Perry Powell Consulting



The Power of Light

What you need to know about electronic message signs.

By Perry Powell

Over the last few years, more suppliers of electronic signs have begun exhibiting at car wash trade shows. Many show beautiful color, low-cost signs which are very attractive to wash owners. The question that should be asked by owners before a purchase is made is, “What do I need to know about these products, before I purchase, that I do not know?”

The purchase of the correct electronic sign is a mine field, which should be entered into with extreme caution. An impulsive decision has a high probability of proving deficient in the long run. An electronic sign may look absolutely beautiful indoors, while absolutely failing to hit the mark outdoors. Most LED signs will lose about 40 percent of their brightness after an initial burn-in period.

A correct purchase should be made based on knowledge and geared toward specific needs based on the business’ goals. Saying you wish to buy an electronic sign is like saying you wish to buy a car. Once that decision to buy is made, there are many choices and facts that need to be addressed. Do you want a Yugo or a Mercedes? Is your goal to reflect your ego, purchase a sensible vehicle that is serviceable and reliable transportation or do you want the cheapest car built? Similarly, business owners should acquire electronic signs that are cost-effective, perform well and produce the highest level of market penetration for the least money spent.

For the sake of this article we shall deal with the LED technology or the light-emitting diode sign.

Selecting the right LED

For business owners who cannot afford an electronic message center but wish to raise their rate of attraction, atime and temperatureunit is a great option. While they do not have the power of an electronic message center, they do train consumers to look at your site for public-service information. Also, many cities do not restrict time and temperature signs, as long as they do not exceed the maximum square footage allowed.

Monochrome signs are single color, usually red or amber. These signs are produced in array or line technology. Array signs allow messages to cross large areas of the sign while line technology signs are limited to the minimum of the average line size, and the maximum of all line or any line combination. For example, if your display is a one line, 10-inch copy sign, that is all it will display. But a two-line, 10- inch can display two lines of 10 inches or one line of 23 inches. Line displays are usually for copy only with extremely limited graphic capabilities. Line displays are produced in a myriad of LEDs per pixel combinations.

Monochrome gray scale signs are usually array signs and display 256,000 shades of the same color, usually red or amber. These signs will display graphics readily but may not be as strong on the copy or message portions 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 pizazz of better RGB displays. Graphics tend to be limited.

Color RGB 32K signs are a lower-cost solution, but they lack the punch or resolution best for outdoor light penetration. Monochrome gray scale with tighter resolution would probably be a better economic choice.

Color RGB 64K signs are the real entry point into color technology. They will run quality graphics and endure the sun. The price reflects its position in the market and quality.

Color 16.7 Million This technology is commonly seen on the Las Vegas strip or professional and division 1A college sports arenas. They have a price tag to match. As far as graphics are concerned, they are like watching your TV.

Once you’ve decided on an LED sign, it’s time to select the correct technology within the selected LED tier. Pixels are one dot on the sign whether 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 brightness ratings should be checked. LED shapes control the viewing angle of the display. Some displays 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. The smaller LED also contributes to tighter resolution if the pitch is also tight.

LED signs come in a variety of height/width size ratios. A wider sign allows for larger words, while a sign shaped more like 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 knowledge is important in deciding which unit to purchase.

If you need to regularly display a word associated with your business model that is 11 characters wide, but the sign will only display six characters at one time, you may later be disappointed with your choice.

Communication choices

There are numerous ways to communicate with your display. Some communications devices allow the sign to be controlled off site. The more sophisticated the sign performance, the more sophisticated the communications installation. Methods range from remote control on signs with limited output options to fiber optics on signs with unlimited use options. The correct installation for a specific site should be a combination of considering the installation obstacles, installation costs and sign type.


The quality of electricity supplied to your business location may add to the frequency of maintenance of your display. Part of the job of the person providing the display is to be sure that you are supplied with the appropriate equipment to protect your sign. Many times electronic signs are viewed as lemons, when the truth is that improper installation is the real culprit.

Regulatory issues

In many cities electronic message centers are not allowed. In those that do allow them, message frequency (how often you may change a message) may be regulated. Zoning or land-use restrictions may disallow electronic message signs within specific areas of the city where electronic signs are otherwise allowed. Other cities require a variance to get an electronic message center. The variance is sometimes a rubber stamp, while others use the variance process to impose stricter controls over these signs. It is important to review your city’s sign code and zoning, to see if the sign will be allowed, before writing the check for the sign.

Compare prices

The correct way to compare prices of an LED sign is as follows. First, you must be comparing the size size and type of LED. Once you have determined the LED size you must count how many LEDs are in each pixel and multiply by the number of rows of pixels high, and then multiply by the number of pixels wide. For example, if you are comparing two signs that have eight rows high and 64 long but one has three LEDs per pixel at a price of $8,000 and the second has six LEDs per pixel at a price of $11,000, you would calculate as follows:

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

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

This shows that 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 considered as part of the costs. A series of questions can help with important decisions about the sign:

Can I maintain the sign myself?

If the sign is placed high in the air, will it require special equipment on an ongoing basis to reach the sign?

Does it require a screwdriver or a technical degree to maintain? (Some electronic message centers are designed so that owners or staff can maintain some portions of the display themselves, while others require a high level of skill with that product in order to maintain them.)

Does the provider of the product have a standard practice of placing specialized technicians at the site to make repairs as part of the warranty or does it assign that duty to the local sign company, which may repair only a few such signs annually?

Will I have to remove, crate and ship the sign to have it serviced? How long will this take? (There are cases where middle-level suppliers provide much better service than the manufacturer. In these cases, paying a slightly higher purchase price may be a much better deal in the long run, than a low price up front.)

What are the costs associated with replacement parts? (Good questions to ask are, What is the most expensive component in the sign? How often are those parts replaced in the same model of electronic sign you are considering for purchase? What can you do to prolong the life of the sign components?)

What about warranties I must buy? (Sign companies vary in how they warrant the products they sell. At the end of the day, purchasers must decide if the company has enough weight to deliver on the promises they make in the warranty. If you are required to purchase a warranty, remember that purchased warranties are usually based on a presumed worst-case scenario. In most cases, it is not worth the additional costs.)

Note: The construction of the cabinet should be inspected. If it looks like an indoor sign and does not have substantial construction to support wind loading, it may not be a good option and likely has other deficiencies.

Economic considerations

Maximizing the dollar when purchasing an electronic sign requires an understanding of the relationship between business needs and performance. There seems to be an attitude on the part of business owners and sign sales people that bigger is better. The reality is, the correct sizing of the sign and an understanding of the human interactions with the sign, should help us make a quality, cost-effective decision.

For example, if you are on a street where the average speed of traffic is 65 mph and you have an electronic sign with a 32-inch character height, it can be seen for 960 feet and viewed for 12 seconds. As a business owner, you must decide what you wish to do with your 12 seconds because that is all the time you have. If you want to run a color “wave the flag” video for six seconds to get the motorists’ attention, but have not left enough time to relay your commercial message, you have not won the war. In this case, a less-expensive technology, such as a large-character single-line message center, may be the optimum choice of technology and that the more effective sign for your site may cost 30 percent of the price of the bigger, better sign.

Defining the environmental factors and the goals for the use of the sign should help ensure the correct technology and size of sign to be purchased. If a $30,000 sign will do the job most effectively, the purchase of a $500,000 sign may be ego. Purchasing from a reputable individual who considers these factors before considering commissions will help ensure you do not over-purchase for the requirements of your specific site and communications goals.

According to electronic sign industry manufacturers, an electronic message sign should pay for itself with a 3 percent increase in sales over a three-year period. The reality is, the rate of attraction is increased so substantially that the return on investment of a correctly proscribed sign should be measured in weeks and months, not years.

Perry Powell Consulting - Neuro-Marketing, Car Wash Signs Consulting, Car Wash Menus Pricing Consulting, and Electronic Message Signs
P.O. Box 101508 Fort Worth Texas TX 76185 Ph: 817-307-6484