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Recognizing LED Technology for Sign Use

LED technology is becoming affordable and new applications are being discovered for utilizing LED in the sign industry. By   Fritz Meyne

Did you know those little green or red lights on your desktop computer are LED’s? They are not the super bright LED technology of today’s generation used in the sign industry though.


Look around; LED illumination is just about everywhere. The technology known as LED is an acronym for Light Emitting Diode. Commercial vehicle taillights, some auto taillights, in your mouse, on key rings, in flashlights, alarm systems, emergency exit signs, toys, underwater pool lighting, wall washer lighting, video displays, POP illumination and yes, signs.

For the last two years the LED application arena has taken great strides. The good news is that this greater usage will result in even lower prices and more options. Several companies offer LED “cluster” lighting fixtures that can generate millions of color changes randomly and/or are controlled to create various colored lighting effects. Think of it as a video display used to create color effects instead of images, and you’ll get the idea.

Accepting LED

As with all new technology, the “current” status quo gets offended and either totally puts its head in the sand or strikes out with innuendos. We sign people only have to remember the Gerber 4 to draw a parallel to the future. LED technology will be used more and more in the sign industry because it offers so many advantages. It is affordable, and there are so many technology companies doing research and finding new markets and applications to replace the status quo, not just in the sign industry, but all markets.

LED technology brings so many benefits to the table that many traditions will change, just as it did with the Gerber type equipment. Another easy to understand parallel, are cell phones and computers. Just look at the options today and remember that just about 15 years ago you were fussing because you had to get a new phone line for your business facsimile machine to keep up with competitors and your customer’s needs.

Today, we have at least six companies offering their version of an LED system to light your illuminated letters and even border tube options with LED. Rest assured, there will be more. Like all new technologies, not all versions will develop to maturity, so keep that in mind when you are looking at new options.

Technology Awareness

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Not all LED systems are equal in their presentation or mounting recommendations. Take special note of the differences in the applications of each product specifically for each application. This is not to say there is a bad system in this lot. It is just to say that each vendor solution has a different approach and biases to what the sign industry needs. For instance, if you were to bid one system for any given project as your choice, but are then called on to bid a new job that specifies another system, you will need to take precautions to know the differences.

Let’s look at some differences in LED’s as used for the sign industry and what you might need to know to make a proper buying decision. Right now between the six dominant companies, they have warranties anywhere from one to five years. There are also four distinct product differences:


One vendor uses the “return” or side of the letter for mounting the LED’s as an indirect light source. The others are typically mounted for direct beam illumination on the back or for halo applications on the backside of the face. For voltage regulation, some use resistors on their PCB (Printed Circuit Board) while another requires a separate amplifier to guarantee the proper voltage to each LED. When it comes to connecting the LED’s, some have plug-in connectors for multiple connections and others require a solid core wire.

Just as the vendors offer various warranties, the same is true of the prices of the different systems. Even though I know the price points, it would not be my position to offer that information. Just be aware that there is a broad range of prices and materials for any one of these systems.



Seek Out The Answers

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As is my usual position, it is your job to do the research and determine the differences of these systems. It is also your responsibility to ask your potential vendor questions about their recommendations on how to illuminate any given application. Ask the right questions and make sure that you know the following, relative to each system:


  1. Know and understand the necessary materials.
  2. Know and understand the vendors specs for the quantities recommended.
  3. Know and understand the voltage requirements at the illuminated LED’s.
  4. Know and understand the code requirements (there are two variations of the power supplies discussed in the following text).
  5. Know and understand the power consumption of not only each system, but of the different colors, as they have different consumption needs.
  6. Ask the vendor if they will provide pricing support and what happens if you need more or less materials?
  7. Ask the vendor if they will provide industry and application specific detailed drawings?
  8. Ask for and get in some form of a hard copy, the warranty information and when the warranty starts.
  9. Ask for some form of illumination data, especially if you have not seen the system, and be sure to check for the different colors.

You may have more or less questions, but make sure you have the proper information not only to make the right buying decision, but also to support your customer’s needs.

Power Supply

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An issue that has reared its ugly head as related to the power supplies is “need-to-know” information that has not been freely offered by some of the vendors, specifically the UL48 rating and guidelines. The UL rating for LED low voltage systems is based on using a Class Two power supply. A Class Two power supply is a plug-in wall unit like the type you might use for your cell phone charger. Now think about this for a minute: This means that to technically meet the UL inspector’s guidelines in your shop during fabrication, you have to use the plug-in type, Class Two power supply. The end user and their electrician must provide an array of multiple plug-in receptacles according to where you will need them. This can sometimes be a costly challenge. On the other hand, the more commercial AC/DC power supplies that have to be hard-wired are not acceptable at the sign shop fabrication level for UL inspector approval. So again, “Buyer Beware” and/or “Fabricator Beware” of this needed specification in your planning.

The larger more commercial hard-wired units are beneficial as they can illuminate more LED’s, but it is only the Class Two units that are acceptable for in-shop fabrication and the UL inspector. On the other hand, if your LED vendor has ETL certification, here is how it works: At the job site, if the inspector shows up, and you are using the larger commercial power supplies (hard-wired units), they have to accept them, as ETL has to be accepted, if UL is required. Not knowing this could cause a lot of headache and name-calling. It is your choice as to how you want to handle this, but just be aware of the code differences and the way they affect you, especially if you are a UL shop.

Power savings are a real advantage to the end user when looking at LED vs. neon. As usual there is a lot of misinformation about power consumption between these two illumination sources. Regardless, for the red spectrum of LED vs. red neon there is a savings anywhere from 40 to 70% average and up to 90% in the white spectrum (vs. mercury based neon colors). If you are using 60ma transformers, it could be an even greater savings. At least one of the LED vendors offers a factual power consumption chart that you can adjust for hours of operation and the kWh rate. You can also plug in the neon transformer information and have factual numbers to use as a selling tool.

In closing, you will see more and more LED usage in the sign industry and all industries for that matter. It is only a matter of time before choice or demand will involve you. Good luck in your endeavors to keep your customers happy, because if you don’t, someone else will.

Fritz has been serving the retail and OEM sign and lighting industries with ISA, USSC, FSA, SEGD and ILA and has over fifteen industry articles in print and electronic circulation formats.

LED (VS) Neon sign

Power Consumption: LED signs use very low power, requiring in some cases only one-tenth the wattage for a similar light output to an equivalent neon sign or light source. This low-power usage also makes LED signs safe and cool to the touch. Low-power usage also means considerable cost savings to operate your LED sign, therefore making the life-cycle cost a very attractive token for consumers. Lighting consumes up to 30 percent of the nation’s energy budget, with much of this still being consumed by older and less efficient neon lighting. The use of LED lighting can create brighter light sources with far less consumption of energy. Additionally, LEDs have much longer life spans than their neon equivalents, reducing waste and the need for landfill space when they are no longer in service.

Versatility: One of the biggest advantages of LEDs over neon is their flexibility. LED technology offers an array of products suitable in range from the smallest interior illuminated displays to the sometimes giant color changing systems used to light up entire building exteriors. The use of Neon, however, is far more limited due to several factors.

1) Neon is available in many colors but does not have the ability to change colors. Over the last several years, programmable color changing LEDs have hit the market and are becoming increasingly popular with architects, designers, and builders – presenting design possibilities previously impossible to achieve.

2) Because it emits a great deal more heat than LEDs, neon is not a good solution for small displays where ventilation is limited.

3) When attempting to illuminate a large space or display, a considerable number of neon tubes (or “strokes”) will be necessary, while there are LEDs that can be used which are more than ten times as bright as standard neon and thus reduce the amount of units needed.

Maintenance:LED signs have far less maintenance than their neon counterparts. LED’s are small, extremely bright, individual light nodes that will, in comparison to neon, eliminate gases, glass tubes, and argon or mercury problems. Neon signs will gradually lose the neon inside the glass tubes while LEDs dim at a much slower rate. Neon bulbs are made of narrow glass tubes; their fragility requires signage to be created in bulky protective packaging and often results in broken parts and service calls. LED lights are much smaller and sturdier and can be packaged in far smaller housing.

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