Winter project: LED lighting

Like we’ve said before, the Canadian riding off-season is an ideal time to catch up on some overdue maintenance and tackle those get-around-to-it projects in the shop. At least, as long as your shop is heated — the polar vortex is definitely taking the fun out of mid-winter maintenance these days.

This winter, I decided to finish a project I started last year, then put on hold during 2018’s riding season: switching my Suzuki DR650’s lighting over to LED bulbs.

Why switch to LED bulbs?

Motorcycles used incandescent light bulbs for years, so why bother switching to LEDs, if your bike doesn’t come with them from the factory (as many newer models do)?

In theory, LEDs last longer than incandescent bulbs, but most people care more about the power saving. An LED uses far less wattage to produce the same amount of lumens as an incandescent bulb. If your bike’s charging system output is fairly modest, then converting your incandescent lights to LED means you now have more wattage freed up for other gadgetry, like heated gear or navigation equipment.

As I like to ride in early spring and late fall, I want all the heated gear I can run, so I’ve been keen on switching over to LEDs for some time. Here’s how it went:

Want to replace an 1157 bulb in your taillight? You can get LED bulbs for the job in several different configurations.

Tail light

I’ve actually run an LED tail light for a while now, on different bikes, because it’s usually the easiest light to switch over. If your bike uses an 1157 bulb in the tail light (that’s probably the most common size on older bikes), you can easily find LED bulbs online that are a direct drop-in fit. Just remove the taillight lens, pop out the old bulb and put in the new, and you’re good to go.

When I rebuilt my DR650, I used new tail bodywork from Seat Concepts, and they sent an Edge 2 undertail LED replacement light kit. Installation was simple; I’d already removed the bulky old taillight assembly and left the wires intact, so when I installed the new bodywork, I just bolted this light kit on, spliced the wiring together after figuring out which wire was which, and everything worked perfectly.

Both my 350 and 650 regularly lose signal lights while woods riding, so I replaced the bulky, brittle stock units, which use antiquated incandescent bulbs, with these streamlined, flexible LEDs.

Signal lights

Installing LED signal lights can tend to be more tricky, depending how your motorcycle’s electrical system is designed. I’ve replaced the signals on both my DR350 and DR650 with small, flexible LED flashers that are less likely to be broken off while riding in the woods. However, it wasn’t as simple as the tail light.

It started off easy enough by removing the old rear turn signals and splicing the new LED signals into the wiring harness. I also had to replace the signal flashing unit with a replacement; on the 350, that was a direct plug-in replacement, but I had to splice a couple of wires when I did it on the 650. The replacement unit means the LEDs will blink at the proper rate. Using a stock flasher often buggers up the blink rate, as the resistance of the LED signals is much lower than incandescent bulbs.

Depending on which LED turn signals you buy, there may be other solutions to this problem, including in-line resistors on the turn signals, but I prefer the flasher replacement option.

The front turn signals were also a relatively simple splice job, but where things got a tad tricky on both bikes was the flasher light in the dash. This is optional. However, I hate the idea of riding along with my blinker indicating a turn I have no plans to make, and the dummy light in the dash helps you avoid that mistake. The Suzuki dash light indicator design won’t work properly with LED signals. So, I used a diode included with my signals kit to fool the dashlight into blinking.

The signals I chose have forward-facing LEDs, but also side-facing LEDs, improving visibility. This is a good thing, and doesn’t really come at any extra cost, financial or otherwise.

This is only  a few extra minutes of splicing and crimping (soldering, if you’re doing it properly), but you’ve got to disassemble the headlight mask to do so, which means it’s just a bit more tricky to get everything back where it belongs.

Depending on your motorcycle, you may not need to use an inline diode to fool the dummy light, but both of mine did. You may not even care if you lose that feature, but if you do, make sure you’ve got it figured out before you buy LED signals.

There are probably thousands of different LED kits for sale online, but when it’s time to buy, don’t just throw $5 at the first cool-looking pair from AliExpress. I purchased mine from an ADVrider forum member who makes these kits as a sideline, but companies like Rocky Mountain or FortNine sell them as well. Just make sure that whoever you buy them from will back up their product if there’s a problem.

Many aftermarket LED headlight bulbs, like the one I installed, have a built-in fan at the base for cooling. This could create problems down the road if you ride in dusty conditions.

Headlight

There are two ways to upgrade to an LED headlight: you can replace the bulb in the stock housing, or you can get an all-new housing designed from the get-go to use LEDs. I went with the first option, and put a generic LED in the stock housing.

Although I went the easy/cheap route with a simple bulb swap, a full JNS replacement headlight like the one pictured probably would have offered far more gains.

It was a simple process. I just disassembled the headlight mask, took out the old H4 bulb and plugged in the new LED. I did take care to use plenty of dielectric grease on the connectors, and even unplugged the other wires back there to do the same. It only takes a few extra seconds, and could save you trouble down the road, and it’s always a good practice to use the stuff when you’re working on your wiring harness.

The LED headlight bulb I used is an older design, with a fan built into the back of the bulb to provide cooling. If I was doing this again, I’d look for one that didn’t have the fan, as I suspect it will fill up with dust and eventually fail over time. However, it didn’t give me any problems last summer, and I did run it in some fairly dusty terrain.

Or, even better, I’d get a full drop-in replacement, like the JNS unit pictured above. It’s much more expensive, at $120 US, but also a much better headlight, according to everyone who’s tried it (I haven’t, myself).

Depending on your bike, you probably can find a full replacement LED light that should more or less fit into your stock headlight assembly, and it will probably put out more light than a simple bulb swap. You may be able to even find a kit from J.W. Speaker that converts your bike to a cornering headlight setup, which is a definite bonus.

The lightbar bolted into the mounting system for my bike’s headlight guard, but it’s a clumsy arrangement. I plan to alter this arrangement when it’s warmer out in the workshop.

Accessory lights

One of the advantages of converting incandescent bulbs to LEDs is that you can use the charging system’s excess output to power up more lighting. I added two accessory lights to my bike, a spot-focus LED lightbar up front, and an AdMore combination brake light/signal light in the rear.

Lightbar

The lightbar was a fairly easy install, once I’d collected everything I needed: a trip to Princess Auto for a soldering iron and some terminals, another trip to Home Hardware for a better soldering iron that would actually melt solder, another trip to Princess Auto for some other connectors … it was a lot of running around, but once I’d collected all the components I should have already had, it didn’t take long.

Because I knew the new headlight bulb had a much lower draw on the system than the original incandescent bulb, I simply tapped into the headlight’s high beam circuit to feed power to the lightbar. Running accessory lights and the incandescent bulb might have overloaded the surprisingly light headlight wiring, but the LEDs together don’t use as much power as the original bulb, so I reckon I’m OK.

The only real issue I had was a set of Posi-Tap connectors that Just. Didn’t. Work. No matter how I tried, they just wouldn’t carry current from the existing headlight harness to the accessory leads. Defective Posi-Taps? Incorrect installation? I’m not sure, but, I ended up stripping the wires and soldering everything together instead.

Turning my high beam on now activates my forward accessory LEDs; turning the low beam on turns the LEDs off. I’ll probably also wire an inline on/off switch on the lightbar, to placate any angry traffic officers who take offence to my non-DOT lighting system.

I simply bolted the new lightbar into my bike’s steel headlight guard, but I think this is a poor long-term solution. I plan to weld a light piece of angle iron to the bottom of the guard to serve as both an accessory light mount, and a mounting spot for an aftermarket horn.

AdMore brake light

The made-in-Canada AdMore brake light is a brilliant piece of kit, and maybe worthy of its own review down the road.

Essentially, it’s an LED lightbar that serves as a combined brake/turn signal light. It’s not DOT-approved, so it’s designed to augment your bike’s factory lighting, not replace it. The more expensive version of this lightbar also has an accelerometer which activates the brake light when you decelerate—you don’t have to touch the brake lever or pedal to activate it.

The AdMore lightbar would be better-suited to a full-sized touring or adventure bike, but I’ll keep it on the 650 for now.

Installation was fairly easy. Tap into your bike’s existing wires to the rear signals and taillight, bolt the mounting bracket to your rear fender (it can serve as a licence plate mount), and you’re set. Now, you’ve got a progressive turn signal and extra brake light warning following motorists of your intention. If you want to monkey with the light’s settings (brake sensitivity, flash time, etc.), you can use a USB cable (included) to connect the lightbar to your computer and adjust parameters.

As a general rule, I’m not super-keen to bolt extra parts onto a motorcycle. My switch from incandescent signals to LEDs shows I’m not averse to streamlining my bike’s safety equipment for practical reasons. However, the AdMore lightbar is lightweight, draws little power, and offers a massive increase in visibility from the rear. For those reasons, I’m happy to bolt it to my DR650. It’s true it looks a little wide for the bike’s trim tailsection (AdMore, are you seeing this? You need a smaller version of this light). However, I think its functionality outweighs any minor aesthetic concerns, and unless it rips off in woods riding, I think I’m going to keep it on the machine.

Summary

For the most part, it’s simple work to add LED lights to your bike, as long as you’ve got the tools beforehand. While you could probably do most of the work with just some electrical tape and a utility knife, it’s best to have a set of a wire stripper/crimper tool, a high-output soldering iron, some heat-shrink tubing, some dielectric grease, some terminals and connectors, some spare wire, and maybe even no-solder inline wire taps like Posi-Taps on hand before you start the job. It’s much easier to get everything finished quickly if you don’t have to make multiple trips to the automotive store to pick up pieces or tools.

Otherwise, pay attention, use your brain, and you can figure it out as you go along. You’ll be thankful you did, when you see that giant roadside moose before he jumps out in front of you …

 

7 thoughts on “Winter project: LED lighting”

  1. Great write up Zac!

    I see you ordered a kit from an advrider member and am uncertain what that persons source is but I ordered a set of led signal lights that were visually identical to the one you have on amazon… One didn’t work right out of the box, no big deal as I ordered a set of 4 but was only planning on switching over the rear ones for the time being. Mid way through the season I had to order a second set to replace the failing first set. Second set similar results… What is the definition of insanity again?!

    I ended up replacing them with these guys:

    https://www.amazon.ca/Universal-Motorcycle-Indicator-Blinker-Bendable/dp/B01LXFF31Q

    Did the switch last winter, so far the first pair have lasted me the season.

    Again though, I don’t know the source! Only making the connection based on appearance… Perhaps these are better quality. Food for thought though…. particularity for anyone who decides to order up “the same thing for less” on amazon or ebay…

    1. No idea where he sourced his bits from, probably aliexpress. So far, everyone I have seen is happy with them. I may change my mind down the road. But in any case, it boggles my mind these aren’t standard on every single bike now.

  2. Great article. I’m thinking of making the switch on my KLR next fall. And I also plan on making multiple trips to the store because forsight is overated.

  3. In simply replacing the stock H4 bulb did you notice any better road illumination or was it simply brighter ? I’ve been thinking of doing this modification but wasn’t sure if the stock reflector would allow any major improvement ?

    1. I replaced the bulb on my DRZ with a Cyclops led bulb from Procycle and it is brighter but on low beam but the pattern is not uniform so I don’t think it is any better. On high beam it is brighter and has a decent pattern so it’s an improvement. If I was doing it again I would get the JNS headlight replacement. With the tail light replacement as well I have enough extra watts to power my heated liner.

  4. I installed the speed sensitive Admore light bar at the beginning of last season with positive results.

    Perhaps the most important improvement is this thing is waaaaay brighter than the stock rear lights, which helps day and night, as I’ve been told after being followed by my girlfriend at night that in stock form, me and the bike are not very visible from behind.

    I have one main riding partner who is usually following me. He found when I rolled off the throttle without braking he was getting uncomfortably close to me due to the pronounced engine braking of my L-twin. That problem is now eliminated.

    I’ve also found that in tight, or stop and go traffic on 400 series highways I get more space behind me.

    The sensitivity of the accelerometer can be adjusted to suit each bike or individuals needs.

    Definitely one of the better additions I’ve made to this bike.

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