19 May 2009

Motorcycle safety, part II

All that earlier work got me nice LED turn signals, but not DRLs (Daylight Running Lights). Today I removed the headlight from the "bucket", revealing the spaghetti mess of wiring you can see to the left. Just about every electrical circuit on the entire bike passes through this bucket, but it was pretty easy to identify the turn signal wires since the turn signal stalks run right into the bucket.

Now comes the challenge. Normally, the blinker relay sends voltage to the turn signal bulbs to light them up. However, if you set them up as DRLs, the bulbs then get voltage all the time and you need to blink them off when you use your turn signals -- this is, of course, backwards.

To "invert" the signal, I used a trailer light adapter. Trailer light adapters exist because most vehicles have three wires: stop, left turn, and right turn. Trailers just have two wires going to two lamps though. This saves money on wiring and lamps, but as you can imagine, there's an extra step to make three signals transform into two signals. The solution requires a little XOR digital logic, which is a little complicated to make from scratch but you can easily buy a plug 'n' play solution prepackaged into a little box. You can pay $100 for a motorcycle specific DRL box, or you can pay $16 at your local U-Haul for a trailer light adapter that does the same thing. I, of course, went to U-Haul. Actually, I first bought a cheap one online but it wouldn't fire LEDs so I wasted some time and money there. All new U-Haul trailers have LEDs so U-Haul's adapter supports LEDs just fine.

Basically I just cut the wires going to the turn signals, and inserted the box in between the turn signal voltage supply and the bulb. This still just gives you normal signals until you connect the "brake" wire on the adapter box to any ignition-on wire: now the adapter will think the brakes are on all the time, and light up both lamps all the time (until you turn a blinker on, and then that one side blinks off). The adapter box was a tight squeeze into the headlight bucket, but it just barely fit.

The LEDs do not cast an even light like the old bulbs did, instead they concentrate most of their light in a couple of directions. From the direct front, they're not very bright but that's ok as my headlight will always be on and is much brighter than the DRLs anyway. However, once you get off to the side a little bit, the LEDs shine nicely. These pictures were taken in the evening, so they are not going to seem as bright in broad daylight but I still think these will give me a nice bit of added visibility to other drivers.

14 May 2009

Motorcycle safety, part I

I've been thinking about making myself more visible on my motorcycle, since the other day when I did a head check to change lanes and found another motorcycle riding in my blind spot. I almost didn't see him... and I'm hyper-sensitive about looking for other two-wheeled vehicles! It didn't help that he was dressed in black on a black bike.

So... I'm taking a three-pronged approach to making myself more visible. Phase 1 is marker light upgrades. Most of you are probably familiar with DRLs, Daylight Running Lights, which were introduced on new cars just a few years ago. Though motorcycles have already had always-on headlights since 1978, I want to use my amber turn signals as running lights for added visual impact (yellow is more attention-getting than white... plus, I have twice as many turn signals as headlights ;) ).

However, there are some considerations to leaving two 21 watt bulbs on all the time. One is heat -- since the signal housings and lenses are only designed to have a light on inside them occassionally, they can actually be melted by the heat generated from a continuously lit bulb. The other consideration is electrical -- motorcycles have weak electrical systems, and the added strain can kill a battery or prematurely burn out alternator brushes, rectifiers, and voltage regulators.

To address these concerns, I switched to LEDs for my front turn signals. LEDs take far less power and generate far less heat, so they are perfect for this application. Rather than replace the entire turn signal stalk, I simply purchased a LED module designed to replace a common automotive 1156 bulb -- it just plugs right into the bulb socket for the world's easiest LED installation. It's the silver cylinder you see in the middle of the bulb housing (don't worry, the amber lens was reinstalled after taking the picture ;) ). You can easily do this upgrade on cars, too, if you are so inclined (LEDs practically never burn out, so you're less likely to get pulled over and issued a fix-it ticket... the only downside is, they are pretty expensive).

Great as LEDs are, there's a catch: Old-school turn signal blinkers won't blink them. The flasher relay requires a certain amount of current to be flowing through it, and since LEDs draw less current, you get no flash. The solution is a modern electronic flasher that doesn't care how much current the bulbs draw.

In my case, installation was a snap and is completely reversible. I was prepared to cut and splice wires into an ugly mess but I got lucky not once but twice.

First, my stock blinker relay had a plug (green arrow) with female spade connectors. All I had to do was add male spade connectors (red arrow) to my new blinker and stick them into the stock wiring plug with zero modifications! This means I can easily switch back if I ever sell the bike (the expensive LEDs will be staying with me for my next bike!).

Happy coincidence number two was the mounting of the flasher. I was expecting to have to zip tie it or resort to other ghetto methods of securing it, but as it happens the stock flasher has a neat rubber vibration-isolation mount (motorcycles vibrate a lot, and vibration kills relays). My new flasher very conveniently had a mounting tab like the old flasher, only a little too wide. A few seconds with a Dremel fixed that and the new relay slotted right into the existing rubber mounting like it belonged there from the factory.

As an added benefit, my blinkers blink faster, which I think is more attention-grabbing than the old sedate pace.

All that work, though, and I still don't have running lights. That's a project for another day... stay tuned.