Planning and preparation are keys to success

The ABCs of Channel Letter Installation

We’ve been down this road more than twice, but for better or worse, LEDs are the preferred lighting source for channel letters. John Lewis of Direct Sign Wholesale in Denver estimates that 98 percent of the channel letters they produce now are lit by LEDs.

The good news is that it makes this type of signage a lot more accessible to sign and graphics companies that shied away in the past because of the expertise needed to produce and install neon. On the other hand, says Lewis, the easy accessibility of low cost and correspondingly low quality LEDs makes it tempting for some producers to use that lower-cost product, and the overall quality and longevity of the sign drops accordingly.

Direct Sign Wholesale tests various LED brands continuously. That data is compared to the LED manufacturer’s claims, and only brands with strong long-term performance are used. They estimate that 98 percent of its channel letter business now uses LEDs for illumination.

“Reputable sign manufacturers use only high-quality LEDs, and keep a close eye on long-term LED performance,” Lewis says. “We have our own LED lab where various LED brands are tested continuously. That data is compared to the LED manufacturer’s claims, and only brands with strong long-term performance are used in our signage products.”

First Things First

Before you sell a channel letter job, the first thing to check is local and state regulations regarding electric sign installation. This is especially true for high-voltage neon installations, which should never be done by anyone but a licensed installer or electrician.

Doing as much as you can in the shop will save you from having to make repeat trips to the installation site and could make a big difference in profits. (Photo courtesy Superior Wholesale Signage)

You may find that low-voltage LED installations are regulated differently and don’t require licensing. Either way, it’s far better to find out beforehand. Direct Sign Wholesale, for instance, lists installers on its website at www.directsignwholesale.com. Click on Resources, then Installation Directory to find the state-by-state listings. The installers are not endorsed by Direct Sign Wholesale, so it’s up to you to research them.

Whether you find an installer or do it yourself, the next step is just as important. When you sell the job take careful note of the elements that will affect the installation: the material you’ll drill in to install the letters and what’s behind that wall.

“After they check the local codes, the salesperson who goes out to find what the customer wants should poke their head in the ceiling and see what’s behind the storefront. There could be a security gate, an air conditioner unit or steel right behind the fascia. All of that would make a more difficult installation,” says Michael Florio of Superior Wholesale Signage Inc., in Daytona Beach, Fla.

When you sell the job, take careful note of the elements that will affect the installation: the material you’ll drill in to install the letters and what’s behind that wall. Photos courtesy Direct Sign Wholesale

“They should know that before they submit the price because the price would have to include installation. A few years ago, someone ordered two sets of channel letters from us. The front set was fine, but when he went to install one of the elevations he found he was drilling into someone’s office, which is why it’s so important to investigate the site beforehand. Anyone who talks to the customer should have some knowledge of construction and installation.”

The fascia’s material and thickness is important to note because it will dictate the mounting hardware and the length of threaded bolts or screws that will hold the letters in place. A thorough site survey will ensure that the installation goes quickly and smoothly, and more importantly, that the crew doesn’t have to race back to the shop and start all over again.

“The site survey is the most important thing you do, and it should be at bid rather than after you get the job. You may be going through a foot of concrete for a flush-mounted letter set with 14 letters. In that case, you have to drill holes through concrete and it may take you all day to do it. If you didn’t properly survey the site and account for the material you’re drilling into, you just lost money on the job,” says Lewis.

The easy accessibility of low-cost and correspondingly low-quality LEDs makes it tempting for some producers to use that lower-cost product, and the overall quality and longevity of the sign drops accordingly. It’s important to have accurate information about the quality of your LEDs.

Channel letter wholesalers generally provide installation guidelines, wiring diagrams and schematics when they ship the letters, the mounting hardware and the patterns. The pattern is an important component of the process since it will be taped to the wall and used as a guide to drill holes and mount the letters.

The majority of the time, the pattern will be perfect, but don’t assume it’s perfect. Double-check the pattern before the installation. Though quite rare, a pattern that’s off even slightly will waste time and money in the long run.

“Before you take a pattern and put it on the wall, check the letters with the pattern to make sure all the holes line up. It could be off, and if something is off when you go out and put the pattern up and put the holes in then you would have a problem where you’d have to re-do everything. If you drive one or two hours to the job, and set up and you have something wrong, it will take a long time to get it right. It’s a lot easier to do it in the shop than it is out in the field with an installation crew,” says Warren Sciortino of Letter Fab in Crested Butte, Colo. “Then, once you have the pattern on the wall, drill all your holes, put up your lettering, put the wiring through the wall, mount the power supply inside the wall and hook it up to your circuit. LED channel letters are a lot easier to install than neon, which is why a lot of companies who couldn’t do neon and didn’t want to fool with 15,000 volt transformers are doing it now. I would also recommend talking to the landlord or whoever owns the building to have an electrician put in a time clock so the letters don’t burn all day,” says Sciortino.

The fascia’s material and thickness is important to note because it will dictate the mounting hardware and the length of threaded bolts or screws that will hold the letters in place. A thorough site survey will ensure that the installation goes quickly and smoothly, and more importantly, that the crew doesn’t have to race back to the shop and start all over again. Photos courtesy Direct Sign Wholesale

The other option is a raceway, which backs the letters instead of flush mounting them to the wall. Some landlords and owners will require a raceway to minimize the amount of holes drilled into the wall. This type of installation is most common in strip centers.

As always, and no matter the type of installation, the key is to simply do your homework and pre-plan as much of the installation as possible. With the relative simplicity of an LED installation, channel letters could be a nice extra profit center if you’re not already doing them.

“I have neon guys going to LEDs because they’re getting beat on price with installation. We have people who do their own neon who buy the letters from us and can do the neon for less than LEDs, but what they’re telling me is when they go out on an installation it’s not as fast as it is with LEDs,” says Sciortino. “We have thousands of sets of LEDs and very seldom get a call, even on a power supply. When all we did was neon, we had service calls galore. The average call for a neon sign problem with your crane truck ran $450-$500 every time something when out, which is why a lot of people took maintenance contracts. If they’re selling maintenance contracts for LEDs they’re making a killing because they don’t require as much service and the service is much simpler because it’s usually just a power supply.” 

Photo courtesy Superior Wholesale Signage