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Fiber Options

Sign companies can use fiber optics for new applications or to solve old design problems

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When the subject is fiber-optic signage, it often seems impossible to avoid comparisons with neon. The physical resemblance between neon and side-lit, fiber-optic (FO) cable has convinced some people that fiber optics will ultimately replace luminous tubes. Not only does this belief fly in the face of neon’s continued growth, but it also wrongly encourages calculating the potential of fiber-optic signage primarily in terms of the neon market.

As FO lighting continues to develop, it’s evident that many future applications will be situations where neon would not be suitable. Hence, the principal challenge confronting FO sign-makers is to identify new, creative applications that capitalize on the unique characteristics of optical fiber.

FO-sign pioneers recognize that they are on the threshold of an entirely new market, with an independent growth curve. Like neon, fiber-optic applications are limited by the product’s innate qualities. Unlike neon, sign companies are just beginning to learn how to use fiber optics profitably. This education begins by understanding what can be done with fiber optics, what fabrication techniques are required and how the cost of FO signs compares with conventional signage.

No-voltage lighting

FO cable conducts no electricity or heat across its lighted path. This creates myriad design possibilities, because sign-builders are no longer restricted by tube-breakage, flammability of mounting surfaces, shock hazards or exposure to moisture. Because FO cable can be installed in many locations where neon would be impractical or dangerous, many new opportunities are created for sign companies to serve their clients’ needs.

The safety of fiber optics is particularly important for retail shops and restaurants that want attractive, interior signs and graphics, but don’t want the hazards and periodic maintenance of high-voltage neon. In recent years, many retail developments have curtailed the use of interior neon because of shock and fire hazards. FO systems have the potential to boost growth in this important market.

FO cables can be safely embedded in any interior or exterior construction material. Thus, drywall, hardwood floors, glass blocks, concrete and stucco surfaces can serve double duty as signs, graphics and decorative lighting. By substituting end-lit (also called "endpoint") cables for conventional light-bulb filaments, fiber-optic manufacturers have developed energy-efficient, decorative FO bulbs (Fig. 1).

Because FO cable may be safely submerged in water, specialty signs for public aquariums, amusement parks, water parks and public fountains represent some interesting possibilities. The durability of fiber optics also lends itself to many motion-related applications, including motor vehicles.

Some mass-transit authorities already use the break-resistant and shockproof cable to illuminate backlit bus graphics. The rapidly growing vehicle-graphics market creates new opportunities to incorporate end- and side-lit FO cable into various digital designs for greater impact after dark. Illuminated by 12-volt light sources, fiber optics can be used to accent vehicle-graphics designs.

On the Border ST recently asked Fritz Meyne, Jr., corporate sales director for Nexxus Lighting (Orlando, FL), to walk us through a border-lighting application for the facade of a large building (Fig. 2). The total linear footage of exposed FO cable for this project is 160 feet, and the cable is mounted along the exterior of a parapet wall atop the building:

How would a sign company estimate the materials for this project?

To estimate the quantity of FO cable, you must determine the linear dimension, or visible run, plus the jumps to and from each light source, which are the hidden runs. Because 100 feet is the maximum cable length for uniform lighting, divide the total linear dimension into two equal halves of 80 feet each.

A standard rule of thumb for jumping into or out of a light source is five feet. Therefore, each 80-foot-long, visible-cable run requires an additional 10 feet of cable (five feet on each end) to run back to two light sources. This adds up to a 90-foot cable run for each half of the installation, or 180 total feet of cable and three light sources.

Finally, because FO cable is relatively flexible, you must mount the cable inside a clear, U-channel-type track that is typically available in six-foot lengths. For this project, 27 sections of six-foot track are required. As you can see, the bill of materials is quite simple, consisting of only three items. To cut the cable properly for final connection to the light source, you need a tool commonly known as a hot knife (Fig. 3).

What about installation cost?

For border applications, one man can install 60 feet of cable per hour on the average, which includes installing the track and light sources. This project can be completed in approximately three hours. As always, it’s important to be familiar with the job site and to take all conditions into consideration.

What about the color-changing features and maintenance advantages of fiber optics?

Most FO-light sources include a rotating color wheel that changes the cable’s color. It’s important, however, for contractors to make sure the local sign code permits color changing. If not, the customer can order a single, fixed color. If you do provide color-changing, a synchronized controller is required to ensure that all the light sources’ color wheels operate in concert. This feature is incorporated into the light source, and an external control cable is also required to connect between the illuminators.

Maintenance of a fiber-optic system is as simple as replacing metal-halide bulbs in the light sources. For this project, the light sources would be mounted on the inside of the parapet wall where they are serviceable from the building roof. The metal-halide illuminator lamps offer an average service life of 6,000 hours. The FO cable is composed of flexible PVC that requires no maintenance.

How much will this project cost the customer?

Industry averages for installed, linear jobs of this type are approximately $18 to $20 per foot. At $20 per linear foot, this project would cost approximately $3,600. The operating costs for this system are approximately 40 percent less than a comparable neon installation.

Ease of maintenance is particularly important for hard-to-reach signs. Unless buildings are equipped with special roof-mounted service equipment, signs mounted atop tall buildings must be serviced with large crane trucks or aerial lifts. This makes maintenance quite costly over the sign’s lifetime.

What’s New

When Indianapolis Power & Light Co. (IPALCO) proposed new exterior signs for its ten-story headquarters office (Fig. 4), the company wanted to avoid the high cost of maintaining neon. Special T Lighting (Burbank, CA) provided a solution.

Using a system manufactured by Lumenyte Intl. Corp. (Irvine, CA), six-foot-high channel letters were equipped with fiber-optic lighting. Each set of 18-inch-deep letters contains 605 points of light (end-lit optical fibers) connected to a total of 12 DMX-controlled light sources.

Like the border-lighting project, these light sources are mounted on the exposed inside surface of the parapet wall, enabling building maintenance personnel to easily change bulbs in the illuminators while standing safely on the building’s roof. Color-changing capability enables IPALCO to vary the hue of these signs seasonally.

At April’s ISA Intl. Sign Expo ’99 in Las Vegas, Bridgestone Engineered Products Co., Inc. (Nashville, TN), a division of tire manufacturer Bridgestone Corp., introduced a new, solid-core, side-lit, FO cable product designed for architectural, decorative and accent-lighting applications. The 14-mm (.5 inch), acrylic-core cable is clad with FEP (a fluoroplastic polymer) for UV and chemical resistance.

P-O-Pin’ in Pittsburgh

Quantity production of FO point-of-purchase and corporate identity signs is the primary business at Prism Fiber Optics (Pittsburgh). According to Vice President of Sales Pete Luxton, Prism markets FO signage (Fig. 5) to several major corporate advertisers through partnerships with store-design companies.

The company’s patented WAVE

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