Want to add some amazing style and color to your ride? Not only can you do it yourself, but you can also get great results for less than the price of a pair of speakers!
I’m passionate about helping others so I worked hard to put together this detailed do-it-yourself (DIY) guide to show you how to install LED strip lights in a car.
Want to see what they look like before you spend the time and effort? Be sure to check out my demo video at the end.
- Infographic – Car LED light facts and tips
- What are LEDs?
- LEDs vs light bulbs & neon bulb comparison
- How do multicolor RGB LEDs work?
- How do LED light strips work?
- Choosing a great LED light strip set
- Supplies, tools, and your shopping list
- Installing LED lighting in your car: getting started
- How to wire 12V LED lights in a car
- Spice up your system! LED amp rack lighting example
- Final notes and demo video
- Additional reading
Infographic – Car LED light facts and tips
What are LEDs?
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are semiconductor components that produce light. Semiconductors are basic electronic elements made up of silicon and other elements that allow electrons (electrical current) to flow in certain ways. Diodes are “one-way valves” which allow current to flow in only one direction. An interesting property is that they also produce visible light. An anode (positive lead) connects to a positive power supply and the cathode (negative lead) connects to the ground or (-) wire.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are one of the most important components in the electronics world. They’ve been around for decades but in the last 10-15 years or so they have become increasingly useful in our everyday lives. This includes uses in both home and car lighting, too.
LEDs work on the principle of a semiconductor junction. In other words, they contain 2 different materials like silicon and germanium bonded together to form a junction – or bridge – that forms a diode.
That principle is the basis of microscopic transistors which are what allow microprocessors and many other modern technological miracles to work.
The tiny components like the LED chip (the semiconductor materials themselves) are very sensitive but are sealed in an extremely hard and durable epoxy housing. Wires are bonded to the tiny components for connecting power.
If you’d like to read more about the different types of LEDs check out this page.
How LEDs produce light
Diodes have a special side effect when they pass electricity – they produce light! The color of the light produced depends upon the materials used to make them.
Over the years more and more companies have improved upon them and now produce cheap, great-looking LEDs that can produce light in a variety of colors.
Unlike regular light bulbs, however, LEDs actually work on a low voltage (say around 1.5 volts or so each). This means they must be used with a resistor to limit the amount of current flowing Otherwise they burn out quickly.
Resistors are used with LEDs when powered by car voltage (normally somewhere around 12V).
LEDs vs light bulbs & neon bulb comparison
LEDs have several advantages over incandescent (filament-type) bulbs and neon tubes as well. Here’s a comparison table highlighting some of the pros and cons of the three types.
|CRITERIA||LED BULBS||LIGHT BULBS||NEON TUBES|
|Voltage||Low||Low/as required||High (special power supply)|
|Life expectancy||Extremely high (tens of thousands of hours)||Low/medium (hundreds of hours)||Low/medium (hundreds of hours)|
|"Soft" glow effect||Poor||Fair||Great|
As you can see from the table, LEDs have significant advantages in nearly every category that matters. They’re more cost-effective too.
It’s not just because they’re so durable and have an extremely long useful life (in the 10, 000 of hours, typically) but also because they need a lower voltage to work.
One drawback is that they can’t reproduce the “soft glow” neon tubes can, but that’s a minor drawback overall. When done well they still look great!
How do multicolor RGB LEDs work?
Image showing a multicolored red-green-blue (RGB) LED up close. These LEDs are actually a combination of 3 separate red, green, and blue LEDs built together. Today’s multicolored LEDs are very tiny and some are only a few millimeters in size!
Red, green, and blue (RGB) LEDs are made of 3 separate color LED segments combined into one small package.
Just like images displayed by your computer monitor or a phone’s liquid crystal display (LCD) the colors are produced in various brightness levels to form different color combinations.
RGB LEDs have 3 connections: one for each color. By using a specially designed LED controller the 3 colors are driven at different brightness levels and various hues of colors are produced.
Of course, basic red, green, and blue colors can be produced as well. The number of variations in color and brightness you can choose from depends on the ability of the controller used.
How do LED light strips work?
Diagram showing the design and basic operation of car LED light strips. The 12V supply powers the light strip controller which drives each light strip with separate red, green, and blue on/off waveforms. These waveforms are how brightness and color combinations become possible. Resistors are required to limit the amount of current each LED segment can receive.
LED light strips worked by being driven by a special power supply that controls the amount of time (and which color) LEDs switch on and off.
While simple single-color LED strips don’t need a power supply, they’re incapable of having different color combinations and special features like dimming or pulsing with music sounds.
An LED controller makes this possible in more advanced light strips by using very fast switching on/off with separate wiring for each individual RGB color.
LED light strips contain an evenly spaced set of multiple RGB LEDs and resistors wired in parallel. When powered, each color receives a separate on/off signal from the LED driver controller box. This allows a variety of brightness levels and color combinations.
The longer the on time applied to an LED, the brighter it will seem to your eyes. If one color is turned on more than the others that color will appear more prominent. (For example, if blue is turned on more often than red, you’ll see a color mix with more blue in it)
Each light strip connects in parallel with other light strips by design in most light sets.
Choosing a great LED light strip set
Car LED light strip sets like this popular one from Amazon that I've tested are a great deal for the money and offer a lot of options including color-changing, a remote, and pulsing with your music.
Getting a good LED light set is definitely important. There are so many sold today it can become a headache when shopping!
Although you can buy a simple single-color light strip set for around $10 (like this one here) I recommended spending just a few dollars more.
My advice is to look for one with the following features:
- Good buyer reviews and happy users
- Fairly installer-friendly
- Offers multi-color modes
- Music mode to change with sound
- Color rotation modes (gradient, fast, etc)
- Brightness control
You don’t need to spend a lot – say $30 or less. Here’s a great example of a light strip set that does all this and more for a great price.
Instructions included with Chinese products like these can be hard to understand, so be ready for that!
Supplies, tools, and your shopping list
It’s really smart to make a list of what you’ll need before getting started. It only takes a few minutes and can really help you be better ready for the specifics of installing in your vehicle!
I recommend making a basic list of what you can expect to need before you begin installing LED lights in your vehicle.
- Multimeter (for measuring voltage) – preferred over a test light
- Crimp tool for crimp connectors
- Screwdrivers and etc (as needed for your vehicle)
- Wire-cutting pliers or pliers with a wire-cutting feature
I highly recommend getting an inexpensive but good multimeter (left) like this best-selling budget model from Amazon and a wire crimp tool and wire crimp connectors (right) before starting your installation. You’ll get professional results and it will go much more easily, too!
- Wire (“zip”) ties (usually sold in a bag of 100 or more), 6″ length or similar
- Wire crimp connectors (small assortment)
- Roll of electrical tape
- Good quality fast-drying glue
- Fuse tap adapters (if wiring from fusebox)
If you’re mounting the light strips to flat (or other material) surfaces, I really recommend using a great glue like this fantastic Gorilla super glue gel that’s easy to work with. For making your installation wiring neat or mounting lights to wires or other nearby objects, definitely pick up some small wire ties like these.
While it might not seem important now, I strongly recommend picking up a pack of wire ties. They’re incredibly useful for keeping wires held together and nice and neat.
They’re also very handy for mounting light strips to metal braces or nearby wiring (and other objects) underneath your dashboard and seats.
Installing LED lighting in your car: getting started
You’ll need to do just a few major steps to get your LED lights installed. The good news is that in most cases it’s not that hard! It does take a little while to do it right, but it’s well worth it!
You’ll need to plan to do the following:
- Wire the controller (or lights directly) to a power source of +12V and ground
- Mount the light strips securely
- Test and verify operation
In most cases, you don’t need to run any wiring to the battery. LED lights use only a relatively small amount of power so in most vehicles they can be connected to the factory stereo or cigarette lighter socket wiring.
There are also a few more sources I’ll mention later.
How to wire 12V LED lights in a car
Many sets include a cigarette lighter plug with an on/off switch. While using the cigarette socket to power a set is an easy option, it’s not the best or neatest way. However, for temporary use it’s ok.
While LED car interior light sets often include a cigarette socket power plug, that’s not the best option. Ideally, you’ll want to hardwire them to turn off with the ignition switch just like the car stereo.
LED light strip wiring diagram
In order to power the set you’ll need to hardwire it to an accessory wire to get a +12V supply that switches on or off with the ignition.
You can normally find a wire that works for this in one of several places:
- Behind the car stereo (usually the first option)
- At the cigarette lighter socket wiring
- At the fusebox in the vehicle interior
How do I find a +12V accessory (“ACC”) wire?
1. Look up your vehicle’s wiring colors
I recommend looking for wiring color codes for your vehicle at The12volt.com. In most cases, you’ll find the colors and diagrams for your car or truck’s wiring.
If that doesn’t work out, it’s ok. We’ll fall back on plan #2.
2. Test wiring until you find a suitable wire
For this step, you’ll want to use a digital test meter (as I mentioned earlier). The main reason is that in modern vehicles not all wiring is 12V. Some now have signal lines or other wiring with voltages below +12V.
You can try removing the radio and, with the ignition in the ACC position, check wiring until you find +12V wires. Then test again with the ignition off to decide which are suitable.
3. Tap off of the fusebox
A vehicle’s fusebox containing a power source for the radio – and your LED set – is usually in one of a few places. (Above) Under a panel in the dash itself or (below) in the lower driver’s side of near the brake pedal. The owner’s manual normally has labels for the fuses.
Additionally, another option is connecting to a power source at the fusebox. They’re typically found at the left side of the dashboard, either near the lower left-hand side of the interior or under a panel in the dashboard itself.
You can use the vehicle’s owner’s manual to show you which fuse is for what purpose. Most vehicles have one for the radio supply that you can tap power from.
Fusebox wiring adapters make it pretty easy to tap off of a power circuit for installing LED lights. You plug them in place of the original fuse and then connect the power wire.
If tapping off of the fuse box consider picking up a fuse wiring adapter. They can make it so simple!
If you don’t have an owner’s manual you can use a test meter to check fuse power with the ignition on and off until you find a suitable one. Then use a fuse tap adapter or other connection to attach the LED power wire.
Connecting the wiring
Once you’ve found a suitable source for power, you’ll need to:
- Connect the LED power wire
- Ground the negative power wire
Here’s a helpful diagram with some ideas clearly explained.
Mounting your LED light strips
As many light sets (like the one I’m using here) have the light strips permanently attached to the control box, wire length is limited. However, there should be enough for most typical installations.
I measured about 48″ (122 cm) and 58″ (147 cm) for the front and rear lengths on mine. That’s about 4 ft (1.22 m) and 5.6 ft (1.7 m) in length for each front and rear pair.
Interior light strip locations
Diagram showing typical locations for the LED light strips in a car interior. Great locations are under the dashboard for the front 2 and either on the front or rear of the seats. Use the light strips with longer length cables in most cases.
Ideally, you’ll install your light strips (assuming you have 4, which most sets do) here:
- Left & right front: under the dashboard, facing down
- Left & right rear: under/on the front or rear edges of the front seats
Be sure to have them facing the areas you want the light glow to appear on.
You can also test them temporarily using some good quality tape to hold them in place before installing them permanently.
Locating the controller
The LED light set controller (for those having a remote control and/or sound sensor) needs to be accessible from the remote and should be placed where it can sense sound properly. Install it on one side of the dashboard center console where it’s hidden a bit. Most likely the driver’s side is best (as shown in the diagram above).
LED controllers that offer a remote control usually use an infrared receiver (IR) type of sensor. These need a direct line-of-site to the sensor in the control box.
Additionally, models (like the one shown here) have a sound sensor internally, too. In both cases, you’ll need to place the control box where it’s not totally covered and where the remote can work with it. Normally I suggest the driver’s side, hidden slightly underneath the dashboard.
Installing the light strips and cables (and why adhesive strips may be a bad choice)
The diagram above shows 2 great ways to install the LED light strips in your vehicle. I no longer recommend self-adhesive strips, even included on the light strips. After being exposed to heat in a car’s interior they often fail.
While LED light strips typically include a self-adhesive tape on the back of the strips, it’s often not reliable. The reason is that the adhesive fails after multiple sessions of heat exposure, vibration, and being kicked by feet in a vehicle.
For that reason I recommend the two methods I mentioned earlier:
- Use a high-quality glue for attaching to under-dash plastic panels
- Use wire ties to fasten light strips to vehicle wiring bundles or dashboard brackets
Using a high-quality gel super glue like Gorilla Glue is a great idea. Although it may sound permanent, you’ll only need a few small drops (about 4 to 5) for each light strip. The glue dries quickly but gel glue is easy to work with and quite strong.
Be sure to clean any surfaces beforehand with alcohol and a cloth, an alcohol pad, or a good surface cleaner. Silicon and other protective products like Armor All leave a residue that prevents glue from adhering well.
Additionally, wire ties are easy to use and allow for a lot of creative installation ideas. Nearly any nearby object or hole can be used to support a light strip.
Attaching light strips to seats
Similarly, after attaching the light strips underneath the dash, you can do the same for the seats as well.
If you’d like to avoid using a permanent glue, you can also consider using genuine Velcro. Generic velcro tends to have poor quality adhesive and won’t last long.
Where possible, try using wire ties on the seat frame if available. Wire ties are very strong yet can be cut and removed later without any permanent damage.
Spice up your system! LED amp rack lighting example
Want to add some extra style and class to your system? One great idea is to use LED light strips, facing your amps, to create a cool soft light glow that looks sharp. Pictured above: My custom car amp rack I built.
In the photo above you can see my custom car amp rack with backlighting inside. LED light strips are great for your own low-cost custom amp rack too!
Just add them around your amps (for as many sides as you like or make sense for your system) with them facing the amps. It’ll add a beautiful look that you’ll be proud to show off.
In fact, you can use a simple relay connected to the remote wire & power from the amp +12V & ground terminals so they’ll come on automatically with your system.
Final notes and demo video
An example of the kit installed in a Toyota sedan. The results are great!
Adding LED lights to your vehicle’s interior is a very cool project you can do yourself! The results are great and one of the most cost-effective ways to really spice up your ride.
As I mentioned before, a good LED light strip set won’t break the bank. In fact this multi-color car LED light strip kit I picked up from Amazon is under $20. It’s easy to install, too.
Speaking of taking your ride to the next level…got an amp yet? If it’s time for an upgrade, have a look at my list of the best 4 channel amps for sound quality.