Energy Masters

Sign manufacturers have quietly become leaders in energy efficiency.
Significant advances in lighting systems have made the sign industry a worldwide leader in energy conservation.

The challenge of meeting America’s energy needs in the future depends not only on developing renewable energy sources, but also on conserving energy by continually making electrical devices more efficient. Promoting energy efficiency has thus become a key consideration for electric utility firms and standards organizations that develop performance criteria for electric-sign components and other electrical devices. Likewise, local government bodies have focused more closely on energy conservation initiatives, and many have adopted updated building codes which incorporate energy requirements.


In this cabinet sign, a retrofitted LED lighting system replaces older, less-efficient lighting.
In this cabinet sign, a retrofitted LED lighting system replaces older, less-efficient lighting.

In the late 1990’s, years before federal government incentives for development of solid-state lighting had taken hold in the lighting marketplace, electric-sign manufacturers were already experimenting with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for internal illumination of channel letters, and some had already rolled out corresponding products. By the time LED lamps became widely available in retail stores as affordable replacements for conventional, residential bulbs, the sign industry had been using solid-state lighting for more than a decade.

The impact of this revolution in sign lighting has been dramatic. As older, less-efficient, internally illuminated signs increasingly are replaced or retrofitted with solid-state lighting, a massive reduction is occurring in the overall energy footprint of electric signs in the US and worldwide. Furthermore, continuous improvement and refinement of LED lighting technology enable today’s sign manufacturers to offer their customers similar brightness and lamp-coloration properties to those of conventional, fluorescent lighting.

As sign builders understand, the brightness of an internally-illuminated sign is a function of the type, number and physical configuration (spacing) of the light sources. In this regard, the small size of LEDs in comparison to fluorescent lamps or neon tubes affords broad flexibility for all types of signage applications. Additionally, today’s sign builders are able to offer their customers products which require less-frequent lighting maintenance, thereby substantially reducing the customer’s costs over the sign’s lifespan. 

While LED-illuminated electric signs continue to account for an ever-larger share of the overall market, many signs still are illuminated via conventional neon or fluorescent lighting. But the efficiency of these products has also been dramatically improved in recent years, principally due to the advent of solid-state (electronic) ballasts and the U.S. Department of Energy’s phaseout of magnetic sign ballasts. For example, based on a comparative analysis of a large, 300-sq.-ft. cabinet sign incorporating fluorescent lighting, switching from magnetic ballasts to electronic ballasts reduces the sign’s electrical consumption by 40%. Similar efficiency gains have also been realized in applications where magnetic-type neon transformers have been replaced by solid-state transformers.


When city councils consider new regulations, it’s crucial for sign professionals to bring sound information to their attention.
When city councils consider new regulations, it’s crucial for sign professionals to bring sound information to their attention.

It’s no secret to sign professionals that local jurisdictions generally do not understand the properties of electric signs, nor do they appreciate the great efficiency strides which the industry has made. Some jurisdictions wrongly cite energy conservation as a pretext for their efforts to regulate electric signs in various ways harmful to the functionality of these products. Perhaps the most prominent examples are various efforts in certain jurisdictions to regulate sign brightness as energy-saving measures.

In their contacts with municipal officials, sign builders and installers ought to emphasize two pertinent facts at every opportunity. First, electric signs are not lighting devices and should not be subject to regulations that aim to limit or reduce nighttime lighting levels. Secondly, the sign industry already adheres to well-defined guidelines governing the brightness of electric signs. These guidelines have existed for more than 60 years and they’re essential to the proper functioning of electric-sign products under a broad range of environmental conditions. Hence, regulatory efforts which aim to arbitrarily limit the brightness of signs without understanding their essential performance properties are misguided.

Those who promulgate regulations are attracted to circumstances which appear to lack norms or standards. If they sense that a particular industry lacks such guidelines, they’re perfectly willing to dictate their own “solutions.” In the past, perhaps the sign industry has been less successful than other industries in communicating this information. But the resources available today for this purpose have never been better. That’s why it behooves today’s sign professionals to reinforce the message that their products – like those of other electrical-device manufacturers – rest upon a firm foundation of research, development and long-term practice. The sign industry has a very positive and forward-looking story to tell. Thus, the most effective storytellers ought to be those having the greatest stakes in regulatory decisions.

Signs of the Times January 2021

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