I recently spoke with an old friend of mine about the misconception that custom neon signs have lost their place in today’s sign world. Despite some misconceptions, we both believe that neon is far from being a dinosaur.
Neon will remain a viable art form. Not only does it have the ability to create nostalgia, but it also has attention-grabbing visibility for the right brand or retailer. And raw neon has a unique look that’s very hard to replicate.
However neon is a skilled trade that not everyone can perform. It takes a lot of experience and patience to manipulate what is essentially a wet noodle of glass at 1200°F! The tube can collapse or kink, and you have to keep the ID as uniform as possible, because there is an electric current running through it. It’s a lot like going
from a 4-gauge wire to a 12-gauge and then back to a 4-gauge. The neon tube has to stay as uniform as possible to maintain an even level of current.
The Impact of LEDs
In the past, neon was used as a light source (engine) and for delivering a definite aesthetic look. It was (and still is) used in channel letters because you could manipulate the glass tubes to fit custom forms and shapes.
However neon has declined in popularity as a light engine in certain applications. Take flashers, for instance. (Note: Flashers are the electrical components that turn neon on and off.) These aren’t as common these days, since they have been used so closely with neon. Communities tend to view them as “unsafe,” and besides, you can’t use a flasher on a GFI transformer.
Another factor has been the onset of LEDs and their promoted advantages—safety, low voltage (12 volts vs. secondary voltage, up to 15k volts), etc. You can custom-fit LEDs as a light engine much easier today than years ago, and [as a matter of fact], their prevalence and versatility have brought down their associated cost factor.
However this doesn’t mean that neon is extinct. There are still a lot of neon signs out there, which means there will be demand for repair work (such as replacing a piece of glass).
Still a good number of old neon signs will end up being replaced with newer technology as they age. Businesses that choose to replace neon with LED within internally illuminated channel letters are making the economic decision. They’re banking on recovering the initial hit of a costly sign replacement with the longer life expectancy of LED.
My advice to these people is to watch for color variations that can come with inexpensive LEDs. With white LEDs, “going cheap” means you may not get the right hue. It’s not really pure white; it can have blue tints to it. If you do go with LEDs, be sure to go with a reputable brand.
What LEDs can’t do is present the classic image that neon can. There have been many advancements in neon over the years—including in the level of power consumption. Neon’s power consumption has been reduced from drawing three amps to only drawing 0.6 amps, thanks to the electronic circuitry that’s integrated into today’s transformers.
Electronic circuitry has allowed sign builders to dial in power consumption and make it far more efficient than in the past. Now microprocessors enable manufacturers to use every bit of energy that goes into it.
Advancements have also been made with neon transformers, which have a life that varies extensively based on how well the glass is made. It could last up to fifteen years, if the glass is made well; however if the glass isn’t made properly, it will have to work that much harder.
There are also other attributes that affect the life of the transformer:
- Impurities removed from the glass during the processing procedure.
- Each piece of glass has a certain draw. Balancing the draw of the neon with the transformer is critical. Anything above or below “balanced” will shorten the life of the transformer.
- Over-powering the glass.
- Under-driving the glass.
Neon has improved its energy consumption but still hasn’t matched the energy savings of LED.
But I’d estimate that new neon (luminous tube) transformers are up to 80 percent more efficient than they were about ten years ago.
I don’t think neon will ever die out, because it’s a specialty art form. It will be far less of a component of an electronic sign however, as it gets used strictly for aesthetics rather than as a light engine.
Neon probably won’t return as the primary engine for commodity signs. In my opinion, people nowadays purchase neon signs because they look like something they can relate to—the heritage and classic image of neon are now what offers the appeal.
By Adam Brown. Brown is president at Sign Effectz, Inc. (www.signeffectz.com) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If you have a neon sign photo you’d like to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Dave Forrest and USSC.