Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fondness for the Bottle

With the excellent modern dynamo hubs that are now available on the market, it might seem that using a "bottle" generator is a hopelessly outdated and clearly inferior method of powering bicycle lights. We imagine crusty old bottle dynamos making high-pitched hissing noises, powering feeble halogen lamps. Surely such a system cannot provide sufficient illumination. At least that was my thinking, until I actually used a bike with a bottle dynamo to get around in Vienna earlier this year. It was not a totally ancient bottle, but a couple of decades old and definitely crusty from use. And to my surprise, it powered my bike lights just as well as the dynamo hub on the modern Pashley I had back in the States at the time.

The vintage Gazelle I now ride as my main transportation bike has a bottle generator as well - this one from the 1990s. It is well-used and worn out, but works fine - both before and after we converted the lights on this bike to LED.

While I am not suggesting that a bottle dynamo is "better" than a hub, I think that it does have some underrated virtues, and that in some cases it can make sense to use it. Consider, for example, that...

Bottle-powered lights are just as bright.  Most modern bottles can handle the exact same voltage as most modern hubs (6 volts / 3 watts).  This means that I can use the same LED lighting set-up with a bottle as I would with a hub. There are differences in efficiency and a few other factors, but when using a bicycle for transportation at urban speeds, I have never felt this difference. 

The bottle is easy to install.  If you don't yet have generator lighting on your bicycle, installing a bottle is a matter of clipping it to the fork, or to one of the rear stays, using a bracket. Installing a generator hub is considerably more difficult: You must either rebuild the front wheel around the hub, or buy a new wheel with the hub pre-installed. 

The bottle is less costly. A good dynamo hub costs around $80 on average, plus the wheelbuilding fee (or the price of a new wheel) - which can run rather high. In the EU, a decent bottle can be had for under $30, with no additional fees involved.

The bottle is independent of hub/wheel functionality.  If your bottle dynamo breaks, it is not a big deal: buy another one. If your hub dynamo breaks, you will have to not only buy another one, but also rebuild the wheel or buy a new wheel.

The bottle weighs less! Surely that's an important factor for all of you out there counting grams on your roadsters and Dutch bikes?

Because my vintage Gazelle's bottle has seen some wear, I will soon replace it with this Nordlicht HQ that an acquaintance has sent from Holland - which is both a more modern, and a more classic-looking model.

And I also have this modern B&M dynamo that I acquired second-hand and plan to install either on my Bella Ciao or on my Raleigh DL-1.  I am curious how these will perform in comparison to each other, as well as in comparison to the older AXA that is currently on my Gazelle - though I suspect I will not feel a difference.

I know that most of you probably prefer hubs, and I myself have excellent generator hubs on my touring bicycles. But sometimes a bottle is just a simpler solution - especially when the bicycle itself is simple. If only the choice of commercially available bottle generators was as rich in the US as it is in the Netherlands! Does anybody else out there use bottles? anybody prefer them?

41 comments:

  1. My Gazelle came with one & it works just fine to be honest.

    Wifey's Pashley has the hub dynamo like yours did, which works fine also.

    One plus of a bottle dynamo might be less weight I'd imagine, but then who's splitting hairs on a dutch bike? LOL

    An advantage of a hub dynamo might be better performance in adverse conditions such as snow, due to the bottle requiring decent friction against the tyre.

    One thing is certain - either is a lot less bother than batteries!

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  2. Of course, the weight! I nearly forgot : )
    Point added to the text.

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  3. There is an original bottle dynamo set on my 1980 DL-1 - it is Union brand with the silver bottle. I intend to change the headlight for an LED model soon, perhaps mounted in a vintage shell.
    It seems bombproof, except for the low-powered light.

    The still-in-the-rebuilding-stage 1972 ROG Pony 20" folder has it's original Soubitez bottle dynamo system, too. It's a good one, and you'd love the bitty integrated tail-light & reflector mounted on the shiny little Zeppelin fender...

    Both the current 1960 Hercules and the in-progress 1949-50 Indian Princess will likely get bottle dynamo systems- they're just too easy to work with.
    LED lamps in vintage housings are likely here, too.



    If I were building up something new (or were rebuilding a beast like my neighbor's double-bar Phillips roadster) I might spring for a Dynamo hub and really great lighting.

    Here's something I've not seen mentioned yet: the "zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZ!" noise does a fine job of driving deer and skunks out of the roadway at night, which is great for my health *and* my sense of smell!

    Corey K

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  4. Corey K said: "Here's something I've not seen mentioned yet: the "zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZ!" noise does a fine job of driving deer and skunks out of the roadway at night, which is great for my health *and* my sense of smell!"

    I had forgotten all about that! It's been a long time since I've used a bottle dynamo. Lately the leaves that get caught up in my fenders serve the same purpose, as far as warning for the wildlife goes. :)

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  5. i use a bottle dynamo and I like the light output. But what is the drag compared to the hub dynamo? That's got me considering switching over.

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  6. Your post title today made me laugh out loud. What do you think about that?

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  7. Herzog - Entirely unintentional, I assure you. I hate laughter.

    Corey - What a relief to know that someone has more dynamo bottles than I do : )

    The zzz sound - On the newer bottles I don't really hear it. Will see how the latest will do.

    Anon 8:20 - I have two of the best dynamo hubs on my long distance bikes: a Schmidt SON on my custom mixte and a Shimano Alfine on my Rivendell. They are fantastic and glorious for fast long distance trips with hilly descents and so on... but riding around in the city at 10mph? I don't really feel any drag with the bottle on my 3-speed clunkers. I am sure there are plenty of stats showing the superiority of dynamo hubs, but if the bottle feels fine, works great, looks good and costs less - why bother about the statistics.

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  8. I considered a bottle dynamo but was a bit confused about dynamo strips on tyres. Are they essential or can you use any tyre?

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  9. Yes! Ever since I lived in Amsterdam in the 1980s and rode my first canal bike (an old Gazelle oma fiets like yours) I have been on the bottle. The 1933/4 Raleigh had a great old Lucifer bottle as you know from the photographs. However, I am now on the wagon. A few months ago I discovered the wonderful world of calcium carbide/acetylene lamps and doubt I'll be going back.

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  10. I've got bottle generators on a couple of my vintage bikes. My 1976 Centurion Super LeMans sports a same-year Schwinn generator to power the headlamp and tail light and the system functions flawlessly. It's definitely louder when I run the generator, and I can definitely feel the additional wheel drag, but short of randonneuring, this set up fits the needs of this particular bike very well.

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  11. When I was a kid and lived in Europe (early eighties), my bike had a bottle dynamo that always worked well, even when it was raining.
    I remember I liked the humming sound it made and it provided good light as well.
    More than 20 years after that, and now living in Canada, my experience with bottle dynamos was not as good, but maybe it was my fault:
    The bicycle I had bought didn't come with lights and I ended up buying a dynamo light set from amazon, with a nice looking retro style chromed headlight, a small tail light and a bottle dynamo. Unfortunately the bottle dynamo was useless whenever it rained, as it would slip, make a louder noise and zero lighting, so I ended up building a wheel with a hub dynamo. At least the headlight and tail ligth are still working fine, but I should have bought a better quality bottle dynamo.

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  12. I like bottle generators because I can grab them free from junk bikes behind my local bike shop. I don't think I've ever worn one out but I've never used them hard either, one thing I can tell Andy about tire wear and generators is that if your bottles drive drum isn't nice and aligned with the tire it will certainly wear out your sidewall faster. If the drum is at much of an angle the rough surface will "scrub" off alot of rubber in a short time.

    One of the nice things about a bottle is there is zero drag (well, maybe some aero drag) when it's not in use, so many ohub generators have some pretty significant drag all the time.

    Spindizzy

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  13. In my experience the Nordlicht is quieter, while the Dymotec has better (and adjustable) grip. But when comparing bottle dynamos, the tyre is also important. Some provide better grip than others, and some don't even have a dynamo strip.

    Nico

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  14. I used to like the "bloc" style of generator, which is integrated with the head light and installed on the front fork. For years, I used one made my Soubitez and one of the earliest versions of the "blinkie" rear light.

    My LeTour has such a generator on it. It's an earlier version of the Soubitez, which was made for Schwinn. It's not working, and I'm using battery lights. But one day I may try to get that generator working again.

    Jonathan: Velox (the same company that makes the only rim tape worth using) used to make a rubber "cap" for generator pulleys. They cut down on tire wear, though they increased drag a bit. If you can't find one of those caps, you probably could wrap some friction tape around the pulley to achieve the same purpose.

    As for lights: I think that a bottle generator with an LED light might be the best arrangement for a city bike.

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  15. Years ago, I bought some rubber caps that go over the wheel of the dynamo from Velo Orange, which greatly smoothed out and quieted the whirring noise. Wear on the tires was almost non-existent too. Unfortunately, they no longer have them, and I haven't been able to find them anywhere.
    I'm also curious about the LED lights you've mentioned earlier - I've not seen them commercially available yet.
    And lastly, both hub and bottle generators put out more power than LEDs need - hopefully there will be smaller generators that have less friction in the future.

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  16. I've just replaced an old bottle that had my girlfriend complaining about drag with the excellent b+m pictured abouve. The improvement is huge and drag is practically a non-issue. The model has a control to increase contact to the tyre but so far it didn't slip, we'll see how it's doing in the snow then. If snow wasn't an issue I'd had opted for the AXA HR though, much better value

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  17. Two points:
    As mentioned by Spindizzy, the bottle dynamo has zero drag when switched off. A hub dynamo always has some drag (in addition to the small bearing drag in any hub) due to the spinning magnets. On recent Shimano and SON hubs this is only 1 or 2 watts even at high speeds. When the lights are on, even a good bottle dynamo is higher drag, by several watts, than a hub dynamo. However, we are talking about a few percent of the total power needed to keep the bike moving.

    The other issue is wet and cold weather. Good hub dynamos work in snow, sleet, whatever. Bad bottle dynamos will slip in the rain, and even good ones can slip in mud or snow. Tires designed for city bikes (like many Schwalbe tires) have little tracks meant to mesh with the dynamo wheel; this helps a lot in the rain, but still may not work in snow or mud.

    I would think a bottle dynamo is a good option for a light-weight road bike, where you may want quick-release hubs and multiple front wheels (without putting a dynamo in each one), and which probably won't be ridden in mud or snow, but may be ridden for hours in the dark. Not many people who have such a bike like to ride in the dark for long, however.

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  18. velouria, i would agree with all your points on bottle dynamos. the only reason i dislike them is because i can't stand the whirring sound. it's not that i don't like mechanical whirring in and of itself, but on a bike, every time you hit a bump, the pitch wows and flutters so badly that it gives me a headache.

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  19. I use bottle generators exclusively. As you mentioned, they are lighter and less expensive. They also don't produce drag unless they are in use, which is a big plus to me. Since I don't commute, I only need light occasionally during the winter months and a dyno hub just doesn't make sense. After all 6v/3W is same no matter where it comes from.

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  20. Surprised by the positive response; I thought everyone would tell me I was insane : )

    About slipping in the rain and snow: That was one of my worries before I began using them, and I think the key here is good model vs bad model. I rode the Austrian bike with the older, battered-looking dynamo (top picture) in the snow a bit, and in lots of rain - no problems with the dynamo. And I've ridden my currently owned Gazelle in downpours without nay problems either. The new B&M and Nordlicht are supposed to be the best functioning models out there, so hopefully those are an even safer bet. On the other hand, there are bottles you can get in the NL for like 10eur - and perhaps those are the ones that are less than top notch.

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  21. The biggest problem with bottle dynamos (and so far not mentioned) is that they are not easy to keep attached properly if your fork does not have a bottle generator tab--most don't. It will slip over time and from use and then grip poorly or even wear your tyre.

    I am told that rear wheel attachments are less finicky, but I have no personal experience with that.

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  22. the tire itself also makes a big difference in how well a bottle generator grips the tire. most schwalbe tires come with a ribbed "generator strip" along the sidewall, specifically to help grip the generator wheel.

    the only time i've ever had a bottle generator slip in the rain is when the tire that i had at the time had a very slick sidewall.

    i wonder how long the bottle generators last. they have to spin at a much higher RPM than the bike's wheel (like 20-40 times faster!). do the better ones have bearings designed to last for thousands of miles of use?

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  23. My experience, and the reason that I discontinued using the B&M that you bought from me, was that it was tough to get the bottle adjusted into the perfect position and to stay there. My old frame (Robert) had a bracket for bottle attachment, and I used that instead of some kind of fork mount, which might have been part of the problem, but it seemed that if my wheel got a little out of true, or I nudged the mount a tiny bit when parking, my light would go on the fritz, and I'd spend a good part of my ride nudging the little bugger with my toe to try to get it fixed.

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  24. If you don't want to go across the pond for one Velo-Orange has them on their site.
    http://store.velo-orange.com/index.php/accessories/lighting/spanninga-wave-dynamo.html and only $20

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  25. My Raleigh has a Dynohub and my wife's has a bottle generator (I think it's a modern version of the AXA one on your Gazelle, actually). They both work just fine, and I don't really care one way or the other between the two, I just have to remember to flip the bottle generator against the wheel since I get used to the dynohub just being on all the time. Actually, the modern bottle dynamo provides a notably better output than the vintage dynohub on my Raleigh, and can power front and rear halogen lights quite brightly.

    For me, as long as the bottle dynamo doesn't slip in the rain (which the really cheap ones, like the one that comes with the Electra Amsterdam, do), I don't really care either way, and as you said, a bottle dynamo is a much cheaper and easier way to add dynamo lighting to a bike than a hub.

    I can certainly see a dynohub being nicer for touring and longer rides though, but just for normal city riding, I don't see one as having a really clear advantage over the other.

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  26. As a kid I never developed a warm fuzzy relationship with bottle dynamos. Perhaps they were cheap ones, or perhaps I never set them up correctly. Lots of memories of them slipping in the rain and shredding tires. Then my eyes were opened when a friend got a bottom bracket dynamo-WOW- one was bought and many many kilometres were ridden. I wonder where that unit ever went?- maybe its still out there on the old Nishiki International........

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  27. What a timely post. I have been restoring a vintage Peugeot folder, an elegant little bike with stainless steel fenders and chainguard, and 22-inch,550A wheels. A bottle generator was standard. I plan to test the generator, but first must track down some bulbs, as both the headlight and taillight are blown.
    Any help in locating a source would be appreciated.

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  28. I love my Dymotec 6. I just mounted it on my late mother's vintage Raleigh 3-speed; I liked it so much I wrote a blog post about it: http://affordableluxuryblog.com/?p=232
    I live in a big city with lots of streetlights and I don't ride at night if I can help it (especially in the summer). I just push the bottle in when I need the light and avoid the hub drag the rest of the time. It puts out plenty of juice for my Lumotec LED. Bottles rock!

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  29. With somervillain's comment, at least I am not the only voice of dissension.

    I never cared for the bottle. Aesthetically it bothers me and I don't like the wires running around the frame. As with somervillain, the noise puts me off.

    If I had to use a dynamo, I would opt for the hub setup.

    I like the old lantern style lights(LED bulbs) on my DL1. With a constant steady light and the ability to remove them and use as a flashlight, they trump the bottle for me.

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  30. I'm intrigued. Been wanting a dynamo front light for Le Peug; perhaps I will look into acquiring a bottle!

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  31. forrest lee said: "Aesthetically it bothers me and I don't like the wires running around the frame."

    yeah, the wiring is an eyesore for me as well. even as a kid, i hated having a huge jumble of wires behind my stereo equipment, and had to keep them ordered and neat... (yes, i'm OCD that way). that's why any future bikes that i buy or build up with the intent of having dynamo lighting will have to have internal wiring.

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  32. somervillain: Just think of that wiry mess inside your tubes, like veins under the skin, snaking out of control, maybe kinked or twisted, snagging flakes of debri and rubbing all sorts of ways and you can't even see it!

    You're welcome. :)

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  33. MDI: out of sight, out of mind. what happens in the bike frame, stays in the bike frame.

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  34. I have always understood, at least in theory, that the main drawback to using a generator is that the light only functions when the bicycle is moving. That would seem to be a major problem and is the reason I purchased battery powered lights for my bike, that and the fact that the rear light can be set to flash which increases visibility. But perhaps as a novice rider I've judged incorrectly.

    No one here has mentioned this supposed "flaw" and I'd be interested to know if in fact it is a serious issue in practice. Also, does a generator provide more power for a brighter light than batteries? Finally, how does one retro-fit a halogen or LED light to a vintage or new retro-style light?

    Rich

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  35. We are in Groningen and use them all the time. My son's American bicycle has one as well (a 1960's AMF Roadmaster). Replacement bottles are even cheaper at Halfords.nl than 30 euros and we often find them for a euro or two at the thrift stores.

    The thrift store in Veendam even has front and rear bike racks for a euro a piece. Older spare parts here are easy to get, as well as bikes that have been thrown away in the canals.

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  36. For Rich-
    Here in the Netherlands, we use both the bottle generators and a portable small LED light. The bottle lights get brighter as you bike, so we can judge how fast someone is going, or if they are slowing down to make a turn. Having extra lights are nice if you are in areas without streetlights, but you have to remember too-- here in the Netherlands, we have so many people biking on the streets, they get priority and you get used to seeing them with poor light sets.

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  37. For Rich.

    Many modern dynamo lights (front and rear) come standard with a "stand light" which will remain on for for a period of time. The light that came with my Dahon (Spanninga Hilux Micro FF Light) for example will remain on for up to 4 minutes at a stop.

    Great blog post. While I have a dynamo hub on my Dahon, I am considering a bottle dynamo for my trike and and trying to decide between the Nordlicht and B&M. I am leaning to the Nordlicht as it claims to work on either the wheel rim or tire sidewall. My current rear tire is not compatible with bottle dynamo's but I do have a Marathon Plus (which is) that I could use for the rear wheel instead if I need to.

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  38. I am curious about the battery powered bullet retro style headlights for my Dutchie style bike. Does anyone know anything about them?

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  39. I just added a Nordlicht bottle to my Yuba Mundo cargo bike. I seldom ride it at night, but when I do, good lighting is important as heavy loads decrease maneuverability and increase stopping distance, so the sooner I can spot potholes and such like, the better.

    I have hub genneys on other bikes, but in addition to what has been mentioned, the Mundo wants a heavy duty front wheel, so I would be trying to source odd length heavy spokes to build a new wheel.

    I am using Phillips saferide headlamps on this and another bike. They are worlds better than other lights I have used. Worth the hassle of sourcing (Phillips doesn't import them to US) for sure. They are attractive in thier own way and cheaper than many inferior alternatives.

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  40. Great post! I had a bottle dynamo bottle as a youth and was thinking of getting one for my current commuter. Do they still need earthing as my bike is aluminium with carbon forks?

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  41. Just a late note to this thread - I use a bottom bracket generator. Ride a lot at night, no problems. It's a decades old German model, and makes modest noise up to 20mph, when it then gets much, much, almost inaudibly, quieter.

    Of course I flip it away from the tire in daylight. No resistance. Very modest resistance when on. And the tire itself makes a big difference - not completely sure but wider tires with less tread seem to make better contact and more noise.

    Recommend the new generation of LED headlights (circa 2014), which are much more light than the older models. Money being an issue, I made my own headlight though and despite a bit of apprehension: I don't really feel any lack from not having a standlight circuit. I'm always up front in the urban intersections I ride in and well within the range of streetlights. And I realize I could add an additional tiny flashing LED if I felt I needed it, but so far it's fine.

    It's really the ecological advantages of cycling and generator lighting that make it so worthwhile. Long live the bottle!

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