Bright idea now light saver

The founder of Headlight Medic taps a market full of dull, weathered plastic coverings.

Published May 30, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Life is full of very specific problems. Michael Pagano wanted to work on this one: cloudy automobile headlights.

Maybe you've seen them - or can't see well because of them. A headlight's outer plastic covering breaks down from ultraviolet rays and pollution. The lenses turn foggy or yellowish. Light diminishes.

Pagano, 44, developed a "liquid plastic" mixture that he tried out on old cars at a local junk yard. Two years later, he has a business called Headlight Medic, which has both a drive-in location and a mobile service reaching most of the Tampa Bay market. For $40 to $50, he sprays headlights with a "liquid plastic" mixture, making once-cloudy lenses look crystal clear.

Pagano won't divulge what's in his formula, saying he's hoping eventually to license its use to professional mechanics. But he says it's a slightly altered version of the substance he has used for nearly 15 years to restore fading outdoor plastic signs for clients such as McDonald's. A friend had suggested he try the technique with headlights.

By no means is Pagano the first in the market. Nearly a decade ago, Gregory Klosterman started headlight restoration business Clear Again in Lutz, which has more than 35 locations and is used by service personnel at a number of Tampa Bay dealerships.

Klosterman said the market is starting to grow, which he doesn't think has been a good thing: Many of the products, which sell at auto supply shops and places such as Wal-Mart, are substandard coatings that are ineffective and can cause a big mess.

"After I started my business 10 years ago, there wasn't anybody," said Klosterman, who had not heard of Headlight Medic. "It's frustrating."

At Headlight Medic, Pagano first uses wet sandpaper to essentially remove "dead plastic" on the headlight lenses. Then he sprays on the formula, a step he describes as "replacing" the old plastic.

Up until the 1980s, most headlights were made of glass so that they were "like one disposable light bulb," said John Bullough, a scientist at the Lighting Research Center, affiliated with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

But nearly all vehicles now use plastic coverings. Bullough said having the covering separate from the light source was an improvement in engineering because it allows better optical control of the lights.

On the downside, he said, the plastic coverings are having a tougher time under the sunlight than glass, which is resistant to the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays. Replacing the headlights is expensive.

Told about Pagano's technique, Bullough said he was intrigued. "In principle," he said, "it sounds like a good idea."

Among the clients Pagano has found in the past couple of years: the Pasco County's Sheriff's Office, which hired him to keep the patrol cars' blue lights bar looking spiffy.

One woman would have owed $1,500 upon turning in her leased car because the lights were so bad, Pagano said. Instead, she had them refinished at Headlight Medic before she turned in the car and didn't owe the money.

His girlfriend and manager, Theresa Miller, said she thinks it's just a matter of time before more people realize their cars have a problem.

"The general public doesn't know there's a fix out there," she said.

Pagano, meanwhile, keeps a narrow focus. The other day, Miller said, they were driving around, listening to Carrie Underwood sing about using a baseball bat to shatter her boyfriend's headlights. Pagano shook his head - not at the violence but at the notion that the lyricist thought a Louisville Slugger would properly shatter plastic headlights.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

On the Web

To learn more about Headlight Medic, visit www.headlight medic.com. Visit area competitor Clear Again at www.clearagain.com.