Cabinet sign in shop

The Life of the Lighted Sign

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

Recall, if you can, the first time you checked under the hood of a car. What did you see underneath the attractive paint and protective, contoured metal? To young kid it probably looked like a mish-mash of random parts which you assumed somehow worked together to make the vehicle go.

To the uninitiated, looking at the innards of an electric sign cabinet can be just as confusing as that young kid's first peek at a small-block V8 Hemi engine—a network of closely operating components meant to bring light to this particular display. But to sign professionals—especially those in the electrical sign market—the same view can be like a work of art.

And it's the core of the lighting elements in a sign cabinet that makes it perform most effectively. For sure there's more than one way to light a cabinet sign, but the one that is becoming more and more ubiquitous is LEDs.

Specific to LEDs, much technology has been upgraded to allow sign cabinets to look attractive but also run efficiently. Factors such as product life, brightness, size and affordability have been adjusted in recent years to better fit with sign projects. This is a benefit to sign makers, but also a challenge to keep up with all the improvements, and to know what’s available on the market. 

“Remember our sign industry has no standards for performance, brightness, life cycle benefits and costs, energy consumption, etc., so the burden is on the sign shop to get educated,” says Fritz Meyne Jr., vice president sales at Bitro Group, Inc., which offers LED solutions across several different sign applications, including the scalable Lattice 3G grid system that features brightness and depth options.

“If you need a one-off, so to speak," Meyne says, "or you're fulfilling a program where choosing the incorrect solution might come back and bite you real hard, you have to do your research first.”

Finding the Best Fit

The type of LED used in a sign cabinet project can make a world of difference. And with so much available on the market, sign makers may need some assistance in finding the best fit.

“Most LEDs today are surface mount devices (SMD) and are most common in LED modules,” says Bryan Vincent, Ph.D., a partner at Principal LED.  “At Principal LED we utilize a chip-on-board (COB) process for our Fusion modules, which allows for better heat dissipation and extended life. Regardless, LED technology has evolved to the point that as long as the module is designed to dissipate the heat generated in the module effectively, LED modules will last at least 50,000 hours.”

Convert that number and you’ll get over five and a half years of life from these LED modules. In some cases, entire signs do not reach those terms. Because of the advancements today, more and more can be accomplished with LED signage.

“LED is a technology driven product,” Meyne says. “Chip packages change more often than not and performance parameters are increasing just as the computer market has. More performance at less costs.”

The Sum of All Parts

Specific to sign cabinets, there are other important parts in addition to the lighting components that must work together to create a working sign. These parts—including the power pack, the frame, panels, brackets and face material—can have a big impact on how the sign’s LED components perform. 

“Face material can definitely affect light quality,” explains Vincent. “Polycarbonate and flex face materials typically do not diffuse the light as well as a good acrylic. Most LED companies can recommend the right product and/or spacing, depending upon the depth of the sign and the face material used. You should definitely confirm this information prior to starting a retrofit project.”

Meyne agrees, adding that the versatility of LEDs can have an impact on sign face materials as well. “With LED illumination being direct and even indirect, the face material can have a positive or sometimes a negative effect," he says. "It is not a failure of the face materials as they were never typically designed for direct illumination, yet most of us on this side of the aisle understand the need to ask questions, so any given LED recommendation will be the right choice.”

As LED technology has gained in popularity it has affected how the other components of a sign cabinet function together.

“There are extrusions that offer some challenges when considering LED, typically based on the simple fact that most current extrusions were based and designed on fluorescent options,” Meyne says. “With the advent of direct illumination from LED, extrusion manufacturers are now offering solutions relative to LED.”

The Advantage

As many sign makers are probably aware, there is more than one way to propose a new sign project. Materials can vary, which affects the price, and ultimately the end result. Take for example using fluorescent lighting instead of LEDs; the customer will receive an entirely different kind of illuminated sign. The brightness of light emitted is typically the biggest difference.

“Brightness might be the first option to consider as fluorescents offer very accepted illumination,” says Meyne. “So we always ask if the new or retrofit might be mounted near an existing fluorescent sign. If so, you should use an LED system that meets or exceeds the fluorescent brightness. If the sign might be a stand-alone unit then there are more options for brightness and costs. All factors need to be addressed before you choose your LED system.”

Vincent points to four advantages that LEDs have over other lighting options. In his words, they are the following:

  • "LEDs offer extended life over most fluorescent lamps. Keep in mind that fluorescent lamps' 'rated life' are given at the point at which half of them statistically burn out. LEDs typically dim, and rated L70 life is the point at which 30 percent of the light has degraded. This means that the LEDs can actually last longer in a sign, even at equivalent lifetime ratings.
  • "LEDs do not dim in cold weather conditions. Fluorescent lamps can lose up to half their output in the dead of winter, while LEDs do not dim as a function of temperature.
  • "LEDs are small and with specialized optics, sign makers can create signs that are lower profile (i.e., thinner) without having striping or hot spots.
  • "LEDs typically require less power. Although luminous efficiencies for LEDs may be only marginally better than new T-8 fluorescent lamps, their directional output allows you to get a higher percentage of the light directed to the face of the sign."

LEDs vs. Fluorescents

Is it fair to declare LEDs better than fluorescent lights? Well, in this case, “better” is a very subjective word.

According to Meyne, the user can define which option is suitable for the project. “If absolute minimum costs drive your decision, then fluorescent and/or channel letter modules are your best choice.

"As with all manufacturing, one single cheap price can cost more in other areas. As an example, channel letter modules used for cabinet lighting require more labor and increased installation liability. I have literally been in shops where four or five people are mounting hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny LED modules in large double-faced cabinets.”

However, there are LED options that represent more attractive solutions for sign makers.

“Most brick and mortar LED offerings today have dedicated LED grid systems for sign cabinets that offer tremendous labor savings when installing versus fluorescents and or individual modules,” says Meyne. “Grid systems today are quite varied and, like your personal choices, familiarity can breed contempt or a faithful following. There are venetian blind-type grid systems, bar and modules systems, stick/fluorescent type options etc. Again, like life, there are many different options and not all perform the same.”

Going Retro

So, what if a customer decides it’s time to install a new sign cabinet, or change a sign's look by retrofitting an existing one? For sign makers, what goes into the process of assisting with these decisions?

“As mentioned, there are various choices,” Meyne says. “Typically, all LED options use their own (new) power source. Some offerings can use the existing fluorescent bases to mounting, however, that choice might limit you to the fluorescent spacing that might or might not have been calculated properly.”

Retrofitting a sign cabinet—removing fluorescent (or neon) from an existing sign and replacing it with an LED system—is a popular choice these days. Most often, sign makers can offer quick and cost-effective solutions for their clients.

“The existing raceway can stay and even be used for the new LED integration in various ways,” Meyne explains. “As most LED systems are 12VDC or 24VDC the wiring does not have to be enclosed like line voltage.”

With retrofitting, he notes that installers should consider factors in double-faced versus single-faced sign projects. For example, one should determine whether the center pole will cast a shadow in double-faced signs. According to Meyne, single-faced signs will typically present fewer challenges with mounting.

Sign professionals should answer some questions upfront before tackling a retrofit. Vincent offers up a few noteworthy items to check off the list prior to starting work:

  • Make sure that the system is UL Classified and approved for sign retrofits. Many municipalities require that the sign be listed or classified.
  • Get a layout and research your products to make sure that spacing and depths are confirmed prior to installation.
  • Consider the time it will take to perform the retrofit. Many companies have quick install systems that can utilize existing sockets as holders or bracket systems that need to be installed.

Finally, it is always wise to be aware of the sign’s surroundings. Says Meyne: “They need to meet the various requirements relative to the environment; competing ambient lighting, other cabinets nearby, etc. If their customer is driving the need to go green, the same considerations are even more critical. I have not heard of an end user who did not want their new sign to be attention-getting, and illumination is part of the ‘new car smell’ so to speak.”

LEDs in Real Life

It’s easy to talk about how and when to install a sign cabinet project but it’s quite different when actually faced with completing the task.

“At Principal LED, we have partnered with Love’s Country Stores to completely retrofit the signage at all of their locations,” says Vincent of a recent project implementing LED signage at more than 400 Love’s Country locations. “We provided site surveys, as well as kitting to have 100 percent of the materials drop-shipped on site so that all of the material was labeled and installation could be done quickly.”  

Principal LED’s Street Stik HD product took on the leading role in the project as it “fits into the existing T-12 sockets with six-foot whips pre-installed,” says Vincent. “The installer was able to perform the retrofit on the Panaflex signs around the gas canopies without removing the flex face materials and the six-foot wire leads allowed them to quickly pull the wires back to the power supplies without the need for additional field wiring.”

In another project, SloanLED, an LED module component manufacturer based in Ventura, California, recently contributed to the transformation of signage at the Black and White Lounge at First Direct Arena in Leeds, England.

The lighted signage uses the SloanLED PosterBOX 3 LED modules to highlight nearly 250 album covers of musical artists that have played at the site. The highly frequented location at the arena now has enhanced brightness from the two large sign boxes which use 90 modules at a power supply of 1200W.

“More and more sign shops are realizing the benefits of using dedicated LED cabinet solutions,” says Meyne, “however not so much for their customers as for the benefits in labor savings when used properly. Most national chains today are using grid type LED solutions in many different formats. Successful projects are everywhere!”

When customers peel back the faces of their sign cabinets, they might find the lighting components less than interesting. But to those in the electrical sign market, the same lighting elements represent the life of the sign.