Monday, December 11, 2006

Craptacular Bicycle Lights

My friend Tarik is fond of describing items and events as being craptacular. As near as I can figure, Tarik uses craptacular in two related but slightly different ways. In the first sense, craptacular refers to something that really didn't live up to the advance expectations. In this sense you would say something like "our trip to Moab turned out to be a craptacular fiasco." But the second sense of craptacular, the one that I find more interesting, is when you have something that you assume will be total crap but it in fact turns out to be better than you expected. In this case you would say something like "the fake latte from the coffee robot in the Quickie Mart is actually quite a craptacular beverage."

Yesterday I was in a store called Fred Meyer, which is one of those big everything stores like Wal-Mart or Target and I saw that they had all their bike accessories on sale for 20% off. Now there are various companies out there making good bike lights, companies like Planet Bike and Cateye, and I use and recommend those lights. But when I saw that I could get a Bell Night Trail headlight and taillight set for $12.79, I had to give them a try. I also splurged on a pair of flashing ankle bands at $6.99 each.

I'd actually gone to the store looking for battery-powered Christmas lights, which I didn't find at Fred Meyer but I did later find at Lowes.

A string of 10 white Christmas lights costs 99 cents at Lowes, but of course the 2 C batteries needed to power the lights cost a lot more. I bought 4 sets of lights and the batteries to power them. I also got some AAA cells to power the taillight. I did spend a fair bit of time contemplating just how screwy it is that this stuff can be made in China, shipped half way around the world, sold for so little and this is completely thought of as normal business. It is screwy, screwy as in somebody is getting screwed. And, of course, I'm part of the problem. But I'm also trying to help poor people here. My office at the Bike Station is half a block from the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle and some of the homeless folks there have bikes that we help keep going. And they don't just ride in the daytime. So part of me can say I'm checking out cheap alternatives for poor folks and part of me is just mucking with lights because I like to muck with lights and part of me is writing about this just so I'll get some comments about better sustainable solutions. But enough of this geo-political angst, let's talk about the cheap lights.

I used all this stuff on my dark and rainy commute this morning. The Bell headlight worked surprisingly well. I'd loaded it up with freshly charged NiMH AA cells and for part of the commute I used the Krypton bulb in the light and for the better lit sections I switched the light to use the lower power LEDs. This really cheap light actually has a high and low krypton beam and a solid or flashing setting that uses two white LEDs. If your batteries are too low to power the Krypton bulb, you can use the LEDs which draw much less power. The plastic of the light is pretty flimsy and I could see myself accidentally breaking the case while changing the batteries. I could also easily see water seeping into the electronics and mucking everything up but the light did survive this morning's commute. As for weather-proofing, I think I'll employ a trick I've used with other lights, dripping candle wax or silicone sealant over the sensitive electronics. I'll probably supplement the fragile case with some duct tape.

The taillight is very bright and can be set to solid or a variety of flashing and chase modes. It's actually a really nice little light. Both the head and taillights come with fairly decent mounting brackets for placing them on your bike, but I tend to supplement every bracket with an additional band cut from an old inner tube. In the case of the taillight, instead of mounting it to my bike, I kept my existing Planet Bike light on my bike and zip-tied the Bell taillight to the back of my helmet. The Bell taillight is definitely brighter than the several year old Cateye taillight it replaced. In general, the current crop of LED lights are brighter than the best lights from a few years ago, so it's worth checking out some of the new stuff. Planet Bike has a 1/2 Watt taillight that is amazingly bright. But for a cheapo light, I'm really impressed with the little Bell.

The LED ankle bands also seem pretty darn nice. I have no idea how long the coin cells will last in these things, but ankle band that both reflect and light up are a good idea. I rode into work with the ankle bands flashing.

I wrapped the 40 Christmas lights around my frame and secured them with red and green zip-ties. I tucked the 4 battery packs into my bike's coroplast trunk. If I was really going to do this right I'd wire them all up to a single pack of NiMH batteries and maybe add a flasher circuit and I may do this at a later date. For now I'll see how long the 8 C cells last. I'm really not too worried about going fast in the winter and the Christmas lights really do give my bike a craptacularly festive look. You'll have to take my word for this, I tried taking a picture of my bike in the dark, but my cheapo camera is too craptacular to really capture the spectacle!
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