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I'm planning to get a pair of pedal-powered head & tail lights to get my husband as a gift.

He commutes ~11mi roundtrip every day to/from work. In summer, he rides a Cannondale touring bike. In winter he is riding a very old Mongoose he has had since he was a teenager (that one will eventually be replaced).

We live in Buffalo, NY so he rides through all weather you can imagine and of course snow is the worst. He currently uses a couple if cheap lights that run on rechargeable AA batteries and he has to charge them every few days.

So I want to get him a pair of lights that are powered by the pedals. I have looked online and I'm so confused by what I find. I don't know what are positive features, what is important, what to avoid ... I know it's important that they work well in the snow and other inclement weather as those are the most important times to be as visible as possible as to see as clearly around you while riding.

Can you advise me please? Or least tell me what I should be looking for and why? And [added by editor] is replacing his battery powered lights the best way of doing the job?

What specs are important. What's a good price range. Any information will be helpful.

  • Welcome to Bicycles @Smallest. Product recommendations are off topic here, because they go out of date so quickly. So I'll try to edit your question so that it solicits more general advice. If you don't like my edit, feel free to change it. – andy256 Aug 24 '15 at 2:47
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    "Pedal-powered" (dynamo-powered) lights get kind of technical -- one would need to buy a system based on specific criteria for the bicycle and rider. Probably not the sort of thing to get as a gift unless you're familiar with the technical issues. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 24 '15 at 3:38
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    Thank you for the edit. Yes, he does want to get these lights. He's been talking about it for a while, but has been too busy to do the research himself. (He actually uses this SE so I hope he doesn't find this question and the surprise is ruined!) – TheSmallestOne Aug 24 '15 at 10:53
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    Frankly, dynamo-powered lights are more trouble than they're worth anymore. There are good rechargeable LED lights that are more reliable and less of a hassle to deal with. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 25 '15 at 0:07
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    @Criggie: Modern lights usually have a standlight via a backup capacitor which keeps the light burning for a few minutes without power (though a bit less brightly). – sleske Jul 26 '16 at 11:52
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...is replacing his battery powered lights the best way of doing the job?

Be aware that we can't answer this without mor information. I commute year-round in Minnesota and we have condition close to yours. Here are my thoughts and experience with dyno hubs:

I tried a dyno hub because I wanted what I thought was simplicity but when I executed the plan I realized that my assumptions were wrong and I switched to battery operated lights (which I will also discuss).

My first problem was one that your husband might also have - the wheels on my two bikes were a) different sizes and b) had different brake set-ups. Fair weather bike is 700c road bike. Winter bike is 26 inch mountain bike. (Add to this that I sometimes ride my 700c in the snow so I have two sets of wheels mounted with different tires.) I first tried to overcome the tire size by figuring out if I could run a 700c wheel on the front of the mountain bike. The short answer is that it wasn't worth it just to use a dyno hub. Add to that the 700c bike is rim brake and the 26er is disc brake. Again, if wheel size wasn't an issue this could be accommodated but also again is that it wasn't worth it just to use a dyno hub. So the two different wheel size thing is an issue. As a note though, even if the wheels were the same size and you could switch them between bikes the little connector at the hub (at least on the Shimano hub) is flimsy and not really designed to be connected and reconnected.

My second problem was that the lights themselves are hard wired onto the bike. First, see above about bike switching. Second I park my bike on the street. Even though I have an indoor garage I leave my bike outside. This is actually important in the winter but let's not go into that and not to mention that garages are some of the best places to mess with people's bikes! Plus, what about stops at the store or a meeting on the way in or out of work? So security makes me want to bring my lights with me. These things cost hundreds of dollars and I don't want them stolen. Now, modular mounts and connectors could be improvised (I looked into all of this, even prototyped some solutions) but with the wheel conflicts (and don't forget - mittens!) I threw my hands up.

What made me sell the wheel was that one day in the dark when the connector failed. Or maybe a broken spoke sends the wheel to the shop for a day or two. Or maybe I was running late one morning and my bike had a flat so I grabbed the other bike. Whatever, you get it. I needed to have battery back-ups and those back-ups needed to be as good as the dyno powered lights!

If you are not sold yet, imagine changing a flat and then trying to get that hub connector to work when it is below zero and dark. You need to fold those little wires... your fingers will freeze. Guaranteed.

enter image description here

What I settled on:

I bought the most expensive taillight that I could afford. It was hundreds of dollars and come with so many mounts that I have a mount on six bikes. The light charges via mini_USB and can run off of an external battery. I am going into my sixth winter on this light; totally worth it! It has multiple modes (of course) and slips on and off it's mount quickly but securely. (See note below about mittens!) I also keep some 1 watt "blinkies" in my bag for back-up and I ride with a small blinkie on my helmet.

For headlights I use bright LED flashlights from China which run on 18650 batteries. This battery system is so much better than AA batteries. They are not in the same ball park. They are not even playing the same sport! One battery per light gets hours of run time and if it runs low you pull a new one out of your pocket. That's one - one battery per light. The lights get cheaper and smaller every year. The mounts are plastic and velcro and cost less than $2. They take ten seconds to apply and I can do it with winter gloves on. And by gloves I mean mittens that provide the dexterity of boxing gloves.

enter image description here

Of course you can get the super-bright LEDs that have cords and battery packs; I have tried them and do not need them. Flashlights work great, I can carry spare lights and batteries easily and it's all swappable. I have a charger at work and at home and the batteries are cheap and abundant. I also ride with a small blinkie headlight that I velcro to the top of my helmet; easy on and off and charges via USB.

As I said, independent lights let me ride any bike any time and I can leave my bike anywhere.

I can post links to any and all hardware but this isn't an advertisement.

EDIT:

I use the taillight from Dinotte. The Quad RED is the current offering but I am still using the 300R that I bought in October 2010 which is still going strong.

enter image description here

For bar-mounted headlights I use flashlights from Solar Force. The flashlights I use run on one 18650 battery. I am not going to lie, the website is confusing and once you figure out the website the individual parts you need to order are confusing and once you figure out which parts you need to order figuring out the options of the various parts is confusing. However, this is the place to get quality lights for cheap. I use the L2N body with the 3.7v XM-L T6 Cree bulb. (I also order extra switches and reflectors while I am at it but they are unnecessary. However you might want to test an orange peel reflector which diffuses the light; if you run two headlights one with orange peel and one with smooth provides flood and spot lights).

enter image description here

I mount the flashlight using these velcro mounts. enter image description here

These mounts are great for all bikes but on my winter bike I actually have a rigid mount that the lights snap in and out of, something like this but without the 180 swivel feature. I use hose clamps to attach the mounts to my handlebars. It's not pretty but in this regard I am all about function. I can mount, remove, and adjust the lights while wearing mittens. enter image description here

For charging the 18650 batteries you should make sure you get a smart charger and just read up on which product tends to be best reviewed at the best price. Right now the Nitecore D4 is doing pretty well and has the bonus of being able to charge a bunch of different battery sizes. In addition to the smart charger which I keep at home I also have a simple charger ($10 or less) at work. enter image description hereenter image description here

For blinkies I am using Blackburn Fleas. I picked these because they charge via USB (or solar!) and use the same charger so I can have one at home and one at work. The charger is proprietary otherwise this would not be an issue. I really like the Flea headlight because of the way I use it. I use velcro to quickly stick it to the top of my helmet, no straps to mess with. It is built in such a way that I am able to remove a bunch of plastic from the bottom (shave it off with a razor knife) to lower the profile. enter image description here

  • This is very thorough and helpful. If you have links to hardware, I would appreciate it. If only just to get a better idea what I'm looking at. Thank you! – TheSmallestOne Aug 25 '15 at 11:46
  • Why spend so much money on a rear light? Something like a Sigma Stereo is good enough and also offers USB charging (which is handy). I also don’t understand why you Americans use rotationally symmetric lights on the road. They blind motorists and waste lots of light. Get a Philipps Saferide 80 or B+M Ixon IQ (Premium). Good enough to ride fast outside of town without any streetlights. – Michael Sep 18 '15 at 11:19
  • @Michael the sigma stereo is not bright enough. That's why. As for rotational symmetry you make a fair point but those solutions you propose aren't good enough in terms of price, brightness, and convenience. – jqning Sep 18 '15 at 13:13
  • Now I don’t want to get in a too lengthy discussion, but: What I like about the Sigma Stereo is the large area. It’s more than just one bright but tiny LED. If the bicycle has a rack a B+M Toplight Flat S (battery version) is even bigger and better. An additional flashing light to catch attention won’t hurt. As for the front light: I’m always terribly afraid of blinding other people. It makes very much sense that such lights are not street legal, at least in Austria and Germany. – Michael Sep 18 '15 at 13:53
  • I agree that headlights are a problem. Chinese LEDs are getting brighter and brighter and BRIGHTER and many cyclists think that brighter is better. All that aside, as I indicated I need to be able to install, remove, and operate my lights with very big mittens in the very cold. – jqning Sep 18 '15 at 14:38
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You can get lights that are powered by a dynamo (generator) in the front hub. Combined with bright LED front and rear lights you get excellent visibility (both seeing and being seen) and very little maintenance. The downside is that the equipment is not inexpensive – figure you'll need to spend at least $250 US for a front wheel, headlight and taillight.

My personal opinion is that dynamo light are a huge improvement over battery lights – because you don't have to worry about batteries running down or loosing capacity in cold weather. Not having to worry about batteries means that you can run the lights all the time too. The downsides of dynamo lights are that you take a small hit in terms of drag (the power it takes to run the lights) and that they are harder to remove. The latter means that your bike is a bit more of a target for thieves.

Dynamo lights are common in Europe and good ones will likely exceed German specs – from the bit of research that I did before buying my lights the German specs don't require a very bright headlight. I ride a lot on unlit roads and really appreciate a much brighter light, the brightness also helps keep the road visible when there are oncoming cars.

I do a fair bit of night riding and good lights completely transform the experience. For reference here's what I'm using:

  • IDC Stout front wheel – a good enough, solidly built, wheel using a Sanyo NH-H27 dynamo hub ($95 on e-bay). It was a gamble, so (2,500 km) far I'm well pleased. It flickers a bit more than the SON hub on our tandem, but for the price I've got nothing to complain about.

  • Busch & Müller Lumotec IQ Premium Cyo T Senso Plus - a bright, wide LED headlight with a stand light (a capacitor in the light that provides power to keep the light going for several minutes when you're stopped) and a daytime light pattern that makes you visible to cars in the daylight – this really helps when you're in and out of shadows ($104 from Peter White Cycles). Busch & Müller makes some less expensive lights but the Cyo is exceptional for range and beam width. The beam width is really nice when you're cornering in the dark. Range keeps you safe at speed. For anyone who rides on dark roads the Cyo is about the best light for the money. You can spend a bit less for a version without the daytime running light feature.

    If you are more concerned with being seen than with seeing some of the lower powered lights might be a good choice. The Busch & Müller Eyc (US $72 with the daytime running light, $66 without) puts out a very bright, but narrow beam (range is comparable to the Cyo, but you don't get to see as much on the sides). They also make a light called the Avy (US $42 without the daytime running light feature, US $56 with), which I haven't ridden with, but which sounds like it might be a good city light.

  • Busch & Müller Toplight Line Brake Plus – a big, bright, rack mounted tail light with a "brake light" feature. The dynamo puts out AC and the tail light monitors the frequency of the AC, which is proportional to the speed of the bike, when the frequency drops the light glows brighter ($49 from Peter White Cycles, there is also a version for $34 without the brake light feature). The nice thing about this light is that the illuminated area is wide (3 or 4 inches) and seems to help drivers judge distance to your bike.

Peter White is the US importer for Busch & Müller lights and is very knowledgeable about them – and they seem to have about the best prices on them. He also has photos comparing the beam patterns on his website.

One way to reduce cost a bit is with a [sidewall dynamo][6] (aka bottle generator). These cost about the same amount as a low-end hub generator (US $50 plus a mount which runs $10 to $15) and save the cost of building a wheel. The downside of the sidewall dynamos is that they require friction on the tire sidewall and may slip in icy conditions. Ideally the tire will be built with a reinforced sidewall for longevity. Some of the better models have a choice of drive wheels so that you can use a more aggressive one in the winter.

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    I don't yet have enough reputation to +1 this so thank you! I think what you are suggesting is something that you kindof build into the bike. (I think?) In the comment below is an example of what I have found on Amazon. Is this any better than the rechargeables my husband is already using? I'm looking for an improvement, but trying to keep the price tag under about $100. – TheSmallestOne Aug 24 '15 at 14:20
  • @TheSmallestOne Dynamo is in the hub - built in. Those tire based lights are not not efficient. – paparazzo Aug 24 '15 at 15:20
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    It is "kind of" built in – as in it would be a big pain to be taking the lights off on a regular basis, but it is still possible to move the lights to a new bike when you get one. I suspect that a good generator hub/wheel and lights will last for many years. Dynamo lights are definitely a long term investment in safety and convenience. You could save some money with a sidewall generator, but they often become unreliable in the winter – the wheel that rolls on the tire to drive the generator can slip. In areas with good streetlights you could also save some money on a lower powered headlight. – dlu Aug 24 '15 at 16:52
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    @TheSmallestOne - If your budget is under $100 then I would suggest waiting on a dynamo light setup, as it really pays to do the set-up right (i.e., hub dynamo, LED dynamo light). The bottle dynamo you linked will likely fail in winter, plus the light is halogen which will be quite dim. LED lights with lithium ion batteries have improved greatly and closed the gap on the hub dynamo + LED dynamo light compared to even a few years ago. For reliability and set and forget, hub dynamo + LED dynamo light is still the best (mine is 6 years old and going strong). – Rider_X Aug 24 '15 at 17:52
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Pedal power can be a roller that goes against the wheel a dynamo in the hub. The power generators against the wheel are not very efficient and I do NOT recommend them. A dynamo in the hub is efficient but it is not cheap and requires a new wheel or a rebuild of an existing wheel. A decent dynamo with lights is going to be over $100 and closer to $200.

The problem with a pedal power (dynamo) is that it is on one bike or the other. For sure you don't want to put a new dynamo hub on the old Mongoose. You cannot even share a wheel between those bikes as I am pretty sure the Mongoose is as 26".

As stated by others tail lights are low power and last a while.

You may want to consider a lithium ion light. Still have to charge it but it can be moved from one bike to the other easily.

Maybe even two lithium ion lights for two mounts, two batteries, and two chargers (one for the office).

Bike Lights

  • I don't yet have enough reputation to +1 this so thank you for the suggestion! – TheSmallestOne Aug 24 '15 at 14:12
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When I upgraded an old 1970s road bike into a commuter, I put a front Sanyo dynohub on it. I love it. I never have to worry about dead batteries and so I can keep the light on all the time – which increases my visibility considerably. A huge safety plus in my book.

As to costs: the dynohub and wheel cost me $85 with free shipping on the giant auction site in the cloud.

Item name: Sanyo dynohub (hub dynamo)/Vuelta rim 700c front bicycle wheel 36h

The tire and tube then cost another $60 (although I suspect you would be able to use the old tire/tube from the previous bike) at my LBS.

I built my own LED light, but a dynamo powered light is relatively inexpensive, I'd budget about $85 for front and rear using the excellent Busch and Muller lights.

Unless your hubby is handy with stringing wiring (it's only a slight tad harder than stringing Christmas lights), I'd get the local bike shop to do it, $10.

Total is around $85 + 60 + 85 + 10 = $240.

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Bicycles do have dynamo powered lights, which are pedal powered. They used to have a small generator that was rotated by the tyre. But this has been replaced by 'dynanmo hubs', with the generator being attached to the wheel hub. This basically means getting a wheel buildt around the hub or buying a wheel which has this type of hub, which would be fairly expensive. The one dynamo can power both front and back lights.

Rear lights don't need to put out as much power as front ones. The batteries should last for several months of normal use in blink or flashing mode.

For the front lights you may want to look at a better quality one that has several brightness settings. But you wont get much more than 6 hours burn time from them. Keeping a spare set of charged up batteries can help.

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I'm a year round commuter, and here in the Pacific Northwet it is often dark on the ride both to and from work during the winter. While I've been considering a hub generator for my commuter, I don't think I can really justify the cost. If I went touring on multi-day rides [or won the lottery], then yes I would get a hub generator [or generators].

Most of the battery powered lights I use take rechargeable AA or AAA batteries. My main headlight, a Light and Motion Urban 800 FC, recharges from a USB cable and it seriously lights up the road when it's dark out. L&M Urbans are falling in price. I also have a few "I'm here" lights that take lithium button batteries, and which could not be replaced with hub lights.

As @dlu said, Peter White is an awesome source, but I think I would look for a local source first. The investment is significant, and fit/compatibility issues could seriously drive up the price if you have to ship parts to and fro.

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