How To Change A Light Bulb

By Chandra Orr

August 20, 2010 5 min read

How many drivers does it take to change a light bulb?

No, it's not the opening to a bad joke. For the mechanically challenged, swapping those burned-out bulbs can be intimidating, but it's a quick and simple project.

In fact, changing a headlight ranks in the top five easiest do-it-yourself car repairs, according to AutoMD.

"This is a job just about anyone can do, and it not only will save you money but also, believe it or not, can save you time," says Shane Evangelist, president of AutoMD.

Hiring a professional to replace your headlight will likely cost close to $80, according to AutoMD, but a new bulb costs just $15 or less. That's a big savings for 10 minutes of your time -- and you won't spend an hour or so waiting at the repair shop for a technician to tackle the problem.

"It's obvious that you need two working headlights to see at night, but as important is having other drivers see you," says John Paul, AAA's "Car Doctor." "In addition, in many states, driving with a bulb out will get you a ticket for faulty equipment."

If you can replace a light bulb in your home, you can change one in your car. You may have to remove the old bulb with a screwdriver, but installing the new one is usually as simple as pushing and twisting it into place.

"On a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being a complicated task, replacing a headlight is a 1," Paul says. "Do a little research. Start with a repair or owners manual. Many bulbs simply clip into place, and few, if any, tools are necessary."

First things first: You need to figure out what kind of bulb you have. Most new vehicles feature composite lights composed of a housing unit and a removable halogen or xenon bulb.

You should check the owners manual, hit the Internet or stop by your local auto parts retailer to find the exact style and size needed. AutoZone's website lets drivers search by make, model and year to find replacement parts, and stores generally keep catalogs on hand to look up parts.

Spring for the best-quality bulb you can find, as higher quality replacements last longer and burn brighter than their cheaper counterparts -- and when you replace one headlight, replace the other.

"All bulbs have a certain life. If one bulb burns out, the other is not far behind," Paul says.

To install the new bulb, open the hood and locate the headlight assembly. Disconnect the wiring harness -- look for a rectangular plastic plug with several wires feeding into it -- and unlock the bulb from the retainer by rotating it 1/8 of a turn.

Slide the old bulb out, and pop the new one into place. Be sure the locating tabs line up properly before locking the retainer into place and reconnecting the wiring. Then take a moment to marvel at your mechanical acuity!

"Don't rush. Take your time," Paul says. "The most important item is to not touch the bulb with your fingers. The oil on your fingers can cause the bulb to burn out."

When you're done, turn on the headlights to make sure the bulbs work properly. Check both the high beams and the low beams.

Also, be sure the headlights are aligned correctly, which will help you see the road better and prevent glare for other drivers. Park on a level surface. From a distance of five feet, shine your headlights on a garage door or wall. The circles of light should be even, aligned directly forward and bright white.

If the light is yellow or dim, check the lenses.

Even with brand-new bulbs, your headlights might not offer maximum visibility if the plastic lens is scratched and hazy. In fact, according to the Motor Vehicle Lighting Council, dirty headlights can reduce efficiency by as much as 90 percent.

Clean the lenses thoroughly, and consider a do-it-yourself restoration to remove the cloudy layer and let more light through. Kits such as the 3M headlight lens restoration system or the 3M lens renewal kit let drivers get the gunk off in less than an hour for less than $30.

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