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Emergency lighting for police car collectors

Good day, people. Welcome to another installment of Police Car Collecting on Allpar. I hope you are finding this column entertaining and informative. Grab your seats and let’s get started with today’s briefing.

One of the major components of any police car restoration is the emergency lighting. Let’s start out with some Copcar Lighting 101. I know that this is a refresher for most of you, but a little review is always good, and who knows… you might learn something new. We’ll get to the crux of what I really want to address soon.

sirenNow, we all know that lighting has evolved over the years, but the most significant technological changes have been in just the last few years. While steady burn and flashing lights have been around since the early 20th, rotating lights almost seemed like a logical progression in the evolution of emergency vehicle lighting to deal with visibility. They came about in the 1950s from companies like Sireno and Federal Sign & Signal. While Sireno is a name from the past, we all should still recognize Federal.  The 360 degree rotating sealed beam light gave better all around recognition to emergency vehicles and started the changes in emergency lighting. Visibility is everything!

Of course, as time went on, some thought why just use one 360 when two will do better? Enter the 1960s. Now we have the bar mounted dual lights that came from Federal and another now defunct company called Mars with Whelen Electronics getting into the act and gaining popularity. Hey, we can even throw some flashers and a siren speaker on it if we choose. A lot of agencies did. Now, we hear names like Visibar in the industry. Many interesting combinations came out during the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s. Bar mounted lights gave agencies a lot of artistic license to do many mounting variations with single and dual rotating lights, etc. You could buy a blank bar and mount any manufacturer’s lights on them that you could fit up there. Visibility and recognition is now even more improved.

police lighting

Of course, in the endless effort to continually build a better mousetrap, we had several manufacturers designing and offering the first enclosed lightbars starting in the late 1960s. Now, names like Twinsonic are the new wave in EV lighting and this basic configuration of bar continues today. Among others, companies like Code 3, Dietz, and even Smith & Wesson eventually got into the act.

lighting bar

On to the Disco era, one some of us would rather forget. The rage in EV lighting is the strobe. With its humble beginnings as a single light and moving on to complete enclosed lightbars, later with more powerful lumen output and variable flash patterns, strobe lighting is still popular today. The bulbs became smaller and lent themselves to many applications. No moving parts meant less maintenance. Whelen led the field and never looked back.

aerodynamic strobe lights

North Dakota state trooper

Fast forward to today. Yes, we bypassed the Aerodynic, StreetHawks, the Code 3 XL, Edge, even the Vision, among others. They were still variants of old technology except using halogen lighting instead of sealed beam incandescent bulbs or now old tech strobes. More light, smaller bulbs and fixtures, but not revolutionary. Now, comes the LED, the light emitting diode. This is not new technology to the 21st century, but never before made available as a viable and effective source of lighting for emergency vehicles. With the earlier generation LEDs delivering less light, they didn’t gain significant popularity until recently with the advent of the 3rd generation LED units. Today, names like Whelen, Tomar, and Star are the buzzword names of EV lighting.

LED lightingSo, why is this new form of lighting gaining so much popularity despite the significantly higher initial costs?  A halogen or strobe bar costing around $600 or so can cost over $1,000 in LED configuration. What makes it so different than what we have been used to for so long?

This is an easy one to answer. First, no moving parts…no drive motors…no belts or chains…nothing mechanical to adjust, lubricate, or just plain wear out. Next, no bulbs. The LED is an electronic component, a diode that emits light. They last many times longer than any bulb made. They give off no heat which is what helps wear out conventional bulbs, especially halogen. Next, and possibly one of the most important considerations for vehicular applications, they draw a fraction of the power that conventional lightbars do while still delivering significant lumens of light. Even strobes draw significant amounts of power to repetitively charge the capacitors in the power supplies which power the bulb flashes. Many strobe units need a remote power supply that when improperly mounted develop corrosion which shortens the service life, as well. Often, they are mounted in moisture prone areas due to the increasing difficulty in mounting them in dry areas like the interior due to space restrictions. Lower power drain with LEDs means less potential for vehicular electrical system failures and no peripherals to hook up means less to go bad in the lighting system. No cables other than main power and switching and no remote power supplies. LED units are basically self contained.

Ok, so what does all this mean to the classic copcar collector? Many of you know much, if not all, of what I stated already, but I guess it is the instructor in me coming out. Nothing wrong with a history lesson, especially on a subject we like. An indisputable fact is that you will be using old technology for a collector car. What this means is that you will be using antiquated high amperage drawing lights, most likely used. You’re not going to mount a Tomar LED bar on a ’72 Polara, hopefully.

Dodge Charger police car

Ok, so let’s say you got the lights back to 100% operating condition and cosmetically sweet, unless you were fortunate enough to obtain them in that condition in the first place. You know how to mount them just right and even have the right switch or switchbox to handle the load demands. Great. You even installed them with the correct gauge wire. Now, can your electrical system handle the load?  Now you see where I have been heading all along. Sealed beam bulbs draw a significant amount of juice. Add to this the drive motor to rotate the light and you have quite a draw. Multiply this by two for a lightbar, maybe a set of flashers or two, and you had really better make sure that your alternator, regulator, and battery can handle the load.  Remember, strobes need a good bit of power, also. Factory police package cars are set up out of the box to be able to handle the extra draw. They are built with the expectation to mount lights on the roof along with other electrical items.

Rick Ehrenberg on beefing up
classic-car electrical systems

What if you are building a clone? Now, you had really better evaluate the charging system carefully. Even if it is a package car, it won’t hurt to make sure it is still up to expectations. Many older cars (up until well into the ‘80s) had alternators that put out no more than 12 to 15 amps at idle with a maximum of 60 to 80 amps at highway speeds and this was very common. The faster an alternator turns the more amperage (up to its maximum) it will put out. The voltage regulator simply monitors the demands and allows more juice to be released, still only up to the maximum the alternator will deliver by design.

Remember, your alternator has to make up for ALL of the electrical demands of your car while keeping the battery charged, not just powering the emergency equipment.  I faced this with my ’76 K-9 car and never realized how much of a problem I had until I installed a voltmeter in the car and could monitor what was happening while the car was in actual use. Extreme demand on a substandard charging system will relate to inadequate voltage being delivered. Even though the manufacturer sold the particular model I have as patrol cars, they had standard charging systems, no different than any showroom model. Add using the headlights at the same time the emergency lighting is active, maybe a heater or a/c, and you have significantly gone beyond the charging capabilities of the car. Add a mechanical “growler” siren and fugget about it. These really create a draw as they are simply an electric motor and draw the most amps on starting but also continue to draw at a lesser amp drain to stay turning.

If you have a larger car like a B Body you’re cloning or anything similar regardless of make, you likely have an 80 amp max output alternator. But how many amps is your car’s alternator delivering at 15 mph and therefore what is the voltage as a result? This may do for driving it at speed lights on to a degree, but doing a parade at slow speeds will cause you to drain down your battery at a pretty significant rate. My car had a 60 amp maximum alternator and with the lights on, headlights and defroster also, I was lucky if I was putting out 11 volts at 10mph and at speed, well, it was nearly as pathetic. Good thing I had an electronic siren, at least.  They draw significantly less power than a mechanical one. You need to be putting out at least 13.5 volts consistently to keep the battery charged. This can be very embarrassing, to say the least. No, I didn’t break down during the parade I was in, but it made for a tense experience.

What can you do about it? Plenty, and it’s not rocket science. In Charging Systems 101, you have to remember that any car draws its electrical requirements from the battery with the charging system keeping up with the demands while at the same time keeping the battery charged. There is a mildly delicate balance that has to be maintained otherwise you start having operational and performance problems and ultimately the complete failure of the vehicle.

For ‘60s and ‘70s Mopars, you can easily substitute the police package alternator. No further major changes are necessary, and it’s often just a “plug & play” install. The same is true for other manufacturers. If the car has an external voltage regulator, make sure you use the appropriate one for the alternator. Another alternative, and the one I used, was to purchase a custom alternator set up from an aftermarket manufacturer. My biggest problem with upgrading the charging system was the space consideration for mounting the alternator. Factory replacement possibilities were simply too large. The aftermarket one I used came with everything I needed to do a complete and clean job and still retain the stock appearance. The total cost was around $350 shipped with me doing the labor. The installation of the retrofit was about as simple as it could have been and the quality outstanding, not to mention a lifetime warranty on the alternator itself and great customer support via an 800 number. It took me less than two hours to do the retrofit and test the finished job and that time frame included a call to their 800 number to address a question I had about something in the illustrated installation guide. Not too shabby, huh? I couldn’t even find a reason to throw any tools across the yard.

The new alternator puts out 60 amps at idle with a max of 100 at speed under draw. I haven’t had a single problem since. The proper alternator for the demands needed ensures delivering both proper voltage and amperage all the time. This is just as important for performance as it is for powering equipment.  There are outlets available for aftermarket products on the web, or if anyone is interested in where I obtained mine, contact me through the interactive section of this column.

Bottom line is that during a parade or community event is not the time to find out that you have misjudged the charging capabilities of your car. Otherwise, you had better carry a set of jumper cables or an auto club card for your next outing. And be prepared for the snickering.

Other columns

Introduction | The basics of police car collecting | Who are collectors? Why do we collect?

Emergency lighting | Sirens | Where to find retired police cars | Emergency vehicle shows | Investing in police cars

Restorations: Rules and regs for restorers | Chevy Malibu | 1949 Ford | Do-it-yourself bodywork | Do-it-yourself mechanical work

Shows: Chicagoland Emergency Vehicles Show | Aquidneck Island Police Car Parade (2008 | 2009)

Also see the EVOOA home page

We make no guarantees regarding validity, accuracy, or applicability of information, predictions, or advice. Please read the terms of use and privacy policy. Copyright © 1994-2000, David Zatz; copyright © 2001-2016, Allpar LLC (except as noted, and press/publicity materials); all rights reserved. Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Ram, and Mopar are trademarks of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.


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