A Deeper Look at Halo-Lit Channel Letters

Hello Halo! A Deeper Look at Halo-Lit Channel Letters

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 
 

When making a purchase of something consequential—one that requires attention to detail while factoring in various features—there are many questions that arise. Think about selecting your last car; what did you ask yourself about the product? How will it perform in the weather? Will it require regular maintenance? Will it stand out among other vehicles? What does it cost? These are just a few questions worth asking.

Now, try anticipating these types of inquiries when customers ask about channel letter signage. End users will want to know everything about the sign­—from the letter shapes to the lighting—and most often, they’ll expect a professional, attention-getting finished product. This is where halo-lit channel letters can make for a strong solution.

As a summary, halo-lit or backlit channel letters, are illuminated from behind the letter to give off a “glowing” appearance. These are popular among users because of their refined look that does not overwhelm the viewer with light.

As Dan Parks, southeast sales representative for Principal LED, describes it, “They stand out from many signs out there due to the sharp contrast of the bright backlighting with the dark channel letters at night.” 

Finding A Place

There are instances when halo-lit channel letters are preferred, and there are situations when this type of lighting is required. For instance, Parks says that, “many municipalities will only allow halo-lit letters.”

Such is the case with Davis, California which states in its city’s sign regulations that “Individually illuminated letters, either internally illuminated or backlit (halo-lit) solid letters (reverse channel) are encouraged and are preferred to internally illuminated cabinet (can) signs.” Or as part of Redmond, Washington’s zoning code that suggests, “Backlit, halo-lit illumination or individually cut reverse channel letter signs with halo illumination are highly encouraged for lighting purposes and should be considered. Such signs convey a subtle and attractive appearance and are very legible under moderate ambient lighting conditions.”

This is an important decision among many cities because it gives local shops guidance while also keeping the area’s illuminated sign landscape consistent.

“Upscale towns like Scottsdale, Arizona only allow these types of letters to be used as they allow minimum amount of light to pollute the night sky while providing a clean, high-end aesthetic look to the shops that use them,” states Mike Bluhm, director of sign product solutions for SloanLED. “I would say, in my opinion, that halo-lit letters look more sophisticated than regular acrylic-faced letters.”

Especially in instances when halo-lit letters are not impacted by other sources of light, they can be very effective and eye-catching.

“Halo lit letters when used in the proper environment (no other overpowering ambient light in the area) provide an elegant, eye-catching sign solution,” says Dion Flaska, product manager for Gemini Sign Products.

Letters and Light

Outside of the aesthetic elements, halo-lit letters also present other benefits. LED color selection is one.

“All colors are possible,” starts Parks, “especially with Principal LED’s RGB Light Tape, which allows you to change colors as often as you’d like. Color choice should be complementary to the color of the letters or vinyl used on the building or letter set.”

When pairing LEDs with halo-lit letters, there are things to consider. Both elements should compliment each other while building toward the most effective solution.

“There are several materials that work well for halo lit letters,” says Flaska. “The choice made depends on a variety of factors including the desired look, budget, and local regulations.”

According to Flaska, Gemini offers both plastic and metal halo-lit letters and logos, which are all UL certified. The Gemini line includes Gemlite vacuum-formed cellulose acetate butyrate (CAB), Premium LUXE acrylic, cast aluminum, and fabricated stainless steel and aluminum. 

“Halo-lit letters use a transparent or translucent backer populated with the LEDs,” Flaska continues. “The LED system used and/or population technique typically varies in comparison to a face lit letter to achieve a uniform halo effect.”

Circling back to LED colors, choosing the right letter is certainly crucial. But there are other external factors that can impact color selection. 

“One should consider the color of the building when choosing the LED color,” Bluhm suggests. “Different kelvin temps (white tones) react better than others with the color of the building. Warm Kelvins (3000K-5000K) work best with browns which are typical stucco colors, whereas darker building colors react better to cooler kelvin temps around 6500-7100K.”

Sign makers adhere to this rule. Tony Wheeler is the president of SignMonkey.com, and he has provided all types of channel letter signage to customers. During his time in the business he has noticed the pros and cons of halo-lit signs.

“If the wall is too dark or rough to get the reflection required, or if the sign will be viewed at an extreme angle, that would make a halo lit sign unreadable,” Wheeler explains. “In the case of the sign being installed at an extreme angle to the traffic, we suggest a halo-lit and face-lit sign. This gives you the best of both worlds; you get the cool halo effect the customer is wanting and the readability of face-lit. You don't however get the daytime ‘metal letter’ look.”

LED Elements

Whenever the subject of LED lighting arises, two main characteristics of brightness and longevity come along with it. With halo-lit letters, brightness continues to be a hot topic.

“Although brightness is subjective, you should provide enough light so the outline of the letter is legible,” explains Bluhm. “You should also consider the distance of the standoff that holds the letter at a specified distance from the building. If you are too far, the letter is blurry and hard to read. If you are too close, you may not have enough room to spill the light around the letters. Most companies set the standoff distance around 1.5 inches off the wall.”

Blum states further that most halo lit letters are 3.5 inches deep and typically LEDs are mounted on a clear polycarbonate back facing into the letter. 

“We suggest you use an LED that is bright enough to allow for the light to bounce back off the face and illuminate the outline of the back side of the letter without casting lines or shadows,” Bluhm continues.  “We would suggest a module that has at least 75-100 lumens and is physically small as to minimize the shadow from the module.”

Parks is well-versed in the solutions that Principal LED brings to halo-lit letters. He offers that, “Wide-angle-output modules (170 degrees or greater) work great for halo-lit channel letters. Waterproof modules (IP68) are also important, because many of these applications are exposed to the elements.”

He points out that brighter modules may be needed with darker backgrounds, but for the most part “because the letters are usually mounted closer to the wall than a face-lit application, you actually can use dimmer modules.”

From a sign shop perspective, there is even more to consider beyond LED implementation. Shops should recognize which customers are good fits for halo-lit projects and the most effective applications.

“Primarily our halo-lit customers are banks, hospitals and universities,” Wheeler explains. “In most cases their sign is not only for advertising but to also make a statement. With halo-lit letter prices about double the price of traditional face lit letters, the client is naturally a higher-end business.”

Putting it Together

Looking at how a halo-lit channel letter sign comes together, there are many phases involved—from design to fabrication to installation. Sign makers should take into account that there may be challenges during any point of this process.

“In the past when we built our halo lit letters, to avoid hot spots we would attach the LEDs to a sanded polycarbonate panel,” says Wheeler. “The light from the LEDs would be directed to the inside of the letter. This would cause the light to bounce around inside of the letter before exiting the polycarbonate back. With the new wider projection LEDs, we now attach the LEDs to the back of the letter face and let the LED shine directly back to the wall. The halo is brighter this way and we don't have to worry about hot spots.”

Avoiding hot spots seem to always be a concern with channel letter projects. In many cases, the initial design and production of the project can eliminate these issues. Careful planning will go a long way.

“Installation of the letters should be thought out well in advance of the actual day of the install when selling halo-lit letters or any other type of sign,” says Wheeler.

And a significant part of the process is finding the right complement to the letters and lighting.

“Sign makers should avoid glossy backgrounds, because you will see every module in the reflection and will not get an even light output,” says Parks. “Matte finished or masonry walls like stucco, brick, or rock are perfect for a halo-lit project.”

Flaska concurs saying, “One of the most common mistakes is installing halo-lit letters on the wrong wall or substrate. For proper halo lighting and to avoid seeing the points of light, halo-lit letters should be installed on a matte surface. The more reflective the surface the more the LEDs and even installation hardware will tend to be seen.”

Installing the components can sometimes take more effort than first calculated. It is important to have all the information upfront so that the work is not held up during the install. 

“During the initial site survey, one should establish the way the sign is to be installed,” suggests Wheeler. “In many cases halo-lit letters will require sheetrock to be removed from inside the building. While installing, never put any type of wire splices in the wall. The wires should be long enough to reach the power supply or an area where they can be accessed easily.”

For sign makers who provide channel letter projects, it’s wise to become acquainted with all offerings—including halo-lit. There will likely come an instance when a client asks about it; and you will be prepared to extend professional support.