Your cheap eBay special LED Light bar sucks, and here is why.
There are several major factors that drive the cost of the ‘premium’ light bars:
-Drivers and Thermal Management
I am going to focus on all of these, because they’re all important. Whys that? Because you should be looking at your LED purchases as investments, their used for sale prices on the premium brands are not far off of what they were when they were brand new. Beyond that, why would anyone want to spend their hard earned money for something that earns the recognition of, “that’ll do”.
Most LED bars are pretty well nearly identical on how they look. The bodies are made from extruded aluminum pieces, with stainless hardware, polycarbonate lenses and large heat-syncs on the backside. What you don’t see from the surface though, is how they are sealed and what level of isolation the circuitry on the inside. These may be solid-state devices, but the circuit boards must be properly isolated to ensure a long life. Keeping these circuit boards cool, dry, dust free and rigid are paramount to extending the life of the light. To keep these lights well sealed, various grades of rubber gaskets and sealing compounds are used to keep your lights locked up tight, and in turn these lights earn various IP Ratings. Lets break that down:
The IP Code, IEC Standard 60529 classifies the rates and degree of protection provided against intrusion of contaminates by mechanical casings and electrical enclosures. The standard was created to provide consumers with more information than vague marking terms such as waterproof or water-resistant. The digits the follow the IP code indicate what level of ‘proof’ the product is rated to by the IEC Standards. Where there is no information available on the level of protection provided, a X is used. When there is no protection at all, a 0 is used. The scale for dust and particle contamination is 0-6, while the scale for water contamination is scaled 0-8. So a product with that is fully dust and waterproof would carry the code IP68, while one that offered lesser protections would have lower numbers. It is also important to note that IP codes that have no hyphens in them, so a code that would hypothetically read something like, IPX-8 is a fake code. East Asian suppliers looking to trick consumers normally use fake codes.
These IP ratings are imperative to maintaining the life of the circuitry, which is the life force behind these lights. Anyone who has ever dropped their cell phone in water can attest to the speed that water will kill electronics.
Drivers and Thermal Management:
It is relatively common knowledge that heat is what produces light, however LED’s are tricky: while they produce nearly no forward heat from the face of the diode, the backside where the circuitry rests produces enormous levels of heat. Pure and simple, heat kills electronics – LED’s are no exception. The huge heat-syncs on the rear of these lights are a good start to dissipating the heat incurred by operating them – but there is more to it than that. Here is where the drivers come into play. The driver is the computer behind these lights, it keeps them alive and running. It regulates the voltage, the intensity – everything that makes that light run comes back to the driver. However, the driver and the thermal management are hand in hand – when the heat-syncs cant keep up with the heat being created they will reduce the output. Less output = less heat. The drivers are so advanced that they will flash the diode on and off, faster than your eye can see. The benefit of this is that the light isn’t on for fractions of a second, effectively reducing its heat creation while minimizing the output lost. While this will create a slightly dimmer light source, you’re ensuring the 50,000 hour, always ready, tough as nails diode lifetime the manufacturer promised you. Cheap manufactures don’t even have drivers, they just use a voltage regulator and call it good, all the while the premium brands go even further and use thermal transfer paste and copper heat transferors to guarantee that every ounce of heat that is created is transferred to those huge aluminum heat-syncs. YEAH! SCIENCE!
This is a pretty simple one. Most of your quality manufacturers will be using high level name brand diodes like Cree or Phillips or whatever – the point is – if it looks shitty, it probably is. Your lowest output LED bars will use 3watt didoes, while your big nut swingers will be using 10-15watt diodes.
Now for the big game changer: Optics
Optics are huge; insurmountably huge. Optics are where your lights matter, because this is where the light emitted from those sweet 10 watt Cree made in ‘Merica computer processor driven white hot bad boys are going before its thrown out into the darkness in front of you. Many of your cheap lights are going to just set an angle that works with the diode to throw the light into a place that falls in the category of spot or flood or whatever – they probably don’t speak engrish anyway. What you really want, is to buy from a company that put R&D time into the development of reflectors and projectors that do everything they can to maximize the efficiency of the diode. Whats a big 10watt LED worth if it has a crappy reflector and only gets 60% of the light downrange? Companies like Rigid, Wurton, KC HiLItes, Hella, ARB, VisionX and Baja Designs drop a ton of time and money into the development of these reflectors and projectors. Take Hella for example, on their flagship Rallye light, the diodes are reversed and pointed backwards towards the reflector in a weird, flux capacitor style in an attempt to get as much usable light emitted from the diodes. Great Scott!
These optics are arguably the most expensive part of the light, its what has taken the most engineering time and costs a significant amount. Cheap versions all use generic chrome plated plastic reflectors, while these are in most cases aluminum stampings that have hardened phosphate mirror polished reflectors. Its not all about Lumens if that light isn’t getting to the place its supposed to be. Take a look at this video to see how much that piece of crap you were eyeing on eBay sucks compared to the real deal:
In closing, its easy to say to yourself “I wont use it that much, so whats it matter?” That’s up for you to decide, but knowing that its going to work exactly how its supposed to every time goes a long way in my book. And hey, maybe that expensive light bar will save you money down the road when your cheap one shits the bed and you have to buy another. So, pony up buttercup.