Lasting Looks With LEDs

New LEDs are primed for low-profile letters and other applications.
ASI Signage Innovations’ (Des Moines, IA) work for the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, NE combines warm and cool white light in blade and box signs with a faux neon FILM sign.

“LEDs have really impacted our ability to be creative with our signs, especially for thin-profile architectural designs,” said Bryan Vaughn, VP and general manager of Creative Sign Designs, an architectural signage firm in Tampa, FL. “The versatility of LED modules allows us to lower our SKU count while taking care of 90% of our lighting needs.” That’s just one of the very recent changes in LED technology. In addition to incredible brilliance and longevity, today’s LED modules offer an outstanding illumination method for thin channel letters, cabinets, neon-like signage and novel lighting effects. And just as important as the creative freedom afforded by low-voltage LED is the ability to standardize installation practices to ensure uniform, quality lighting for every sign produced. 

Pat Mescher, business development manager of ASI Signage Innovations (Des Moines, IA), agreed: “What we’re capable of producing now with LED is phenomenal – especially when it comes to faux neon and RGB in interior and exterior signs.” He also said that color LED is marginally more expensive than white light and controllers are as easy to install as drivers. “RGB also allows us to more precisely match PMS colors or improve the appearance of colors. For instance, blue vinyl with blue LEDs can look lousy, especially in the evening,” Mescher said. “An RGB controller can improve on the color, or we can make it pop better with a white band around channel letters using clear push-through returns or backlighting.”

NEW STANDARDS, NEW EFFECTS

Macy’s holiday displays use the Tetra Contour LS neon-like product from GE Current, a Daintree Company, with 24 V power supplies for reduced labor and material cost.
Macy’s holiday displays use the Tetra Contour LS neon-like product from GE Current, a Daintree Company, with 24 V power supplies for reduced labor and material cost.

Ultrathin cabinets and channel letters (1-3 in.) benefit from edge lighting: positioning the LED modules or flexible LED strips on the sign edge to cast light out the sides and face. New signage possibilities include outdoor border lighting and thin-profile, panel lighting for indoor ADA signage. Faux neon looks close to real using color or white LED modules wrapped in flexible, colored sheaths. 

Given LED’s low-energy consumption, solar-powered signage is becoming increasingly attractive. This approach typically has a higher upfront cost, but some clients are attracted to solar when wiring is not easily run underground or when sustainability is a top priority. The project we reported on last August featured solar-powered LED illumination for rideshare indicators installed in locations where conventional wiring was impractical. 

With increased LED use, zoning codes are being updated. Last year, the Illuminating Engineering Society released Recommended Practice: Off-Roadway Sign Illuminance (IES RP 39-19), which limits sign luminance to no brighter than 150 nits (cd/m2) at night. “The new standard may lead to greater use of dimming,” said Terry McGowan, owner of Lighting Ideas Inc., a consulting firm in Cleveland. “Fortunately, LEDs are easy to dim, and many signs already include automatic dimmers.” Other codes impose a time period that RGB signs must stay at one color and require gradual transitions from one color to the next.

Fabricators use light meters to measure luminance on signfaces and at a distance. However, new “nit guns” may provide an improved alternative.

BUYER BEWARE

Because of the low cost of entry into LED modules, the market has been flooded with inexpensive, poorly performing products not suited to sign use. As a result, fabricators are very selective. “We partner with LED suppliers that offer top-of-the-line warranties including labor, have a proven, wide range of products, have served the signage industry for years and provide quality customer service,” Creative Sign Designs’ Vaughn said. He added that service should include free layout software and rapid response to questions regarding sign design, and in fact, many LED-signage suppliers do assist with layout programs and wiring diagrams. In addition, fabricators can request LED test data that supports LED reliability and lifetimes.

Vast strides in brightness, consistency and efficiency of LEDs over the last several years mean fewer modules are required to achieve high brightness. Newer modules with wide beam-angle lenses allow for LED placement in channel letters as thin as 1 in. ASI’s Mescher recommends at least a 170° beam angle for less than 2.5-in. depths, 140° for 3 in., and a minimum of 120° for 4- to 5-in. letters.

AVOIDING FAILURE

A combination of midcentury colors and large white channel letters makes for a catchy project from Creative Sign Designs (Tampa, FL).
A combination of midcentury colors and large white channel letters makes for a catchy project from Creative Sign Designs (Tampa, FL).

Failures in signs with LEDs are typically caused by drivers. Fabricators agree that higher performing drivers are available today, with longer warranties as well. At the same time, 24 V systems are increasingly being used in addition to the standard 12 V. The reason is practical: 24 V systems require roughly half the number power supplies, reducing install times and lowering system cost. Fewer connections also reduce the possibility of electrical failures. Though 24 V power supplies also improve loading in channel letter installations, 12 V is still more commonly used today. 

Less dramatic, but equally important is time spent experimenting with lighting before you’re up against a deadline. “Taking the time to test your own depth minimums with various modules and spacing, clear and white acrylic and with and without vinyl allows you to prevent hot spots,” Vaughn said. 

Fabricators estimate brightness at the face using equations supplied by the LED suppliers. However, because of all the variables involved, sign testing is almost always required to ensure actual brightness. One approach involves standardizing a brightness at the signface. Then, when a client requests greater or lesser brightness, the fabricator can add or subtract a percent of luminance to achieve the brightness goal.

Fox 13 News in Tampa economically updated the look of its SkyTower radar with three-sided custom programmable RGB LED uplights from Creative Sign Designs.

Fox 13 News in Tampa economically updated the look of its SkyTower radar with three-sided custom programmable RGB LED uplights from Creative Sign Designs.