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Is Your Digital Sign Green?

Why is the same LED that’s touted for its environmental friendliness a “green” threat?

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Last week, I heard, for the first time, that a city government had questioned LED signs’ “green” compliance – not their color, but their potential, environmental impact. Specifically, the issue related to a complete life cycle – what happens to the display after it’s completed its useful life.

How ironic. The “green” community touts these same LEDs as the incandescent lamp’s future replacement. I’ve heard no grumbling about those LEDs being potential pollutants. LEDs that replace a higher-energy product are safe, but those used in a new application are untested and potentially dangerous. Somehow, the sign LEDs are something to fear. Hmmm.

I shouldn’t be surprised. As a sign medium, this rapidly emerging, highly visible technology is likely to inspire environmentalists’ ire. Maybe the same folks who focus on the “greening” of America consider illuminated, changing-information displays visual pollution.

For the record, nothing in an LED, in any color used in digital displays, has ever constituted an environmental hazard. Each diode comprises a naturally occurring crystal and electrical leads, encased in a plastic shell. Each LED connects to a standard, printed circuit board that’s (depending on the manufacturer) encased in epoxy. The rest of the sign comprises standard-issue wiring, power supplies, ribbon cables and transformers. A basic computer, the system’s brains, represents the only environmental threat.

Though we know LED technology, as used in large-format displays, isn’t toxic, we shouldn’t discount the green issue. Those of us who produce, sell or use digital technology for our livelihood should arm ourselves with the facts. Those who dislike signs will add the “green” component to their quiver of weapons in the battle against digital displays.

Honestly, I’d never considered the concept of a whole life cycle, as it relates to signs, or much else, for that matter. But, apparently, there’s quite a move afoot to force technology manufacturers to provide a cradle-to-grave template for their products. This could become an issue for digital signs, which require permits before they can be installed. If a sign user must show the product’s life in a schedule, along with a commitment for an approved disposal method, what next?

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This seems far-fetched, but the industry should establish a template now, before sign-industry detractors grasp this concept as another means to stifle industry growth.

Controversy is nothing new to the digital-sign industry. Each business owner who loves his sign advertising is matched by at least one detractor who considers this medium an eyesore. Industry growth is mirrored by the anti-sign community’s backlash.

The billboard industry, which is encountering a large-scale conversion to digital technology, faces dramatic opposition from such national groups as Scenic America and its attempt to squelch this new technology’s growth. Fortunately, reason has prevailed in most cases. However, the battle can be emotional.

In Reno, NV, recently, Scenic Nevada’s director stated, in a public hearing, “These signs are brighter than the sun.” Fortunately, he espoused even more outlandish blather, which should, to the reasonable spectator, discredit his comments.

The billboard companies’ new focus on digital media has been a mixed blessing to the on-premise sign industry. Because large-scale, high-resolution displays make a great impact, many business owners who have witnessed this technology’s power have investigated their potential for their businesses.

Likewise, billboard companies have poured money into studies regarding lighting, accident rates and other critical, measurable data to validate digital signs’ safety and utility, which, without statistical reinforcement, remain anecdotal. This information proves immensely valuable when applied to misguided state or municipal codes that challenge our technology.

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But, each major, new digital-billboard deployment has been opposed by people who just don’t like signs. These people will embrace the green objections if we don’t address them in advance.

I’ve been amazed by the vehemence our technology can generate. In my September 2007 column (page 64), I wrote about a study, sponsored by the Outdoor Advertising Assn. of America (OAAA), that conclusively demonstrated digital outdoor boards near Cleveland, OH (Cuyahoga County) hadn’t increased traffic accidents.

The study, conducted by Tantala Associates, a very highly regarded, civil-engineering firm with a long history of successful studies conducted for the federal government, the state of New York and others, showed, very clearly, no increase in the accident rate during an 18-month period following the installation of six displays in the Cleveland area.

Several months after that report’s publication, I spoke on behalf of the OAAA to the annual convention of the National Assn. of Highway Beautification Agencies. Michael Tantala spoke just before me and presented his study. I thought it was so completely conclusive, so thoroughly researched, with such solid methodology, and so professionally delivered, that no reasonable person would challenge it. Silly me.

Tantala had barely stopped speaking before Scenic America’s hired guns were protesting. They refuted every bit of logic. They questioned that OAAA sponsored the study. The fact that the data was mined from real, Ohio Dept. of Transportation public records couldn’t offset their skepticism that the sponsors may have manipulated this study. I felt as though I was revisiting the O.J. Simpson trial.

In reality, it all comes down to this: Some people don’t like digital signs, and some are sufficiently motivated to fight to prevent their deployment. In the pitched battle that follows, those of us on the deployment side must prepare for everything that may be used as ammunition against us.

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Are there contaminants in digital signs? No. However, opponents will use scare tactics that imply a toxic threat.

Do digital signs cause accidents? No. The Tantala Associates study conclusively proved they don’t. But Scenic America is demanding that we wait until the Federal Highway Administration completes its study. By the way, that study, which was to be completed in 2007, is now on hold indefinitely.

In answer to digital-sign brightness, the sign industry has hired Lighting Sciences Inc. to define brightness using an standard that’s already accepted by the traditional, outdoor industry. Yet, the Scenic group bellows in public forums, “These signs are brighter than the sun.”

Ultimately, the usual American battle will ensue between business interests and special-interest groups. The business community has much at stake as the digital sign garners more acceptance as an important communications medium.

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