Neon's Eco-Friendly Potential

When contemplating any electric signage application, the best lighting solution might be any of a number of technologies. Sometimes the perfect solution is neon, sometimes it’s fluorescent and sometimes it’s LED. But when considering the environmental impact of a given lighting solution—especially with the “green” craze sweeping the nation—the choices are far from obvious.

For example, there is a popular though erroneous belief that neon is not a “green” light source, that it is not environmentally responsible or sustainable. However, some experts assert that when properly manufactured, installed and disposed of, neon can be the most environmentally-friendly choice. The fact is that every lighting source has pros and cons that must be properly weighed according to the needs of the end user as to which is the most economical, efficient, effective and environmentally responsible.

The focus of this article will be on environmental impact and reducing that impact throughout neon’s life cycle.

CLOSE THE LOOP

“I fly fish, enjoy the woods and have kids, so not using neon properly and not being responsible about how we dispose of it doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Jay Blazek, president of Western Neon in Seattle. “As an industry, we can be proactive and recycle on our own, or it can be regulated and become more expensive through regulation.”

Blazek’s family has been making neon for more than 50 years. It’s in his blood and he’s passionate about the benefits of neon as an advertising medium.

Still, Western Neon makes use of every possible light source for its clients, including LEDs, which Blazek says they use at least once a week on a variety of projects.

With neon, Blazek says recycling effectively closes the loop, reducing waste and reclaiming the manufactured pieces and parts, which should be the aim of any environmental reclamation program. Blazek uses a local company called EcoLights to recycle Western Neon’s used neon and fluorescent tubes.

“EcoLights brings me a 55-gallon drum, they deliver it empty, we fill it, we call them when it’s filled, they pick it up and drop off an empty one for the next round. It costs me a little bit more than a dollar a pound to recycle, but it would be negligent not to do it,” says Blazek.

Another alternative, at least for fluorescent bulbs, is the Bulb Eater, made by Air Cycle Corporation. The system crushes and holds up to 1,350 fluorescent bulbs. The barrel is then picked up and the ground-up components are recycled by Air Cycle. Blazek recommends this for shops that produce a very high volume of fluorescent tubes; smaller volume shops will find it more cost effective to find a local recycler to handle their needs. 

DEALING WITH MERCURY

The biggest potential environmental issue with fluorescent and neon tubes is the mercury needed to light the lamps. Recycling the lamps eliminates most if not all of the potential toxic discharge.

Moreover, neon colors like red, amber and pink do not require mercury, says Jacob Fishman of Lightwriters in Northbrook, Ill. While the other neon colors require more mercury than fluorescent tubes and the supposedly more environmentally friendly compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), neon lasts longer and does not use any heavy metals in its production. This does not mean that mercury is a non-issue in the production of neon, but when carefully handled in the manufacturing process and properly recycled, mercury discharge into the environment is negligible.

In the July 2007 issue of Sign Business magazine, Kenny Greenberg of Krypton Neon LLC in Long Island City, N.Y., wrote about precautions shops can take during production that minimize the dosage of mercury used in each tube and maintain a closed-loop environmental system: “Many shops use the mercury injection dosimeter. The injector allows reliable and limited doses to be delivered deep into the tabulation trap. This would be 270 mg for a tube that can be several feet in length. There are additionally a handful of manufacturers that produce electrodes with sealed mercury capsules. These deliver still smaller amounts of mercury without any external exposure.”

MITIGATING IMPACT

For clients whose primary concern is the environment, it is crucial for sign companies that recommend neon for a given project to communicate the steps they’re taking to mitigate the environmental impact throughout neon’s life cycle.

For a point of comparison, Loren Hudson, president of Hudson Neon in Houston, says, “If you took all the raw neon material in the U.S. and assumed that every stick of glass had mercury in it, which is an overshot of 60 or 70 percent, you could probably take the CFL bulbs from two Wal-Marts and it would equal the mercury output of the entire neon industry. Neon and fluorescent should be a truly closed-loop manufacturing system since all parts of each bulb can be totally reclaimed.”

Hudson adds that The Neon Group (www.theneongroup.org) and ISA (www.signs.org) are developing recycling programs suitable for their members. For more information and to make any suggestions, contact either organization.

RESPONSIBLE INSTALLATIONS

Hudson says that to be truly environmentally responsible “you must take the entire global footprint of a product; not a single snapshot in time.”

In order to do so, recycling closes the loop, but the rest of the loop must be closed and documented for the benefit of your clients and ultimately your bottom line.

During installation, Hudson recommends the use of timers, energy management systems, electronic power supplies and tri-phosphor tubing. These improvements can also be used on older, less efficient signs that did not incorporate the latest advances in neon.

“Existing jobs can be retrofit in several ways,” says Hudson. “The easiest and probably most cost effective would be to simply convert the older ferromagnetic transformers with an electronic power supply, which would instantly make that sign more efficient at the same brightness. The second would be more invasive and require that the tubing be replaced with tri-phosphor tubing or a larger millimeter glass, making it more efficient by requiring less tubing and power supplies to achieve adequate brightness.”

The key during installation, beyond the use of the latest power supplies and power management devices, is simply to provide as much bang for the buck, light-wise, as you can. The brighter and more long-lasting the sign, the better it is for your client’s business. After all, that’s the point of having a sign in the first place.

Again, depending on the parameters of the project and the advertising needs of the customer, the light source will vary between neon, fluorescent, HID lamps, LED and even fiber optics.

For instance, if the job calls for 20-foot channel letters, the most likely candidate is fluorescent. Or, if the job is being shipped and breakage is a concern, or the letters are too small for neon or fluorescent tubes, LEDs will most likely fit the bill.

However, generalizing about the best lighting choice is an exercise in futility since it will depend solely on the unique parameters of the individual project. In other words, don’t go into a project with preconceived notions; rather, provide the customer with best option based on every angle. And, if possible, provide every lighting alternative with the pros and cons of each. Certainly, brightness will play an important role in that choice.

BEST SOLUTION FOR THE JOB

“The desired outcome for illuminating a sign properly could be best measured by the amount of brightness, measured in lumens, delivered to the viewer per watt of electricity used to do so,” says Hudson. “Generally speaking, if you want a brighter sign you are going to spend more on electricity and shorten the lifespan of the bulb. The key is to find the correct application trade-off for the job at hand, which should be compared on a watt meter."

“Additionally, a light meter should be used so that an accurate comparison can be done for electrical consumption versus brightness—viewable light per watt,” he says. “Further, degradation is something that has not been mentioned much in the marketplace, but it affects all light sources and is the constant nemesis for all of them. In practical terms, fluorescents degrade quicker than LED and neon because they operate at a higher milliamperage and are therefore brighter, producing more light output, but lasting for a shorter period of time. Neon is designed to operate at a lower milliamperage, so it has less brightness but more lifespan. LEDs were designed to operate at an even lower milliamperage, but tend to have less overall brightness. However, LEDs are improving and are being manufactured and powered to be brighter—but with that comes the possibility of a shorter lifespan.”

Morgan Crook of Neon Design in Columbia, S.C., asks a series of questions that speak directly to proper illumination for a specific project: “Does it evenly illuminate the sign; is the sign legible? If internally lit, is it even? Is it the right brightness for the location? Are there “dark sky” issues according to neighbors or local sign codes? Can it produce the color at the brightness the client needs?”

SEEKING BALANCE

Ultimately, you’re seeking a balance between the brightness the customer needs, energy consumption, longevity, relative degradation, serviceability, recyclability and which is the most effective and efficient solution based on that criteria. If the choice is neon and the client wonders if neon would be the best choice from an environmental standpoint, explain the closed-loop nature of the product, the fact that it’s manufactured and shipped locally, and that for this particular job it’s the most efficient and cost-effective light source in watts per lumen. Of course, you would go through that same process when recommending other light sources as well, but the individual environmental criteria will be different.