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The Basics of Fiber Optics, LED and Neon

A basic summary and history of the evolution of Neon, Fiber Optics and LED

By Fritz Meyne, Jr.

The battle lines are just starting to rage between these three-industry custom lighting choices: Neon, Fiber Optics, and LED. Neon, the industry standard has quite literally been around for over a century and that fact alone allows neon to reign as King of the Hill.

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  • Back in the early Nineties a relatively unknown option showed up as a custom lighting alternative to neon: fiber optics. At first, it was very obvious that fiber optics was no where as bright as neon. As neon is certainly bright, fiber optics was relegated to special applications where neon just could not be used safely and or by Code standards. Fiber Optics did gain some inroads as a specialty lighting source when used in very controlled lighting environments like inside nightclubs and where lighting is very controlled and directional and even layered. In other words, no ambient lighting on the actual signs!

    At first, neon was not threatened by fiber optics and most fiber optic sales came as new market sales and did not take away from neon sales as a whole. But, that was going to change as fiber optic technology kept reinventing itself and providing more light. In the mid 90's fiber optic lighting changed tracks and started lighting channel letters with light out of the end of the fiber optic cable, instead of the side. This new approach allowed for fiber optics to equal the brightness of neon, even providing choices to equal 30ma and 60ma brightness. This caused the market to take on a more competitive edge between the two technologies and lines were being drawn in the sand.

    But neon, in my mind, still had an edge that was solely price driven. Fiber optics just could not come close to matching the low material costs for typical illuminated neon letters. Yet fiber optic sales increased due to some great selling and features and benefits that benefited not only the sign shop, but also the end user. European markets took to fiber faster for many reasons. Energy savings seemed to be the driving force since the typical fiber optic system provided for a 30 to 40 percent savings in consumption. Taking the high cost of energy into consideration in these foreign markets, it made fiscal sense to take a serious look at fiber optics. The US market is primarily driven by price, so the threat to neon was still not a raging war, but the dandruff was being raised on both sides of the equation.

    Fiber optics was in fact getting sales at the expense of the industry standard and several national accounts jumped on the fiber optic bandwagon. The separation between the two grew even more with definite opinions on both sides. The number one saying I remember as I literally traveled the world was "Ok, but it is not neon!" So the fiber guys started saying "Well neon can't do this!" Trade shows became battlegrounds with sign companies not wanting to be seen with “technology vs. the other” in their booths.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    So very late in the 90's, came the latest challenge to neon. With fiber there was really only one company and one person spearheading the sign industry, gathering friends and business partners for the challenge. However, with this new technology, literally five or more companies were running after neon and literally hundreds of technology partners coming up with new products. Heck, even one of the fiber optic boys started offering this technology.


    LED's are probably really the first technology to be able to take on neon in the two most important categories, price and brightness. LED's even offered longer warranties, up to five years and energy savings that can approach 80%, on average vs. neon and even better if calculated against 60ma transformers. Now the new battle lines are etched in the sand and probably right on top of the fiber optic lines.

    LED's in the red spectrum like red, clear red, amber and orange offer equal brightness to the same colors of neon and can meet the Bill of Materials almost penny for penny.

    LED's in the white, blue and green spectrum are another story as neither brightness or price is close to neon. So the markets on both sides are choosing up partners and the competitive analyses are starting to flow like blood on the battlefield.

    So let me offer my calculations and analysis in chart form. To see the a comparison of LED, Fiber Optic and Neon electrical consumption click here for Excel(TM) Spreadsheet comparison. Please understand I consider myself a "sign man", yet I have had the luxury of seeing these three technologies in two different markets, the sign industry and the lighting industry.

    Fritz has been serving the retail and OEM sign and lighting industries with ISA, USSC, FSA, SEGD and ILA and has over fifteen industry articles in print and electronic circulation formats. You may contact him at: 1298 Blue Heron Lane N, Jacksonville Beach, FL 32250, or 904-247-4308.

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