Volumetric LED Illumination Considerations
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Volumetric LED Illumination Considerations

With the advent and almost total acceptance of LED modules with "optics" it would be easy to think everything should be "easy"? Wrong!

By Fritz Meyne, Jr.

The right and wrong way to illuminate is a choice, make sure you make the right one.

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  • Well it seems just the opposite has happened. With older style non-optic modules with 90 to 120 beams, a 5" stroke was about the maximum when combined within a standard 5" return depth. It was pretty easy to do layouts and with this 5" average maximum stroke there was very little to no consideration needed for layouts as the beam angle of about 120 limited the stoke/row to row spacing providing an almost artificial intelligence level. Plus, this original stroke layout matched neon which averaged about 170lm per linear foot.

    As technology does not stop, enter "optics", and I am not talking about news related "optics". I am talking about optics used to increase the light spread. One of the first optic module brands advertised it was great for increased stroke use, if you can accept less overall illumination (not repeated verbatim)...that comment is very telling and seemed to have been missed by most everyone at the time, and seemingly now as well?

    A very easy descriptive analogy I have used for some time now is this simple; "You have Gallon of light in a Gallon container, it is full. Now you put that gallon of light in a two-gallon container and it is half full" yet it is the same amount of "light". The reference here is as the optic allows for increased light coverage, it is the same amount of light spread over larger areas. It seems this was missed and accepted for far too long. Thus, to compensate there are two work arounds; One, add more modules to increase the available illumination, or at the manufacturing level use a higher wattage LED chip package. A third is less favorable, and that is to overdrive the chip set.

    The higher wattage chip package was the right solution for this volumetric need, however with optics offering from 12" to 15" stoke illumination our industry seemed to not consider the thin and thick stoke needs requiring different quantities for even light/face illumination. Very bright in the small strokes and normal brightness in the wider strokes has and currently makes for some bad illumination. One size does not fill all!

    One only needs to look at the channel letter installations today to see our industry has a problem. While there can be many reasons for these problems, this articles focus is oriented at understanding the additional needs of educating our users of how to make signs great again (no political agenda here).

    Let's look at the pictures:

    Cloud / normal beam angle spread, even my computer layout programs

    Cloud / proper illumination accounting for even illumination across the total face

    A / normal module to module spacing with brighter illumination in the think strokes (right)
    A / proper "even" illumination spacing so the thick and thin strokes offer equal/visual illumination (left)

    O / normal module to module linear spacing (right)
    O / proper "even" illumination spacing (left)

    The normal layout for each of the above by themselves are somewhat OK and more typical of what we see in everyday illuminated letters as this is what we see across America as typical and even marginal, on average. However, the "proper" layouts allow for even illumination across the total image/face. To be fair we see more of this layout done correctly relative to national accounts, however as we move down from national, to regional, to local, the above misunderstanding becomes more apparent.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    The easy solution is your LED vendor should step up and show you the proper method. Correct and even illumination seems to have been hijacked by the mindset, "LED price is everything and all LED are created the same". They are not! On a side note, you might not be aware there is no testing standard for channel letter modules in our industry relative to light testing, lumen per watt, LM80 requirements, etc. You might counter with there are LM79 and LM80 reports, but they are NOT required, and they should be provided by an independent Testing lab! True but who really understands them and what does the report actually tells us? Evidentially not too many of you, as I have seen one import brands LM80 report and it offers that product will fail at 20K hours, yet this import offers a 5-year parts and labor warranty. Wow! However, when the day is over who pays for poor Life Cycle costs? To be fair it is your customer, who might be ignorant to what is acceptable illumination and what is failure? And sadly, that seems to be truer than most will admit. If you do not know, the LM tests are done by independent outside Testing Houses, not by the vendor themselves. Why? Think about the Fox guarding the Chicken Coop?

    To do a proper volumetric and even illumination job, if you keep your mind wrapped around the lowest possible price, everyone loses at some point in time. Let's get realistic; If the average channel letter job is 13 letters @ 15" tall and we use 1.5 multiplier times the letter height, we get $ (13 x 15" x 1.5 divided by 12 to arrive at total feet, rounded to 25ft). This example shows there is no need for the potential need of an extra power supply as a reason, right? So, let's say we have 2 modules per foot at $1.50 each x 50 modules = $75.00. Now let's use an import brand price of .75 each = $37.50. To be realistic there is a 2x price for a name brand big box LED vs. an import that might be mid-level at best?

    Let's say you sell this job, installed for $1,500.00 and you took a very large risk to your company reputation, used a price driven brand of LED, for a $37.50 net savings to go cheap? And to my articles point, this same analogy works for the volumetric consideration as we try to do a proper job it can take up to 2x the modules...this same analogy holds true?

    I have to wonder where this absolute "cheap" mentality comes from? Now if the layout from a higher wattage (but brighter LED module) causes you to have to go to two power supplies in the is example, you are still only talking about a $75.00 total difference. What happened to doing it right for your reputation and your customers image? Somewhere this has been lost and it is a Black Eye on our industry!

    This analogy follows suit with my concerns about the standard 5-year product warranty where the sign shop only passes on a one-year product warranty. It seems the mindset is "use the cheapest product, get the vendor to pay for your service on the back end and you are free and clear." My concern has always been, what if the End User wakes up and finds out you have been getting the product at no charge, yet charging him? What will you do then? This volumetric option has the same consequences, in my estimation as it opens you up to lose the "next" sale when the other company, you competitor does it right!

    In closing, LED are engineered to be simple, and that is great. Understanding LED engineering and what separates one brand from another, tied with understanding LM79, LM80 and the newer 85/85 testing and other reports is more involved, and this is where you need to understand not all LED are created equal. Add to that the need to understand volumetric needs especially for thick/thin stroke letters and you can be a leader or take your chances!

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