Do-It-Yourself Headlight Repair

Eight years seems to be the magic number when it comes to car headlamps. Our newest car is eight years old, as is a company vehicle that I occasionally use. Both were suffering from varying degrees of fogged over, yellowing headlights, with the company car having the worst symptoms by far.

This car, a 2004 Ford Focus, had a headlamp with a UV coating that was not only yellowed, but actually bubbling off a horizontal portion of the polycarbonate lens. In addition to being ugly, this condition likely caused a decline in nighttime visibility, though I must confess that I hadn’t noticed any problems.

Still, it was clearly time to take action, so I bought a do-it-yourself headlamp lens restoration kit. The one I used requires the use of a power drill, though others that rely exclusively on manual rubbing are also available. Here’s what I learned during my repair experience:

-Forget the estimates of ten to 20 minutes per headlamp that are posted on the websites of some headlamp restoration kit makers. I have long expected every project I undertake will require at least twice the amount of time suggested by the manufacturer of the products I am going to use, and this effort was no exception. Each light required about one hour of work.

-Don’t worry about being gentle. These headlamp lenses – “covers” is probably a more accurate description – are surprisingly robust, as they need to stand up to the flying debris encountered during 60-plus mile-per-hour trips.

-Regardless of how careful you are, take the time to protect the surrounding painted surfaces. I raised the hood, getting it out of the way, but the fender and painted bumper cover received a double layer of the masking tape provided in the kit I used. This serves as protection in case you slip with the power drill sanding pad. I’d also suggest that comparable care be taken when using a kit that calls for manual sanding.

-Expect even seriously degraded UV films to put up a great deal of resistance to being sanded off the surface of the lens. The UV film on the Focus was tenacious in sticking to the lens surfaces, but it all has to be removed.

- Don’t worry about minor gouges caused by adding a little angle to the sanding pad. Those marks come out easily when the drill is held at the correct angle.

- Have a shop vacuum handy. I found that by vacuuming the plastic dust from the various grades of sandpaper that came with the kit, I was able to significantly extend the useful working life of each sandpaper disc.

-When it comes time to move up to the wet-sanding/polishing step, be prepared for some splatter. This would probably not be a problem with a kit that is based on manual sanding, but with a power drill rotating at up to 1,600 rpm, the liquid mess can really travel.

-Don’t expect miracles. Upon completion of the first lens, I found that there was some yellowing inside at the very top. While it doesn’t look new, it does look much better. It also seems brighter when driving at night.

Manufacturers of these kits admit that they do not provide a permanent solution to the problem of yellowing headlamps. Most kits also do not include a replacement UV coating. Some say that proper installation is difficult, that the life expectancy of the replacement coating is relatively short and that it might not even be legal under federal standards governing headlamps. As a result, you can expect to repeat the process in about two years, though some people report renewed yellowing in just 90 days.
The alternative to using one of these kits – or hiring a detailing shop to do the work– is to replace the headlamps. This can be expensive, with some headlamps costing $400 or more each. Even on the Focus, a pair of headlamps would cost more than $200. All of which makes the $17 kit and a couple hours seem like a bargain

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