By Peter Saunders
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are a household name today, with a growing number of general illumination applications in residential buildings and elsewhere, but only after enjoying a longer period of research and development (R&D) specific to the sign industry, along with long-term real-world use.
Since the early 2000s, when LEDs were a relatively unproven method of illuminating signs, the technology has come a long way in matching and improving upon the performance of neon and fluorescent tubing. Yet, there is also still more work to be done, with much of the sign industry yet untouched by LEDs.
The LED advantage
Perhaps the most well-known benefit of LEDs over traditional means of sign illumination is their environmentally friendlier energy efficiency, but they also offer other benefits. As solid-state lighting (SSL) components, for example, they are much more difficult to break during freight and handling than other bulbs, making for easier installations and maintenance. They also exhibit more consistent light.
LEDs were given a new market advantage in the sign industry after Underwriters Laboratories (UL) revised UL 2161, Standard for Neon Transformers and Power Supplies, in 2000 with new requirements for secondary ground fault protection (SGFP) to reduce fire hazards associated with neon signs. The ease of implementation for LEDs was made all the clearer by comparison.
Another step forward for the sign industry was the development of white LEDs.
“Red, green and blue (RGB) LEDs worked fine, but after white LEDs came into the market, they became brighter and prices went down,” says Carlos Vilanova, owner of Global Lux in Boucherville, Que., who had previously worked in the neon industry. “Today, there are so many competitors in the LED market. It’s been important to think outside the box to continue to make these products easier to use.”
The dynamics of the market in recent years can be seen in the evolution of US LED. Sign business veteran Ron Farmer founded the company in 2001 specifically to adapt LED technology for the needs of his industry.
“Ron saw what was out there at the time wasn’t sufficient,” says the company’s director of sales for Canada, Luc Laliberté, based in Laval, Que. “With his background as a signmaker,
he saw the opportunity to save time both in the shop and in the field through reduction of breakage and the need for maintenance. He looked for the best LEDs available and worked with an engineering firm to ensure the reliability and durability of their products.”
The process of adaptation involved not only the LEDs themselves, but also the packaging that would make them more useful for both signmakers and installers. As the quality of the packaging improved, the expected lifetime of the LEDs grew from 50,000 hours to more than 90,000 hours.
By way of example, US LED’s patented quick-connect systems eliminated the need for ‘bolt-on’ connectors and wire nuts, which had previously represented a common point of failure.
“Over time, systems have been redesigned,” says Laliberté, “to the point where now a standard-depth, 381-mm (15-in.) stroke channel letter can be illuminated by just one row of LED modules, which was not even dreamed of a couple of years ago. There are also LED modules for cabinet signs that can be placed on 610-mm (24-in.) centres just 203 mm (8 in.) from the face—or on 508-mm (20-in.) centres at 152 mm (6 in.) from the face. This is all due to huge improvements in lenses. And with prices dropping with each improvement, there is little reason to use fluorescent lighting for these types of signs at this point.”