Underglow Lights Give Your Car a Special Glow

Interior  /   /  By Mark Bach
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Underglow lights can turn your ride into a brilliant, rolling light show at night. Or, if used with some self-control, an underglow can provide a subtle nighttime lighting accent.

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Cars That Support Underglow

Almost any vehicle can take on an underglow. The lifted frame of a 4X4 vehicle provides more than enough ground clearance to light up the road. In any event, pay attention to the placement of the lights to avoid road debris.

Controller for truck underglow

A handheld controller (about the size of a credit card) lets you turn on the lights and pick desired colors.

Another slick use is lighting your wheels. If you place a ring of lights behind your wheels, you will need to remove both the brake caliper and rotor. Bolting a static ring behind these parts provides a place to attach LEDs.

Placing a set of LEDs in the wheel wells lights a broad area and produces a big effect.

Types of Underglow Lights

Neon Tubes

The old-school way to get underglow lights was neon tubes. Thankfully, LEDs have replaced neon. Neon had more than a few drawbacks.

  • The tubes are not flexible.
  • They are fragile and got very hot.
  • There aren’t many colors to choose from
  • The neon tubes need electric transformers to energize the inert gases that make them glow.
  • The transformers wear out over time.

Despite these faults, you can use neon in the trunk or under the hood. These are places where the straight tubes produce a line of light.

Neon lighting kit

Neon lighting kit

LED Underglow

LED’s (or light-emitting diodes) are commonly used in the headlights of modern cars.

See: “LED Headlights on Cars: Installing, Aiming, and Troubleshooting.”

But LEDs are not just headlight bulbs. LED lighting can also be encased in a flexible strip with adhesive backing and placed in many areas of the vehicle.

Most sellers offer a way to link the strips together in a daisy chain. This allows you to light up as much of the car as you like. Light the whole undercarriage if you want a disco effect.

LED strips can come in a single fixed color. But, LED strips with RGB (red/green/blue) diodes are the way to go. Most LED strips come with controllers that allow you to combine the color and brightness of the underglow lights.

Instead of a simple on/off switch, a handheld controller (about the size of a credit card) allows you to:

  • Turn on the lights
  • Pick desired colors
  • Choose a level of brightness
  • Display a flashing sequence

Some units allow you to control them with a smartphone. That can bring new features. This includes the ability to sync the flashing sequence to music.

Electroluminescent Light (EL) Underglow Lights

LED is not the only game in town. Another contender for underglow lights, especially for the interior, are electroluminescent light (EL) wire cables.

Red EL underglow

Red ELs give pizzaz to this car’s interior.

With EL technology, a flexible cable (like a drinking straw) wraps around an interior trim piece. When you turn the power on, the wire puts out a soft glow.

ELs have a couple advantages:

  • EL come in a wider choice of shapes, from wide strips or lightbox-style flat panels
  • They use less power and stay cool to the touch

However, ELs use alternating current (AC). Because of this, you’ll need an inverter to change the 12-volt direct current to alternating current. Most kits include the needed inverter.

8 Step Installation

The glow lighting kits available on eBay have everything you need. Here are the basic steps for installing an LED underglow. (The steps for EL or Neon are more or less the same):

  1. Clean the undercarriage where you plan to place the LED strips.
  2. Decide how much wiring you’ll need to reach the fuse box or battery.
  3. If your fuse box has an unused circuit, use that for the lighting kit. (If not, connect directly to the battery using an in-line fuse). Most kits should include the in-line fuse wiring. If not, eBay Motors has you covered.
  4. Remove the liner covering on the adhesive-backed LED strip.
  5. Firmly press the adhesive area to the chassis or other mounting point. Avoid pressing on the actual LEDs.
  6. Let the adhesive set for at least 30 minutes. For extra security, use zip ties to secure the cables.
  7. Add connectors for extra strips. Some kits offer a short wiring strip to connect two LED strips together. Other units plug one end into another.
  8. Then, turn everything on and check to see if the underglow lights are giving the effect you want. Adjust as needed.
LED strip for an underglow

The LED is encased in a flexible strip for easy attachment.

Legal Issues with Underglow Lights

Before you install underglow lights, check your local and state motor vehicles codes.

Bright, flashing, and colorful lights can distract other drivers. Thus, some states don’t allow them or strictly regulate their use.

Most jurisdictions frown on red and blue lighting that might drive can confuse with street infrastructure or emergency vehicle lights. In any event, prepare yourself to attract the attention of police.

A great place to start your research is NeonLaws.com.

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About the Author

Mark C. Bach has oil in his veins and remembers feeler gauges and brake springs. He has a love for all things that move, especially old-school muscle cars. Bach writes for a variety of outlets, including Chevy Classics and FuelCurve.com, and maintains Route66pubco.com.