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Retrofitting Print Billboards with their LED Digital Counterparts

As more and more outdoor advertising companies introduce or expand their digital billboard inventories, there is now a new challenge of where to install them along existing highway routes or to replace existing print billboards.

By Louis M. Brill

The attraction of digital billboards to the outdoor advertising marketplace is very strong and billboard operators, advertisers and media planners are building a national digital billboard infrastructure to accommodate national and regional electronic outdoor advertising campaigns.
photo credit: Land Vision

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  • As the number one rule for real estate: location, location, location, so it is also true for a billboard (which is real estate as well) placement. The big issue with a billboard operator is, all the best placements are already taken by their existing print billboards, so where can they put their new digital billboards? Since most good billboard highway spots are taken, one possible solution at hand would be to create a "swap out" of taking an already premium or favored print billboard location and replacing with its digital counterpart.

    Land displays
    This issue has already come up for Land Displays of Berks County, PA, an outdoor advertising company with a billboard inventory of poster panels, permanent bulletins, tri-visions, and digital billboards. "The attraction of digital billboards to our advertisers in our marketplace is very strong," said Jim Landrigan, President of Land Displays, "so it behooves us to improve our digital billboard inventory by adding other key locations in our markets for our clients."

    "In bringing in our new digital billboards, the placement of each display is on a case by case basis, depending on the region and the marketplace. Sometimes it might replace an existing print board and sometimes it might be a new location. In some cases a billboard conversion is not without its own challenges of local sign code regulations of what can be and can't be installed in that area. Another issue is to consider the physical integrity of the sign structure and whether it's capable of physically supporting the new (and much heavier) digital billboard on the existing structure."

    "Within our print billboard inventory as each of our digital billboards are considered for placement on an existing print billboard structure, we had local billboard engineers look at each prospective billboard and determine what it would take to accept to swap out a print billboard and replace it with an LED display cabinet. The findings, once reported to us would stipulate what kind of, and how many changes would be required of the existing billboard structure by either re-engineering the billboard structure or completely rebuilding it. Of the seven digital displays within Land Display's billboard inventory, three were new structures and four were existing print billboard locations that we converted. We plan to convert two additional locations in 2010."

    In the San Francisco Bay area, along the East Bay side of the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge, CBS Outdoor erected a double-faced digital billboard (20-feet tall x 60 feet long) along passing traffic (average 212,000+ vehicles daily) to and from the Bay Bride. Because of location and consideration of LED cabinet weight, the billboard's sign structure was custom designed for road placement on the East Bay side of the bridge.
    photo credit: CBS Outdoor

    CBS Outdoors
    CBS Outdoors (NY, NY) offers a national advertising program including advertising platforms with malls, transit (on buses and on station platforms), street furniture and sports stadiums, all fully integrated within every major city and region of the United States. Within this family of advertising media they also offer national coverage of both print and digital billboards.

    Already CBS Outdoors has 70 + digital billboards and anticipates that number to grow as their digital billboards become more in demand to their advertisers. As to where digital billboards are installed within CBS urban markets, Jodi Senese, Executive Vice President of Marketing stated that, "In our placement of digital billboards, we tend to focus our installations on what we call 'iconic locations' which are high-demand, high-profile positions along highways or tunnels. We like highway choke points which causes passing traffic to slow down creating a longer dwell time for viewing our billboards."

    The LED modules were sequentially stacked into the LED sign structure building towards a completed LED display.
    photo credit: CBS Outdoor

    "As CBS Outdoors moves forwards with our digital billboard expansion," noted G. Todd Lathan, VP of the CBS Outdoors Digital Division, whose group assists in the deployment and installation of the newly acquired digital billboards, "more often than not, we'll find ourselves replacing our pre-existing print billboards with our digital counterparts. When necessary, we'll upgrade that existing billboard structure as required. In our review of these structures, sometimes they're OK; sometimes they need to be upgraded significantly."

    With all the LED modules in place, the installation crew is putting the finishing touches onto the LED display.
    photo credit: CBS Outdoor

    "One of our considerations when we review a billboard structure is its age. Some of them go back as far as 50 years ago, at and that age, more likely there's going to be some work done on them." Once the structure has been refurbished, the digital billboard is ready to be assembled and installed. Our billboard displays are made up of individual LED modules which are tiled together into a final display. We begin with a pre-built box frame and then, insert all the LED modules in place. Once on site, the modules are assembled with rear service access catwalks, and are lifted onto the primary billboard support structure."

    Billboard structures for the digital age
    As outdoor advertising companies deal with choices of location for their digital billboards, so do the engineers deal with a billboard structure's physical integrity and how it can be transformed into a modern version of itself. R. Scott Lewis (New Canaan, CT) who has designed spectacular sign structures in Times Square since 1991, and many print/electronic billboard structures throughout Northeastern United States, is now beginning to also deal with transforming existing print billboard structures into their heftier counterparts. Lewis has noted that digital billboard conversion is moving forward as a trend for most outdoor advertising companies who are beginning to plan the installation of their digital billboards and are faced with where they will place them roadside.

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    This billboard structure is from another era when steel erector sets were used to hold billboards in place, this being a "triple truss support" double face display. Despite its age, it was deemed worthy enough that with certain reinforcements having been done to its foundation, it would be able to support a modern LED sign cabinet in place of its former print billboard.
    photo credit: R. Scott Lewis

    "If the local municipality is favorably disposed to the installation of an electronic billboard replacing its print counterpart," Lewis stated, "we look at the preferred billboard structure to determine how the billboard company can proceed. Sometimes when we see them, in the best of possible worlds, they're in good enough shape that a billboard conversion would be very straight forward with one type of sign face replacing the other. Sometimes, we see that a print billboard is still in usable shape, but it will take a degree of refurbishment to improve its physical support capabilities. Here we recommend reinforcing various parts of the billboard to make it capable of supporting a much heavier digital billboard. In other instances if the billboard structure is not capable of such a conversion, we will suggest the company consider another billboard site for such a conversion."

    "As we review a possible billboard structure for a digital billboard conversion, we examine the structure from bottom to top. We begin at the billboard sign's base and look at the structure's foundation. We take all kinds of measurements including using an ultrasonic thickness measuring device that allows us to measure the wall thickness of the torque tube. We also look for corrosion spots. If corrosion has reduced the original metal thickness by 15% - you have a problem. In some cases you can recondition a rusted spot - in other cases it is better to cut it out and replace it with new metal."

    The original foundation with its truss structure for its print billboards. An examination of the entire structure determined that the addition of new piles and a new concrete foundation placed in conjunction, between the already existing foundation would be sufficient to support the additional weight of the double LED sign cabinets that would replace the print billboards.
    photo credit: R. Scott Lewis

    "Sometimes we find that the original billboard structure was designed for a lower wind pressure according to the building codes of decades ago. Now when you change from print to digital billboards, the new building codes need to be followed, because you're substantially changing the use of the structure and now have to design for both a higher wind pressure and also for a greater weight load of the LED cabinets."

    "In one instance of a billboard structure review, we found a usable billboard structure with an undersized foundation. In this case it was a 30 - 40 year old frame assembled with vertical trusses and was a sign structure that pre-dated the concept of a single-size billboard structure. The existing billboard frame had plenty of reserve support capacity for the additional weight of a digital billboard, but its foundation was in question, because the soil was rather soft and the original support piles were old enough to have been made of timber."
    To prepare the transition to the new foundation, all the existing foliage was removed and new concrete pile caps have been built in between the old pile caps. A pile cap is a footing which is supported by piles. The old pile caps were supported by timber piles and the new pile caps are supported by newly drilled pipe piles.
    photo credit: R. Scott Lewis

    Our solution was to design an expanded foundation for the base, which required the driving of additional piles as part of the new foundation set up. Because of the physical restrictions around the billboard, we were not able to get pile driving equipment into place because the billboard structure was to close to a railroad right away. Instead we had to use a mini-pile driver and drill the piles in place around the foundation. The only other issue on the front of the billboard sign was to bolt on some new support brackets to allow the proper attaching of the LED sign cabinets to the billboard structure."

    "In another billboard infrastructure review, we examined a full flag, single pole sign with two sign faces displayed in a V-configuration. With the consideration of converting both billboards from print to LED displays, we realized that the horizontal member which was a 30-inch diameter torque tube was going to be overstressed and would not have enough capacity to support one LED display, let alone both of them. To give the sign structure extra strength, we designed a diagonal steel tube (known as a 'kicker') that supported the torque tube, keeping the LED display in place."
    Here the new billboard structure foundation has been set in place and the LED sign cabinets are being lifted into position onto the sign structure.
    photo credit: R. Scott Lewis

    More digital billboard growth coming
    As the digital billboard component of outdoor advertising percolates its way into the outdoor advertising community, there a few critical market drivers that will continue to stimulate its growth:

    1.) The cost of acquiring digital billboards continues to descend, making them more readily available for both outdoor advertising companies just getting started with digital billboards and for those who are expanding an already existing outdoor electronic media network.

    2.) As media planners develop their clients marketing campaigns, so will they see digital billboards as an important part of their advertising buy into regional and national markets reinforcing outdoor advertising companies strategies of building and expanding their already existing digital billboard networks.

    Putting billboards in a new light
    As these digital billboard inventories continue to grow, so will many print billboard locations be destined for structural conversions, a trend that will only accelerate as the economy improves. With more digital billboards appearing roadside, it will give advertisers and media planners the chance to position their messages in a new light and create a greater reach in connecting with the passing public.
    Louis M. Brill is a journalist and consultant for high-tech entertainment and media communications. He can be reached at (415) 664-0694 or

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