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Electrical Spotlight: Switching Over to LED

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been covering the automotive industry for more than ten years.

Does the prospect of literally billions and billions of dollars of potential business—much of it hiding in plain sight—seem like a huge but largely untapped avenue for sign professionals?

For years, we’ve heard of the transformation going on as LED lighting technology has become both much brighter and less expensive, helping it to gain traction as a replacement for older, less-efficient fluorescent or conventional lighting in traditional spots such as cabinet sign replacements for neon lighting. The longer life of today’s LED lighting systems also significantly cuts down on maintenance for signs and decorative lighting.

But many suppliers say that sign companies are also in a great position to cash in on the virtually unlimited jobs available to convert customers’ antiquated outdoor fluorescent lighting, as your sign company bucket truck–and a little installation expertise–can make those sorts of jobs a snap, and open you up to a whole new market.

Even better, with green initiatives growing nationwide for more efficient electrical use, customers can be given some financial encouragement to make the change to LEDs thanks to ever-expanding government and utility company incentives.

Tom Grunwald, western regional lighting specialist with N. Glantz & Son Sign Supplies, a national provider of sign components and electrical fixtures, says that just as we’ve seen prices drop and technology improve for consumer products such as flat-screen TVs, the LED lighting business has also reached a stage where all of the positives are starting to line up.

“As recently as three years ago, LED lighting technology was tremendously expensive, but those costs have now moved much more in line with traditional lighting,” Grunwald says. “Combine that with the energy savings associated with those lights, and that’s helped make it extremely attractive.”

Henry A. Brown III, president of lighting supplier Ventex Technology LLC, says the newest updates in modern LED lighting systems make them almost an entirely different product than what some sign professionals remember.

“The sign industry has been constrained by what kind of product has been available to them. Five yeas ago, it would have been impossible to do what we’re able to do today, as the product was horrid, expensive and really not that bright,” Brown says. “Today, particularly with the LED version of HID lamps for parking lots–that’s got a lot of people saying, ‘OK, let me look into that.’”

Grunwald says utilities such as Southern California Edison have begun to recognize the huge energy savings provided by customers retrofitting their flat-tube signs or swapping out their older metal-halide or high-pressure-sodium lamps, and have offered significant rebates for those who do so.

More than anything, it’s the sheer mass of the market that makes LED retrofits such a great opportunity for sign professionals, he adds.

“If you consider that there’s probably $300 billion in old, traditional lighting out there, 80 per cent of it more than 20 years old, this is really a prime market,” he says. “If you’ve already got the bucket truck, when you’re out working on customers’ channel letters, you should seriously consider offering the LED retrofits at the same time.”

Advanced technology in the new generation of LED chips has vastly extend the life of lighting systems, meaning less maintenance for customers, with new LED systems good for seven to 10 years, versus much shorter lamp life for traditional products. Some LED systems are expected to provide an operating life in excess of 100,000 hours, meaning more than 11 years of maintenance-free utility.

And Grunwald says overall luminosity–an issue with the first generation of LED lighting solutions–has also drastically improved.

“Even two years ago, you were only getting 30 to 40 lumens per watt, but the systems today provide between 100 and 120 lumens per watt, and in the lab, they’re now able to produce as much as 200 lumens per watt,” he says.

Brown says the improved brightness might not matter much in smaller, traditional channel letter signs–though efficiency is still a major factor–whereas new LEDs’ blazing output can be critical for single- or double-faced cabinet signs, especially those out on the highway. As replacements for parking lot or business lights, the vastly improved and energy-efficient output can be a huge selling point with customers, even those who are not existing sign clients.

And while their use in channel lighting is their easiest application, LEDs are also beginning to have more uses as replacements for traditional neon lighting.

“I love neon, and it’s still very much an art, but there are now getting to be some LED products that will make neon look old fashioned,” Grunwald says. “They’ve been doing quite well in replicating straight neon tubes, but to get it to bend around 90 degree corners, that’s where they’re still having some challenges.

Brown sees new AC-power LEDs as another emerging technology which will soon be offering signmakers more opportunities.

“The new systems will have universal input, meaning no power supply or conversion necessary, so sign companies will not be constrained to have two inventories of supplies,” he says. “It’s mostly aimed at the commercial and residential market, but I think we’ll soon see the benefit in the sign and lighting industry.”    

Brown says larger retrofit projects, prompted by business owners or executives looking for ways to vastly reduce their electrical expenditures, provide a great avenue to demonstrate the financial positives of LED solutions.

“A sign provider will get a call from a woman who wants to get an energy savings report for all the signs at a hospital–some LED, some neon, some fluorescent–so the big calculation is what energy saving she’ll be able to get, based on kilowatt-hours,” Brown says. “With LED product quality increasing significantly and costs reduced dramatically, everyone is the winner.”

What are the best strategies for current sign professionals to break into the LED retrofit market? It turns out that you already have much of the equipment you need; Brown simply suggests doing some research and partnering with a supplier serving your area to build up the necessary expertise on LED applications and installations.

“You really want to work with someone who can interact, solve problems and offer hands-on education, so you’re completely competent when you’re out there, and not training on the customer’s dime,” he says.

“It’s not rocket science, but each system has a different way of being put together, and actually being able to work with a technical advisor is beneficial. A little hand-holding by a vendor can keep you out of trouble. My advice is that if the system offering is so complicated that installers can’t make it work, don’t do it.”