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Ask a Mechanic: Headlight Replacement

Don't wait until the bulb burns out to think about the condition of your headlights.

Headlight replacement
The importance of headlights cannot be understated. Dim or poor functioning headlights can obscure a driver’s vision at night and during hazardous weather conditions. Research from AAA reveals that clouded or yellowed headlights generate only 20% of the amount of light that new headlights. Therefore, it is critical to know how to keep headlights in the best working condition and when to start thinking about headlight replacement.

To get some insight, we asked Joel Sirois, Mechanical Service Manager at AAA Approved Auto Repair shop Zoel’s Body & Auto Center in Meriden, Conn., for tips on when to replace headlights.

Do car headlights dim over time?

Let me start by reminding drivers that headlights and headlight bulbs are two different animals.

Headlamp bulbs do not tend to dim. However headlamp assemblies, or headlamp lenses, can cause the light to dim. This is a result of oxidation from ultra violet rays of the sun.

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How long do headlights last on average?

Headlight bulbs should last five years or so but road and climate conditions will often cause the filament to prematurely break.

What can you do to improve headlight brightness?

Customers cannot really do anything to make the bulbs brighter but regular washing of the lenses helps. If lenses fog or yellow, reconditioning or headlight replacement is necessary.

headlight restoration

How do you know when to replace headlights? Do you need to replace both headlights at once?

Replace headlamp bulbs when they no longer work. Changing the pair is recommended but not necessary. Some bulbs can be expensive and/or expensive to get to.

What auto maintenance questions do you have for our AAR mechanics? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll get them answered for you?

Looking for a shop to bring your car in for maintenance or repair? AAA has an Approved Auto Repair network of more than 7,000 facilities across the country. Click here to find the one closest to you.

    • Andrew S.

      Hi Teresa, here’s an answer from our car expert John Paul: A conventional bulb is $15.95 and about 30 minutes to install it. Depending on labor rates it could total $100.

    • Andrew S.

      Hi Richard, here’s an answer from our car expert John Paul: If the headlights are HID style then each is about $175 and if they are conventional bulbs $25 each. Now this is for factory parts. Add in about an hour labor for installation.

  • Kenneth B.

    New cars are coming with LED bulbs for headlights, how do they stack up to HID and do led’s last longer?

    • Andrew S.

      Hi Kenneth, here’s an answer from our car expert John Paul: As a general rule, the LED bulbs will last nearly forever, the electronics can sometimes be a problem. The LED factory bulbs/systems are fairly new as a factory installed product and so far they have been completely trouble free. Replacement LEDs can vary quite a bit from inexpensive to costly and their overall quality varies as well. If you are consider replacing standard bulbs with LEDs, look for bulbs that are DOT compliant.

  • Jean W.

    LED headlights have made it difficult to drive at night. Oncoming traffic with those headlights is blinding.

  • Harold R.

    I have a 2008 CRV are the bulbs a separate part from the lenses or are they all one piece? The lenses are pretty well clouded up. Can I do anything about the lenses?
    Thank you!

    • Andrew S.

      Hi, here’s an answer from our Car Doctor John Paul: Depending on the conditions of the lenses they may be able to be polished—which typically costs between $60-$100 or so. There are DIY kits that work quite well. The other option is replacing the lens assembly completely. The factory parts are quite expensive but there are aftermarket replacement which are more affordable, about $100 online per side plus bulbs.

      Thanks for reaching out!

  • Jennifer M.

    My daughter owns an older Subaru Impreza. We just reconditioned the plastic housing for the headlights which seems to make a difference but I noted when shining on the garage one headlight seems to not have the light focused correctly. Is this easy to fix or is it something an auto shop should do?

    • Andrew S.

      Hi, thanks for reading! Here’s an answer from our Car Doctor John Paul:
      It may be the bulb is not positioned properly in the socket. The first thing I would do is take out the bulb and see if it is mounted securely in the holder. I doubt the optics of the lens are bad, but it could also be a bulb that is nearing the end of its life.

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