LEDing the Way

ArtFX owner Lawrin Rosen discusses his shop's innovative, LED lighting technique.

Besides dismal, unimaginative design, I think that poor, insufficient lighting ranks as the sign industry's greatest plague. Regardless of location, an electric signscape too often contains signs that are too bright, dull, inconsistently lit, mechanically neglected or simply boring. Whatever their problem, these signs often generate such undesirable, subliminal messages as "go away," or "keep looking until you find something better."

My company addresses various lighting problems and searches for consistent, innovative and low-maintenance solutions. Many of our illuminated signs feature unusual combinations of internal and external lighting, but the majority features subtle variations on basic lighting. I will spotlight one of our more conventional sign-lighting solutions and explain how it costs the customer less, looks uniquely brighter, stays consistently uniform and lasts much longer.

Creating the right light

Our novel, LED-lighting system incorporates non-polarized, 0.8W, cluster modules powered on higher-voltage/lower-amperage, AC current. Channel letters with face colors in the cooler or weaker spectrum range (white, blue, green, purple and yellow) use argon tubing that often suffers from a subpar lumen factor caused by poorly matched power supplies, mercury settling or aging due to heat, cold and moisture.

As a solution, many sign companies have turned to low-voltage (6 or 12V), white LEDs. However, I never saw this as a truly viable avenue.

Thus, ArtFX collaborated with a Taiwanese lighting engineer to tackle our channel-letter illumination dilemma through a variation on the traditional, white-LED system. For the last few years, we've worked feverishly with an electrical-lighting laboratory to develop custom, patent-pending, 24V LEDs.

Instead of using low-voltage transformers that can be finicky and weak, our process sends the "juice" out of core-and-coil, toroidal transformers. This type of transformer, which commonly powers trains and medical devices, tends to work in a lower-voltage spectrum that works better with the lower voltage and amperage typical of solid-state, LED lighting.

More efficient transformers that produce better illumination can power more LED linear feet with greater brightness. Clusters of up to 300 of these LEDs can be powered at once. At approximately 2 modules per foot, this roughly equals 133 densely populated feet of luminescent modules. Interestingly, the 300-amp toroidal transformer — the largest of the three models we use — requires only 1.8A of electricity when operating at full power.

Admittedly, it's difficult to compare these statistics against what's presently available because we've never accurately metered any system besides our own. However, I haven't seen many LEDs running channel letters with cooler hues that burn as brightly with so little power consumption. Our LED modules have exposed capacitor groupings that maintain consistent flow-through voltage. Also, one power source that pushes an incredible amount of footage means fewer components to worry about — and less maintenance.

Different setups

We use various sizes and configurations of these LEDs, but we typically use eight diodes on a -in.-long 3 3-in.-wide 3 -in.-high platform. Others with four diodes run more vertically or wider, but with a 1-in. length. In addition, we can group them together as tightly as needed for individual situations. Typically, we install in tight spaces unless the situation demands softer, less-intense illumination. As with most systems, it's at our discretion.

The best part of this innovative system may be that it requires no polarization, and, therefore, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to arrange and install these modules. In fact, we've designed them like "Tinker Toys" with snap-together connectors that resemble USB plugs, which can only be plugged in one way to prevent improper wiring. Besides, AC current, unlike the DC current produced by solid-state transformers, requires no polarization.

I won't say they can be installed without thought or skill, but when we're extremely busy, my 16-year-old daughter and a couple of her friends assist us by arranging them in our channel letters.

We've also begun using them for halo-lit channel letters. They seem to create more of a wash effect than can be created with other LED systems. We had little success with low-voltage LEDs because they created strange side effects, such as harsh, fractured light edges instead of the smooth washes we desire. I believe our toroidal transformer-powered LEDs push out a whiter glow with enhanced light dispersion.

At times, we'll warm the glow of the white LEDs by interspersing them with amber diodes. Likewise, we sometimes cool down white by mixing in occasional blues. This effect takes time to perfect, and it would take another article to diagram it, but I'm still guided by all my color-theory courses from my art-school days.

Sometimes, it's helpful to remember what's worked for so many years. Not everything has to be electronic to be the best. Why do you think so many rock 'n' roll guitarists are starting to again buy amps with vacuum tubes instead of solid-state models? It's simple — they produce ample professional sound, yet readily accept information from such solid-state components as electric pianos, synthesizers and electronic guitars. Similarly, I also think such traditionally built products as Harley-Davidson motorcycles have gained so much popularity in recent years because they innovatively meshed new technology with proven methods.

We've field-tested the system for one year and have experienced few maintenance issues, with no discernible illumination loss. This light source produces a mere 24V of AC current, and I'm optimistic that it will receive a UL listing in the near future.

The ArtFX staff wasn't the brains behind this development — engineers who listened to our needs and suggestions helped us develop the system. As a 28-year industry veteran, I only requested they pay careful attention to recommendations based on "hands-on" experience. No assistance was required from middlemen or translators from the "Something Corporation" who were far removed from the industry trenches.

I'm surprised and satisfied with the results. I've been consumed with sign design for numerous years, so this technical success has been extremely rewarding. I'd like to show more of the results, but, because of space constraints, only a few photos can illustrate this solid-state-lighting system.

More about Lawrin

Lawrin Rosen graduated from New Haven, CT's Creative Arts Workshop and the Hartford (CT) Art School. He has a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting. He began his sign career painting geometric murals in private homes. He then made some signs for local businesses before going to work in the spring of 1978 for a small New Haven signshop.

"Essentially, I swept, dug holes and painted white sign backgrounds with a roller," Rosen said.

Eventually, he landed a job with Hartford's Griese Outdoor Advertising. After a promotion to art director there, Rosen founded Art Effects (now spelled ArtFX) Signs on New Year's Day 1983. He oversees the company's design, marketing and sales of custom signage — Rosen proudly notes that ArtFX has won more than 250 awards in various sign-design competitions (including ST's). For more information about the company, contact (860) 242-0031 or lawrin@artfxsigns.com.