night shot

Harnessing Solar Power for Signs

Sometimes working a sign project is a bit like working on an enormous jigsaw puzzle. It’s about taking the pieces involved and trying to make them all fit together. Such was the case for Sign Specialists Corporation when it recently completed its first solar monument signage project for their client Cushman & Wakefield.

The Santa, Ana, California-based sign shop provides interior and exterior signs to over 1,200 office complexes comprising nearly 5,000 commercial and industrial buildings and their parking structures. “From high-value channel lettering and monument signs, to innovative and stimulating ADA-compliant interior sign systems, we try to help our customers to aggressively compete in this challenging world,” says sales executive Sean Baldwin.


Now for Something Completely Different

Baldwin reports that with this particular project the client was looking for a unique sign for a commercial office building that they manage in Glendale, California. “Downtown Glendale is a very active area and the street that this building is located on cuts right through town. There is a courtyard with a fountain and they wanted to install a monument sign on the other side of it. They had a couple of vendors coming in proposing different ideas and design concepts,” he says.

He says that his first thought when he saw the location was that he didn’t want to create a big monument wall blocking people’s view of the street. He had an idea that maybe the addition of glass panels would help keep flow there.

“Our objective was to create a sign that looked nice from the street, but also had an aesthetic appeal from the courtyard as well,” Baldwin says. “The glass panels were proposed, so when sitting on the patio area, you are not looking at the back of a large ‘wall’ created by the sign. The client also really wanted to brand the sign with the logo for the property, so we really wanted to make the logo the center of the sign.”

“In addition,” he continues, “I was looking at design elements that provided more of a ‘green’ feel, so I pitched the idea of an illuminated sign made with aluminum and glass, and fueled entirely by solar power.”


Here Comes the Sun

Baldwin adds another reason for utilizing solar power would be the cost savings involved. “It is was important for the client to have the sign lit during hours of darkness,” he says, “but they had just spent a lot of money redoing the entire courtyard, and to bring in electric power would require the added issue of trenching and more construction costs.

“Cushman & Wakefield also liked the fact that solar signs can cost, on average, 75 percent less to operate and could provide years of virtually maintenance-free service. They loved the concepts that we presented, and we were awarded the project.”


Making All the Pieces Fit

The next piece in this solar puzzle was how to make it all work together. This was the sign shop’s first project involving solar and Cushman & Wakefield wanted the sign to be self-contained with no unattractive poles with solar panels next to the sign like many solar sign projects are done today.

“This was our first foray into solar signage and we were in uncharted territory when we began the project, Baldwin says. “I started calling solar companies and most of them didn’t know how to help us. I did find a supplier—Mister Solar—and they were able to provide us with standard-sized solar panels and some spec sheets. I then turned to Jeff Sherman, our VP of Operations, to make this all work.”


The Puzzling Process

“It was my job to take all these parts and piece them together,” Sherman says. “We needed to produce a completely green sign using aluminum, glass and solar. The solar company had supplied the technical sheets on the standard-sized panels that we would be using and that was about as much as they were able to help us. We were also under design constraints by the client where we had to conceal the solar batteries and mount the panels as a part of the sign.”

Sherman explains they had to find a way to use the panels at the exact size that they were provided in the area they had to work with. He came up with the idea for an aluminum-framed structure with all electronic components stored within the body of sign.

“The sign is 20 feet long and 10 feet tall and was built in two halves,” he says. “The upper section contains the solar panels, which are mounted and recessed in the roof of the sign. The solar batteries are housed in the body of the sign. It’s a fully self-contained unit.”


Let There be Light

Sherman says the next step was to map out how long they would need to illuminate the sign.

“We figured we could get about five hours of battery life each night,” Sherman says. “We would need about 205 watts for five hours of lighting and we had to find the right LEDs that we could would work with and give us the deep illumination that was needed. Then the next step was to figure out all the wiring that would be involved. It was an education for us every step of the process. There was no blueprint how to do this.”


Working Within Guidelines

The 20 feet long and 10 feet tall solar sign also sits about six inches from a public walkway and they needed to work within city guidelines.

“We had to tread lightly with the city of Glendale in addition to what the customer wanted,” Sherman says. “We understand the sign permitting process for getting signage approved by a city, and we have pulled sign permits for years. Over that time we have encountered every imaginable situation to obtain an approved sign permit, and this project was even more complex.”

Baldwin points out that the entire project took about nine months from concept to completion and that they tried to put a lot of thought into every aspect of the job. “The logo is right in the center to help branding and it lights up nicely at night in both the front and back,” he says.

With this project under the company’s belt, Baldwin hopes it will open up new avenues.

“We are a soup to nuts sign shop and with the demand for alternative energy sources continuing to rise, I’m hoping this solar project will provide new revenue opportunities for us going forward,” Baldwin says. “Solar-powered signage systems are ideal solutions that are greener and cheaper alternatives to using electric power. All we have here in Southern California is the sun, and if we can help these property management companies harness that power, so be it. I plan on taking this concept and running with it.”  

As for Sherman, it was all about completing the puzzle and making it all work.

“It truly was a puzzle trying to put all the pieces together,” Sherman says. “This is what you have, here is the space you have to work with, here is how much wattage you have and over here is what the customer wants and the codes the city requires. For us pull this all together and to create this sustainable sign was a pretty impressive feat.”