Replacing Dashboard Lights

Whether you call them dashboard lights, instrument cluster lights or gauge lights, it can be a real pain when they burn out and have to be replaced. I had the light that illuminated the fuel gauge burn out so I decided to replace all the lights, but with a twist. I replaced the stock incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs that will last virtually forever.


The dashboard, instrument cluster and several other important components can easily be broken or damaged during this procedure if you are not careful. Proceed at your own risk.

Why LEDs?
Perhaps before I get into the step-by-step instructions for replacing the dash lights, I should explain why I chose to use LED bulbs. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) last much, much longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, they use less energy, and they are generally brighter. On the downside, their initial price is higher, their light typically shines in a narrow spot light beam, and they are much harder to find.

The first step in picking replacement dash bulbs is to find out what type of bulb you need. You can go to an auto parts store and they will be able to look it up for you, but chances are they will only have the stock replacement bulbs. You can also use the online Sylvania bulb replacement guide by following the link under the "Favorite Automobile Sites" at the bottom of this website.
To combat the downside of price and availability, I turned to eBay to find replacement LED bulbs. After searching and researching, I decided to get some bright white inverted cone LEDs. The inverted cone design helps spread the light of the LED to give a more uniform illumination.

If you are replacing the light bulbs behind your dashboard and do not wish to use LEDs, I would recommend two things: first, replace all the bulbs, even if only one has burned out. Second, you can get "long life" incandescent bulbs (usually marked by the item # and then 'LL'). For example, my truck uses bulb# 194 type light bulbs. You can replace these with 194LL (long life) or LEDs designed to be plug-n-play with 194 bulbs.

Instructions
1. Remove the Radio Bezel by removing the two 7mm screws and then pull the bezel out. (Fig. A & B)
2. Remove the Four Screws Holding the Kick Panel, these are also 7mm screws. Two of these screws are under the hood release latch, remove these screws, let the hood release latch hang and fully remove the plastic kick panel. (Fig. C)
3. The Kick Panel Metal Brace needs to be loosened. Loosen the bottom two 8mm screws and remove the remaining 8mm screws, then pull the metal brace out far enough to reach the bottom screws of the instrument cluster bezel (see next step). (Fig. D & E)
4. Loosen the Instrument Cluster Bezel by first removing the bottom two 7mm screws (see Fig. E) and then the top three 7mm screws. (Fig. F)
5. Tilt the Steering Wheel and Transmission Selector Out of the Way. If you have tilt steering, move the steering wheel to its lowest position. Then block the wheels, put your key into the ignition and turn it to ON (not START), press the brake pedal and move the gear selector to its lowest position, '1'. (Fig. G)
6. Remove the Instrument Cluster Bezel by prying around its perimeter until all the plastic tabs have disengaged and the bezel can be pulled out. The bezel will still be attached to the truck via the headlights selector and dimmer switch. You do not need to remove these. Carefully pull the bezel out and over the steering wheel and lay it to the side, out of the way. (Fig. H & I)
7. Remove the Instrument Cluster Screws, there are four of them and they are 7mm. (Fig. J)
8. Pull the Gauge Cluster Out and to the right. Pull it out far enough to reach behind the cluster to disengage the three electrical connectors (as seen in Fig. L). The cluster will still be attached to the truck via the speedometer cable. You can remove this cable if you wish, but it is not necessary. To remove the speedometer cable, disconnect it where it meets the transmission. (Fig. K)
9. Twist the Black Caps to remove the bulb sockets. With the bulb socket out, pull the bulb out of the socket. Install your new bulb. Figure M shows the stock incandescent bulbs above and two LED bulbs below. You can see which bulb was burned out and that one was well on its way to burning out. (Fig. L & M)

NOTE: LED bulbs have to be installed with the positive and negative in the right direction otherwise they will not work. The following steps will detail how I was able to make sure all the bulbs were installed correctly.

10. Reattach the Electrical Connectors, but leave the gauge cluster out far enough to where you can access the back panel and the bulb sockets. If you are working in a light area, use a cloth to drape over the gauge cluster, turn the headlights on to check to make sure each of the six bulbs are functioning. If you install LEDs and a bulb does not work, unscrew that bulb's socket, remove the bulb and install it in reverse to get the correct polarity. When all the bulbs work, reinstall everything by following these instructions in reverse. (Fig. N)

Summary
  1. Pull the radio bezel out.
  2. Remove the kick panel.
  3. Loosen and pull the kick panel metal brace out.
  4. Drop the steering wheel to its lowest position (if equipped with tilt steering) and put the transmission into '1' (if automatic).
  5. Remove the instrument cluster bezel.
  6. Remove the gauge cluster.
  7. Replace the bulbs.
  8. Test the bulbs.
  9. Reinstall in reverse.

Conclusion
There are many options when working with gauges and gauge lights. I know a lot of people like to get custom gauges or change the color of their dash lights, but I had decided to save my money and, besides switching to LED bulbs, remain stock. However, not everything always works to plan. I was expecting the lights to remain the stock green, but due to the difference of LED white light versus the more natural yellow light of incandescent bulbs reacting with the colored film covering the gauges, the lights turned from green to blue. This was an unexpected side effect, but not necessarily a bad one, after all, my basic color scheme for my truck is white and blue.
The whole process was not as difficult as I thought it would be. With good directions, it took about an hour, and that included the time it took me to take pictures along the way.

And now, the before and after photo, notice you cannot see the fuel gauge in the before(top) shot (sorry for the poor quality):


Relevant Sites
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4 comments:

kousalya August 26, 2011 at 5:32 AM  

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Instrument Cluster

Hendersonrose92 January 27, 2015 at 11:36 AM  

I've always wondered how you should go about replacing these. LED bulbs do last longer, so I'm glad you brought that up. I would imagine they would help save you money from having to replace these little lights less often. In all honesty, I've never really noticed all of the little screws in the dashboard. I've never had to use them before. It's good to know you can take the instrument cluster bezel though. Thank you for sharing this!

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Sara Aniston September 28, 2015 at 3:12 AM  

Nice post!! Thank you so much for sharing it.But I know one site that offers services for digital instrument cluster repair, dashboard cluster repair, dashboard instrument cluster and cluster panel repair in affordable prices.They have the qualified and expert electronic engineers to offer you the best service.Just visit http://www.speedorepair.co.uk/

Barry Rinehart April 18, 2017 at 11:47 AM  

Thank you for sharing this. I currently have a new printed circuit board and light bulb sockets ready to be installed in my '79 El Camino with new bulbs. Are the LEDs a direct replacement for the incandescent bulbs? No resistors required? I would appreciate a response from someone knowledgeable on the subject. Thank you.

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