There have been many innovations and advancements in LEDs recently, giving sign makers more design freedom and more profit avenues.
Here we’ll cover two: the retrofitting of fluorescent cabinets and expanded design capabilities thanks to wet-rated channel letters.
Lightboxes: The Final Frontier
One of the last forms of signage for LEDs to conquer has been fluorescent lightboxes, for a number of reasons. But now, companies have begun to roll out viable retrofit solutions.
Cost. One of the biggest hurdles to retrofitting cabinets with LEDs has been cost. LED products are more expensive than typical T12 or T8 HO lamps. But when quoting an LED retrofit on a cabinet, a shop needs to make sure the customer knows the ROI is about much more than the initial product price.
“It’s being able to educate our customers and making sure that they’re taking into consideration the total cost of retrofitting those signs. So it’s not just the cost of the product,” says Mark Shepard, global signage product manager at GE. “You also have to factor in the energy usage savings. And really the big driver on this is the maintenance cost.”
And fluorescent lighting can require quite a bit of maintenance. For example, T12 HO lamps are rated at 12,000 hours of life. According to Shepard, this means half the bulbs will catastrophically fail and burn out at the end of their rated life. This leads to a dead spot in the cabinet and the need to replace the lamp, which can be costly if the sign is up high and a bucket truck has to be brought in.
On the other hand, LEDs are rated for 50,000 hours of life, but they don’t typically have catastrophic failures at the end of their rated life. The LEDs simply dim down. For example, GE’s LineFit LED System will dim to 70 percent of its light output at 50,000 hours.
Since the LED product doesn’t fail and leave a dark spot, customers can keep the signs lit long after the 50,000 hours—albeit a bit dimmer, but nothing the common eye would notice unless a new LED sign was next to it.
“They’re getting the benefit of the longer life, the energy, and less maintenance over a much, much longer period of time,” says Shepard.
The ROI doesn’t take away from the fact that companies still need to invest a significant amount of money to convert to LEDs, especially if they’re a business with multiple locations. To handle that investment, customers either set aside money in their budget or do a running change where they only convert to LEDs as fluorescents burn out.
Conversion on the sign shop side is easy since, with the GE product, shops use the same socket and simply cut the power, take out the fluorescent, wire in the 24V driver, and then pop the LEDs in. “It’s a minimal amount of time spent doing the actual conversion,” says Shepard. “Before we brought the product to the market, some of the biggest customer quality responses we got were it has to be quick.”
GE sees LED retrofits of cabinets taking off. “As far as retrofitting linear fluorescents with LEDs, we’re just starting to see it become much more active than it has been over the past year to 18 months,” says Shepard. “We’re starting to see not only more inquiries, but we’re actually starting to make some actual conversions.”
Lighting. Another deterrent to LEDs becoming an option for lightboxes sooner was the type of light source needed. Linear fluorescents emit light 360 degrees, and LEDs couldn’t provide that. “On some of these huge cabinet signs, there is a lot of internal structure in there— whether it’s I-beams or poles—that ends up blocking some of the light getting to the sign face,” explains Shepard. “Where you don’t necessarily see it as much with linear fluorescents because you’re bouncing light all over the inside of the sign.”
GE recently developed a solution to combat this problem by creating a double-sided LED so it emits light at the front and back of the sign. The product, the GE LineFit Light LED System, uses an angle bracket system that allows installers to angle their modules out and bend the light around internal structures to eliminate the shadows.
Temperature. Another factor that comes into play is temperature, but this has always been in LEDs’ favor. Fluorescents are affected by changes in temperature, and according to Shepard, decreases in temperature to 50 degrees can reduce light output anywhere from 15-20 percent. And in places with a very cold climate, some fluorescents don’t even light up.
LEDs love the cold and are unaffected by drops in temperature. However, users do have to worry about the other end of the spectrum—heat. “It’s all about how you manage your thermals,” says Shepard.
Weather conditions are a concern with any light source, but LED technology is making strides so that sign shops and designers have more freedom—no matter the weather.
To grasp the strides being made, it helps to understand the wet and damp-rated guidelines. UL makes guidelines and dictates a lighting source must be able to be exposed to the elements, mounted without an enclosure, and unprotected. The IP (Ingress Protection) is also used, and the IP66 is the most common standard. It means an enclosure is protected against water coming in, and this is tested by spraying water at the product.
GE’s Tetra® product offers a five-year warranty, so they decided to go beyond the typical testing and put the new Tetra products through extensive temperature and water tests. “We need to make sure that we design the product and test it, that it will withstand exposure to the elements for the five-year warranty period,” says Shepard.
With the five-year warranty and the UL and IP66 ratings, shops have more freedom with this product both in the location of install and the sign design. “It gives [sign makers] more flexibility in terms of being able to potentially take some content out of their channel letters because they won’t need to make them an enclosure any longer.”
Shepard cites the example of halo-lit letters. The way they’re typically made today is with a clear acrylic or plastic inside the letter. The LEDs are mounted facing the front of the channel letter so the light bounces off the front piece and onto the back wall.
Now, shops can instead mount the GE product in the face of the letter and point the LEDs backward to reflect directly off the wall while keeping the letter open.
(Note: Shops may have to couple this with bird deterrent products to eliminate birds from getting inside the letter.)
While LEDs may not work for every sign in every situation, they are becoming an increasingly varied and flexible light source for sign shops.
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