Just Like Neon


I was recently called by a New York Times reporter who wanted some background information on our local historic Pepsi neon sign in Long Island City, N.Y. (see SB May 2004). More than once during the interview phrases such as “isn’t neon obsolete?” or “I thought neon was a dead craft” popped out of the reporter’s mouth. One of my replies was that this has been one of my busiest years and I can report the same from several other shops across the country and around the world. Her response was, “Oh that must be because it’s now nostalgic.”

Earlier last year I was part of a design team for a lighting exhibition at the Museum of The City of New York. We were creating a conceptual map of various intersections along the length of Broadway with historic and modern day photos showing the illuminated signage at these junctures. A white neon line representing the Great White Way connected the photos. When I arrived the final day to tweak things I saw a descriptive label that said the following: “LED and Fiber Optic have made large neon signs obsolete.” I pointed out the inaccuracy to the exhibition director but alas, everyone said it was too late to change but that they would later on. Great, it turns out the following day the Museum was hosting an event for the IESNA—the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America.

For the best two or three years we’ve watched the virtual tsunami of articles, ads, and trade show displays touting LED as the energy efficient, long lasting replacement for neon. We’ve seen the sign and lighting industries deluged with new products each claiming to be less costly than neon, having lower operating cost than neon, safer to operate, etc.

Okay, put simply, here’s what gets me. The above has been largely rubbish since day one. But it has been a campaign backed by huge international conglomerates and all the eager resellers happily parrot the partially correct information that has been fed to them. It has put the neon industry in a defensive position similar to the classic legal ploy, “Are you still beating your wife?”

The frustrating part is that by the time the message gets out that this information is not quite accurate, the LED industry advances in leaps and bounds both through sales and research. The end result is that yesterday’s half truth becomes closer to truth. In other words the uphill battle for those of us trying to maintain neon’s hold on the market is an ever increasingly slippery slope.


It’s easy to forget that many of us who fell into our odd career of making neon likely had a fascination with light to begin with. Did it really matter what type of light it was? As someone who has been around electronics all of my life, I have used LEDs as indicators within my circuits and I created small displays and even jewelry long before these ideas became commonplace. A few years ago I created a series of portable signs for a bank’s public relations campaign that had chasing LEDs around the perimeter of each sign. They could be carried through the street and to the bank’s event all the while twinkling and flashing from the power of a few AA batteries. But it is really only because of the manner in which LED has been pushed and the fact that neon has been in the cross sights of the marketing campaigns that at times I have felt almost antagonistic toward LEDs.

Another recent project was a larger scale version of color changing coves for a newly built restaurant. I had created a very successful version several years back for the owner’s smaller but chic location. The architect again specified neon because the new location was to have even brighter ambient light than the previous. He had done his homework and determined that it would have higher lumen output from the energy consumed. The project also called for lighting below interior and exterior stairs steps and below a brass rail that illuminated etched glass beneath it. I knew that neon was not the best choice for these locations. Or at least there would be challenges to using neon in a 3/4˝ gap below a stair step or below a tightly fitting metal hand rail. But I did not expect that I would be deemed the “lighting expert”. And much to my chagrin I was asked to technically design and source components that would work for these portions of the job.

Now here was an interesting prospect. I have in the past couple of years written more than one article about the technical specs of LEDs (e.g., SB April 2006). I have created mock-ups to compare lighting sources. I have taken part in quick and dirty comparisons for theater projects—with neon typically emerging as the winner. But I had not to date been essentially forced to plunge head on into the world of technically designing and sourcing for an LED-based lighting installation. For a moment we considered fiber optic but there was no practical way or room to cleanly weave the FO back and forth below the steps and we were not seeing enough light output for the under rail lighting.


So now I go online figuring finding what I need should be a piece of cake. After all LEDs are everywhere and what is more prevalent than the seemingly ubiquitous LED rope light. Alas, my troubles were only beginning. First off, the architect wanted white and I knew already that white is a relative new comer to the LED world and that its lumen output was generally low. This is true with the exception of the highest-end modules which are not actually available as rope light. So I first had to research a lumen level that was considered appropriate for my application. After wading through pages of state regulations and architectural lighting recommendations that had my head spinning I finally settled on an easier method. I found the output of the conventional incandescent and xenon bulbs that have been used for this purpose and set out to more or less match these levels with the LED components I found. I also knew that while 120V systems exist I would be using low voltage (12V or 24V) for safety reasons.

So far so good and so what’s the problem? It turns out that despite literally hundreds of Web sites and companies offering the stuff, you just can’t readily get it. They all have 120V versions but they all seemed to have very long ordering times—as much as 16 to 20 weeks—to get the lower voltage versions that appear to be mostly shipped from China. Two or three reasons exist for this long turnaround time. One is seasonal—there is a period where huge amounts are sold for holiday decorations. But the other is simply that it is economical for the distributors to order large quantities and they are reluctant to stock small amounts of less-used colors. Add to this that the 120V versions have been by far more popular. It almost forced me to consider investigating the 120V versions but another fly entered the ointment.

New UL standards have been imposed on 120V LED rope lights that prohibit cutting to size and custom wiring in the field. The size needed must be ordered from the factory and must comply with specific incremental cutting lengths. (The cutting length requirement is also true for the low-voltage variety, by the way.) This was going to add several more weeks or even months to the turnaround time and my situation was further complicated by somewhat sketchy drawings where the final size of my steps and particularly the rail would not be known until it was too late.

Well, perseverance does pay off and in the end I found a reliable source of a 24V product. Things seemed to be going along great until the architect changed his mind and now wanted green for the under railing light. And what do you know, green turns out to be one of the least popular colors for low voltage LED rope light. Again in the end I found a source of a nice rectangular green rope light that had enough output once the ambient lights were turned low. They did indeed light the etched glass plates and so my job appeared almost done.

The pluses were that once obtaining the material it was easy to work with and the fact that you can feed the wire from one end without the need for a return was kind of cool. As a neon person it took me a while to get used to that. And of course it could fit into tight spaces without the fear of it breaking. The minus side was the low output during daylight or higher ambient light. Another negative was that because of the common belief that LEDs have great longevity the architect designed the railing in a way that does not allow easy replacement at whatever point an LED circuit fails.

So I’m essentially keeping my fingers crossed on that one and dreading the day that the custom curved railing that is completely interlocked to the straight stairway portions needs to come off.

Oh, and did I mention the fire?

It was brief but unexpected. I keep believing that low voltage is safe despite reports of other fires from LED systems. At one point during testing another contractor yanked on some wires and managed to short circuit them. The 24V transformer kept cranking out what the circuit now called for and everyone kept asking what’s that smell? Fortunately it was thoroughly contained by non-flammable surroundings but the wiring and the bridge rectifier between the rope light and the transformer completely fried.

So a word of warning here: remember that you can light a cigarette with just 12 volts.


The cove lighting portion went smoothly. It was a pleasure to return to what I know best. Even any problems or issues that needed to be solved were familiar ones and so no major trouble there.

While this relatively conventional project was going on I was approached by two different artists with some rather fanciful ideas. One was for a project for the Museum of Modern Art and was to be a six-foot-high three dimensional animated neon diamond with exceptionally minimal support. This was to be transported through pot holed city streets to an ice skating rink a couple of hours away where the artist would film a figure skater doing spins and swirls around the skeletal diamond. This would be part of a multi-faceted film projected on the exterior of the museum. Then the piece would be transported back for display in an exhibition.

Coincidentally the other artist was opening at The Whitney Museum at about the same time. He wanted two Sputnik-like globes each with nearly 200 neon lines projecting out in all directions. This piece was also to be animated—each tube was to be fired independently with both random and ordered sequencing. And the sculptures of course had to be minimal and had to be transportable.

Strangely I found myself in both cases asking each artist if they had considered LEDs. Both felt strongly that their works had to be neon. They wanted crisp bright continuous lines without hot spots. They also wanted the “preciousness” of neon. They both completely independently used the phrase “there’s nothing like neon”.

To me there’s an interesting parallel with the fact that both LED and Fiber Optic sell as substitutes for neon. Every time we see the phrase “just like neon” or “a replacement for neon” it confirms the fact that what people actually do want is indeed neon.

The neon sculptures were both highly successful. I won’t go into the exquisite torture and sense of pleasure and accomplishment of making these projects work under grueling time constraints. I offer these tales as a backdrop to technical and design issues and mind sets that ultimately impact the sign business as well.

I for one am enjoying my supposed obsolescence. At the same time I think it’s worthwhile to explore everything else and not put my head in the sand. I now have some practical knowledge under my belt that allows me to better explain both the benefits and problems associated with different lighting systems. This has actually turned out to be extremely useful when selling neon. I’m not just trying to argue about technical data. I can speak from real life. And if I’m ever again forced or lured into working outside my normal medium I have experience there as well and so my skill set is more diverse and my creative opportunities are broadened. At the same time I have become all the more confident that neon is not a vanishing trade.