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LED lighting for outdoor signage


By Steve Williams,[email protected]

For many years, light-emitting diodes (LED) were primarily known for their use in alarm clocks, flashlights and automobile taillights, but these bulbs offer more benefits than their small size and versatility. LEDs also are highly energy-efficient, and with no filament to burn out, their life spans far exceed those of traditional incandescent or fluorescent bulbs -- lasting 25,000 to 50,000 hours. As a result, they are playing an integral role in the green energy push and are now used by business owners in a variety of ways -- including for lighting in outdoor signage.

Outdoor option

While many businesses currently use LED lights in interior spaces, for items like exit signs, architectural accent lighting and as replacements for traditional light bulbs, many are not aware of the outdoor signage applications for these lights. This is primarily because of the previously limited color options for the 40-year-old LED technology. Though they are currently available in a variety of colors, until recently, LEDs were only produced to create red light -- the naturally occurring color for the technology. Now that the technology has advanced, and more colors are available, including white, prices have dropped, and usability has dramatically increased.

LEDs are easily adaptable for outdoor use and are even less susceptible to outside conditions, such as wind, vibration and extreme temperatures. They can be implemented in nearly any outdoor sign, from channel letters to digital signage to double-faced illuminated pylon signs. They produce lighting with equal intensity to fluorescent alternatives and even light more quickly than their less energy-efficient counterparts. LEDs function well at both high and low levels and are easily dimmable for a variety of lighting needs.

Going green

Use of LED lights provides significant reductions in carbon footprint, with estimated energy savings between 60% and 80%. This is because they produce more light, or lumens, per watt than either incandescent or fluorescent lighting, and as a result require less energy -- 12 volts versus 110 volts. They also are highly economical at generating the sign’s light and only use a minimal amount of power to illuminate the sign. Unlike fluorescent bulbs, LED bulbs do not contain toxic chemicals, such as mercury. These chemicals are harmful to both the environment and people, when released in large quantities. Bulbs that contain mercury also are fragile and often require special disposal techniques -- unlike LEDs, which can be disposed in a traditional manner.

New LED signage can also be paired with other green innovations, including use of more eco-friendly low volatile organic compound (VOC) paint on sign exteriors.

The bottom line

Use of LED lights for outdoor signage does represent an initial increase in cost, because of the advanced level of the technology. However, the return on investment can be as fast as two years, depending on the sign type and local energy costs, and the upgrade will lead to significant cost savings in the years that follow. The increased life of the lights minimizes bulb replacement needs, therefore reducing service frequency and maintenance requirements over the long term. Unlike fluorescent bulbs, which require frequent replacement. The lights also emit less heat than other lighting alternatives, which minimizes damage to the sign and increases its lifespan. These potential savings in service, maintenance and sign quality are in addition to the major energy cost reductions.

Retrofitting for reduced cost

While many companies are implementing LED lighting in new or replacement signs, existing signs can easily be retrofitted with the lights, as well. Retrofitting can be particularly cost-effective for chain stores with multiple locations that may not have the budget or need to replace existing signs. Retrofitting can take no more than a few days, depending on size, and will immediately lower energy use and maintenance needs.

Some local or state government agencies may even provide financial aid to companies for LED retrofits through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) program administered by the U.S. Department of Energy. The program, which was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, provides funds to local and state governments to develop and implement projects to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy use in communities. More information about the federal program can be found at

For businesses planning to produce new signage or seeking to reduce energy costs through a fast and easy retrofitting process, LEDs can be an ideal alternative. The technology also provides numerous environmental benefits to rapidly reduce your company’s carbon footprint.

Steve Williams is president of sign engineering and manufacturing firm Harbinger, which is based in Jacksonville, Fla. For more information visit. [email protected] or e-mail Williams at [email protected].

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