Neon lights at Phoenix Traders: Finding efficiency in an ‘old’ technology

The display case featuring the new neon lights at Phoenix Traders. (Photo by Jim Phelps)

By Jim Phelps
Owner, Phoenix Traders

Phoenix Traders has always had an eco/upcycled bent to its business practices. When we purchased a used Bergner’s Clinique cosmetic case for our store, we knew we would make modifications to upcycle it. So, we built a stand to put it on and put material skirting on the outside of it in anticipation of a planned under-the-counter display racking installation in the future.

We never imagined the fluorescent tubes that were lighting it would stop being produced. We were never happy with them, and the wiring that originally came with the cabinets had to be partially re-wired just to make them work. Having an electromechanical degree came in handy, but I never enjoyed being surrounded by nine ballasts blasting me with radio frequency energy all day long.

About nine months ago, we got acquainted with a new customer, Tony Braun, of Neon Lights. He suggested using neon* tubes for lighting. I had already priced and did the calculations for what LED (light emitting diodes) strip lighting would cost as a project to replace the current fluorescent system in the Clinique display.

After calculating the two lighting options, the neon option clearly seemed to be the best long-term lighting solution in terms of durability and cost of operation. My project payback calculations showed I would save about 50 percent of my electrical cost of using LED over fluorescent.

The new neon lights inside the display case at Phoenix Traders. (Photo by Jim Phelps)

However, as the LEDs wore out, I would be busy replacing them because of heat dissipation problems and normal burnout associated with electrostatic attraction of dust to the LEDs.

On the other hand, there are signs around this town that are nearly 50 years old with the original neon tubes in them. The surprise came when we decided to go “neon lights,” we actually had an observed 5-1 electric current saving over the old fluorescent/ballast system.

This savings was better than twice what Tony had promised us. That meant while the old fluorescent system used 5.25 Amperes of electricity an hour, our new neon system used a miserly 1 Ampere per hour. This would make our neon setup about 25 percent more efficient than a comparable LED system I originally envisioned designing and installing, and better than five times more efficient than the original lighting system.

In terms of watts and kilowatts, we anticipate an 8 percent annual electrical savings for the shop because of the improved efficiency of our neon cabinet lighting system over the old fluorescent system. Because our neon transformers auto-adjust the current for the length of neon tube they are driving, we also expect near lifetime use out of the new transformers and a 50-year expected lifetime for the neon tubes.

Not a bad use of an “old” technology. Neon is recyclable, durable and if installed and protected properly, ecologically safer than the plastics that are involved in LED lighting installations. That doesn’t mean LEDs do not have their place in lighting. In fact, we intend to replace our already efficient T8 fluorescent shop lighting with T8 LEDs in the future, netting Phoenix Traders another 40 percent saving in electricity. To put this in perspective, 70 percent of the cost of our electric service is spent lighting our store, so we could save close to 50 percent of our total electrical expenditures just by changing our lighting services between the Clinique cabinet neon project and future T8 LED overhead replacement.

So, we encourage you to drop by and see our retro upcycled Clinique display with neon lights. Not only does it save us money and keep an old display case out of the garbage dump, it is really awesome to see “old-school” neon used in unique way!

* How does neon lighting work?: A tube filled with inert gas is excited through electrodes enough that electrons are dislodged out of their outer orbits (valance electrons), and once those electrons are excited, photons are released in the materials that are coated on those tubes. To make that physical change happen in those inert gases, extremely high voltages are introduced by a step-up transformer, and that voltage is sent across the electrodes. Different noble (inert) gases are used, and a combination of gases and material coatings give us a multitude of color light choices.

Phoenix Traders is a fair-trade importer at 215 Seventh St. in Rockford. Tony Braun of Neon Lights can be reached by calling (815) 668-9059.

From the Dec. 19-25, 2012, issue

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