SBI at 25: Lighting (Uncut)

The determining factor in how effectively the sign speaks to its intended audience is often lighting. And lighting can involve anything from a large pylon along the highway or channel letters on the front of a building to a backlit promotion or an enclosed cabinet announcing a business and its offerings.

When Sign Builder Illustrated launched, the illumination solutions included the occasional incandescent bulb, HID lights, and the glowing gases inside neon and
fluorescent tubes.

LEDs Ascending 

While these lighting solutions have a secure future in specialty applications, they have yielded some of their grip to LEDs, widely considered the most significant advance for illuminated signage in decades. Query the different sectors of the sign industry, and a chorus celebrates the LED as the transitional technology which holds most promise as the light technology for the future.

“Way back when, if you talked about LEDs, you were talking about little red lights,” recalls Mark Shepard, global product manager for GE Lighting’s signage solutions. “The big advance has been the development of white LEDs, now the most dominant color, and the optics to go on top of them.”

Randy Frahm, director of sales and marketing for lighting products at Scott Fetzer Electrical Group concurs. “The greatest impact to the sign industry has been the advent of LEDs,” he says. “They provide the user flexibility and positive sign maintenance features.”

“I would have to say LEDs are the most significant advancement in light technology today for the sign industry,” agrees Eric Gastelum, administrator of The Sign Syndicate, an online community for the electric sign industry.

That doesn’t mean the future belongs to LEDs exclusively however. “I think most will come to realize that LEDS, like all lamps, have their strengths and weaknesses, and they too have an intended use,” says Gastelum.

For some, the move to LEDs is already a defining trend. Steve Williams, president of Harbinger Sign in Jacksonville, Florida has embraced LED lighting for its installations. “Our company has not used a fluorescent lamp or neon tube in over two years—an incredible statement when you consider LEDs have only been available for double-faced pylon signs a couple of years,” he says.

Michael Barry, marketing manager for lighting components manufacturer Allanson International, says the ascent of LEDs means diminished demand for other lighting systems. “Neon has declined dramatically as the prime source of illumination for channel letters,” he observes. “Fluorescent lighting used in cabinet signs is now being replaced by LED fluorescent retrofit systems.”

Shepard estimates as much as 90 percent of channel letters have been converted from neon to LEDs, and he expects that trend will be repeated in cabinet signs.

While retrofitting existing signs with LED lighting has been (and remains) a recent trend, Gastelum does warn that this practice should only be used in the right circumstances (such as difficulty of service) or to exchange a light source due to circumstances of the environment. One concern he’s seen over recent years is the conversion of classic red neon signs. “There is no justification for retrofitting neon signs that are red, since they don’t degrade in light over time, with a product that is more expensive and does degrade in light over time,” he says.

Gastelum adds that the upfront initial cost of a retrofit cannot be made up in the short term. “And should a maintenance issue occur, i.e., a couple of LED modules go out just after a couple of years, chances are that the LED has already been revised, making matching impossible,” he says. “So now the client is looking at a complete retrofit pushing that ROI even further away.”

Cover_Lighting_141_March2007Efficiency and Economy

In part, LEDS are also benefitting from much broader societal shifts favoring efficiency and economy. “The customer is asking for energy-efficient lighting,” notes Barry. “Sign shops are challenged to provide the most cost-effective way to illuminate their signs.

“LED manufacturers have solutions to both challenges.” 

Perceptions that LEDs require less maintenance only enhance their appeal. “End-users are starting to look at total systems costs and the cost of the sign and lighting, as well as the energy costs over the life of that sign,” points out Shepard. “Though the costs of LEDs are initially more, an LED sign system offers longer life and reduced maintenance than other types of lighting.”

Practical Alternatives to LEDs

Gastelum maintains such benefits can be oversold and points out other light sources have also seen advancements in recent years that make them practical alternatives. “Neon has come a long way with their tri-blend whites and rare earth phosphor-coated glass,” he says. “Lamp processing equipment has advanced as well, ensuring even longer life. 

“Processing of electrodes is no longer a matter of great skill but [is now as] easy as pressing a button. This is the most important part of tube processing and the one most often done incorrectly.”

Gastelum also mentions that The Neon Group recently managed to get neon Labeled and Recognized with UL’s new Green Leaf Verification Service (ULVS). “This small organization needs to be applauded for the hard work they do,” he states.

Gastelum points to advances in high-output fluorescence, as well. “We see an abundance of T8 lamps being used in sign cabinets with better tri-blend phosphors and improved cathode technology which brings longer life than the conventional halo-phosphate HO lamps.”

Development of more efficient fluorescent ballasts should make them viable for certain applications. “Fluorescent is in transition from the standard T12 applications to the long-life T8 and T12 products, which are more efficient options,” points out Janie McClanahan, sales & marketing manager at Scott Fetzer Electrical Group. “Cabinet signs using T8 long-life lamps and electronic ballasts are cost-effective and produce a brighter sign than their LED counterparts.”

Cover_Lighting_107_May2004All Still Viable

Most expect the proven lighting solutions will retain a smaller but significant hold on the market, while LEDs will benefit from growing awareness and an aggressive marketing push as the lighting solution of the future.

“Fluorescent and neon will still be viable, as they have a large installed base and offer some unique advantages over LEDs,” says Frahm. “Neon signage workmanship is hard to beat for users looking for light brilliance, aesthetic impact, and long life.”

That craftsmanship secures its place—but in a diminished role. “Neon will continue to decline to a point where it is just used for creative effect,” predicts Barry. “Fluorescent will decline as well, but at a slower rate.”

But Gastelum sees continued demand for the different approaches to illumination, based on their intrinsic strengths and the setting. “[Sign builders] should pick and choose the best light source for the particular sign application in mind,” he says. “What is not widely known or thought of is every light source has its own strengths and weaknesses.”

But the momentum today is with LEDs, and most expect they will become the dominant lighting solution for signage. “LED is easier to install and work with, easier to ship, and allows for shallower and less expensive signs,” points out Barry. “It is also available in perimeter lighting solutions never available to the sign builder until now.”

Gastelum agrees that LEDs will only get better—even if he still isn’t sold on them as a “wonder product” that will replace other light sources. “They will get better for the applications that they should be used in,” he says “I’m hoping—and looking—for a standardization that is presently absent when it comes to LEDs.”

Aard_sbi25_LogoTwenty-five years from now, the state of LEDS in 2012 might be the starting point for a look back on the next quarter century of innovation in lighting systems and solutions. “I don’t think we’re tapped out yet in either the efficiency or the performance for LEDs and see much more coming,” says Shepard.

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” predicts Williams. “The advancement in sign lighting is remarkable and has given the sign industry such a broad range of opportunities to broaden our product base.

“These advances will only get bigger and more amazing.”

—Mike Antoniak


Note: For more on the evolution of lighting in the sign industry, click HERE.


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