Choosing the Right Light: Advantages and Disadvantages of LEDs, Strobes and Halogen Bulbs

By Leslie Emmel, Technical Support, AW Direct
Given all the available warning light choices, how do you decide which one is right for you? The various
styles include, but are not limited to, body warning lights, beacons, mini-lightbars and full-size lightbars. Then there are the various lighting technologies, including LED, strobe or halogen bulb. Each kind of light and light technology has its own advantages and disadvantages. The first thing to be considered, however, is the SAE rating.

SAE stands for Society of Automotive Engineers. There are two class ratings that outline the minimum
warning device for particular vehicles when they are on the roadway/highway. Class 1 is the minimum
primary warning device for authorized emergency vehicles (police and fire vehicles). However, a growing
number of states require class 1 lights on tow trucks as well, so be sure to check your state’s regulations.

In many cases, Class 2 is the minimum primary warning device for authorized maintenance and service
vehicles such as tow trucks. After making sure that the lights you are considering comply with the SAE
standards, you then have to choose between LED, strobe and halogen bulb lighting options. In order to
help you make an informed decision, let’s compare the various technologies.

LED lights by definition are light emitting diodes, and they are the newest in lighting technology. They
have a higher initial cost, but are the most durable and dependable and usually come with longer
manufacturer warranties. LEDs generate heat and draw the least amount of power from the vehicle’s
electrical system. They are exceptionally bright and can be seen from greater distances than strobe and
regular bulb lights. Also, their brightness is not affected by age – they do not “burn-down” as they age
like halogen bulbs and strobes do. Over time you will realize the cost savings from not having to replace
strobe tubes, power supplies and bulbs. Another benefit is the increased number of flash patterns that
are available with most LEDs

Strobe lights are “tube-style” lighting and have been around a long time. They are very bright by nature and require a power supply to operate. Strobes are less expensive than LEDs, though costs tend to add up when replacing the tubes and power supplies. Strobe tubes only have about a six-month lifespan while power supplies typically last two years. Strobe tubes generate more heat than LEDs and are
usually limited in the number of available flash patterns and/or flashes per minute depending on the
power supply. Strobes also draw more power from the vehicle than LEDs, but less than halogen bulbs.
As they age, their brightness decreases or “burns-down”. Considering all of this, strobe tube technology
is gradually being phased out by most manufacturers in all styles.

Halogen bulb lights are the oldest style of the various lighting technologies and were, at one time, the only choice available. Halogen bulb lights are also the most affordable and have long been thought of as an industry staple. Halogen bulb lights use rotator motors and a mirror to output their light (thus their being commonly referred to as “rotators”). Halogen bulb lights also generate more heat than LEDs. While an increase in heat generation indicates that they are less energy efficient than LEDs, more heat can also be an advantage for certain climates. Towers in northern states like the heat as it helps melt off the snow and ice. Halogen bulb lights are susceptible to vibration damage due to the construction of the bulbs, rotator motors and gears. Though the replacement parts costs are normally less expensive than
that of the strobes, they can add up. Halogen bulb lights also require the biggest power draw on a
vehicle’s electrical system compared to LEDs and strobes. Another drawback to this technology is that as
bulbs age, their brightness “burns-down” like strobes.

So, with all of this considered, the lighting technology and style that are best for you is very much an
individual choice. It will depend on your budget, amount of use and just plain old personal preference.
However, LEDs seem to be the best choice for dependability, longevity and aesthetics. Whatever lighting
style you choose, safety and visibility are the most important factors. Remember to check your lighting
before each call, or at least daily, and activate lighting well before pulling over, not afterwards, to alert other motorists of your intentions. Pull as far over to the right as possible and do not turn your back to traffic if you can avoid it. Stay safe out there.

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