Neon lighting—a technology nearly as old as electricity—has had its surges and slumps over the past century, but it’s now enjoying a new and potentially lasting boost. The gas was discovered first in 1898, and, for some time, it was best known for beer ads and channel lettering. Today, it is featured in increasingly complex illuminated art and in displays and advertising in cities around the United States and the world.
A decade ago, the future of neon was dim for multiple reasons. Notably, LEDs almost universally replaced the backlighting of plastic channel letter signs, and the low-cost, color options of LED lamps attracted interest from sign companies.
The result was a loss of neon business, said Joe Walsh, sales manager, Voltarc Technologies Inc., a neon supply company. Although there aren’t any official counts, he estimates there were about 5,000 neon shops (where the tubes are bent and colored gas applied) in North America in the 1990s. That number may be closer to 1,000 now.
However, neon has returned to business fronts as well as on interior installations in the past few years, and the pool of neon craftsmen and women is becoming busy once again.
Neon itself is a noble gas—without color or smell, it is lighter than air and is inert. When pumped into vacuum-discharged glass tubes and charged by a transformer, it becomes a plasma that glows reddish orange. Neon lamps and signs get their vibrant colors from the application of other colored gasses and varied hues of phosphorescent coating.
“The direct application of plasma to the glass tubes give you tones you can’t get in any other medium,” said Michael Wirth, president of Aurora Neon in the Puget Sound area of Washington State. (Disclosure: Michael Wirth is Claire Swedberg’s husband.)
Plasma has its appeal to Wirth as the fourth state of matter, something that can be found in the Aurora Borealis and the sun.
“Here, we capture it in a tube,” he said.
The signs typically operate between 2 and 15 kilovolts (kV) and can be powered with AC or DC, but more commonly AC 120-volt (V) transformers. Neon is a linear light source, while LED serves as a point source, creating a very different effect. Both neon and LED are energy efficient, although the LED industry has put more attention into marketing that feature to green-minded customers.
There are multiple drivers of neon’s comeback. For one, the color of neon is more vibrant than LED, and Walsh said that connects with people on an emotional level. While LED proved to be a potentially permanent source for backlit, plastic-faced signs, consumers and businesses seemed to miss the look of hand-crafted neon signs and architectural lighting.
While people like the look of neon, it is not easy to produce, Walsh said. Handcrafted neon design work requires years of training, and there is a shortage of young people coming into the business to replace the older designers on their way to retirement, a predicament ECs are familiar with.
“Bending of neon is an acquired skill, much like making pottery or carpentry,” Walsh said.
Mastery takes an average of three years of training. In addition, glass benders must also leverage a different skill—manufacturing the lamp to transform the glass image or lettering into colored light.
Wirth, who combines traditional marketing signage applications with creative, artistic designs, sells his work to advertise businesses as well as light up an interior or outdoor space in abstract and figurative designs. He, too, worries about the next generation of neon craftsmen. He teaches students in his studio to pass on the art of glass bending and the manufacturing of the lamps.
As business increases, suppliers are seeing a slow rise in sales, from almost nothing to a steady stream of orders. When LED lights began replacing neon signage in the past decade or so, businesses stopped buying the glass sticks used to make neon lamps. Today, that means the stockpile is getting used up. Even with that, Walsh—who sells the glass, transformers and other supplies—said business is picking up.
Bulk neon signmakers are returning to their roots in recent years, as well. Of the largest sign manufacturers that work with neon products and had moved their manufacturing overseas, about half have reopened U.S.-based plants. That’s partly due to the fact that, not only do customers like the handcrafting work that’s done in the United States, they need the signs created closer to the place where they would be installing them.
“We are absolutely seeing an increase in interest in neon,” Walsh said.
He pointed to several trends, including smaller, complex work as opposed to the very large neon pieces of the past.
The earlier decline in neon wasn’t felt as much in places such as New York, where independent retailers, restaurants and other businesses vie for the attention of customers. However, that has changed.
“Neon has gone from Home Depot to Kate Spade,” said David Ablon, CEO, Brooklyn’s Precision Neon. “It’s being embraced as a form of beautiful advertising.”
The company has seen increased interest in well-crafted, unique designs advertising of a broad range of businesses.
One area of neon upsurge is in pop-up stores, found in Los Angeles, New York and other cities, where retailers set up temporary selling sites that benefit from a high visual impact. Architectural lighting also is powering an upswing with demand in locations such as theaters, business lobbies and stores. Precision Neon has provided lighting design for restaurants, clubs and hotels including Cafe Luxembourg, Greenwich Hotel and Cherche Midi.
The ability to easily install and reuse neon signage and lighting is one of its advantages. Powering the glass tube lighting is relatively simple, said Morgan Crook, general manager, Ventex Technology.
Crook has been in the neon business his entire career and is co-author of the “Neon Engineer’s Notebook” with Jacob Fishman. Crook has witnessed several patterns in the industry that affected his business. One example is a drop in illuminated advertising in retail environments altogether, with advertising dollars going to social media and other digital efforts.
“There are all kinds of ways to spend advertising dollars today,” he said. “A sign above the door is not the only way.”
A reduction in sole-proprietor stores also has reduced the demand for specialty signage. Corporate logos are increasingly common among chain stores across the country.
However, Crook noted a resurgence of small-owner proprietorships from craft breweries to bakeries and cafes. According to Main Street Entrepreneurship, the 2015 Kauffman Foundation index, a six-year downward trend for small businesses turned around that year.
“LED is used in a tremendous number of places,” Crook said.
However, when ambient light or a vivid color palette is needed, it’s hard to beat neon.
Renovation and repair
Like all electrical systems, and all kinds of lighting, neon needs repair, and that work is often done by electrical contractors. The repair work is relatively low labor and low cost; for a few hundred dollars, an existing sign can be refurbished to work properly for decades.
Crook said older neon signs can be kept running for less than the price of a year’s Yellow Pages ad. In fact, some older signs have become so iconic that businesses have opted to deploy and illuminate them long after the original company being advertised has shut down. He called it a “20-year product” that can often last even longer than that, especially with refurbishment.
“There are signs all over the country that are still working fine, decades after they were installed,” Wirth said.
In fact, some of his earliest work—dating to the 1980s—is still in operation with the original transformer.
Fewer sign companies are servicing neon signs, and ECs are picking up the work. Crook said a shortage in neon servicing specialists is a problem businesses face in every city.
Interested ECs should educate themselves on the servicing of neon and how to properly follow the codes. This information is available from resources such as the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, which published a neon inspection and installation book in 2005.