Channel Letter Lighting...To Be LED or Not To Be?
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Channel Letter Lighting...To Be LED or Not To Be?

Channel letters fill a need for corporate IDs and building identity programs on the sides of building and have done so for decades. Times are changing and more than filling a need is that the channel letters are now filled in terms of their lighting source.

By Louis Brill

Whereas neon once had an almost complete monopoly on illuminating channel letters, LEDs are now emerging as an alternative lighting source. Their overall features of high brightness, lower cost in terms of energy efficiency and a long operation life of at least 100,000 hours per unit make them very attractive as lighting fixtures.

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  • Neon is still the undisputed illumination provider of channel letter lighting, but LEDs are definitely leaving their glowing mark along the way. This is not to say that one technology is better than the other, but that sign fabricators and end-users now have more choices in the best ways to design their sign lighting.

    Although LEDs are available in the full range of primary colors, some LED colors perform better than others for channel letter usage. Red, which is the oldest existing LED, one of the brightest and also the least expensive, is obviously the most popular color employed in channel letter lighting. Other LED colors aren't always as bright as red, or as affordable. Thus other LED color selections are judged on a case by case basis of the sign size and how well the LEDs can illuminate it.

    The point of departure for LEDs and channel letters begins and ends at the manufacturers who fabricate the signs and ship them to resellers or installers for final deployment on a building. To gain some perspective of how well LEDs fit within channel letters, one LED lighting integrator, SloanLEDs of Ventura, California and two manufacturing companies; ESCO Manufacturing in South Dakota and Direct Wholesale in Denver, Colorado, were interviewed for a progress report on LEDs in the channel letter marketplace.

    ChanneLED4 is a flat PC board module with specific colored LEDs attached to them. The board comes in three sizes depending on the color, a 4 inch board, a 2.5 inch board and a 1.5 inch board. Each format results in six LEDs per foot in a straight away layout in a channel letter form. During assembly the ChanneLED4 modules can be wired in serial or parallel connections and can be easily attached with the pre-applied self adhesive or screwed into the channel letter form.

    SloanLED was founded in 1957 to design and develop industrial lighting products. By the early 1970s, Sloan was a pioneer in LED technology and started using them mostly for instrumentation lighting. By 1997, the company began to apply LEDs to signage and within a couple of years, developed a series of products for channel letters and architectural applications.

    Using appropriate LED systems that incorporated both a lighting unit and accompanying power supply, SloanLED developed three LED product applications, each supported with its own dedicated power supply. All SloanLED product lines are available in a range of LED colors including red, amber, yellow, green, blue and white. All SloanLED systems are modular in their design and can be cut to size in the shop or in the field to fit whatever shape and size is needed for the LED lighting application.

    The first product line is ChanneLED4 which are flat PC board modules with specific colored LEDs attached to them. The board comes in three sizes depending on the color, a 4 inch board, a 2.5 inch board and a 1.5 inch board. Each format results in six LEDs per foot in a straight-way layout in a channel letter form. During assembly the ChanneLED4 modules can be wired in serial or parallel connections and can be easily attached with the pre-applied, self-adhesive or screwed into the channel letter form. ChanneLED4 relies on a 12 V DC power source with outputs that range between 1.2 watts/foot to 1.8 watts/foot.

    The second application is ThinLED which is used for reversed lit halo channel letters. Here the LEDs are mounted on a flexible backing with self-adhesive and in turn mounted directly to the edges of the LED letter forms. Once completely wired together, the channel letter is turned to face the wall. The projecting illumination will backlight the sign, creating a silhouette appearance of the letters against the wall. The system voltage ranges between 2.1 watts per foot and 3.0 watts per foot.

    LEDStripe is an architectural lighting element that is a series of LEDs self-contained inside of an extruded tube, each tube being a full color of the complete range of colors that Sloan offers. The LED Strips can be cut to any size to conform to the sides or horizontal profiles of a building design.

    LEDStripe is an architectural lighting element that is a series of LEDs self-contained inside of an extruded tube, each tube being a full color of the complete range of colors that Sloan offers. The LED Strips can be cut to any size to conform to the sides or horizontal profiles of a building design. LEDStripe's voltage is 24 V AC and draws 2.8 watts per foot of product run.

    SloanLED's growth was observed by VP of Sales and Marketing, Ron Wallace who said that year after year the company has constantly increased their LED sales to the sign market. "We sell to sign supply distributors. Within the domain of channel letters, we see tremendous growth opportunities for LED usage, both in the retrofitting market and in new product applications."

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    As advertised - a roadside dinner spells it out, courtesy of SloanLED illumination.

    "About 10% of SloanLED's customers contact us about retrofitting neon with equivalent LED products. Within the next year or so, I expect that percentage to increase as more customers become price conscious over the cost and ongoing maintenance of operating neon."

    ESCO Manufacturing (Watertown, South Dakota) has been fabricating electric signs since 1965 and has nearly 80,000 square feet of sign manufacturing space located in the heart of the Midwest. The company manufactures aluminum extruded and angle iron frame internally illuminated sign cabinets in all sizes in standard or custom shapes. They also manufacture channel letters and rigid and flexible faces. Department Supervisor of the channel letter department, Jenny Zeck spoke of the impact of LEDs as a new component for lighting channel letters.

    Applying GELcore LED lighting to channel letters is simple, the sign fabricator just follows the shape of the letter, and uses self adhesive backing and pop rivets to hold the LED lighting in place. The lights are installed carefully so there are no 'hot spots' or shadows on the sign face. Lighting wire runs are then installed to LED-based power supplies and once completed, signs are ready to be tested. photo credit: ESCO

    "We sell our signs to a variety of customers from the occasional end-user to mostly other sign manufacturers whose services do not include making electric signs. We started dealing with LEDs around 2002 and have seen a continuing demand for LEDs in some of our channel letter projects. Our LED kits come primarily from LED system integrators, particularly GELcore and SloanLED, both offering different kinds of LED lighting kits and each complete with its own power supply system. The majority of our LED use, as you'd expect, is with red. We also see occasional requests for other colors, however, most of them have a way to go to match the brightness levels and low cost that red offers."

    photo credit: ESCO

    LEDs are deployed in two areas of channel letter lighting; the first is new signs where the preferred lighting source is LEDs. The second area is replacement for previously installed sign projects, where for reasons of cost savings, the sign owners have opted to change out the neon with an LED system. According to Zeck, "Most of our use of LEDs is putting it in the new channel letter signs that we build. Occasionally we have a retrofit request, and in that situation, we send out a pre-configured LED package of a preferred amount of LED lighting and a power supply to the sign distributor out in the field who then does the retrofit on site."

    "For the LED work we do here at the plant, most of our LED usage has been with closed- face channel letters, the remainder of our LED installs has been reverse-faced lighting. Obviously no one has done an open-faced LED installation, because at that point they're looking to trace the letter form, and many prefer the streamlined neon look."

    In one ESCO sign installation, a large Budweiser, closed-face channel letter project showed up on the shop floor, said Zeck. "This was a cursive letter style where each letter was about six feet tall and the total sign was about thirty-four feet in length with every letter populated with red LEDs. One benefit of using LEDs is you don't have to worry about corners or tight spots, especially with cursive fonts. The LED wire is flexible enough that you can bend it to follow the shape of each letter. Once finished, the Budweiser sign was lit up and we were happy with the results. There were no shadows or 'hot spots' on the sign face, and it was lit evenly between each letter."

    In another sign installation, ESCO has fabricated Arby's signs with neon lighting for years, but then the client requested using LED illumination for new signs instead. The change was emphasized for both a cost savings in energy consumption and also for the opportunity to reduce the servicing aspects of the signs. Since LEDs burn for an average of 100,000 hours before beginning to loose intensity and are less susceptible to breakage, the client, said Zeck, was willing to initiate a replacement in the signs lighting configuration.

    "We installed the LED units into the Arby's letters, in both the hat band of the sign and in the channel letters, altogether it was about 200 feet of red LEDs per sign. Once completed we ran some light tests using a light meter and discovered that the intensity of the LEDs was as bright, if not brighter, than the neon lighting that was previously used."

    Direct Sign Wholesale (Denver, Colorado) is a wholesale manufacturer of channel letter signs and was started back in 1995. The company manufacturers their channel letter signs straight from their customer's shop drawings, fabricates the sign to completion and returns the finished product to sign distributors for delivery to their end-users.

    Michael Bluhm, National Marketing Manager for Direct Sign Wholesale noted, "We have a lot of LED projects coming to us from national accounts who have significant amounts of electric signage on their properties and they see LED signs as a way to control energy costs and still have a great sign." photo credit: Direct Sign Wholesale

    In the old days of channel letter fabrication (pre-LED), when a customer ordered a channel letter sign package, they always knew it would be a neon illuminated sign - end of story. Now, customers have choices about how they want their signs lit said Michael Bluhm, National Marketing Manager for Direct Sign Wholesale. "When our customer chooses LEDs for a channel letter project, it's usually based on its energy savings considerations. We have a lot of LED projects coming to us from national accounts with significant amounts of electric signage on their properties and they see LED signs as a way to control energy costs and still have a great sign."

    "The most effective color for us is red and we usually use GELcore's Tetra product lines for our channel letter lighting. Occasionally other LED color requests come in as well. White is the second most quoted color, but it's quite a bit more expensive. Despite the higher cost, we occasionally get an order for white LEDs. In one instance, we had a sign that was a six foot oval logo, followed by fourteen 35-inch letters, all to be filled with white LEDs. Its design was no different than any other LED sign we've installed. We faxed the LED manufacturer the artwork which specified the size, style and font of the channel letters. They reviewed the drawings and determined how many LEDs were needed for each letter and that's how we populated it."

    LED lighting is definitely part of the future of channel letters as Bluhm of Direct Sign Wholesale noted, "We see a slow steady use of LEDs for our sign work. At this time our LED channel letter is about 5% of all the channel letter fabrication we do. ESCO's Zeck says that for LED installations on her signs, some days are busier than others, but one thing is certain, that activity is slowly growing as more people understand LEDs as a usable light source for channel letters.

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