Clearwater Lights Review: Darla and Billie Brake for BMW Project Bike

The fog/driving lights I see on many touring and adventure motorcycles were a must for the Ultimate Motorcycling BMW R 1250 RS Project Bike. I wanted increased daytime visibility and extra light for occasional after-dark rides. Clearwater Lights in Rancho Cordova, Calif., had what I needed.

Clearwater Lights manufactures a broad range of lights for many motorcycles, side-by-sides, automobiles, trucks, and just about anything on which you might wish to add extra illumination. Their offerings seemed perfect for the BMW R 1250 RS, which requires electrical add-ons to be compatible with its CAN bus protocol. Clearwater supports this brilliantly. I see Clearwater units on the road often, so that was another motivation to go with a leader in the industry.

Clearwater Lights Review For Sale

Clearwater’s model-specific BMW kit fully integrates with the CAN bus system and runs through BMW’s onboard computers. The kit offers many modes, options, and controls without adding a single switch to the R 1250 RS Project Bike. I’ll get into those choices further down this review.

If you’re new to CAN bus, it stands for Controller Area Network. It’s found in virtually all modern cars, some motorcycles, and every modern BMW motorcycle I am aware of. Simply stated, it’s a communications network that integrates all electrical and electronic systems on “one wire.” Turn signals, ECU, fuel pump—everything. If you introduce a device incompatible with the CAN bus, you’ll probably see error codes on your dash. So, utilizing the right stuff is important.

Clearwater Lights Review Darla LED

Clearwater Lights’ CANopener gizmo is the key to this system. I installed the CANopener (CAN3 v3.4) on the BMW in series with the TPM (Tire Pressure Monitoring) plug. I removed the existing TPM plug, inserted the CANopener plug in that space, and then inserted the TPM plug into the lead on the CANopener. This is how Clearwater gains access to the R 1250 RS’s computer system—it’s genius. For motorcycles other than BMW, Clearwater offers various mounting kits and a handlebar controller. CANopener is a BMW-only device.

Up front, I went with a pair of Darla lights—the smallest offered by Clearwater—and the company’s Billie Brake Light LED license plate frame.

Clearwater Lights Review Billie Brake

The Darla lights are CNC-machined and consume 24 watts with a 2-amp draw. The three LED optics per unit are focused in a driving beam pattern and deliver a claimed 2400+ lumens each in a 2.2-inch diameter form factor.

Clearwater Lights’ slick and easy fork mount kit and the Darla lights add nine ounces to the fork—not enough unsprung weight to have ill effects on the suspension or handling. There are two other fitments for mounting on the crash bars, and one BMW-style, if you prefer.

The Darla may be Clearwater’s smallest lights, but they lay down heavyweight beams.

The Darla lights ship with two slip-on lens covers—yellow and clear. I run with yellow during the day for visibility and lens protection. I can remove the yellow covers to run the white-hot flamethrower spots at night. However, night rides revealed that yellow was excellent in the dark—extremely bright and a pleasing shade of yellow.

I can easily adjust the intensity from 10 to 100 percent, and the CANopener allows me to program them so the Darla lights automatically dim to 30 percent when I use my turn signals. This helps oncoming cars distinguish my turn indicators from the bright yellow lights—nice.

Once the simple CANopener installation is complete, it becomes the entrée for both the Darla driving lights as well as the Billie Brake. The Billie Brake is a bright LED array mounted on a solid CNC-aluminum license plate frame. If you want to see and be seen before and when you touch your brakes, day or night, this is the setup I highly recommend.

The Billie Brake, like the Darla lights, has several modes. Also, like the Darlas, the Billie Brake is controlled through combinations of presses on various existing controls, which tells the CANopener what to do. This method avoids cumbersome add-on control switches.

The systems come with instructions that did not appear to be too daunting. So, I decided to try to do the install myself, even though all riding buddies with this setup have had the dealer’s technicians do the job.

Once underway, with the side panels off and the R 1250 RS stripped and ready for the operation, I realized that some of the steps, especially routing the wires from front to under the seat, required more involvement than the instructions suggested. The instruction manual needs a rewrite with better photos, and a complete explanation of precisely how to do the cable run correctly.

To do this job properly on the R 1250 RS, where there is only one correct way for running cables, requires removing both side panels and the gas tank to access the conduit to get wiring from front to back. In a conversation with Clearwater’s management after the install, they say there is another way to route the cable with a plastic pull tool that avoids removing the fuel tank and they do have a new manual under development.

I probably could have done this, but the words of Inspector Harry Callahan echoed in my head: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Don’t let my skittishness stop you from doing this, though you may benefit from my experience.

I zipped it all back up and took it to R 1250 RS Project Bike to BMW Motorcycles of Ventura County. It’s a dealer I trust, and I know they have done quite a few of these.

Also, the wire from the Billie Brake must be fished up through a space in the back of the license plate support bracket. Naturally, on the R 1250 RS, the bracket must be dismantled to do the job right. It is not as easy as one might imagine. It’s not a big deal—like what is necessary to get the front wires to go under the seat—but this BMW dealer will do the hard part. I left it to the dealer to do this and install power for the Adaptiv TPX radar detector that will be a separate review on the BMW R 1250 RS Project Bike.

Upon completion and careful examination of the work, I was glad I let BMW Motorcycles of Ventura County do the installation. The finished job was exceptionally tidy, and I knew I would not have done it the way they did—the right way.

One odd feature of the Billie Brake is an indicator light attached to the cable bundle running up the left handlebar. It is lit when the motor is running, showing that the Billie Brake is operational. It gets brighter when the brakes are applied. I don’t know why I need this, but there it is. You can see it in the photo to the left of the power/ignition switch, and the 3-light array above it is for the Adaptiv TPX radar detector warning.

Now I’m ready to roll. I’ve set up the Clearwater Darla light to run at about 50 percent brightness when my headlights are on low beam. When I switch to high beam, they go 100 percent bright.

As a test, I rode behind a pal with my high beams activated on a day ride. At a stop, he told me to ride ahead because the lights annoyed him due to their brightness. I switched to low power, and he was happier.

So now I know that I am eminently visible during the day, but what about night riding? Man, I was surprised on a night ride with no moon from Hollywood to Ventura County on the freeway and some side roads. Flicking on the high beams lit up the road ahead like yellow daylight. Even at 85+ mph, the lights illuminated the road farther than needed. Outrunning my lights is a thing of the past on the Ultimate Motorcycling BMW R 1250 RS Project Bike. The road was so brightly floodlit that I was chuckling in my helmet at the vast difference over stock.

While following another motorcycle with the Billie Brake installed, I can tell you it is super-bright. There is absolutely no way a following driver could not notice this array, whether on or off the brakes. Anecdotally, I believe that the average driver following me is farther back than before, and I’ve heard other Billie Brake owners report the same thing.

I can control the Darla and Billie Brake lights through combinations of presses on the turn signal cancel, multifunction controller, flash to pass, and front brake lever.

Clearwater Lights Review Billie Brake Price

Here are some choices I can make to the operation of the Darla lights:

  • Turn on and off.
  • Dim in 10 percent increments from 10 percent to 100 percent.
  • High beam mode – lights on 100 percent, with high beam or strobe for two seconds if flash to pass is pressed three times.
  • Horn activation – horn activates lights 100 percent, or fires them in a strobe pattern.
  • Turn signal dimming – off or lights dim when a turn signal is activated to let oncoming traffic see the turn signals easier.

Here are some choices I can make to the Billie Brake lights:

  • Inertial braking – disabled or brake lights activate when engine braking reaches .2 (fast) or .4 (slow) Gs (your choice).
  • Three brake light choices – 1. Light up just like the BMW brake light; 2. California-legal strobe on brake activation (four flashes per second); 3. Speed sensitive (flashes faster and brighter with harder braking, adjustable).
  • Brake light dimmer – 10 percent to 100 percent.

Here’s a tip on programming: Some of the changes I implemented are difficult to perceive, unless in a dark garage or road. When I adjusted the Darla lights to dim when using the turn signal, or when I set 50 percent brightness with 100 percent on high beams, I could not notice the difference from the saddle in a lighted garage. I thought I had made a mistake. Turning out the lights shows what looks like a subtle difference for the rider, but is a huge difference for oncoming traffic.

Ordering everything on the Clearwater lights website is easily accomplished via intuitive drop-down menus. The Darla lights with the CANopener, wiring, and fork mounting kit has an MSRP of $704. The slip-on lens covers add $30, and the Billie Brake ups the tab by $149. The MSRP for everything in this review, sans professional installation, is $883.

I really like this setup. It looks great and functions even better. I’ve installed many accessories on the BMW R 1250 RS project bike to make it look, perform, and sound better, as well as be more comfortable. However, the Clearwater Lights Darla and Billie Brake units are the most important. If I had to do only one mod, this is it. I’ve heard too many times from riders, after being hit by another vehicle, that the offending vehicle’s driver said, “I didn’t see you.” This is much less likely to happen to me, and night rides are now a joy.