See and Be Seen

By their sheer power alone, lights that emit 400-700 lumens (or more) serve as both “see with” lights and a “be seen” lights. Unfortunately, powerful lights are expensive, and not every bike commuter is in the position to spend $400+ on a bike light. An alternative is to combine a pair of relatively inexpensive lights: one with a tightly focused beam pattern to see with, and one with a wide angle beam pattern to be seen by.

See With
A relatively low output light with the right beam pattern can put plenty of light on the road for typical commute speeds. The trick is to take that small amount of light and concentrate it where it’s needed — on the road right in front of the bike. A good “see with” light should emit at least 100-200 lumens and have a narrow, focused beam. Here are a few possibilities:

Be Seen
“Be seen” lights should have relatively wide angle beams and large diameter reflectors to create a large visual footprint and good side lighting. Here are a couple of possibilities:

Batteries
High output lights often use proprietary Li-ion batteries that are very expensive to replace. After being taken to the cleaners more than once when replacing a proprietary battery, I’ve opted to use lights that accept off-the-shelf rechargeables in AA and AAA size. With today’s highly efficient LED emitters, it’s possible to get 100-200 lumens and reasonable run times with AA batteries.

One Set-up
My current set-up includes a Fenix L2D and a Busch & Müller Ixon. The sharply focused L2D is pointed down toward the road and provides a well lit patch in front of the bike. The Ixon is pointed straight forward and level; its large reflector and diffuse beam signals my presence to motorists both in front and to the side.

This set-up is just one among many possibilities. The important thing is to use a combination of at least one tightly focused beam, and one wide angle beam. And if your budget allows, forget all this two light stuff and look into a good hub dynamo system or one of the many high output LED systems on the market; they’re expensive, but worth every penny.

28 Responses to “See and Be Seen”

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Ach, I wish I’d read your thoughts on these sooner. I’m currently in the process of sending back a Mininewt with a battery that failed after only a few uses! Jeez. I’ll be getting a new one and giving it a fair try, but after only three charges, it refused to take any charge at all. I had one late, dark, dicey ride home because of it. Fortunately, I had a handy Planet Bike Super Flash and a Cateye flasher, too. We’ll see how it goes. While it worked, the Niterider was great.

    Buyer beware,

    Scott

  • Alan says:

    @Scott

    For the money you absolutely can’t beat the Fenix L2D. It’s technically a flashlight, but combined with a TwoFish LockBlock it makes an awesome bike light for under $75 and it runs on 100% reliable, rechargeable AA batteries.

    Best of luck with the MiNewt Mini. It’s a great looking little light – hopefully NiteRider will work out the bugs for you.

  • Helton says:

    Own a Shmidt Hub Dynamo (actually a generator) for two years now, and am fully satisfied. Shouldn’t have taken their proprietary light, although, because it failed me some times (internal oxidation with short circuit – easily fixed, no permanent damage – and spring relaxation (thermal-induced?) that made it lose electrical contact (had to pull it forward a bit with a plier – gently!). Besides, the beam pattern, although very powerfull ahead and at horizon level (can see road signs hundred yards ahead) is pretty dark on the sides, and it’s a little dangerous make some curves at speed. If I would do it again, I would take my Cateye HL 500 II (halogen) and “convert” it to generator power with some 3W zeners and perhaps a parallel lamp (series with the zeners, not to throw my precious leg-watts away).

    Sure the hub is expensive (come on, how much does a Sh**mano fancy crankset cost, in comparison?), but it’s so sturdy, weatherproof, smooth rolling and trouble-free, that the light it gives you seems like an extra!

    By the way, the HL 500 II gives a fantastic light. Had the double-parabolla single hi power led light from Cateye, great far-away light, but it broke too, too easily, and the switch stopped working soon after.

  • Tobi says:

    Here is a picture in a german bicycle magazine that compares most of the “uptodate bicycle lights” that are available in Germany, but you should be able to get most of them anywhere.
    @Helton: Why would you call the Schmidt light proprietary? It will work with any 3watt dynamo.

  • Ben says:

    @Scott,

    I had a MiNewt X2 that had a bad battery right out of the box. They drop-shipped me a new one and so far, I couldn’t be happier. A bit expensive, certainly, but it makes a big difference in the safety of my commute… particularly given that I try to roll at a little faster than “typical commute” speeds. I find at 19-24mph, I have a solid 3-6 seconds of visibility in the total dark. Putting it on “flash” mode makes a detectable light on road signs up to 20 seconds in front of me… even at high-noon.

    That said, I keep my old 4xAA CatEye light in my trunk bag for emergencies. Better safe than sorry.

    Good luck with your replacement,
    -Ben

  • Waldemar says:

    If you’re using a light which runs on AA or AAA batteries, check out the new low-self-discharge NiMH batteries. The Sanyo Eneloop was the first well-known one. These don’t go dead while waiting for use, they’re lighter than alkalines, greener, cheaper over time, and their power delivery is excellent. Well worth the investment.

  • Alan says:

    @Waldemar

    Agreed! Eneloops are excellent.

    Here’s one of my older articles on rechargeables:

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2008/06/05/charge-it/

  • andy parmentier says:

    look up DISCOVERY magazine issue ’04 december, excellent article about nature’s loudest sound, the sonar of a sperm whale. the “sound lens” aka the “melon” in dolphins and porpoises, can focus the beam of sound, by which cetaceans can navigate (wide angle) and/or use as a stun weapon (narrow angle) this is a soundwave beam powerful enough to stun a giant squid, the sperm whale’s favorite prey.
    a good set of ears is really good auxiliary equipment for night riding, and riding in general. some animals literally see with sonar.
    this is just a fun take on the whole wide/narrow angle lighting equipment combination, i could’nt resist.

    -andy

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Alan: I’ll look into that little flashlight. It would make a great touring light! I’m hoping for the best on the new Mininewt.

    Ben: Nice to hear. It certainly is a cute little performer–so light. I will, however, carry my Cateye opticube as backup as you suggest. That baby has never let me down.

    With the time change, my morning rides are less of a challenge, so even the Cateye would probably be enough for the short transition.

    Scott

  • mb says:

    I use the Fenix L2D but the newer, brighter Q5 bulb, churning out 180 lumens in Turbo with 2AAs. I run two L2D Q5s on my handlebar, one pointing down on the road and another pointing a little further. On my helmet, I mounted a Fenix P2D Q5 which gives out 107 lumens at its third highest setting, with a CR123 battery. These are my to-see lights.

    For to-be-seen blinkers, I use a CatEye EL-320 (4 AAs) and an LD.170 (2 AAAs).

    I like Eneloops myself but I only use them for my front and back blinkers. I find 2000mAh not enough for the Fenix’s. So I run 2700mAh Sanyo Nimh batteries for those. They don’t have the ability to hold a charge when unused, unlike the Eneloops but since I use my Fenix lights daily, for my ride home, they’ll get charged daily or once every two days anyway. So may as well get the higher capacity.

    I find that cars give me more space and filter earlier with my level of lighting. Now if I can find affordable CR123 batteries, and I’ll be set.

  • Nate Briggs says:

    Hey Alan:

    Even if I didn’t have a calendar I would know that daylight savings time had ended by the recent postings here.

    My first after-dark experience with my new light setup was pretty satisfying.

    I did a GOOGLE search for “brightest headlamp available” and bought a Brunton. With the strap embracing my handlebar bag (vertically) I aim the beam about 10 feet in front of my wheel and put the lamp on the “supernova” setting.

    So far, so good with that.

    In the rear I am “blinking blue” with a Lightman strobe. The blink rate is very stately – and it’s Big.

    The last element of the nighttime package has not yet been purchased. That will be a Down Low Glow ground effects kit … also in blue. I just love the idea of a bicycle floating on a neon cloud.

    My whole philosophy of nighttime illumination is that motorists should be thinking “What the #%^&@# is that?” when they come into view of the light arrangement that a rider has mounted.

    Doubt is good, because it causes motorists to come up off the accelerator – and slow down – as they try to figure out what it is they are overtaking.

    Nate B (Salt Lake City)

  • Eddie says:

    Hey mb, I get my CR123s for a dollar each here:

    http://www.batteryjunction.com/crba.html

    The Fenix P1D-CE Q5 I use is so convenient in size (on my keychain when not on my helmet) and packs a wolloping 180 lumens output on turbo.

  • mb says:

    Thanks Eddie! I shall certainly check it out. I was paying SGD7.50 (about US$5) for an Energizer Lithium CR123. Ouch.

    Those Fenix’s really pack a punch.

  • Alan says:

    @mb

    I recalled that my L2Ds have the Q5 Cree 7090 XR-E emitters. Changed the specs to 180 lumens in the OP.

    As an aside – I’m having a pair of holders fabricated for mounting the L2Ds on the lowrider braze-ons on the front forks. I’ll write a post when I receive them.

  • beth h says:

    After years of working with cheaper battery-powered lights, I had an opportunity to test the Busch-Muller IXON this fall. I decided to compare it against the Planet Bike one-watt “Blaze” I’d been using. Like the Blaze, the Ixon has two brightness settings. Unlike the Blaze the Ixon does not have a “blinky” mode. However, I prefer my headlights to run a steady beam anyway, so this is not a problem for me.

    1. Brightness: Ixon is noticeably brighter than the Blaze in the brighter of the two modes. In the lesser mode they’re about equal brightness, though the Ixon’s beam is spread over a slightly wider area. On several occasions this fall

    2. Length of charge: The Ixon requires several charge cycles to get the batteries up to full charge capacity. After seven recharging cycles the batteries now last around 12 to 15 hours in lower setting, and about 8 to 10 hours on the higher setting. Using simple rechargeable batteries in the Blaze, I get about six to nine hours run-time on steady modes; but the Blaze uses two batteries to the Ixon’s four.

    3. Water-resistance: This is a big one, and I haven’t had the Ixon long enough to really test it in the rain. However, the instructions clearly say not to run the light below the handlebar (upside-down) because water-proofness cannot be guaranteed in that position. As the Ixon is a largerlight and takes up quite a bit of room on the handlebar, this may be an issue for some riders. I’ll report back later in the rainy season on waterproofness.

    4. Reliability: The Ixon light I purchased in June had some oddities right off the bat. I continued to use it with relative success until about a month ago, when the charge light continued to work but the headlight’s LED bulb failed. I immediately sent it back to Peter White (the Busch-Muller distributor) for warranty inspection, and they replaced it VERY quickly with another light; it seems my light was defective. The new light is immediately and obviously better and I expect it to work without problems.

    5. Ease of use: The only caveat with the Ixon is that the recharger’s plug-in is for European outlets. In order to use the recharger in the US you must purchase a three-dollar converter for US outlets. As for the mounting bracket, it’s identical to the Planet Bike version and is interchangeable with either light. I was worried that the heavier weight of the Ixon would cause problems on the Planet Bike bracket but so far there has been no issue. The instructions supplied with the light are easy to understand and follow.

    Overall, I’m pleased with the Ixon. It’s easy to use and weighs and costs less than a generator hub system (which I cannot afford or justify at this time, since all of my riding is on city streets with decent lighting). Issues such as how much room ti takes up on the handlebar and the fact that you can’t mount it upside-down are fairly minor for me, and I expect I’ll still like this light next spring. Not a bad value for the money.

  • Alan says:

    Beth,

    Thanks for the excellent review!

    Have you had an opportunity to compare the standard Ixon to the Ixon IQ?

    Alan

  • mb says:

    Here is a little video review I did of the L2D on my gadget review show:

    http://wtfshow.com/2008/08/27/the-wtf-show-live-fenix-l2d-premium-q5-review/

  • Daniel says:

    Hello,

    I would be curious if those thought bought the Ixon also considered the Hella hr2000 that Peter White also sells and how you chose between the two.

    thanks,

  • Daniel says:

    oops, it should have been that instead of thought.

  • beth says:

    I chose the Ixon because PJW didn’t yet have the Heller when I made my purchase. Also, I have not compared it to the Ixon IQ. It does take several charge cycles to get this thing to hold a charge for more than an hour, so be patient and carry a spare ordinary light until the charge builds up. otherwise, no complaints.

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  • Andy says:

    I have been thinking about getting a Stella, but with the model change this year, there are some great deals to be had on Light and Motions older stuff. I just picked up a Solo Logic on Chainlove for under $100. I have used a Planet Bike Beamer 5 to be seen for a while now, but I kept running over things on my AM commute. At 390 lumens, the Solo made my ride faster and much safer.

    As a pleasant addition I found out that you can use the lighter Li-on batteries with this system as well.

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  • Eric K. says:

    I just purchased a Niterider Minewt USB a few weeks ago. Still trying to decide if I should keep it or return it and go for a B&M Ixon IQ. The Minewt is light and well made. The beam is extremely bright when i tried it in my back yard. Lights up a large area with a huge round circle of light. Even when i shine it up toward the trees I can see everything almost like daylight. Now heres the difference i noticed when i use it on the bike. On dark paths with some light or car headlights head toward me, it seems only half as bright when in my yard. I have to tilt the light downward to keep from blinding other riders, joggers or even cars. But when its tile down and its very bright in front of me other cyclists and runners are almost impossible to see coming at me untill the last minute.
    I have read several good reviews on the Busch and Muller Ixon and Ixon IQ. I am seriously considering the IQ and returning the Minewt. What are some peoples opinions on this. Would there be a significant difference between the two? I plan on only using one light for the front for “to see” and “being seen” in low light and almost no light conditions.

    Thanks

  • Mari Lynch says:

    I recently got a 2008 Light & Motion Stella 120 lumen, 4-cell NIMH battery, only hesitating because I would have preferred something solar powered. I appreciate your idea of combining lights–a budget-minded way to “be seen” too–and thanks to you, I won’t feel at all silly using my old helmet light along with the Stella!

    As I mention in “Night Ride Home” on my blog, I do love riding in the dark when I won’t endanger others, but falls have made me think a little differently. After too many injuries the past few years, I have a new appreciation for bike lights for my own safety too!

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