Subcontracting Electric Signage

The good, the bad and the ugly.
Subcontracting 1.jpg

Crested Butte News writer Adam Broderick, in a three-part January 2016 article on industrial manufacturing – “Locals Making Waves in an Entrepreneurial Age” – tells of LetterFab, a wholesale manufacturer of LED-illuminated channel letters and its owners, Warren and Trea Sciortino, who started the company “from scratch” in 2007. Prior to that, Warren was a large-shop sign guy and Trea worked in construction and carpentry. Broderick wrote that LetterFab has fabricated wholesale signs for installation in every state, including Hawaii, as well as in Canada, the Caribbean and the Cayman Islands. I called Warren, figuring he would have some great suggestions for commercial signshop owners who want to subcontract electric signs. “Do it,” he said.

I agree, but first want provide some points to ponder because any change in business practices adds a new risk, as entrepreneurial ideas in action will also pilfer shop time, staff attention and money. Such assessments are standard – sensible – considerations that every business person should make before they invest time and money in a new proposition.

My point is to question which investment will produce the most real money at a future date, keeping in mind that inflation and devaluation will affect the true value of that future money. However, you’ll also want to consider how shop equipment investments or business expansion efforts may add to the overall value of your company and lead to other valuable growth factors. Meaning, like so many business ventures, it’s partly a crapshoot and the future purchasing power factor of your profits is the only valid consideration when forecasting investment gains. In this deliberation, remember that most businesses operate best – and survive economic downfalls – by offering diverse products.

One commercial sign shop notion is to broker channel letters and electric signs – channel letters being the most mainstream and easiest to sell, survey, design and install. Channel letters aren’t rocket science, but the process is meticulous and, as with any venture, there are risks. Once you enter the electric sign field you’re taking on specific liabilities, most of which can be covered by insurance, but know that liabilities exist because any electric item can be hazardous, especially those installed outdoors.

Warren Sciortino, who wholesales channel letters, provided the following guidance for commercial shops that want to sell channel letters:
• Know your product, and what is necessary to sell, design, build, install and warranty in the channel letter set. Study other signs to learn more about types and methods;
• Permits are critical, thus you need to know all the laws and rules for the area in which the sign will be installed, and design signs that comply with the local regulations;
• Focus on channel letters because the fabrication and installations fall within a few basic parameters, whereas other electric signs may require complex installations, engineering studies and foundation work;
• Find a reputable channel-letter provider and specify LED lighting because you’ll experience fewer electrical problems;
• Find a knowledgeable and trustworthy installer (and determine who is responsible for liabilities);
• Include (sell) a maintenance contract with the sign (your sub-contracted installer should be able to maintain the sign).

By now, you know the permit and zoning rules, but the landlords are also influential, so know their rules, too. Do they allow direct installation or a raceway method? Investigate the installation wall and what is behind it, see the attic if necessary and also examine the electrical connections. (You’ll want an electrician to make the final connections.)

Robert “Boo” Olson owns Boo Doo Signs and Installation (Princeton, MN), has been hanging signs for at least 25 years and has vast high-rise experience for major corporations as well as that of hanging channel letter sets for small signshops. I asked his advice for signshops that subcontract the installation of channel letters and he had several specific suggestions, the first emphatic and quick: The signshop should talk to the installer when they’re considering the bid, not when a box of signs is in their driveway. A professional installer will offer survey advice and discuss possible problems. They’ll also talk to you about your charges for installation materials – wires, switches, grommets, pass-throughs and more. Olson says to not estimate the job until you have definite agreements – and a price – from your installer. If possible, have the installer survey the site because they may see things you don’t.

Other install aspects include the removal and disposal of old signs; wall repair, patching or reinforcement; and surface mount or raceway preference. Olson adds that your letter fabricator should offer advice regarding install or maintenance access problems. He also said to carefully check the installer’s references and to have specific agreements on the work arrangement with the installer and any subcontractors they may bring onto the site. They should agree not to solicit future sign or installation work from your customer, for example. He also noted that pole sign installations may require unique mounts, and wall installations may require one-off supports or lengthy pass-through bolts.

Another hazard is if the sign doesn’t fit when the installers attempt to install it at the buyer’s site, an error that could occur because of pre-design survey errors – and is the seller’s fault, because they provided the survey-based contract. This predicament is avoided by in-depth site surveys accomplished by professional sign installers. The surveyor should also investigate the existing wiring system and breaker boxes and provide a status report of those aspects of the installation. And, they would also note any problems or hazards possible at the install site – overhead, high-voltage wires, for example, or on-street parking on a boulevard that may require non-traffic installation times.

Another important element in subcontracting electric signs is that finished signs are transported by truck via a private carrier and are therefore regarded by insurance companies as cargo with often complex coverage, so you want a clear agreement on both insurance and charges with the channel letter maker and shipper. Also, you’ll want a clear agreement with your installer, because if they move the sign and it isn’t specifically insured as cargo, any accidental damage that occurs while in transit won’t be covered. If your subcontractor claims to be insured, ask for a copy of the covering policy, see that it is recently dated and then call that insurance company to ensure the policy is in effect.

Of course, other legal entanglements can exist, but two are etched in stone: The buyer won’t pay for an undelivered sign and the sign seller is the contract-bound provider required to provide and install an undamaged, workable sign within the agreed delivery time, even if they (the seller) must rebuild it at their own expense. Any pre-install, accident-caused damage is the responsibility of the sign seller and is unrelated to the sign buyer.

If your shop produces vinyl letters and print graphics and the staff is highly skilled with software and produces excellent design work, then adding an industrial element to the shop may be inharmonious with the company character. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get into electric signage, but you might look at creating a separate division and hiring someone with sign fabrication and installation experience to run it. Oppositely, if you’re a person who enjoys mechanics and electrical processes are second nature, working with electric signs would be much easier than for someone who, for example, excels at design. However, this isn’t the plank’s end.

As with any major change within a signshop, taking on new types of work requires more than just figuring out how to do it because even more central is the nature of the manager or owner and if they have the personality, trust, interest – and an ability to understand and enjoy the new work. Thus, channel letters may not float your boat, but other electric signs might. Flat-screen signage, for example, is advertised under too many names to remember but may be best identified as electronic digital signage (EDS). It’s a direction to explore if your shop has no electronics experience; you’re essentially selling television screens that, artlessly put, can be hung from a nail. The simplest content programming is like assembling a PowerPoint presentation.

You can find starter EDS kits online, ones that include simple software for producing content. From this foundation, you can explore the design and sales of touchscreen systems, wayfinding systems, video walls and large-scale, LED video displays. Planar (Alexandria, VA), for example, provides consultation and products for LCD, LED and rear- projection systems, as well as large-format EDS systems with the necessary processors and control stations. It also offers a content developer program. Many other such firms are listed on the Internet.

I’ll close by saying the flat-screen (EDS) sign market is much easier to enter and has less need for fabrication, construction and installation expertise, thus a fitting expansion sphere for small signshops.

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