Electronic Message Signs

January 2, 2007

8 Min Read
Electronic Message Signs
Shopping for the correct electronic sign is like walking through a cow pasture. Proceed with caution or you could step into trouble!

Over the last few years more suppliers of electronic signs have attended tradeshows, exhibiting beautiful, color, low-cost signs attractive to business owners. While tempted to buy on the spot, shoppers should stop and learn as much about signs as possible.

An impulsive decision will most likely leave you frustrated. Many shoppers have gleefully bought an electronic sign that looks absolutely fantastic indoors, only to find it doesnt hit the mark outdoors.

Did you know most light emitting diode (LED) signs will lose about 40 percent of their brightness after an initial burn-in period? This is just one example of what you see isnt necessarily what you get when purchasing signage. Make sure you base your decisions on knowledge and what best meets your business goals.

Like shopping for a car, electronic signs come in a myriad of choices. Do you want a Yugo or a Mercedes? Is your goal to be flashy, or purchase a vehicle thats sensible and reliable?

Or do you simply want the cheapest car built? Most business owners should buy electronic signs that are cost effective, perform well and produce the highest level of market penetration for the least money.

The Technology Tier

While shopping, youll be presented with many variations and features, such as the ones listed below.

Time and temperature signs are a great option for business owners who cant afford an electronic message center but wish to raise attention. While they dont have the power of an electronic message center, they do train consumers to look at your site for public service information. Also, many cities dont restrict time and temperature signs as long as they dont exceed the allowed square footage.

Monochrome signs are single color, usually red or amber, produced in array or line technology. Array signs allow messages to cross large areas of the sign; line technology signs display one or more lines of copy, limited by minimum and maximum line heights. For example, if your display is a one-line 10-inch copy sign, it can only display one line of 10-inch tall copy. But if yours is a two-line 10-inch sign, it will display two lines of 10-inch text, or one line of 23-inch text. Line displays are available in a myriad of LEDs per pixel combinations, but have limited graphics capabilities.

Monochrome gray scale signs are usually array signs that display 256,000 shades of the same color, typically red or amber. They display graphics readily but may not be as strong with text and messages as a line technology sign.

Color Non RGB (red/green/blue) signs are less expensive but lack the power and resolution of RGB and many monochrome displays. They may fade in direct sunlight and lack the pizzazz of better RGB displays. In addition, graphics tend to be limited.

Color RGB 32K (red/green/blue) signs are a less-expensive solution, but they dont have the punch or resolution best for outdoor light penetration. Monochrome gray scale with tighter resolution tends to be a better economic choice.

Color RGB 64K (red/green/blue) signs are the real entry point into color technology. They run quality graphics and endure sun exposure. The price reflects its quality and market position.

Color 16.7 Million (red/green/blue) technology is commonly seen on the Las Vegas Strip or professional and college sports arenas. They have a price tag to match. As far as graphics are concerned, theyre like watching a TV.

Pixels and Display

A few other explanations will prove helpful in your hunt. Pixels are one dot on the sign whether its a single LED or a group of LEDs clustered together to produce a single dot.

Pitch is the distance center to center of each pixel. The pitch sets the resolution. The closer together the pixels are, the tighter the resolution.

LEDs are produced in a variety of sizes and shapes. Size may indicate the brightness of the display but check brightness ratings. LED shapes control the viewing angle of the display. Some only have effective viewing angles of 40 degrees while others can be viewed in excess of 70 degrees. LED shape contributes to the viewing distance at which the message can be read. Smaller LED also contributes to tighter resolution if the pitch is also tight.

LED signs come in a variety of height- and width-size ratios. A wider sign allows larger words, while a sign shaped similar to a TV is more appropriate for video graphics. This ratio also controls how many characters can come and go on the sign at one time. This is a key point to consider for future sign applications. For example, if you need to regularly display a word that is 12-characters wide (like self-storage), but the sign will only display six characters at one time, you may be disappointed later with your purchase.


Some communications devices allow the sign to be controlled offsite. The best sign performance relies on sophisticated installation. Methods range from remote control on signs with limited-output options, to fiber optics with unlimited-use options. The correct installation for a specific site should consider obstacles, costs and sign type.

The quality of electricity supplied to your business location may require increased maintenance. All sign purveyors should assure you have the appropriate equipment to protect your new investment. Many times electronic signs are viewed as lemons, when improper installation is the real culprit.

Regulatory Issues

Many cities dont allow electronic message centers. In those that do, message frequency (how often you may change a message) may be regulated. Zoning or land-use restrictions may disallow electronic signs within specific areas of the city where they are otherwise allowed.

Some cities require a variance to get an electronic message center. The variance is sometimes a rubber stamp, but some zoning boards impose stricter controls. Dont buy any signage until you know the laws in your area.

Comparing Prices

Make sure you compare apples to apples by putting size and type of LED side by side. Once you have the LED size, find out how many LEDs are in each pixel and multiply by the number of rows of pixels high. Next, multiply by the number of pixels wide.

For example, if you are comparing two signs that are eight-rows high and 64 long, but one has three LEDs per pixel at a price of $8,000, and a second has six LEDs per pixel at a price of $11,000, you would calculate as follows.

Sign 1:

3 LEDs x 8 rows x 64 columns = 1,536 LEDs
$8,000 divided by 1,536 LEDs = $5.20 per LED

Sign 2:

6 LEDs x 8 rows x 64 columns = 3,072 LEDs
$11,000 divided by 3,072 LEDs = $3.58 per LED

The math indicates the larger, higher-priced sign is actually the least expensive, most powerful option.

The after-sale support, warranty, location of service and expense of maintenance should also be factored costs. Ask the manufacturers rep the following questions:

Can I maintain the sign myself? If the sign is high in the air, special equipment will be needed to reach it. Does it require a screwdriver or professional experience to maintain? Some electronic message centers are designed so owners can maintain select functions, but more technical functions require a professional.

If it requires professional skill, does the manufacturer send a technician, or is the job subcontracted to a local company that may not repair more than a few such signs annually?

Will I have to remove, crate and ship the sign to have it serviced? How long will this take? Sometimes middle-level suppliers provide better service than manufacturers. In these cases, paying a slightly higher purchase price may be a better deal in the long run.

What are the costs for replacement parts? Whats the most expensive component in the sign? How often are these replaced? What can be done to prolong the life of sign components?

What about warranties? Sign companies vary in how they warrant products. Purchasers must decide if the company has enough weight to deliver on promises made. If you have to purchase a warranty, remember they are usually based on presumed worst-case scenarios and may not be worth paying the extra costs.

Finally, inspect the construction of the cabinet. If it looks like an indoor sign but doesnt have substantial construction to support wind loads, it may have other deficiencies and be overpriced.

Economies of Scale

Who doesnt think bigger is better? But correct signage for your facility should be based on quality, cost-effectiveness and your ability to interact with passersby.

Lets say your facility is on a street where the average speed of traffic is 65 mph and your electronic sign has a 32-inch character height. The sign can be seen for 960 feet and viewed for 12 seconds. As a business owner, you have to decide how to best use those 12 seconds.

If you want run a color wave the flag video for six seconds to get motorists attention, but they have no time to read your commercial message, you lose. In this case, a less-expensive technologysuch as a large-character single-line message centermay be the optimum choice, even though you may be lured into buying a bigger and seemingly better sign for 30 percent more.

If a $30,000 dollar sign will do the job most effectively, but youre tempted by the $500,000 sign, maybe its just ego. Dont let a manufacturers rep working on commission lead you to overbuying and overpaying. Find a reputable company to consult about what sign, at the best price, will suit your site.

According to manufacturers, an electronic sign should pay for itself with a 3 percent increase in sales over a three-year period. But a great sign will attract more business to your facility, narrowing the return on investment to weeks or months. Shop with knowledge and your new electronic sign will draw new customers and profits to your self-storage business. 

Perry Powell is an independent sign consultant specializing in coaching business owners in the application and acquisition of site-specific signage. He can be reached at 817.307.6484 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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