Every vehicle owner, sooner or later, encounters the need for maintenance. Sometimes it's something big; a broken sway bar, a grinding alternator, a blown head gasket. Most of the time, it's something minor. Regular maintenance is essential for keeping a vehicle safe and secure on the road, but it's easy to overlook the little things, especially things that don't affect your driving.
One such maintenance task is replacing bulbs when they fail. Most vehicles on the road today use halogen incandescent bulbs for most, if not all, of their lights. More recently-manufactured vehicles might have xenon HIDs or LED bulbs in some places, like headlights and taillights, but others may still be halogens.
Replacing an existing bulb with an LED, whether it's initially an LED that failed or if it's a halogen that burned out, can be a great option. LEDs draw very little power, and their lifespan is immense. A typical halogen lives for 450 to 1,000 hours of use. A xenon HID might last 2,000 to 10,000 hours. An LED headlight can live for 10,000 to 50,000 hours. That's up to nearly 6 years of continuousoperation! If you're only driving an hour or two a day, the rest of the vehicle will fall apart long before the LED burns out of natural causes.
Maybe you want LEDs to replace your existing lights, as an upgrade to your system. Maybe you have a burned-out bulb and want to swap in something a little more long-lived. Maybe you have a faulty LED and want to swap in a new one. Whatever your reason, you need one thing: a replacement. So how do you find that replacement?
The first thing you need to do is positively identify the bulb you want to replace. While we mostly concern ourselves with headlights and taillights, vehicles have a wide range of other lights to consider as well. On the exterior of a vehicle, you might have fog lights, turn signal lights, brake lights, and license plate lights. On the interior, you may have a dome light, door lights, lights in accessory spaces, lights on your mirror or front console, and even more.
Take, for example, a 2015 Chevy Silverado. Here's the list of bulbs it contains:
That's a lot of bulbs!
Thus, identifying specifically which bulb you want to replace (or making a list of all of the bulbs to swap) is the first step.
There are three options for bulbs in a vehicle: halogen bulbs, LED bulbs, and HID bulbs. Halogens are the cheapest, but the shortest-lived, and are generally what you find in most vehicle slots. LEDs can fit in any slot in a vehicle, have a long life span and a low power draw, but are more expensive. They also may suffer damage if they get too hot too often. HIDs only fit in headlights, and are exceptionally bright, but require an additional configuration (the ballast). They're the most expensive of the bunch and are less flexible, but can be a good option in some circumstances.
If you're replacing anything other than a headlight, HIDs are not an option. LEDs are generally the way to go unless you don't want the extra brightness and glare of a bright LED in that location. They're great for dome lights and vanity lights, and for turn signals and indicators, as well as for brake lights. They're less necessary for license plate lights, door lights, and other accessory lights, although some individuals prefer the brighter and upgraded look.
We will typically recommend LEDs for everything, but HIDs can be a viable option for headlights on some vehicles, and of course, aesthetic purposes. If you want to make a more informed decision, however, you can read our guide on the differences between LEDs and HIDs.
Now that you've decided you want to replace your bulbs with LEDs, you need to figure out what bulb to replace. There are several ways to find this information, which we're detailing in this and the remaining sections below.
The most sure-fire way to identify the bulb your vehicle needs is to check the bulb that's already in place.
To do this, you need to disassemble whatever part of your vehicle you're replacing the bulb for. Sometimes this is easy. For example, the license plate bulb is often just accessible underneath the rear bumper of your vehicle. You lay on the ground, light up beneath the bumper, and find the light assembly. Pull it out, remove the bulb, and replace it. Interior bulbs often require removing the housing that protects them, though the process will vary depending on the make and model of your vehicle.
Other bulbs are harder to replace. Headlights often require accessing the engine bay and removing the entire headlamp assembly, though you may be able to reach in and remove the lamp itself, depending on the assembly. This, again, varies from vehicle to vehicle.
Once you have removed the bulb, look at it for identifying information. It will usually be printed on the housing for the bulb, underneath the brand name. You're usually looking for a letter and number combo, or a four-digit number. The Silverado's low beam is an H11, for example, while the high beam is a 9005, and many of the brake and signal lamps are 7443 or 7444. 7443 is the white indicator, while 7444 is the amber indicator.
In some cases, you may need to wipe dirt off of the bulb to find the writing. Others may have rubbed off. Unfortunately, damage to the bulb, as well as the annoyance of disassembling part of your vehicle before ordering a replacement part, makes this a poor method for many of your lights. You'll need to reassemble your housing before driving anywhere, and you'll need to disassemble it again when you want to replace the bulb. Luckily, there are other options as well.
Many drivers tend to keep their vehicle manuals in the glove box, trunk, or a seat compartment, but never really look at them. It's always a good idea to have one on hand, in case you need a reference to know how to fix an issue that emerges while you're driving.
If you don't keep your manual on hand, or if you no longer have it, you can often find a PDF of one online. GM, for example, provides the Silverado manuals in their owner's center. This is the manual for the 2015 Silverado.
Luckily, most manuals come with a reference chart of the various bulbs in the vehicle. This can both help you identify the specific name of each bulb in the vehicle, and identify the bulb type that goes in the vehicle. The Silverado manual, to continue using it as the example vehicle, has a reference in the 10-40 section for how to access each bulb in the vehicle. On 10-43, it has a chart with the bulbs you need and their identification numbers.
Now, this process is made more complicated by the fact that the identification number for a halogen bulb and the identification number for an LED replacement may be different. For example, the Silverado's owner's manual says the fog light should be a PS24W, while vehicle finders (see below) specify using a 5202.
The truth is, these bulbs are the same. Some may have slightly different connectors (for example, the PSX24W has different tabs than the PS24W) but there are often 2-3 names for each style of bulb. The PS24W and the 5202 are identical.
You may need to do a little research to figure out which bulbs are the equivalent of which other bulbs, which can be annoying, but it's still better than pulling a bulb out of its housing and trying to match it to one in a package when the only difference might be a minute tab you can barely see.
Another option that is always available to you is simply reaching out to your dealership or your preferred mechanic and asking them which bulb goes in which slot. A simple five-minute phone call is enough to get an experienced technician on the line and identify the specific bulb you need for a specific part of your vehicle.
The only downside to this method is that some dealerships or mechanics will have their preferences to push. They might want to sell you a specific bulb they carry, rather than the best bulb you can get. They might also prefer to have you replace halogens with halogens, or have their own bias between LEDs and HIDs. In other words, you might not get straight advice. That's a risk you have to take, and can be an indication that you may want to find a more trustworthy mechanic as well.
Another option available to you is simply using an online bulb finder. Our homepage allows you to plug in the year, make, and model of your vehicle and will pull up a list of every bulb slot in the vehicle, the numeric identifier for the bulb, and a link to our stock of LEDs and/or HIDs that fit in that slot.
Other websites have similar versions of this search functionality as well. We strive to make ours as accurate as possible; we can't guarantee that other sites do the same. Amazon has one, for example, but sellers on Amazon often place 5+ identification numbers on every product they sell just to be as prevalent in the search results as they can get. We wouldn't recommend trusting their search without verifying the information you find.
The biggest downside to using this option is that sometimes, you may find a search that doesn't have complete or accurate information. Very few sites can keep accurate records for the hundreds of makes and models that are released every year, especially if there's any variation between those models. Luckily, a lot of information doesn't change from year to year, so you may be able to verify across several years' worth of data.
If you choose to trust a site search, we recommend making sure the site has a good return policy in case you order the wrong bulb and need to swap it out with a different model.
A final option is to use the vehicle search data from the actual manufacturer of the bulb you want to buy. For example, Sylvania has a bulb finder of its own. Plug in the year, make, and model of the vehicle, then choose the bulb slot you want to replace.
This has the same problem as any website search; you have to trust the bulb company to have accurate information for thousands of makes and models of vehicles across decades. This is a tall order, and it's not always accurate. Plus, some bulb manufacturers have hard-to-use search functions that can give you conflicting or incorrect information.
In general, the best option is to reference your manual to identify the specific, manufacturer-identified bulb that goes in the slot you want to replace. Once you know the part number for the bulb you want, you can do some research to figure out which LED is the equivalent for the part number in your vehicle. This is easier on newer vehicles but can get a little muddy in vehicles from the 90s or earlier.
Once you know which identification number you need to find, it's an easy process to find the bulb to replace it. We're happy to help. Ordering bulbs is a simple process, and they'll be in your hands before you know it.
When it comes time to replace the old LED bulb, you can do it by hand, or take it to a mechanic to do the swap. You save money on parts by providing them on your own, but it can still be expensive for the labor. Swapping them yourself isn't too hard in most cases, as long as you have the right tools and you're careful with housings.
With a little finesse and the right research, you'll be riding in style with brand-new LEDs in no time flat.