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Three Neon Myths Dispelled

I’m sure you’ve heard it said, “Neon uses a lot of electricity.” It’s a common misconception. Unfortunately, there are held by the public many misconceptions about neon: “Neon is expensive,” “Neon is a public safety hazard.”

By Randall Caba
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

Funny enough, some of the misinformed public happens to be potential neon customers. We call them business owners. Others are potential regulators. We call them government officials.

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  • We are part of the public too. We are part of society making our living in the neon industry. To thrive and advance our industry, it is our duty to educate the misinformed, to dispel myths. This is especially true of our customers and our regulators. Ultimately, they hold the purse strings to our business. So, let’s dispel.

    Myth Number One: “Neon is not electrically efficient, it uses too much power.”

    Electrically inefficient products generate heat--- lots of heat. Ever try changing a light bulb when it is turned on? Ouch! It burns you. That is because a light bulb uses a heated filament to generate light. The filament, made of tungsten, is heated thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. The heat lost to the glass bulb then to your aching hand is wasted energy. It is electricity converted to heat, power lost to inefficiency.

    The heated filament produces free electrons, negatively charged—subatomic particles. These electrons interact with inert gas atoms trapped within the bulb. They briefly force the electrons in the gas atoms into higher energy states. This is because both the free electrons and those within the gas atom share a like charge and like charges repel. When the gas atom electrons return to their normal energy state, they emit a photon, a particle wave of light.

    Using the other hand, we find the neon tube runs cool to the touch. Neon has no filament. It doesn’t require a high temperature metal to produce free electrons. Neon uses electrodes instead. Electrodes are electrical current carrying devices designed to transfer electrical energy to the inert neon or argon gas. Here electrons excite the atoms of the gas into producing light. Electrodes operate cool to the touch, meaning they do not waste much electricity. It is one of the reasons neon tubes out last light bulbs.

    High voltage, or electrical push, is not required to energize a light bulb. However, high voltage is used in neon to overcome the resistance of the electrode and the inert gas. An electrical transformer produces this high voltage. The transformer steps up normal wall voltage of about 115 volts to a range between 2000 volts and 15000 volts.

    The size of the transformer needed depends on several factors: the type of inert gas used in the tube, the diameter of the tube and the tube length. These factors are all forms of electrical resistance. Neon gas resists electricity more than argon gas. Small tube diameters and long lengths of tubing resist more too.

    To dispel forever this myth, look to your transformer chart. The average OPEN sign with border uses a 6000 volt 30 milliampere transformer. It uses only 90 watts of electricity with normal wall current. Rest assured, the OPEN sign produces more light, attracts more customers and will out last a 90-watt light bulb.

    What does 90 watts of electricity cost? The cost of electricity varies by geographical location, whether the customer is a business or residence and the amount of total monthly electricity used. At my residence, electricity costs about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. A kilowatt is one thousand watts. One kilowatt hour is one thousand watts multiplied by the number of hours used.

    So, 90 watts is .09 kilowatts (90 divided by 1000). To figure the cost of operating an OPEN sign at my residence for one month, multiply .09 kilowatts by the number of hours in an average month times my cost per kilowatt-hour. Thus, .09 kilowatts times 720 hours in a month times 5 cents per kilowatt-hour equals $3.24. This is the cost for 24 hours usage per day over an entire month! This is not expensive, it is cheap!

    To further our comparison, my toaster uses 900 watts, my microwave 700 watts and my television uses about 100 watts. Sure, my toaster, microwave and TV do not run all day. But if they did, they would cost me more than my sign to operate. Keep in mind that some businesses do operate these appliances all day long.

    This example does not consider the transformer fools the electric meter into keeping count of less electricity than actually used. Power factor ratings were developed to account for this failing. Average transformers have a power factor rating about 50. High power factor transformers are rated around 90. High power factor corrected transformers use special circuitry to adjust for the apparent electrical loss. Hence, if the sign in our example used a normal transformer, the operating cost would be less. Power companies sometimes demand use of high power factor transformers, but most spread the extra cost amongst all consumers.

    By the way, how many neon personnel does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four. One to get the permit, one to be the installer and two to rotate the ladder.

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    Myth Number Two: Neon is expensive.”

    Expensive is such a relative term. Is anything expensive? The answer always depends on whose buying the product and what its use is. Perhaps value is a better term to discuss.

    For most sign purchasers, neon is advertising. They want neon to announce their product or service to potential customers everyday. They want to be noticed. They want to be remembered and they don’t want to spend a lot of money doing it.

    Most advertisers charge fees according to the estimated number of potential customers their ad might reach. Newspapers and magazines do it. Radio and television stations do it. Even some sign companies do it. It doesn’t matter if the primary ad generates profitable leads or not. The fees are not dependent on initial ad success. The fee is based mainly upon the number of potential customers reached.

    Based on this fee system, most neon signs are sold too cheap! Check city records to determine how many people travel down the typical thoroughfare in the average metropolitan area. How many potential customers might see a neon window sign? You will find it’s in the tens of thousands per day. How many customers will see a beer sign in a grocery store? Probably thousands and thousands a week.

    Some argue, "Yes, but neon is cheap to make." Yes, it is. And so is ink on newspaper. Yet, ink and paper are not the determining factors in pricing the ad. The number of potential customers witnessing the ad is.

    Also, consider many discard newspapers after only one partial reading while neon promotes for decades. Repeated visits past the installation almost ensure everyone will eventually see the neon ad. If we fully understood the value concept, neon would sell for several times what it does today, perhaps twice several.

    “But no one would buy neon.” This is a sub-myth of the original. Of course, they would buy it. Many of the same businesses that buy newspaper, magazine, radio and TV ads today buy neon. They don’t value neon as much, though, because we don’t value it.

    Higher priced neon would stay affordable through creative financing and leasing. Many industries support this today. Why give your work away when you can charge reasonable fees and receive interest too? It is this “neon for anyone who wants it” notion that has driven down prices, quality and value to nadir levels.

    This will change when we as individuals possess the courage to price our product at its true worth; when we finally take steps to diffuse the value myth.

    Myth Number Three: “Neon is a public safety hazard.”

    This myth is scary. I’ve heard it from regulator’s mouths. A sign inspector told me, he had a “thing” for neon for nearly fifty years. Ever since he was shocked as a boy while sweeping up in a sign shop. He had backed up against a live electrode not once, but twice the same day (go figure).

    First, he proclaimed GTO jumpers outlawed. Fine, I don’t use them on signs anyway. Second, neon art is banned. Hold it now! I’m getting upset! I enjoy making neon artwork and our customers enjoy it too. Third, I’m going to shut you down. That’s it! How much does one have to take? Isn’t this America? Land of free enterprise? Aren’t automobile spark plug wires just GTO jumpers? Should they be banned too?

    Should you ever find yourself diffusing this myth, I have a few suggestions.

    • Talk to an attorney. An attorney can tell you how much authority a particular public figure has, how real the threat is and what your rights are. Attorneys are great mediators. Use them to come to a compromise if possible. Also, consider trading neon for your attorney’s fees. Some like neon art in their offices.
    • Carefully document any meetings, phone calls, etc. This is very important. Be sure to ask public authorities to sign as true any minutes you keep of meetings with them. Then note their response.
    • Network with other neon companies in adjacent areas. Discover and document their experiences, successes or failures. Allies or their stories can be powerful weapons at public meetings. Be prepared for a drawn out battle if an inspector has a “thing” against neon.
    • Check with State Government Agencies especially Public Safety Offices and Electrical Divisions. Ask for a copy of their neon safety regulations. You may discover a local official’s interpretation of state code is unfounded.
    • Don’t assume every threat is valid. You may experience real or bogus threats and fines during the reckoning. Ask to see official documents early in the process so you recognize and understand their point. Run all documents past a lawyer if possible.
    • Keep asking how to right your apparent wrong. Be suspicious of an official who offers no solution to your seemingly wrong doings. Some shops consider anti-harassment payments as part of the business. Don’t support it.
    • Fear not to go over a bureaucratic head. Discover the chain of command and climb it to get answers if need be. Everybody has a boss somewhere down the line. Get to them to get questions answered.

    Fortunately, not all officials suffer from asserting this fairy tale. And, legitimate officials with sound beefs are necessary to ensure public safety. Nevertheless, I’ve witnessed years of threats, bogus fines and emotional public displays that wasted public and private dollars. In the end, we discovered the official had no redeemable issue.

    Myths and ignorance are often easily overlooked. That is until one meets you full force. Then it is important to recognize these misconceptions and deal with them head on.

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