Dollar $igns: Fast Facts on Neon vs LED

When you see those huge lit-up Hilton and Target signs at night, do you ever wonder what’s making them glow?

It was 10 below zero somewhere outside of Cleveland and from the 3rd story hotel window I noticed a guy working on the Homewood Suites sign, so I pulled on my fur hat and went down to check it out.

Turns out Cicogna (Chick-Own-Ya) Electric & Sign Company hires some nice folks. Despite the weather, the guy offered some history on neon versus LED:

The first neon sign debuted in the US in 1923 at a Los Angeles car dealership, and for decades neon was the only sign option. First generation LED lights of the 1950’s and 1960’s could burn red and green in color, but they couldn’t accommodate the lighter spectrum. It was impossible for an LED to burn true white without a blueish tint until 1993 when three Japanese inventors achieved this feat (for which they received a Nobel Prize in 2014). Thus began a wave of change in the sign industry from neon to LED.

A few weeks ago I spoke with Frank Cicogna who said, “Why does anyone need a new sign? You don’t! You just need new illumination.”

We all know that LEDs can be a sound long term investment, but I was intrigued by just how little it actually takes to run an LED sign versus neon.

For a typical sign like FedEx-Kinkos or Burger King with an average set of 8–12 letters, neon illumination energy costs can total $125-$150 per month. The same sign powered by LEDs costs just $15, a 90% energy cost reduction. This means the annual $1,600 energy savings covers the typical LED sign conversion cost in the first year. For a Homewood Suites-sized hotel with $100,000+ in annual energy costs, these savings may not blow away the CFO, but she does care about the maintenance cost avoidance that LEDs provide.

We may not think of it as such, but neon is a gas and it’s the atoms of the gas becoming ionized or charged via electric voltage in the glass tubes that creates the familiar, homey glow. Flickering and dark spots occur as the gas inevitably leaks out of the tubes, which can only be fixed by cleaning out and re-filling the tubes with more gas, or replacing the tubes all together. A neon service call can be $250 a pop, and to replace the entire unit costs $500-$700. By comparison, LED signs require virtually no maintenance and if you ever need a replacement bulb in 10–20 years, that’ll cost you just one Abraham Lincoln.

I Spy Wind-Up

Frank Cicogna’s family story is much more interesting than LEDs. He is the son of an Italian naval officer and Russian mother who landed in Cleveland via Greyhound bus in 1950. I asked Frank why he chose to stay in Cleveland to which he replied, “I once asked my Dad how we ended up in Ohio. He looked at me and said ‘son, you’d have asked that question anywhere we lived.’”