Renovation Destinations

Neon and electric-sign retrofits perform better, are cheaper and last longer than ever before.
Poyant Signs (New Bedford, MA) converted this art sculpture’s lighting to LED.

Chances are, you’re using more LED light bulbs in your home every year as older, incandescent bulbs burn out. Unless you’re like my uncle, who detests the look of LED lighting in his house, you’re probably cool with the energy savings and greater longevity. It stands to reason, then, that these principles apply to neon and electric signs, too. And though not always the solution, today’s LEDs can be more even in appearance, cost less and endure both the elements and the test of time better than earlier versions.


Let’s go back 21 years to 1997. Darlington-Centredale Sign, Awning & Neon Co. (Johnston, RI) fabricated and installed a neon art sculpture by the renowned Stephen Antonakos for the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence (see ST, August 1997, page 116). Fast-forward to the present and two of the neon benders pictured in the article, Gary McCoy and Otis Bah, now work for Poyant Signs (New Bedford, MA), and were part of a team contracted by Providence-based Energy Source to renovate the sculpture – repairing many of the tubes and converting all the lighting from neon to LED. “In addition to driving down energy usage, we also had a goal of reducing the annual maintenance cost,” said Richard Poyant, the sign company’s president. Other goals included restoring the abstract neon art displays to the artist’s original design intent and getting everything operational again.

The art piece consisted of 138 individual neon sections powered by 138 transformers. Poyant took full-size patterns of each neon unit, labeled and correlated them. “We were able to consolidate 3-4 transformers on average to one power supply, thereby substantially reducing the energy demand and improving the reliability of the system,” Poyant said. It took four weeks to remove, trace, make production templates, make the replacement units, rewire and install the new LED system for the two entrance canopies. “We wanted a highly reliable product that could stand up to the weather and site conditions and reasonably duplicate the appearance of neon, the colors and brightness,” he said. “We also needed to provide a product that meets IP 68 standards.”

Poyant selected GE’s Tetra Contour 24-volt product as they were able to match four out of the five colors using GE’s standard colors. The fifth color, ruby red, was achieved by combining a 3M translucent vinyl color with the standard GE Contour color. The luminaires were then manufactured to duplicate the length, color and shape of the neon. Poyant reported that both the convention center and Energy Source are pleased with the vivid colors, brightness and exact replication of the neon shapes, and that the renovation is expected to last 8-10 years with a significantly lower maintenance cost.


Kieffer|Starlite (Chicago) made sure this sign received more consistent lighting.
Kieffer|Starlite (Chicago) made sure this sign received more consistent lighting.

More commonly used to replace neon in signs, not artwork, LEDs also played the vital role in two recent renovations of Michaels store signs for the company’s Mays Landing, NJ and North Hills, PA locations. The renovations, part of a contract with the craft store, were “based on our recommendation; neon was failing in both,” said Rob Fehlman, director of national service for Kieffer|Starlite (Chicago). “In some cases we see gen[eration] 1 or gen 2 LEDs failing as well,” he also noted. Though the energy savings of LEDs is a contributing factor to replacing neon with LEDs, the renovations for Michaels result “mostly to get proper lighting consistency and longevity of having a new LED product,” Fehlman said. 

Kieffer|Starlite used SloanLED products for this and all their Michaels jobs. “This is a customer-specified product being used in all of their new signs,” he said. “This creates a consistency that helps with future service.” Company installers removed and replaced the signfaces for these two locations, saving the customer money versus doing that separately, and stripped all existing lighting components. They then cleaned the insides of the sign cans and installed new LEDs using a layout provided by SloanLED for each letterset. The install team then ran secondary wiring, supplied the power and tested all lighting before the new signfaces were attached. “All in all, a single Michaels sign takes about eight hours to complete,” Fehlman said.

The result for the two northeastern Michaels’ stores is “lighting that is usually much more consistent and brighter,” he said. He notes that in most cases Kieffer|Starlite is replacing 10- to 15-year-old neon when making these renovations, “so these signs look brand new when complete.” The retrofits are expected to last another 10-15 years, Fehlman stated, depending on the usage, adding, “Power supplies will probably need to be refreshed after about 5-7 years, also depending on usage.”


This Tower Furniture sign was the first notable restoration project for the American Sign Museum.
This Tower Furniture sign was the first notable restoration project for the American Sign Museum.

Not every neon-sign renovation involves LED lighting, nor should it. This was the situation for Urban Sites, a Cincinnati developer involved in a section of the city known as Over-the-Rhine (OTR). One of the buildings they acquired featured a 1940’s neon blade sign for Tower Furniture – now out of business – but its sign integral to the neighborhood. Urban Sites first consulted the American Sign Museum (ASM, Cincinnati) for advice, leading to the museum restoring the sign. “Most developers don’t care about preserving old architecture,” said ASM founder Tod Swormstedt, “but Urban Sites does want to preserve it and are willing to spend money, which is very progressive.”

This was the museum’s first big restoration project; normally they focus on preservation, but this job was for a third party. Sticking with neon to maintain the original, the client picked an imitation of old-time ruby red for the color of the “Tower” copy, according to Swormstedt, because “it really pops.” The next step was to remove the sign, which can be scary, he said. “The biggest worry is the inside structure, but you don’t know that until you get inside the sign. Sometimes when you take a sign down it’s rotted structurally to a point where it just falls apart.”

Happily, Atlantic Sign Co. (Cincinnati) excels at removal, and transported the sign to the museum which houses the neon-shop Neonworks. Among the components to be replaced was “the cabinet… rotted at bottom where water collects,” Swormstedt said. “We had to splice in replacement sheet metal,” upgrading from aluminum. He also restored the porcelain elements as best as possible, using a razor to scrape the grit from the glass-like substance, then wiping with Barkeeper’s Helper “and a lot of elbow grease.” After spray-painting the structure, they touched up the chipped and rusted areas in the porcelain with an automotive clear to protect it from the elements. Tom Wartman, co-owner of Neonworks, made the letter patterns, bent the glass and rewired the sign. Installation went without a hitch, leaving Swormstedt to conclude, “Tower was a good first shot assembling the skill set needed to restore a sign,” adding he’d like the museum to do more.


Gulf Coast Signs of Sarasota provided a thorough renovation for this sign.
Gulf Coast Signs of Sarasota provided a thorough renovation for this sign.

LEDs last a long time, but not forever – still a few tests. Gulf Coast Signs of Sarasota (Sarasota, FL) recently renovated a sign for their client, Rooms to Go, which they had already converted from neon to LED in 2004. “Over the years, the brightness diminished due to age,” said Gulf Coast Signs President/CEO Hidayet Kutat. “Plus, during the past 14 years, LED technology evolved very fast and 7000K temperature brightness became more affordable.” Gulf Coast had been servicing the sign over those years, replacing bad LED modules, but the new sections were always brighter despite Gulf Coast’s using an identical OEM product. Still, the cost of a complete renovation had always been a concern for the customer.

A little detective work during one visit may have helped. “We identified that the cans were getting filthy because of a gutter leaking, thereby slowly seeping dirty water into the letters,” Kutat said. This in combination with more affordable and brighter lighting triggered the renovation order. The first step was to visit the site, remove the faces and make patterns for the letters. For the large 78-in. “Rooms to Go” letters, Gulf Coast laid out the LEDs based on inserts they cut. “For the lower-copy 36-in. letters, we decided to apply the LEDs directly into the can,” Kutat said. They also resolved the water-seepage problem: “After pressure-cleaning, we attempted to seal the letters as best we could, he said.

Gulf Coast used Principal LED for help with the luminaire placement and high-Kelvin temperature LED product, with Kutat adding that “Principal LED is always helpful with providing optimum layout and corresponding calculations for the required number of power supplies at 80-85% loading.” The lighting all set, Gulf Coast used 3M vinyl on the 78-in. pan-faced letters given its “better success in the Florida sun over the years,” to cap the project, which now beckons along the I-4 corridor to Orlando.


Signs of the Times November 2020

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