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Reinventing EL (Electroluminescent) Into The Mainstream Backlighting World

Electroluminescent products have always been categorized as cool, neat, fun, etc. but have had distinct disadvantages over other types of backlighting solutions up until now. Read on to learn what has changed.

By Ron Nelson

The Electroluminescent products (wires or panels) have always been categorized as cool, neat, fun, etc. but have had distinct disadvantages over other types of backlighting solutions.

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  • Invented in the late 1950's, EL has never taken off in the mainstream lighting world as a viable and practical option. The road blocks were consistently related to the real world application of this technology in everyday backlighting scenarios.

    The roadblocks were issues such as: How to design it for my specific application? What are the design factors? The startup costs of the product are too prohibitive, the product has to have a way to convert power into the higher frequency AC (alternating current) that is required for EL, how do you set it up to light the sign in real life applications, who knows how to install it, how does it get wired up, etc?

    The challenge facing EL manufacturers when entering the world of backlit signage and other types of advertising medium are similar to the ones listed above; but also include speed. The signage process is a fast paced and dynamic world where weeks of thought and conceptualizing are culminated by a quick turnaround to get the sign made and installed ASAP.

    EL product lines have traditionally been a custom designed product made per the unique specifications and requirements of the customer; so what has changed in the EL world and how is it now more "practical" for sign makers and installers? Is there a way for EL to lend itself more to the requirements of availability, speed, ease of application, and performance? The answer is yes.

    There is now a standard EL "system" which has made the entry of EL into the mainstream backlighting world easy, practical, and inexpensive and addresses the following roadblocks for EL use:

    Roadblock number one has always been the customization factor. The answer ultimately requires a standardized product line option, off the shelf, and ready to be applied in virtually any signage scenario. There is now such a standard system which is comprised of "shapes and sizes" which will allow the ability to stock these standard items and respond to customer's backlit signage needs quickly. The system of shapes and sizes will eliminate the issues relating to design factors, time, and start up costs.

    Roadblock number two was how to make an EL panel large enough to light a large sign (such as a billboard) versus just doing small items that have been restricted by the ability of printing machines to produce this product in sizes larger than three feet in length. The answer is to produce the panels with a design that allows them to be "tiled" next to each other in a system that will allow coverage of large areas (up to 60 square feet) without having any "dead spots" between the panels which would have no lighting on them. This is in effect a system of building blocks that allows the coordination of shapes and sizes to cover many different layouts on many different signage applications.

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    Roadblock number three was how to power the El panels without having to custom design an EL inverter for your specific application based on the total square inches of EL you are planning to light up. The answer is to develop a standard set of EL inverters which will convert the lower frequency AC power from your wall outlet or the DC (direct current) from a battery, into the higher frequency AC power that is required for EL. The inverters must be designed specifically to power all of the standard shapes and sizes we referred to, on the shelf and ready to purchase, and easy to use in a system of EL panels tiled to together to backlight the specific sign.

    Roadblock number four was how to install the EL panels onto the specific sign application you're working with and having the right tools. The answer is simply to have the EL panels ready with adhesive on the lighted side of the panel. This allows the panel to be applied to the back of the graphic/sign so as to illuminate the sign from the back. It's as simple as lining up the panel to the area of the sign that you want to affix it, peeling off the adhesive backing to expose the adhesive, and applying it. There are really no tools needed but if you would like to ensure maximum adhesion, you can you use a scrapping tool (most graphics people and assemblers already have such a tool). Once the panels are attached, the wires will be hanging down from the panels and ready for the next and final step.

    Roadblock number five was how to get all of the pieces together properly without being an electrical engineer. The answer is to use a standard set of connectors that are simple, inexpensive, and easy to use. These connectors simply require wires from the EL panel and the EL inverter to be inserted into the connector opening, and then twist the connector housing to enclose and tighten the wires together. Now you have integrated the system (EL panels and EL inverters) together and your ready to enjoy a backlit sign that is thin, has full coverage on the areas you want it, and won't heat up or cause any maintenance visits. Simply plug in the inverter to the wall outlet and your sign is now backlit.

    So as you can see; a standard EL backlighting system can make the use of EL more of a reality for the signage industry. It can lend itself more to distribution as a sign supply item and also allow sign companies and installers to view it as a commodity versus a custom engineered product that requires various specialties in knowledge and application.

    To review and summarize how to use EL through this standard system: Here are the steps involved:

    1. Calculate how many square inches of area you need to backlight for your specific project/projects.
    2. Pick the corresponding sizes and shapes to give you the desired coverage of your graphic/sign once the EL panels are "tiled together"
    3. Pick the inverter or inverters that will power the total square inches of your sign area
    4. Pick the connector or connectors that will integrate the wires (2 on each panel and 2 on each inverter)
    5. Once you have all of the items (panels, connectors, and inverters), line up the EL panels on the sign; remove the adhesive backing and apply the front of the EL panel to the back of the sign/graphic.
    6. Connect the wires from the EL panel and the EL inverter by using the twist connector to enclose them together.
    7. Plug the inverter into the wall outlet and you're done

    Good luck on your next venture to find backlighting solutions for your signage. The next time you have a need for extremely thin, flexible, and easy to install backlighting option; EL is a product that would be worth looking at.

    Ron Nelson has been in the Electroluminescent Lighting Industry for over 17 years and involved in the design, development, and production of EL products. He has traveled throughout the world working with printing associations, lighting associations and industry groups on applying and refining EL in real world applications.

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