Sunday, August 27, 2006

Seeing the Light

This is the first of hopefully many blog’s and ramblings I will be posting on the PAC Tour website. There will not be any planned schedule or agenda to these pages, but I may keep you posted of current events that are happening during a tour for example. It could also happen that some recent event may remind me of a past related story from 20 years ago that I decided to write about. Either way, I promise I won’t be writing just to fill up page space but I can’t guarantee everything I write will be that interesting or insightful.

Seeing the Light of Bicycle Lights
Susan and I were getting ready for Brevet Week next May. As we were writing the guidelines for the week we wanted to include something about bike lighting standards. I decided to order a selection of different battery lights and do a comparison test between them.

I ordered five small lights. These are all small enough to fit in your hand with batteries included. These are not lights with separate battery packs. I know there are some great lights with water bottle size battery packs that will last all night with a bright LED light. This light test was more to establish lighting minimum standards. Some of what I found out might apply to other high powered LED lights as well.

These are the lights I tested.

Cat-Eye HL-EL 400 OptiCube LED $29
runs for 80 hours on 3-AAA batteries

Cat-Eye HL-EL 300 Opticube LED $29
runs for 30 hours on 4-AA batteries

Cat-Eye HL-EL 510 LED $45
runs for 30 hours on 4-AA

Cat-Eye HL 500 Halogen $19
runs for 3 hours on 4-AA

ACE Hardware LED Flashlight $10
runs for 15 hours on 3-AAA

I did a simple test on a pitch black night in my driveway. I stood 100 feet from my garage door and places a 24 inch x 6 inch white sign with 4 inch red lettering on the garage door. At a height of three feet above the ground I shown each light at the door and tried to read the lettering on the sign.

The Cat-Eye 400 has the longest battery life, but the poorest illumination. The sign was barely visible at 100 feet except for a medium reflection from the sign and a 20 foot wide beam pattern.

The Cat-Eye 300 was next best. The entire garage door was lit about twice as bright at the Cat-Eye 400. The beam pattern was wider at about 30 feet.

The Cat-Eye 510 was third overall. This was the most expensive light and was about 25% brighter than the Cat-Eye 300. The beam pattern was the same as the Cat-Eye 300.

The next best was a surprise. The ACE Hardware six inch flash light was actually quite good. The beam pattern was more broad without the jack-o-latern streaks of the Cat-Eye lights. It would make a good bike light if there was a way to secure it to the handlebars.

Even more of a surprise was that the old fashioned Cat-Eye Halogen 500 tested so well. The beam pattern was bright at 100 feet and the somewhat yellow illumination was actually easier for me to read my little sign on the door.

I asked Susan to give her ranking of the lights from dimmest to brightest. I shined the lights in random order for Susan to evaluate. Her rankings were the same as mine with the Halogen light testing out as the most visible for illuminating 100 feet in the distance.

That got me thinking that a rating of usable light might be better system than candlepower ratings. I lined up all the lights side by side spaced two feet apart. True to the candlepower ratings the Cat-Eye LED 500 was the brightest. All the LED lights were almost blinding to look straight into at from 50 feet away. The old Halogen looked like it should be used for a romantic dinner in the back corner of a restaurant.

So why was the dimmest light the best for seeing? I had a similar situation during a 400 KM Brevet in 2003. I had two bright Cat-Eye 300 LED lights shining down the road but I had a hard time seeing the difference between the grass along the shoulder and the pavement. For the 600 KM I switched to two Halogen lights. On the same stretch of road I only needed one light to see fine. I used the same lights at Paris Brest Paris and they worked well. The only problem is that the 4-AA battery life is not that great and needed to be changed every three hours.

There might be a better scientific explanation as to the best lights for illuminating to road. I just know for me the Halogen wave length makes it easier for me to see the road than a more powerful LED light. Maybe you have had similar findings or prefer the LED light better. These are just some things to consider when choosing a light for night riding.



Blogger Galfromdownunder said...

Ah, the search for the perfect light goes on. I'm pretty pleased with the Light and Motion Vega, though as I pointed out in my review its beam is a little narrow and the design of the mount could be better. Also, the charging mechanism has developed some problems - I'll have to call them. What I want is a light which charges your batteries while pedaling, so you never have to worry about running out of juice on a dark stretch like I did the other night ...

7:15 PM  
Blogger UltraRob said...

I've used the Cateye Halogen for several years and a little over a year ago switched to the LED one although I think mine is model 500. The thing I really like about the LED model is not having to worry about the batteries. In my first 3 RAAM qualifiers I had to switch the light out every 3 hours. Last year at the ADK540 and this year at RAAM I could just ride all night and not think about my light.

Riding on brevets when I don't have a follow vehicle, I've noticed the LED doesn't seem as bright as the Halogen but I like the beam pattern better since it is wider and I can see where to go if I have to dodge a pothole. Maybe having one LED and one Halogen would give a wide pattern close and also good distance.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Tom Rosenbauer said...

I've been using the CatEye Halogens also. I have 2 different models: the 500 has 2 power settings and better optics: it seems to spread the light out more evenly compared to the older CatEye model. I usually use 3 of these: 2 on the handlebars and a third mounted with a velcro strap on my helmet. The one on my helmet is handy for lighting up street signs, my brevet cuesheet, and the path where I'm about to turn.

I've been very happy with this setup. Using lithium batteries and the low power setting, I can get 5-6 hours on the 500.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Cat Berge said...

I beleive that the weaker light was better for seeing, because then the eyes adapt better to the dark. If the eyes looks too much at the bright light, then there will be no dark adaption, and the rods will not get activated and adapted to the same extent, because the cones being used.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1987 the San Diego State Univerity Triathlon Club members rode San Francisco to San Diego in 3 days much of it at night as it was winter break. We all used "Halogen" flashlights about $6. Cheap and the big batteries D cells lasted all night long. We all had Aerobars so the flashlight nicely was ductaped in place.
Now I ride with a $600 Niterider Moab, things change.

5:24 PM  
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