Time Needed: 10-30 minutes, Difficulty: Beginner, Cost: $10
Headlights are plain to see when they go out, turn signals usually cause the system to blink much faster than usual, and even reversing lights are easily noticed when they are absent. Brake lights, however, are a little harder to spot if you’re not looking for them. They don’t give you much warning, but you’ll want to change it as soon as possible.
Changing a brake light usually doesn’t take more than a few minutes you might not even need any tools to do it, depending on the vehicle. There is one caveat, however. Changing a brake light on a vehicle with LED modules instead of traditional bulbs can be incredibly expensive in comparison, so do a little model-specific research to find out what you have, or start poking around at the back end of your car (like I did!).
As you’ll see in the pictures that accompany this how-to article, my 2014 GMC Acadia has a more expensive LED module.
The Safety Brief
While working on cars can be messy and dangerous, changing a brake light really shouldn’t be. Unless you’re changing a broken tail light housing with jagged edges, or you accidentally break a glass bulb, this should be one of the cleaner, safer jobs you do. That being said, the basics for changing a brake light should be the following:
The Tools & Parts You Need
When it comes to changing a brake light, for many vehicles there isn’t much to it. I’ve had several vehicles with brake lights that I could remove and change with no tools at all! That being said, a lot of vehicles will require some minor hand tools.
- Brake light housing (maybe)
The Task: How To Change a Brake Light
When it comes to changing light bulbs, you should start by figuring out which bulb is actually out. This will be obvious if you’re replacing a damaged or worn-out assembly, but can be less obvious for housings with multiple bulbs.
1. Remove trim that’s in the way.
If you’re removing the lights on a car, there will often be carpet or a trim piece in the way. These are often tucked into place or held on by basic push-in fasteners. Pry gently, but your best efforts may break the plastic pins, especially on an older vehicle. On my example vehicle, there were two small caps that covered the bolts I needed to remove.
2. Remove fasteners.
Once things are opened up a bit, take a look at what you have. I had two 8-millimeter bolts, but it’s not uncommon to have plain Phillips head screws. Sometimes there are Torx head bolts that look like little star shapes. In this case, you might need to get some specialty bits from the auto parts store.
3. Pull gently.
Most brake light housings are secured with fasteners of some kind. They’re also aligned with plastic rods and different pieces. These plastic pieces can break easily if you’re rough with them, so pull gently. This is one reason I like to watch a quick video before tackling the task, in case there are any tricks. If you get stuck, check again for any fasteners you may have missed, and if you’re really stuck, take a look online if you’re able to.
4. Righty tighty, lefty loosey.
The brake light housing should be out and more or less dangling by the wiring for each light. In many vehicles there are several bulbs in the single housing, from running lights, to turn signals, reversing lights, and the one we’re here for, brake lights. Many bulb sockets are secured by a partial-turn mechanism: turn it counterclockwise (lefty loosey) to remove it. This is often firm, but it shouldn’t be difficult to turn.
5. Remove and inspect the bulb
If the bulb is broken, use care and make sure you dispose of the broken glass safely. Many bulbs pull straight out, and many must be pushed in slightly and then turned to remove. Look for broken filaments inside older bulbs, or blackened glass indicating they’ve burned out. If everything looks okay, you might have a different problem, but that’s outside of the scope of this how-to.
6. (Optional) Remove all bulbs and holder and replace housing
This optional step is for one of two people: Those with a broken brake light housing, and those with LED module brake lights. The process is identical though: Unplug all of the wiring, remove the bulb sockets, and put them in the new housing.
The 2014 GMC Acadia I was working on had one bulb in the center, but if the LED portion were to fail, I would have to replace the entire housing. This, unfortunately, was shockingly expensive at nearly $500 per side, and that fancy bulb was $50.
7. Install bulbs and test.
This step goes along with step 5: test, test, test. Leave the bulb dangling somewhere you can see it, and go step on the brake pedal. Turn the running lights on, check to see that the bulb you just installed is performing the way it’s supposed to.
8. Replace and reassemble.
Follow the reverse steps to reassemble and reinstall the housing with the newly functional bulbs inside. You’re done!
FAQs About Changing a Brake Light
I’m not a mind reader, but I do want to try and answer some of the questions you may have before you start the job. Here are a few common points of confusion from my experience and from popular search results.
Q. How the heck do I get the housing out of my car?
A. Though more reputable online sources often have the best information, typing in “how to change a brake light on a…” and finishing that with the year, make, and model of your car should get you a video on YouTube. Even if the presenter does it poorly, you’ll have a better idea what you’re doing without breaking any plastic pieces by accident.
Q. I got the bulb out, but there’s no writing on it: What do I buy?
A. Take that bulb with you to the auto parts store and either ask the employees to help, or hold it up as you compare it to the available selection on the shelf.
Q. Can I replace just one?
A. Yes, you can, but if they’re cheap (less than $10 a piece), then you should get a two-pack and keep the other one handy. Brake lights often go out in pairs, so when one wears out, the other is likely to be right behind it.
Learn More About Changing Brake Lights From This Video
For those who prefer visuals to reading, we have your back with a video showing you exactly how to change a brake light. Watch and learn!
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