Commuting at Night — My Choice for Lighting

With Fall here, I’m noticing that when I get going in the morning on my ride in to work, it’s slowly getting darker and darker.  Same for the ride home.  It means that in the near future, I will probably be riding at night and need some kind of lighting system for my bike.

Where to start?  So many choices!!!

Rather than try to go through all the options available, I figured I’d just tell you what I am choosing to use and the reasons.

First, a major choice of battery vs. dynamo. Batteries = cheaper in the short run, but sooner or later will have to dispose, and of course you always have to remember to charge the batteries or else your lights could go dead in the middle of a night ride.   Dynamo — more specifically a hub dynamo  (instead of the older sidewall dynamos) is more costly, but it’s always available.  No charging needed, no battery disposal, no worry about removing batteries if leaving bike unattended.  The newer hub dynamos do not extract as heavy a load on the rider as the older (sidewall) units do — some say the load is hardly noticeable.   So … to be environmentally friendly and not having to remember to plug in every night, I’m going with a hub dynamo  — a Shimano DH-3N70 for those who are interested.

Second, headlight choices. What I am talking about here is “seeing the road” lights, not simply “be seen” lights.   There are many inexpensive choices for “be seen” lights, most of them some kind of blinking, battery-powered white LED.  I already have one of these.  They run forever on a single AA or AAA (rechargeable!) battery.  What I want is something to light my way down a dark road, and to be easily spotted by any traffic.

The “seeing the road” lights can be broken down into two main types — those using small halogen bulbs, and those using the newer LED bulbs.  Not so very long ago, there was no contest — the halogen bulbs/lights easily out-shown the LEDs — the LEDs just weren’t powerful enough.  However technology continues to rapidly advance LED electronics, and now the better LED lights can compete with halogen lights on brightness.  But, what makes the LED lights especially appealing in their longevity — LED bulbs can last many thousands of hours before expiring, while most halogen bulbs will need replacement after running 50-100 hours.  Add to the hassle of replacing the bulbs a cost of $5 or so per bub, and I decided to pay a bit more up front for the LED lights and never worry about bulbs dying in mid-ride and carrying spare bulbs just-in-case.  I chose a Busch&Muller IQ-Fly Seno Plus — it will automatically turn on when it gets dark, and it will carry a small charge so that even when I’m at a stop (and not powering the dynamo) it will have enough charge stored to keep the light on for a few minutes.

If you have a dynamo, no reason not to use it to power a taillight too.  I chose a DTOPLight XS Plus red LED taillight that will be set to glow solid red whenever it is turned on and will be fastened onto my bike’s rack system.  I will supplement the back light with a small blinking red LED light attached to another part on the back of the bike to give contrast to the solid red.

This lighting system — the hub dynamo, hi-powered front LED light and back LED light — is not cheap.  But as see it, I need to both see at night, and be seen.  And, I will always have lights, never have to worry about charging, and I’m being a bit more eco-friendly to boot.

How well does it work?  Well, I’ll report on that as soon as I get my bike work completed.  Give me a week or two, and I’ll come back with my impressions and thoughts on how well this system is working for me.

6 replies
  1. Dragon
    Dragon says:

    For the rear light I have one of these Good overkill at night as it is hard to miss. I got mine at Skycraft for a third the price these are but I think they are out now.

    There are also 48 and 60 Led lights in the so called UFO configuration that are harder to find but will light the way ahead nicely but are somewhat fragile (usually sold as tent lighting)

    Currently I have two 3 led pucks sold at grocery stores that are adequate. Fastening them (and the larger ones) on has been a challenge.

    If you have a dynamo that would provide the power in the proper voltage range it should not be difficult to connect it to the rechargeable batteries and thus get the best of battery and dynamo.

  2. Aleisha
    Aleisha says:

    Hey, I’m reporting that did a fine job getting me outfitted with LED bulbs to replace the energy wasters I had before. I’ll be a repeat customer.

  3. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    I asked for a new tail light for Christmas & also decided to upgrade my head light. In addition, I’d purchased a LED head light late last summer. Well, as it turned out, I got not one, not two, but THREE tail lights for gifts and I also purchased one on my own in early December. Since I regularly ride two bikes at night, I’ll be using all four tail lights. Here is the report:

    Head lights
    Replacing a Bell Halogen, which was OK, but with very short life using AA rechargebles, I bought a Cateye EL520 last summer. It’s OK, but not quite bright enough for my tastes. I also discovered that AA rechargeables will break the 520 (literally – I broke my first one and the clerk at the LBS almost broke its replacement when he tried to install the rechargeables I brought along). As a result alkalines are about the only choice for it, but it has long life so that’s not a big a deal as it might seem. I suggest you get the EL530 instead if you want a Cateye.

    The 530 is my new light and it’s FAR BETTER than the 520. Bright enough to see well, and a superior on/off switch. What’s more, it looks like it’ll work fine with rechargeables.

    I also got, along with the tail lights, a Cateye EL135 which, with its blinky mode & light weight, makes a good backup “be seen” light. It fits the same mounting as the 520 and 530 so I easily mix/match headlights to suit the situation. Don’t use the 135 if you need to see where the potholes are but it’ll get you seen.

    Tail Lights
    Replacing a Bell LED which developed a nasty habit of shutting off when crossing bumps, I now have a variety of lights.

    First, along with the EL135, I got a Cateye TL-LD130. It’s an OK light and it works well to clip to a seat bag. Nothing really special, however.

    Moving up, I also got a Blackburn Mars 2.0. It’s a nice light with amber LED side lights as well as various blinky patterns. However, it depends on screws for its mounting & battery changes, and the clip is too wide for using on a seat bag. Might work on a pack, but I plan to mount it to the back of my rack with the screw mount and relocate the reflector to the seat stay. The Mars is OK, but better (and cheaper) is yet to come.

    The final gift tail light was a Cateye TL-LD500-R. This light has simple solid/blink mode. The nice aspect to it is it also has a full CPSC reflector built in which adds protection if I were to forget to turn it on or the batteries failed during a ride. I’d say it represents the best of the Cateye tail lights.

    To round things out, I got a Planet Bike Superflash. This is an EXCELLENT addition to the tail light selection because the flash is extremely bright. I’d venture a guess it’s bright enough to add safety from behind when riding into the sunset, (which I’m not inclined to test on an experimental basis – see the post on the subject). It’s not only compact, but it offers a seat stay mount in addition to its clip (marginal for pack mounting) and seat post mount. Currently, my “Frankenbike” has the TL-LD500 mounted on the seat post with the Superflash mounted on the seat stay. I ride with the Cateye on steady, with the Superflash in flash mode. One unanticipated featurette of the Superflash is that you can see the reflection of its flash in an aluminum handlebar when its mounted on the seat stay. After the Bell experience, I like the idea that I can see my tail light is lit without gyrations.

    Claimed battery life:
    TL-LD130 150h
    TL-LD500 100h
    Superflash 50h (100 on flash)
    Mars 2.0 60h (200 on flash)
    EL135 320h (probably in blinky mode)
    EL520 120h (240 on low – no blink mode)
    EL530 10h (claimed headlight brightness with 90 h life)

    I can’t confirm any of these claims as I’m probably just getting to 10h on the 530. REI says you get 90 in low & 10 in high on the 530, but there’s only on or off so I expect to lose some light, at which time I’ll see just how much I give up and if I can get it back using rechargeables.

    Sorry about the long comment, but it’s not often that one gets such a wide variety of lights all at one time!

  4. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    Since I always enjoy a good darkness ride, but also like to create confusion and perhaps amusement, I keep an eye open for new ways to accomplish this.

    Electroluminescent tubing, ten feet long, 98 grams with batteries. Many colors, so you can go wild with decorating your bike for any festivity. I could also picture this being attached to a “Share the Road” safety vest to outline the human bean, along with some for each arm and leg, to create an illuminated stick figure.

    I have to put aside some serious budget to make the light show I want on our Screamer recumbent tandem, though. I want both motors (human beans) outlined along with the entire frame. Good thing that Sam’s sells lotsa batteries cheap. I’ll probably come up with something more sound, ecologically and economically, such as a dynamo for all the illumination.

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