Fiber Optics ­ Mysterious or Simple?
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Fiber Optics ­ Mysterious or Simple?

Today, fiber optics in its current usage for the sign industry has been around more or less since 1991. Yes fiber optics, in general has been around longer, but as a direct neon alternative, they have not.

By Fritz Meyne, Jr.

There are those that have said it in print and otherwise that fiber optics cannot take the place of neon and as a blanket statement with no qualifiers, it is true. Products like original vinyl cutters, flex faces and even LED along with fiber optics have or have had their nay-Sayers!

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  • The Comparisons
    The simple truth is fiber optics can be used for just about any type of illuminated letter and for just about any building outline. To understand this statement, one must know how to use not only the new product (i.e. fiber optics) but also they must know the status quo (i.e. neon) standard(s).

    Most true neon experts will tell you neon has its limitations. The building code in any given city will tell you where you can and can not install neon and dare I say it, UL2161 was a self inflicted sign industry wound! It is this simple, but mysterious neon fiber optic comparison, that is based on misguided facts as related to both products. As neon has been around for over 100 years, let’s look at fiber optics and address the two most popular uses in the sign industry: illuminated letters and perimeter applications.

    When the fiber optic neon type cable was introduced to the sign industry, there was great enthusiasm, but little actual knowledge as related to direct product comparisons. In those early days, many OEM fiber optic companies tried to push that fiber optics could do just about everything neon could do (it could, but just not with equal brightness or costs), and more. About the only truths were the safety factors of fiber optics. There was a future, but there were no facts.

    It was not until mid 1995 that fiber was successfully used in pigmented face channel letters and exhibited at a Texas NESA (now ISA) trade show. But it was not the neon type fiber everyone was pushing; it was made possible by using the light out of the end of the fiber optic cables. This provided 15mm 30ma neon brightness and this same concept is in use today. It is important to note that using more fiber will provide more brightness, just as a 60ma transformer provides more illumination for mercury-based neon.

    As fiber optics was originally designed for information in one end and out the other, it was quite easy to use light as the “information”. Most light travels in a straight line very easily and with fiber it was no exception, other than it appeared to be bending light causing some engineers to scratch their heads.

    For fiber optics to be used successfully in illuminated letters, whether face lit or halo lit, one needs only to understand some simple principles. In simple terms, the light that emits from a single fiber optic cable can be multiplied to provide for more light with more fibers. Thus if “X” quantity of fibers gives a certain amount of light, then “2X” just about gives twice as much light, and so on. Yes, the type of “lamp” also has a direct effect on the brightness, however for this article we are relating everything to the most popular fiber optic lamp, the 150 watt metal halide high intensity discharge lamp with reflector.

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    Today, with multiple strands as the most popular form of fiber optic letter illumination, we now know that to provide for comparable neon brightness there are several factors that must be taken into consideration. The amount of fiber optic illumination required is dependant on the depth of the channel letter return and the face color, just as with neon and LED for that matter.

    Just as neon can create bright spots in a plastic face, so can fiber optics and LED. The methods to solve this are the same for all three: the greater the letter depth the less illumination at the face, requiring positioning changes to the actual illuminating source (the neon tube, the fiber optic cable or the LED) and/or more fiber, neon or LED. The face color (or mounting surface for halo) also has a direct impact of the effectiveness of the perceived illumination with all three options. It seems everyone wants to over-complicate this very simple fact.

    The only other perceived difference is that fiber and LED offer lighting industry standard color ratings. Neon actually offers this, but most sign people do not know the relativity of the number associated with white neon. The four digit number (example 6500 white) used with white neon is the “K” rating, just as used with all industry light sources. The higher the number, the “colder” or bluer white the color appears and the lower the number the “warmer” or more yellow the light looks (also true with fluorescents). As you can now see, this can have a direct effect on the “lighted” face color, and you need to know this when considering your options.

    As with any sale, there has to be a need and with any need there are parameters to be satisfied. When thinking of fiber optics or LED as the illumination source there are three primary reasons for considering one of these options. One is service access and, two is energy consumption and three is creativity. Let’s look at all three.

    Service
    Neon has been an acceptable risk to the sign company and the end user as there were not any alternative options available much before the early 1990’s. The end user does not typically perform neon service. Fiber optics on the other hand, offers the end user the option of self-service, which can be a tremendous savings for the developer and multiple user account. Typically both of these business types have their own site / service personnel as a normal course of business and to control costs.

    Mounting concerns (read limitations) have also been “accepted” as related to neon being the only real choice for over a century. By code and for very valid reasons, neon has local, county and national code restrictions. However fiber optics as they have no heat or electricity in the lighted letters (or perimeter application) does not fall under UL. Yes the fiber optic light source falls under UL, but not the fiber optic cable. This allows a whole new market of applications to meet your end user’s needs.

    Energy consumption
    This is a hot topic as cities and even business owners look for ways to cut energy consumption. Fiber optics and even LED offer real world savings in “watts per foot”. As an example, a fiber optic light source used to light up the neon type fiber optic cable uses 150 watts to light up 100 feet of cable. That is 1.5 watts per foot. A 12030-neon transformer lights up 34 feet of 15mm neon (red gas) filled tubes, after you allow for 11 4-foot sections and the electrodes. This calculates to 5.5 watts per foot, or almost 300% more energy usage per foot. For the record, LED in the red spectrum is around 1.5 watts per foot.

    An additional “back of the house” electrical concern and an additional cost to the end user is the fact you need a J-Box every thirty-four feet (in our example above) and with fiber optics you would need a J-Box every 90 feet. This provides the end user a very real savings that cuts “other” trade times on a job site.

    Creativity
    Quite simply by having no heat or electricity in the letters (or lighted path), fiber optics can be installed almost anywhere. This also allows for exact logo reproduction that is not always true when considering neon or even LED. Add the simple option of color change with a fiber optic system and you have a real attention-getting sign. Times Square and Las Vegas readily come to mind when we think of non-static super attention getting signage.

    True, not all sign ordinances will allow a constantly changing color scheme. However if that is the case, go with periodic color change. After all, the purpose of lighting a set of letters or lighting a perimeter is to draw attention in the first place!

    Have there been fiber optic failures? You bet! Has neon burned down more than one building? YOU BET! Will neon be put out of business by “other” lighting options like fiber and LED? I doubt it. Regardless, the designer, sign shop owner and more importantly the end user now have more than one choice and they know it. Are you going to be a part of your customer’s success or a part of their ultimate reason to potentially look to another supplier? When you make the correct choice for your needs and your customer’s needs, look to your OEM vendors for their expertise to back you up. As with any given product, it is not the correct choice for every application and the more you know the better you can compete.

    In closing, I think you might be surprised to know that the current fiber optic sales from the three USA companies total over $50,000,000.00. So, the closing question is “Did you get your share of that business?”

    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, fritz@vidsol.net or 904-247-4308.

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