Instant Expert: How To Replace Your Headlights

Mental Flosscar headlights in darkThere are certain things in life that are best left to the professionals: dyeing your hair blonde, performing open heart surgery—you get the idea. But basic car maintenance isn’t one of them. Each month, mental_floss and GEICO will team up to walk you through an essential auto-related task, helping you become that much more accomplished (and not to mention, more financially responsible) in the process. October’s lesson? Changing your headlight bulbs.

The Task: Replacing your dim or burnt-out headlight bulbs.

How Much a Pro Would Charge: $80-$130

You’ll Need:

  • Your Owner’s Manual
  • Bulbs That Are Compatible with Your Make & Model
  • Disposable Gloves or a Clean Paper Towel

STEP 1: RESIST THE URGE TO PROCRASTINATE

Subpar headlights are extremely dangerous at night or in bad weather. Every year, ineffective bulbs are responsible for countless fatal accidents. Once yours go out or start to fade, get them replaced as soon as possible. Putting off the job can be a deadly mistake—and an expensive one to boot. After all, driving at certain hours without functioning headlights is a ticket-worthy offense. So do yourself a favor and grab some new bulbs immediately. You’ll be safer, and your bank account will thank you.

Note: The above only applies to automobiles with halogen lightbulbs. Some cars use HID or LED bulbs, which appear brighter with a white or blue-ish tone to them. These are designed to last for long periods of time—often more than 20 years. If you experience issues with your HID or LED headlights, head to your local mechanic—that’s likely an issue better left to the pros.

STEP 2: VISIT THE NEAREST AUTO PARTS STORE (AND BRING YOUR OWNER’S MANUAL)

At most of these shops, you will find a bulb directory. This wonderful reference book will tell you which bulbs are compatible with which vehicles. Look up your make and model, and then peruse the store’s offerings to find a bulb that’s right for you. Also, don’t hesitate to ask the staff for some assistance here. On a related note, it’s a good idea to take your owner’s manual with you because it will give you more information about the type of bulbs that should be purchased. We would strongly recommend replacing both bulbs at the same time, even if one of yours is still working. Headlights dim over time, and you’ll want your vehicle’s to have the same level of intensity. A mismatched set can be distracting for your fellow drivers, especially on dark roads.

STEP 3: POP THE HOOD

Before installing the new bulb, you’ll need to take a close look at your vehicle’s headlight apparatus. Make sure that the car is switched off, then open the hood and locate the back of each headlight. If you can’t find it, consult the diagrams in your owner’s manual.

STEP 4: FIGURE OUT HOW THE BULB CONNECTOR IS BEING KEPT IN PLACE

Behind each headlight, you’ll find a plug with three wires. This is called “the bulb connector,” and carmakers have three main ways to keep it in place. Your mission is to identify the setup that’s under your hood. Many automobiles employ what’s known as a “plastic catch” mechanism, which incorporates a small metal or plastic tab that sits on the connector or plug at the base of the bulb, where it plugs into the wiring harness. Then, there’s the “metal clip” setup. Here, a spring-loaded, paperclip-like device steadies the bulb holder. Last but not least is the screw cap design. With this one, the bulb holder sits behind a round, plastic or rubber cap that looks—and functions—a bit like the lid of a coffee mug.

STEP 5A: IF YOUR HEADLIGHT HAS A PLASTIC CATCH, PRESS THE LEVER

Okay, so you’ve determined that you are, in fact, dealing with a plastic catch mechanism. In this case, it’s often easier to remove the bulbs from where they’re stationed first. Twist gently until the bulb comes loose. Next, push down on the lever with your thumb while slowly pulling the plug straight out, then unplug the bulb from the wire harness

STEP 5B: IF YOUR HEADLIGHT HAS A METAL CLIP, LIFT IT UP AND PULL IT OUT

With this setup, a spring-loaded clip generally holds the bulb securely in place. Hold the clip tightly, then pull it towards you. In some newer models, this clip will merely loosen up, allowing you to fiddle with the plug. However, in many older cars, the clips are designed to be completely removed. If your vehicle sports the latter design, be sure to find a good temporary storage spot for the clip.

STEP 5C: IF YOUR HEADLIGHT HAS A SCREW CAP, JUST UNSCREW IT

With the screw cap design, the bulb connector is plugged directly into a circular, plastic surface. This, friends, is your cap. Unplug the connector, then twist the entire cap counter-clockwise until it comes off.

STEP 6: TAKE OUT THE OLD BULB

The connector is designed to plug into the base of your old lightbulb. If you haven’t already done so, go ahead and unplug it. Afterwards, grasp the original bulb by the plastic base and try to slowly pull it straight out. During the removal process, you may have to twist the base around slightly.

STEP 7: GRAB SOME PAPER TOWELS OR DISPOSABLE GLOVES AND THEN PICK UP THE REPLACEMENT BULB

So you’ve evicted the old bulb. Great job! Before you lay a finger on the new one, it’s a good idea to put on some disposable rubber gloves or find a clean paper towel. Here’s why: Modern bulbs operate at a very high temperature. Our human hands are constantly secreting natural oils. If these get smudged onto the glass of your unused bulb, they’ll actually start to cook once the lighting fixture is turned on. That chemical reaction creates heat stress that, in turn, may cause the bulb to short out prematurely. Don’t let this happen to you. Carefully grasp the bulb with gloves or a paper towel. If you accidentally touch the bulb, don’t stress: simply use some rubbing alcohol to clean it off.

STEP 8: CAREFULLY INSERT THE REPLACEMENT BULB

Grab the new bulb by the base and slot it into the socket that previously held the old bulb. Next, you’ll want to plug it into the connector. Once you’ve done this, do the inverse of step five. In other words, if you’ve got a plastic catch mechanism, make sure that the lever is returned to its original position. If you’re dealing with a metal clip setup, just put the clip right back where you found it. And if you’ve got a screw cap apparatus, twist the cap back in (make sure that the connector’s plugged in as well).

STEP 9: BRIGHTEN YOUR DAY

Time to admire your handiwork. Test out the replacement bulb by revving up the engine and flipping on the headlights. If it doesn’t seem to be working, turn off the vehicle and make sure that the connector is firmly plugged in. Happy (illuminated) trails!

Need more help with basic auto maintenance? Check out the rest of the Instant Expert series!

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