LED, Fiber and Neon Now: A Perspective from Experience
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LED, Fiber and Neon Now: A Perspective from Experience

Educating yourself on the many nuances of LED, fiber optics and neon can help you to develop better solutions, enhance customer service and offer a more intelligent look at options for your clients.

By Fritz Meyne, Jr.

I recently read a trade article that simply questioned what has happened to fiber optic signs. Well, other than this author being the first and number one cheerleader of neon-look fiber optic options, I have to admit timing is everything in that I also jumped on the OEM LED bandwagon and was one of the first to push LED for various sign use applications. My fiber optic seminars for ISA, SOT, USSC and SEGD were mostly standing room only since 1995.

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  • Additionally, I have written many articles offering comparisons for neon, LED, and fiber optics. In addition, I was the first to offer a comparison chart for a set of channel letters with all three options that included transformers, light sources, and power supplies showing energy usage and typical maintenance concerns.

    Therefore, as you might guess I am a fan of using the safest lighting option for the applicable design. It could be said, for an illuminated sign option, nothing could be safer than fiber optics as there is no electricity or heat at the illuminated site. None, not even low voltage.

    Neon DNA
    If you have ever talked to me, you have heard me mention neon DNA, and it is still true today. Time will change this more than product options, in my estimation, but it will change. We all have true friends and business friends we look to for input and support. At the ISA show in Orlando last year (2004), I met up with one of my Canadian business friends with whom I have tremendous respect, and pointed to a neon display that had a very poorly illuminated example of LED, next to their 6500K white neon. Neon DNA took hold of his very being and low and behold, my cold weather friend offered; “See, neon is brighter than LED”. “Wrong!”, I offered and told him of the probable causes for this unfair comparison.

    Therein lies one of the problems in any industry, a fair and balanced comparison of products, apples for apples. You have some manufacturers showing their products in "one off" examples that look fantastic and make the alternative or competitive option look bad. All three lighting products have done this. Yes, neon as mentioned above, LED over-driven by power supplies to the LED and more fiber optic than one can afford, all to make each other look inferior.

    All things equal, LED is probably the best all around custom lighting solution in the sign industry today. It is the ignorance of the undereducated that slows progress, and also for many founded and unfounded reasons.

    I have had national sign companies tell me my fiber optic or LED system is intended to put them out of business. I would respond with; “Are you in business to make neon, or money? Surprisingly I heard "In business to make neon" more times than an economics professor could survive hearing without yelling, “Get out of my class, you idiot!”. I would then ask; “Do you perform warranty work for free during the warranty period, and again I would get the amazing answer "Yes."

    Warranty work is not free and to make my point, "There is No Free Lunch". Warranty work even costs the customer, as they paid for their signs with certain markups to cover the cost of probable warranty work, as a part of being in business (or least that is the way it is supposed to be). Every time a sign company has to send out a crew for a warranty repair, it is costing them money, unless they have figured a way around paying the employees, paying for the fuel and the equipment maintenance.

    Changing minds
    Old sign men like me understand that neon, when done correctly, as an art will last, in a general sense, forever. A three-week class does not make a Neon Expert. When an industry (any industry) can grow without self-preservation considerations for the future, like happened with neon, a government or ruling body will step in, as was done with the implementation of UL2161.

    Sure UL2161 was not the total solution, but it was a big step in the right direction as it relates to safety and electrical concerns. However, what UL2161 did do was help open the door for fiber optic to enter the sign industry. As such, it also helped LED run right in behind fiber optics.

    “What goes around, comes around”, an expression I am sure many of you have heard. It is interesting to see neon product manufacturers now offering LED products right beside their neon products. Lead, follow, or get out of the way comes to mind. Even Marketing 101 offers up, “The customer is always right!”

    However, I still have to offer: “let the buyer beware.” At ISA 2004 in Orlando there were still LED products being over-driven to increase brightness. What most don’t understand is that overdriving an LED causes more heat and more heat causes installation and life cycle degradation issues, if it is not done correctly. There is also an influx of LED companies that have product, but no understanding of the sign industry. They see the potential, but do not have the knowledge and they hope you will be their next Guinea Pigs. Do not fall for it.

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    Just as neon is a "package" of parts that are designed to work with each other, LED and fiber optics have the same concerns. Overdriving LED is a short-term win for a long-term failure. Using fiber optics for the wrong application can cause the price to skyrocket.

    I will take the position that most people reading this understand neon, if not technically, at least from general association of "sight". LED is an option for just about any application that can be lighted with neon. And when considering the cold climates of the world and colors other than red (neon) LED and fiber optics really have an advantage as the dense cold air does not affect the light output of the LED or fiber optic (lamp).

    Neon transformers are offered in 60 and even 90 MA ratings to help compensate for the cold weather concerns that reduce neon's brightness (again not red).

    What most sign shops will not tell the prospect / customer is that a 60 or 90 MA transformer uses two and three times more power consumption (wattage) than the standard 30ma transformer. Thus in the northern markets, LED and fiber should be an option that is offered to the prospect / customer when colors other than RED are required.

    POP (Point of Purchase) signs can benefit from fiber optics and LED, as they are safe in close customer contact areas, but again fiber optic is safer. Neon has to be shielded for this type of application due to the fragile glass and shock hazard. Just look at any neon window display to see what I mean.

    LED can now also be used to illuminate fiber optics and this emerging market is gaining engineering expertise in the Lighting community. Right now, there are LED "engines" that can light up the neon-look type fiber optics. This emerging technology is very important as it eliminates the large fan cooled "lightsource" and subsequently the high price associated with it and reduces potential service.

    Tools for the future
    For the sign industry, neon look fiber optics are a natural for nightclubs, theaters and high end homes and controlled lighting conditions in high end retail. It is also safe to touch as there is no heat or electricity in the lighted path, no fragile glass to break and no high voltage wiring. These facts alone should offer up tremendous application (sales) opportunities. Then if you add in the option of color change, and controlled color imaging, fiber optics can be the right solution.

    It is you, the sign industry person who needs to be educated in all the lighting options, not only to benefit your customer at any given time, but to also to enhance your bottom line as well. Fiber optic options eliminate high voltage concerns, shipping and packaging liabilities, installation breakage, and it can be reused to create a totally new design in many cases.

    It opens up installation locations like POP use, in and around customers, water feature applications, etc. Just think of that high end hotel chain that has the water feature right in the lobby area. With fiber optic you could offer their logo, illuminated right in the middle of this attention-getter. This is possible as the light source is mounted remotely from the display with only fiber optic strands going to the lighted display.

    Yes, LED can do the same. However, there is voltage “in and at” the lighting source, and there is access / maintenance issues to deal with. Some of these issues can be overcome by using the correct systems though. Once a fiber optic system is installed, there is no access issues with what you see illuminated. Thus, the harder the install, the more credence one should give to a fiber optic or LED system as your source of light.

    In closing, I have to offer that I like neon’s brightness and color intensity and always have. I like fast cars also and both need respect and attention to detail. Just as the turbo can make a four or six cylinder engine outperform a V8, fiber optics and LED offer alternatives that have their place. It is you, the sign professional that is charged with learning what is best for your customer and the application, all with an eye focused on all types of liability and customer related concerns like service and energy costs. When you learn all of the facts, your customer and others win and we all know what happens when our customers win.

    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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