electrical signage

Planning LED Illuminated Sign Installations

Jeff Fassett is the president of Aries Graphics International. He can be reached at jeff@aries-graphics.com.

An old saying goes like this: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” We’ve all seen this on the desks or walls of our colleagues, usually the folks who are in the critical path of some organizational process. What this is really saying though is quite the opposite: “Great planning on your part makes my job easier!”

This is certainly true in the sign industry, where great planning makes everyone’s job easier. LED channel letter and sign cabinet jobs are the bread and butter of the electrical side of the business these days. How can your shop be consistently profitable on these jobs? Methodical planning. It paves the way forward and eliminates a myriad of “Gotchas” that can eat into your profits.

The Job Specs

In most cases the first thing you’ll see on a potential new job are the job specs and art. This ranges from a simple phone call or text message to a formal RFQ as a 100+page PDF. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of completely understanding the requirements of the job up front. Anything that is left out or left to interpretation can, and will, come back to haunt you later in the job, likely costing you money.

Don’t be afraid to go back to your client with questions or clarifications. More often than not, they will appreciate that you’re being thorough. And also, it’s okay to ask for better artwork. In many cases the customer just as well could have given you clean vector artwork instead of that poorly scanned PDF.

The Site Survey

Super important to this process is the site survey. Unanswered questions from the job specs might be revealed when you visit the site. And be sure to bring your Spike measuring device to the site survey! Spike, made by ikeGPS, is a device that connects to your phone or tablet, and with the help of your device’s camera, takes accurate measurements of the scene in front of you. Maybe it is a cabinet retrofit, new signage to be installed, or border tubing. Whatever the case, leave the tape measure and bucket truck back at the shop. With a few clicks, drags, and taps, you can have dimensions, area, and perimeter of your new sign. If you didn’t have good (or any) artwork before, now you do.

In addition to taking the measurements, you also need to consider what will be needed for installation. Where is the power source and how is the sign going to be wired? What special equipment and tools do I need? How many installers will be needed, and for how many hours? Does it have to be on a weekend, or in the evening?

Speaking of the evening, consider also visiting the site at night. What does the ambient light look like at night? Are there other illuminated signs nearby? What will the new sign be competing with, in terms of brightness, color/color temperature, and size? If you have a Nit gun, take some light measurements. Remember that cool white is the new white. If your nighttime site survey shows a competing sign that is very bright, with 7100k temperature modules in it, and you show up with 5000k temperature modules, your customer might just think that their new sign appears yellow and dingy.

If, as a result of your review of the job specs and site survey, you feel like you can go back to the client with some suggestions that would make the sign more impactful, save the client money, or otherwise enhance the job, then do it. These would be “sign” things that you know about and maybe they don’t—such as using shallower returns, suggesting day/night vinyl on the faces, improvements to the cabinet or letters if it’s a retrofit, or the size/position of the sign.

LED Selection

Now it’s time to choose the right LED modules for the job. Gone are the days when an LED module was a one-size-fits-all proposition. Okay, so what are the factors that go into choosing which LED module to use?

  • Application Type—Is it a channel letter set or a sign cabinet? Is it new construction or a retrofit?
  • Type of Lighting—Does the job call for backlight, sidelight, strip/tape lighting, halo lighting?
  • LED Brand—Is a brand specified, or are you free to choose a brand that you’ve had success using?
  • Lumens/Watts—How much light output do you need?
  • Depth—Is the application very shallow or very deep, requiring a special optic?
  • Color/Color Temperature—Is a special color needed?
  • UL listed— If UL listing is a requirement, is the LED module in the SAM Sign Component Manual?
  • Service—What kind of post-sale service can you expect from your supplier/dealer?
  • Warranty—What is the length of the warranty for parts and labor, and what does it include/exclude?
  • Availability—Can you get the LED right away?
  • Price—An important factor, but not the most important. Notice this is the last item on my list.

Rather than thinking about the price of an LED, think about its value instead. Value is what you get for the price you pay. The price may in fact be “high” relative to other products, but so too can be the value. Maybe you get great service with the product, such as fast LED layout turnaround, an excellent warranty, useful installation instructions/videos, and next day shipping. Maybe the product requires far fewer individual modules, such as fluorescent replacement LED tubes or side light modules for cabinets. Maybe it is designed to save considerable installation labor time. Just focusing only on price is simplistic—consider the whole product and determine its overall value.

One final thought on this topic: it is tempting to use an LED that you have on the shelf, because, well, it is there on the shelf. You have already paid for it. You want to use it. But resist this temptation, unless it really is the right LED for the job based on the above criteria.

LED Layout

A critical element of your estimate and proposal, and hopefully your production process, is the LED layout. The layout will tell you how many LEDs you need and exactly where they should be positioned for optimal results. It will also tell you how many power supplies are needed, and show how they are loaded. You may also be able to estimate the face and back materials from the area of the job, as well as the trim cap and return coil from the perimeter measurement.

This layout may come from your LED supplier or sign supply dealer as a service, or you may create it yourself in-house. Regardless of the origin, the estimator/sales manager and the installer/production manager should use the LED layout to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Getting agreement up front on the layout reduces the chances of the job being produced differently from how it was sold.

To take this a step further, this same LED layout file can be the source of your production files—including exported DXFs for your channel letter bender and your router. Marking or scoring the position of each LED directly on your letter backs leaves no room for poor interpretation of your layout.

Material and Labor Estimates

Everything from the job specs, the site survey, and the LED module layout should be rolled up into the material and labor estimates. Maybe you’re doing this with the help of your shop management software, or maybe you have a detailed spreadsheet with various formulas. But the important thing here is that you have a consistent and repeatable process that yields an accurate estimate for every job you encounter.

Producing and Installing the Job

Congratulations! You won the job! Now all that planning comes together to help you produce and install the job at or below budget so that your shop makes money. But you’ve already done perhaps the hardest parts. Your methodical preparation will help the job go smoothly, since you’ve already anticipated any roadblocks. It is like a musician, athlete, or public speaker, who has practiced so thoroughly that the actual performance is easy.

As part of the production of the job, don’t forget to document the appropriate info for the UL folks. What do they want to see when they come knocking? LED layouts, wiring diagrams, installation drawings, all using UL-listed products in the SAM (now available online: http://iq.ul.com/signs) and following the appropriate procedures. They might also check to make sure those same modules, drivers, wire, etc. are on your shelf.

Post-Mortem Analysis

Often the simplest questions to ask are the most difficult to answer. In a post-mortem, for example, you might ask, “What did we make from this job?” A basic cost accounting system should give you the answer, and the data should flow directly from your estimates. But beyond the numbers, and from the planning perspective, the more interesting question is, “What did we learn from this job?”

Answer that question every time and you’ll build up considerable institutional knowledge in the shop. You’ll build a culture that values planning, execution and continuous improvement. Sounds like that would make everyone’s job easier and be a recipe for long term success.