LEDs on the Edge

If you want to maximize the potential of your electric sign shop, it can help to take it to the edge. LED technology is allowing sign professionals plenty of flexibility when it comes to border lighting and backlights—anything from mood-setting indoor restaurant coves to the outside edge of skyscrapers, and everything in between.

Not sure where to look for that next border lighting job? LED system manufacturers say opportunities are all around.

Notes Ron Farmer, CEO of US LED, Houston: “Businesses such as hair salons, nail and tanning salons, bars and restaurants all have an image. Why not make a sales call and ask, ‘Have you considered making improvements to the look of your store that will draw attention and bring in additional business? You can add colored accent lighting with LED border tubing. It lasts a long time, they are virtually unbreakable, there are less service calls, there’s no insurance risk.’ You can’t make the sale until you ask.”

If a facility has a sign, he says, it’s a candidate for accent lighting. “A grocery store, for instance, might not put tubing on the outside of the building, but perhaps would use LED tubes on its walls inside the store. It could be shaped like a fish or made into an attractive artistic design. There are all kinds of possibilities.”

Easy-to-use, energy-efficient, tough and long-lasting, LED tubing products allow electric sign shops to offer much more than just traditional lighted signs, manufacturers say. “The really cool part about border tubing is that sign guys can go beyond selling just the sign outside [a business],” says Jill Bonilla, marketing manager for SloanLED, Ventura, Calif. “Now they have the opportunity to increase sales by offering under-the-counter lighting in a bar, or up above in cove lighting, in a window or accent interior signage. It really broadens the market.”

Reliable Options
As with other aspects of LED lighting, recent advancements are allowing for the use of border tubing in applications unheard of just a few years ago.

“Large big-box retailers are jumping in early to stop the cycle of high maintenance costs and to capture energy savings now,” says Bryan Warner, vice president of sales for ElectraLED Inc., Largo, Fla. “They are utilizing the LEDs in signs that last year would have been impossible to recapture the cost savings in a reasonable timeframe.”

LEDs cost more than other border lighting products such as neon, but the extra expenditure on the front end can be more than made up over time in reduced maintenance, service and energy costs, Farmer says.

“Our product is actually pretty competitive if you’re going to do border tubing and consider the 10-year cost-of-ownership,” he says. “During the 10 years, electricity, breakage, maintenance and service savings are all considered. So, when the difference in cost is compared to the total cost of ownership of the alternatives, (LEDs) look not just viable, but preferable. And this is a more informed comparison, too.”

The LED tubes offer bright, consistent light in a wide viewing angle, operating in all types of weather and maintaining their brilliance for years to come, the manufacturers note, showing that the technology has definitely arrived.

“I will say that, in the case of border tubing, as a category its history and reputation hasn’t been spotless,” notes Ron Wallace, general manager of AgiLight Inc., San Angelo, Texas. “There has been some LED tubing offered that wasn’t very reliable, and even resulted in some wholesale change-outs (in the past) where failures occurred. That is not the case today. There are now very reliable, cost-effective options available.”

While manufacturers carry a wide variety of LED tube products, all agree that the lighting strips offer a quick, easy installation. “Customers have actually been really impressed with how easy it is to use,” says Drew Ferrie, SloanLED design engineer. “When we show them that all they have to do is match the red wires with the red wires, and the black wires with the black wires, they can see this is an easy product to work with.”

Most of the products are also low-voltage. “With low-voltage products, you don’t need a licensed electrician to do anything but the primary hookup,” says Wallace. “So, an electrician can come in and wire up the power supply on the primary side, and everything downstream from the power supply can then be done by an installer. So that may mean a lesser-skilled person, or a non-licensed person, and therefore at a lower cost (for installation).”

“Basic electrical skills are all that is needed,” adds Jo Lynch, sales manager for LED Inc., Carson City, Nev. “They need to know how to balance the load and to avoid the voltage drops-and that’s pretty much it.”

Such a setup allows the LED tubes to be cut and/or spliced together, offering quicker installations and added adjustability should a premeasured site turn out to be smaller or bigger than expected. “All you have to do is splice them,” Lynch adds, “so you can easily splice out a module that doesn’t work,” instead of having to remove the entire piece.

“Our universal power supply is embedded in the LED light fixture and the units are available in multiple lengths similar to fluorescents,” says Warner. “Our LED light fixture only requires two fasteners at either end to mount.”

Things of Beauty
That versatility also allows many sign shops to take advantage of one of their favorite tools: their creativity.
Farmer points to a high-profile project in Jacksonville, Fla., that features colored neon tubes on the outside of a building (see page 18). Because the tubes are colored, they can be seen and appreciated even during daylight hours.

“The advantage is that you have an architectural feature during the daytime when it’s not lit, and then you have the light feature, which is often an architectural feature as well, at night,” he says. “But during the daytime it’s got color and it has a shape that can be pleasing to look at and matches or augments the shape of the building or the edge of the building. It’s acting like a trim piece.”

Knowing how to use accent lighting, Wallace adds, can allow sign companies to create entire moods for their customers with the addition of interior LED applications. “As an example, I looked at a job in Las Vegas at one of the resort hotels. It was behind the check-in counter and it was really striking,” he says.

“It was a huge array of disks that were basically mounted on standoffs off of the wall. Behind each one of these disks were colored LEDs creating a backlit effect, and the impact was really cool. As guests were checking in, they were drawn in by this really awesome effect. And it was just one LED module or two behind each of the disks, so there wasn’t a lot of cost, it would never pose any sort of maintenance or even failure issues, but it gave a fantastic effect.”

Successful interior projects can add a new dimension to electric sign shops, helping them expand beyond traditional boundaries, Wallace adds.

“For some of them, like many in Las Vegas, I’ve stopped calling them sign companies,” he says. “Some of those companies, sure, they can make signs, but they can also do a whole lot of cove lighting and backlighting and what is considered more architectural lighting, so they are really a lighting entity as opposed to a sign company.”

The creativity of folks in the sign industry means that border lighting is cropping up just about anywhere imaginable. Nearly every module company has examples of national chains, including restaurants and retail outlets, that have successfully incorporated the LED tubes and additional accent lighting into their overall décor. Under stair lips, behind handrails, lining display windows, behind bars and backlighting channel letters are just a few of the popular places where LEDs are now producing a friendly glow.

“We’re starting to see people buy not just the border tube products for cove lighting, but also standard channel letter products,” Farmer says. “They are using our standard modules interlinked with wire and they put them in coves where they can’t be seen, or underneath places like around the bottom of cabinets so that it lights down onto the floor. It looks pretty cool and costs less than the border tubing. But probably our biggest seller for the tubing is for outdoor applications, mostly edge lighting on buildings.”

And they can go mobile, too. “So far, our customers have put them on motorcycles, sailboats and a new one, a 40-foot-long party bus,” says LED Inc.’s Lynch. “They do it all.”

Something for Everyone
With all of the options provided by LED border lighting and backlighting, selling it can be simple, the manufacturers explain.

“Selling tips are easy-there’s no maintenance and reduced energy costs,” ElectraLED’s Warner notes.

They are also low-voltage, and less susceptible to breakage, Lynch adds.

But that doesn’t mean they will sell themselves. Wallace says that, with such a strong product, shops should be in touch with their entire client list, telling them about this new opportunity. And it shouldn’t matter, he notes, if you recently sold that customer a different product. “Sign shops will wonder, ‘How can I possibly go sell my customers something today when I sold them something else five, six, seven years ago?’ Well, these businesses that are spending money on their imaging are all about how they look. They are all about a fresh new look,” he says. “Go in prepared and present it as, ‘Hey, as your imaging partner, I owe it to you to tell you about new technology and ways to improve your image, or the reliability of your image.’ Be OK with saying, ‘We sold you this five or six years ago, it’s worked great, it’s helped you in your success, and I have something that I’d like to present that only improves upon that.’”

The manufacturers say they are already noticing increased demand for these types of products. “The reason why we offer so many solutions or alternatives for border tubing and accent lighting is that we really feel that there is a huge need out there in the market for this by the sign shops,” SloanLED Bonilla says. “It is something that enables sign shops to go out there and really broaden their applications.”

As with any new project, all it takes to add LED border lighting and backlights to your list of services is a desire to provide something worthwhile to your clients. “It really offers a lot of opportunities,” Bonilla adds. “Talking to sign shops and distributors, they are all very excited about the border tubing opportunities. It’s something that really isn’t a hard sell on our part. They see the product and know exactly where they can use it.”