens. Measuring lamps in watts became obsolete when different lighting technologies came to market. The lumen indicates how much human visible light a device outputs. However, some light bar makers list their lights in raw lumens, which is the theoretical maximum, instead of effective lumens, which is a true measure of light output. A rule of thumb is to convert raw lumens to effective lumens by multiplying the former by 0.8.
Lumens per watt, or lm/W, measures the efficiency of a single LED or an entire LED light bar. This is a good, though not perfect, indicator as to the quality of the LEDs in the light bar. Higher efficiency LEDs have a longer life and resist fading. Manufacturers can fudge this number by measuring lumens at a voltage lower than the normal 13.8 VDC found in most vehicles.
LED Color Temperature
Correlated Color Temperature, or CCT, specifies where a lamp’s output falls in the visible light spectrum. The unit of measurement is on the Kelvin temperature scale. Thus, a particular lamp’s temperature is a number followed by a K, such as 5000K.
Cooler light temperatures are at the red end of the spectrum but are perceived by humans as “warm,” whereas higher temperatures are seen as “cool.” LEDs can produce light all over this scale, from about 1000K to 9000K, but only a small range is useful for an LED light bar.
Since the sun on a clear day produces light in the range of 5000K to 5400K, that range is excellent for night driving because human eyes evolved to work well in that range. Above that, around 6000K, the light may appear brighter, but your eyes work harder to recognize terrain, which induces eye fatigue. However, LEDs running at higher CCT are more energy efficient than at lower color temperatures.
Color temperatures in the yellow part of the spectrum are ideal for fog lights because of significantly reduced backscatter from the water droplets. Other temperatures that produce blue, amber, red or green are important for LED lights being used for alert signals.
Water and Dust Resistance
Manufacturers have adopted an IEC standard known as the IP Code, where IP stands for Ingress Protection. Good LED light bars carry an IP rating to indicate resistance to dust and water entering the light.
All you need to be concerned with regarding IP ratings are two numbers. The first, on a scale of 0 to 6, indicates the light bar’s resistance to dust penetration and the second number indicates resistance to water intrusion on a scale of 0 to 8, plus a special 9K rating. You see these numbers preceded by “IP.” For example, a light bar may have a rating of IP67, meaning it is completely sealed against dust and can stand immersion in one meter of water for 30 minutes.
These are typical IP ratings found on LED light bars:
- IP65 – dust tight and protected against water projected from a nozzle
- IP66 – dust tight and protected against heavy seas or powerful jets of water
- IP67 – dust tight and protected against immersion
- IP68 – dust tight and protected against continuous submersion in water
- IP69K – dust tight and protected against high temperature, close-range, high pressure spray
Two types of waterproof connectors are used on quality LED light bars, which are referred to as ATP or DT connectors. Both types are made from thermoplastic and have IP ratings of IP67 or above. They operate within a wide temperature range and use corrosion resistant contacts and silicone seals. They accommodate several wire sizes.
Light Bar Operating Voltage
Most, not all, LED light bars are made to run within the 13.8 DC voltage supplied by most cars or trucks without modification to the light bar or your vehicle’s electrical system.
For instance, it is common to see “9–30 VDC” or “10-70 VDC” as the bar’s input voltage range. These mean that you can operate the LEDs in a 12V, 24V or 48V system as long as that voltage falls within the specified range for the light bar.
Do not get the idea that if you apply more voltage that the LEDs should give off more light. The amount of light an LED gives off is determined by current, not voltage. The current at each LED is maintained within a narrow range by a device known as an LED Driver.
Without an LED driver, your light bar’s color temperature and brightness would vary considerably. Sometimes, you see in LED light bar reviews owners who apply higher voltage to brighten their lights. Unfortunately, this is an indication that cheap LED drivers were used and this will shorten light bar lifespan.
The most sophisticated LED light bars have LED drivers that use Pulse Width Modulation to control LED current. There are also available external PWM units that effectively do the same thing for LED light bars without built-in PWM.
A PWM adjusts the energy frequency applied to the LED. It turns the LED off and on at a high, controlled rate within milliseconds. The rate is well above what the human eye can detect, so there is no flickering effect. This technology offers several benefits:
- LEDs do not overheat even at 100 percent capacity.
- LED lifespan is increased.
- With an external control, you can dim or strobe the light bar.
- Amperage draw is reduced overall
- It adds protection against voltage spikes from vehicle electrical systems.
There are additional features you should keep in mind when evaluating LED light bar products:
- Warranty – Warranty length and terms help you gauge the confidence a manufacturer has in their product.
- LED Arrangement – LEDs may be arranged with a single, double or quad row pattern. Multi-row bars often have both spot and flood function.
- Wiring Harness – The best LED light bar comes with a wiring harness that includes cables, fuse holder, one or more switches and a relay.
- Multiple Circuits – Some light bars separately switch banks of LEDs for spot or flood. They may include amber, red or blue LEDs on a separate circuit.
- Color Lenses – Snap-on colored lenses change the light bar’s color.
- Multi-position Brackets – Some light bars come with optional brackets or a system of brackets that clamp to channels on the light bar housing.
How to Distinguish a Quality LED Light Bar from Cheap Ones
With so many manufacturers of LED light bars, evaluating your options can be confusing. Hopefully, through reading this guide, you will come to understand the various electronic, mechanical and operating features common to most light bars. The next question is how to determine which LED light bars will give you the best service over their lifetime.
The following characteristics may be difficult to discern if you cannot physically handle a light bar, but often LED light bar reviews from owners can help determine them:
- The number one enemy of LEDs is heat. A quality light bar will have oversize heat sinks and tight current control.
- If possible, check the operation of a light bar you are considering under different voltage inputs. If the LEDs brighten noticeably as voltage rises, this is a sign of poor LED drivers.
- Look closely at mounting points and brackets. The best LED light bar has sturdy, corrosion-proof mounting hardware and provide options for mounting the bar in different locations.
- Check the IP rating. At a minimum, it must be IP65. IP69K is the highest rating, but few light bars achieve that. Make sure the electrical connectors are IP-rated.
- A wide product line from 3″ light pods up to 50″ bars and plenty of accessories are signs of a quality light bar manufacturer.
- Most importantly, check the warranty. Top LED light bar makers back their products with lifetime or near-lifetime guarantees. Be sure to check the fine print for exclusions.
Tips on Choosing the Best LED Light Bar
Obviously, LED light bars are not created equally. Their differences include available options, brightness, light color, beam width, heat management and mounting technology, just to name a few. To reduce potential confusion, start with determining your specific light bar needs.
How Much Light Do You Need?
Most 20″ LED light bars provide more than enough light for good or inclement weather when driving on paved roads. Consider starting with a couple of low-mounted 4″ or 6″ flood light bars, which will dramatically increase road visibility. If you do a lot of off-road night driving, then larger light bars, up to 50 inches, are useful.
On most cars, your mounting options are somewhat limited, so low-profile light bars make sense especially for grill mounting. Trucks can mount light bars on the roof, rack, hood or grill, so size and profile are less important.
It is true that you could buy 2 or more less expensive light bars for the price of a quality one. However, do you really want to risk light bar failure when you need it the most? Reliability and performance come at a cost.
That said, you can make a rough assessment of a manufacturer’s or distributor’s product quality by looking at three things:
- Length of warranty and warranty terms
- The breadth of their product line including accessories
- Reviews from people who actually use their products