Bicycle iPhone and USB Charging – The Lighting System

If you install a decent lighting system on your bike, it tells drivers that you are really making an effort to be seen. They perceive you as "doing your part" to promote safety. You’d be surprised how much more respect and space you are given just because of this. In fact, this added respect actually makes night-riding with a good headlight safer than daytime riding. You are seen as a miniature car, not an oversize pedestrian. (Note: On the other hand, riding at night without a strong headlight is crazy. Please don’t do it.)

This is why my electrical system, like all the others I’ve seen, must include a good headlight and taillight setup. My eventual aim is to integrate the lighting system I get with a battery, a battery charger, and some other doodads, but I’d also like the lights to function independently of all of this, so I can still use the lights even if the battery is crapped out. Plus, I can assemble the system in stages: The hub and the lights first, the rest later.

This is what I ended up doing. In fact, I rode my bike with a generator and headlight attached, and an iPhone mounted on the handlebars, many times. You can read of my exploits and the stuff I learned by following these links:

Of course, I had to worry about the battery life of the iPhone the entire time. I clearly needed to finish this project. Onward!

Too Many Choices

I was expecting the creation of a lighting system to be arduous. There seemed to be a lot of disagreement over what constituted "adequate" lighting for a bicycle. I browsed dozens of forum pages erected by people showing off their custom solutions, often using racks of lensed LEDs pointing every which way, bolted or clipped or welded to handlebars or rims, turning their bikes into props from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Other people custom-built their reflectors and enclosures, using cut rings of metal piping and solder and silicon glue. I found obsessive discussions about bulb manufacturers, batteries, switches … even a lively debate over what type of wire to use.

Why is there so much disagreement?

Because cyclists ride in different places, and in different ways. When you’re on city streets, you need to illuminate yourself and a channel of ground directly ahead of you, to watch for potholes and debris, plus you need a highly visible taillight. When you’re on a mountain trail, you need to illuminate a wide band around you, and you can’t use a dynamo because you’ll often be pedaling too slowly to make enough power. When you’re on hilly terrain you need to see further ahead, because you can descend hills quite fast and will need more reaction time. When you’re cycling in a group or camping, you need lights that can be manipulated, to read signs, set up camp, and avoid blinding other people. Some people need lights that last a couple of hours; some people need lights that last perpetually. Some riders have bigger budgets, or different materials at hand. And of course, beyond all of this, each rider has a different sense of style.

Why did so many of the custom designs involve metal?

The designers are worried about heat dissipation. Some of the bulbs they use put out a lot of waste heat, and they want to draw the heat away to extend the life of the bulb. I’m not worried about this because the lights I choose need to be very power-efficient to work with the dynamo, and an efficient light will produce very little waste heat. In fact, LEDs are so much more efficient nowadays that the debate is basically over. There’s no good reason any more to use a different kind of bulb.

So what is the best type of wire to use?

It really doesn’t make that much of a difference. But for what it’s worth, my engineer friend Matt suggests the wire they sell at boating supply stores. It’s designed with especially wear-resistant jacketing, and a high “thread count” – that is, a high number of strands making up the wire. Personally, I wouldn’t worry about this. Just grab any old decently flexible wire from Radio Shack.

So what are my requirements? Well, frankly, when I’m out "touring" I plan to be off my bike by nightfall. It’s much easier to set up camp that way. The only exception is when I’m running late to arrive at a place where I’ve called in a reservation, like a motel or an RV park. Those will be in cities, so I’ll need lights suitable for city streets. Though I’d rather not be arriving late, it’s better to ride into the night than to hurry.

I already own a very bright headlight, but the shape of the projected beam is a bit wrong. When it’s pointed down at the road in the best spot for street riding, it emits a huge amount of peripheral light up and in front of me. Oncoming drivers and pedestrians find the light so bright that it blacks out everything immediately around it by contrast. So they see the light, but they don’t see me. They can’t even tell I’m a cyclist, unless I happen to be underneath a streetlamp. As much as I like the brightness of this light, I really dislike that blinding effect.

Plus, it uses a custom battery pack that I can’t adapt to my generator. It’s charged by a wall-wart power brick that emits DC power and contains it’s own special charge-tracking circuitry. Since my wife doesn’t have a light, I’m giving that one to her, and getting a replacement.


Yeah, that’s engineer slang. When you plug it in, the adapter sticks out from the wall like a black wart, with a long thin hair coming off it (the wire). Delightful.

Probably the most influential page I’ve read while making this decision is this comparison involving the InoLED light. If you read any of the travelogues above, you’ll know that I eventually chose the InoLED Extreme lamp. Peter White describes this lamp by saying, "If you can’t see the road with this, then you need to be walking, preferably with a cane."

I wouldn’t go that far… I think the headlight I used before was actually brighter than this one. But the shape of the InoLED is excellent, and it far outshines almost every other lamp I’ve seen on a bicycle here in San Jose. The increased respect I receive from drivers is fantastic. Other riders have complemented me on it, and strangers have tailed me in order to use my light to see the road.

What, you’re not getting a flashing light? Those are much brighter!

Oh sure, they’re bright. They’re also an irritant to oncoming traffic, be it pedestrians or motorists. They’ll see you alright, but they’ll be seized with the urge to plow you down just to stop that damned flashing.

Before you install one of those on your bike, try switching it on and taping it to the hood of your car, facing the driver’s seat. Now try driving a loop around the parking lot. … Why would you inflict that on other drivers? For the sake of safety?

While getting new tires at a bike shop, I saw a guy gearing up for a ride with three big flashing lights laid across his handlebars. I asked him if people ever complained about his lights.

He said, “Sometimes guys go running because they think I’m a cop!”

I laughed and said, “No, I mean cars. Don’t you worry that some driver’s gonna get pissed off at your light and hit you on purpose?”

He shook his fist theatrically and yelled, “Let them try! I’ve been hit five times. They can’t stop me. I’ll be stuck on there, beating on their windshield, yelling at ’em.”

I admired his dedication, but thought to myself: Five times? Maybe you should focus on illuminating yourself, instead of on distrcting other vehicles…

If you’re getting an InoLED lamp and powering it with a hub, there’s an electrical issue you need to be aware of: At high speeds, the hub can actually produce much more power than the lamp can use, and will burn out the lamp. This problem is eliminated by adding another lamp, or a taillight, to increase the electrical load for the hub to dump power into. An even better idea is to add a taillight with an "over-voltage protection wire" attached. The InoLED can be purchased with just such a wire included.

With a taillight added on via the over-voltage protection wire, what I get is a complete lighting system that I can install and use before I buy any battery or charger components.

So if I’m powering the lamp with the hub, doesn’t that mean that the headlight will die if I come to a complete stop?

Normally, yes. Except the InoLED contains a component called a "super capacitor" that serves double duty as a small battery and as part of the AC-to-DC conversion circuit. The lamp dims to about 20% brightness when I’m stopped at a corner and stays that way for about two minutes, or as soon as I start pedaling again. During my test rides it proved to be more than adequate, except for the one case where I was pedaling slowly up a dark curvy road in deep forest, and the road had no shoulder. I didn’t want to stop because if I did, I would be too close to the road and might get surprised by a car. So I rode slowly. But when I rode too slowly, the headlight dimmed and I felt blind. Scary stuff. Might be cause to get a small helmet lamp.

The Order

When I placed an order for the hub and the wheel, I also ordered the following:

[order email]

Here’s a photo of all the stuff that came with the wheel and the hub.

My bike had a stupid little reflector on a metal arm just beneath the handlebars, so I removed the reflector and mounted the InoLED on the metal arm, using the smaller plastic adapter from the handlebar mounting kit. A perfect fit.

[picture of front lamp, mounted]

To The Battery Pack

4 Responses to Bicycle iPhone and USB Charging – The Lighting System

  1. Warren says:

    “stupid little reflector… ” In Alabama (and probably other states), the law requires a rear reflector. The adding/replacing the rear reflector with a real light does not supersede/negate the law. In fact, I know this only because of a bike/car accident where the lawyers (insurance company) for the automobile owner was able to have the judgement against (them) greatly reduced. It seems that being smarter and brighter is not always best – at least not legally, anyway.

    This is a good read, ‘cept it seems several links are dead – not issue, though.

    • That is very good advice! Do you know if the law covers tail-lights like the one I bought (pictured above)? … Because that one is an electric light, but also contains reflector material so that headlights will bounce back from it just like a typical passive reflector even when it’s off.

  2. richie says:

    I completely agree with you about the flashing lights! I still see so many cyclists out on the road with stupid bright flashing lights. They could at least point them down away from people’s eyes.

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