LED Retrofitting Signs: A Brighter Future for Your Business

LED retrofitting refers to the process of upgrading existing sign lighting to modern LED technology.

LED stands for “light emitting diode” and refers to a type of solid-state lighting that is extremely energy efficient and long-lasting. LEDs have become the lighting of choice for new signage, but many existing signs still use older fluorescent, incandescent, or neon lighting. Retrofitting these signs to LEDs can provide substantial benefits.

The major reasons sign companies choose to retrofit to LED lighting include:

  • Cost savings from reduced energy use and maintenance
  • Improved brightness and visibility
  • Ability to create vibrant color effects
  • Long lifetime of LED components

This guide will explore these benefits in further detail, as well as provide guidance on the retrofitting process.

Cost Savings from LED Retrofitting

One of the biggest benefits for sign companies in retrofitting to LED lighting is the significant cost savings from reduced energy usage. LED lights consume much less electricity than traditional incandescent or fluorescent lighting. According to estimates, LED lighting uses at least 75% less energy than incandescent bulbs and up to 40% less than fluorescent lighting.

This energy efficiency translates into dramatically lower electricity costs to run signs and lighting. For a small 2′ x 8′ business ID sign, retrofitting from fluorescent to LED lighting can reduce energy costs by $25-50 per month. Larger signs and displays with more lighting will see even greater savings. One auto dealership cut their monthly lighting bill from $1,000 with metal halides down to just $150 after upgrading their lot lighting to LED.

The return on investment from LED retrofitting varies based on electricity costs and current lighting used, but is often under 2 years. With electricity savings of 50-75%, most sign companies recoup their upgrade costs quickly then continue to profit from lower utility bills. Upgrading illumination to modern, energy-efficient LED lighting is a smart money-saving investment.

Increased Visibility and Brightness

One of the biggest benefits of LED lighting for signs is the improved visibility and brightness compared to older lighting technologies. LEDs emit a very bright, intense light that can greatly enhance the visibility of a sign, especially from long distances or in daylight.

Studies have shown that LED signs can be read from 2-3 times farther away compared to neon or fluorescent lighting. For example, research from the University of Cincinnati found that LED signs had superior visibility at distances over 100 feet versus traditional neon.

This increased brightness comes from the high light output of LEDs. Newer LEDs are capable of emitting over 100 lumens per watt, much higher than incandescent bulbs. This intense, highly focused light makes the sign graphics appear crisp and vibrant.

LEDs also provide excellent light color quality. LEDs come in a range of color temperatures, from warm white to daylight. This allows matching the LED lighting closely to the ideal color tones for the sign. Vivid reds, deep blues, and bright whites are all possible with LEDs.

For signs, being noticed from as far away as possible is crucial for capturing attention and customers. Brighter and more colorful LED lighting enables a sign to stand out clearly amidst surrounding sights and traffic.

Types of Signs Suitable for Retrofitting

Many different types of illuminated signs are good candidates for LED retrofitting. Some of the most common signs that can be upgraded to LED technology include:

Channel letter signs: These customized signs with dimensional letters are often lit by neon or fluorescent tubes. Converting to LEDs can provide brighter, more uniform lighting while saving energy. Both indoor and outdoor channel letter signs can benefit from LED conversion.

Neon signs: Neon lighting has a distinctive glow but can consume much more electricity than LEDs. Retrofitting neon signs, either outdoor or indoor, allows maintaining the nostalgic neon aesthetic while upgrading efficiency and brightness.

Digital display signs: LED technology has almost completely replaced older lamps in digital signage. Upgrading older digital signs provides better image quality, improved brightness and contrast, and reduced maintenance costs.

Light boxes: Internally illuminated sign cabinets and light boxes commonly used for retail store signage can be retrofitted with LED panels or tubes for superior, long-lasting brightness.

The main limitation is that certain very old sign housings may not be compatible with new LED components. An experienced installer can assess compatibility and recommend solutions during a retrofit consultation. Proper thermal management is also key for LEDs to ensure adequate lifespan.

The Retrofitting Process Step-by-Step

Retrofitting an existing sign to LED technology requires careful planning and execution. Here are the key steps in the retrofit process:

Initial Lighting Assessment

The first step is to thoroughly inspect the existing sign lighting and take notes on the type of bulbs, ballasts, wiring, and power supplies currently in use. It’s important to document the quantity, wattages, layout, and condition of all lighting components to determine what will be needed for the LED retrofit.

Selecting New LED Components

Once the assessment is complete, the right LED replacement parts can be selected, such as LED tubes, modules, power supplies, and drivers. The LED components should match the lighting output and form factor of the original lighting as closely as possible. It’s critical to choose components that are compatible and work together as a system.

Installation Best Practices

Proper installation techniques ensure the retrofitted sign performs optimally. Wiring should be extended or replaced as needed. LED drivers and power supplies must be securely mounted. And all lighting components should be grounded and connected according to electrical codes. Most importantly, the LEDs need to be placed to provide even illumination across the sign face.

Timeline and Costs

The installation time varies depending on the sign’s complexity but can often be completed in just one day. Total project costs will depend on the quantity of lighting and accessibility of the sign but are typically recouped through energy savings within 2 years.

Lower Maintenance Requirements

One of the biggest advantages of LED lighting for signs is the dramatically lower maintenance requirements compared to older lighting technologies. Fluorescent and neon lights have a much shorter lifespan than LEDs and need frequent replacing, which adds up in maintenance costs over time. According to one source, LED lighting can reduce maintenance costs by up to 70%.

LEDs last much longer than traditional lighting. The typical lifespan of an LED is 50,000 to 70,000 hours, while fluorescent lamps last 10,000 to 20,000 hours and neon lights need replacement after 8,000 hours or less. This means LED-lit signs can operate maintenance-free for over a decade before any lights need swapping out.

Less frequent replacements translate into significant labor cost savings. Technicians no longer need to frequently service signs to change out old lighting. This allows maintenance teams to be utilized more efficiently. One source estimates an LED retrofit can reduce maintenance labor costs by 50-70% over a decade compared to fluorescent lighting.

The long lifespan and reliability of LEDs provide important maintenance workflow benefits for sign companies. Work orders are reduced dramatically so technicians can focus on other revenue-generating tasks. Fewer truck rolls for lighting repairs also save on fuel and transportation costs. Overall, switching to LED lighting provides significant reductions in the labor, time and overhead required to maintain signs.

Finding the Right Retrofitting Partner

When looking for the right LED retrofitting partner, it’s important to find a qualified contractor who will take the time to understand your signage needs and provide a customized solution. Here are some tips on what to look for:

Look for electrical and construction licenses as well as experience specifically with LED retrofits. Ask about past retrofit projects and request referrals from satisfied clients. According to TGL Worldwide, you should verify the company has all required licenses and insurance for your protection.

Make sure to get multiple bids and compare the retrofit plan. Ask questions about the specific LED products they will use and ensure they will work well for your sign type and usage. According to LiteStar Retrofits, pay attention to factors like lumens, color temperature, and CRI.

Inquire about testing procedures to ensure the retrofit performs well. A proper retrofit assessment will evaluate your existing lighting and sign materials. Ask for a photometric test report for the retrofit kit being proposed.

Most importantly, the company should aim to customize the retrofit solution to your specific signage and visibility goals, not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Be sure to communicate all your requirements upfront.

Taking the time to find the right partner will help ensure your LED retrofit is done properly the first time, maximizing visibility and return on investment.

LED Retrofit Limitations

While LED retrofitting offers many benefits, it does have some limitations to be aware of. Some older signs may not be ideal candidates for retrofitting due to their age or design.

For certain signs, especially neon signs or those over 15-20 years old, it may make more sense to replace the sign completely rather than retrofit. Retrofitting extremely old signs can require excessive modifications and may still result in an imperfect conversion to LEDs. The labor and component costs could outweigh just purchasing a new LED sign in some cases.

Channel letter signs can present challenges for retrofitting if the letters were not initially designed for LED. The existing cabinet size may not accommodate newer wider LED systems. There could be issues with getting an even illumination or avoiding hot spots. A complete sign replacement would avoid these potential issues.

Companies should evaluate each sign and get a professional assessment of whether LED retrofitting is the best option or if replacement should be considered instead. Factors like the sign’s physical condition, age, and dimensions need to be weighed against retrofitting costs and results.

While retrofits are enticing for upgrading signs on a budget, the limitations need to be evaluated. In some cases starting fresh with an entirely new LED sign designed for optimal LED performance may be the better investment.

Financial Incentives for Retrofits

There are various rebates, tax incentives, grants, and financing options available to help offset the upfront costs of LED retrofit projects. Many utility companies and local governments offer rebates as a way to encourage energy efficiency upgrades. For example, in California LED retrofits can qualify for rebates from utilities like PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E through their lighting rebate programs. The exact rebate amount will depend on the wattage reduced through the retrofit.

At the federal level, LED lighting retrofits may qualify for tax deductions of up to $1.80 per square foot under the 179D EPAct tax deduction. There are also state and utility tax incentives and credits that can offset 30-50% of the material cost of an LED upgrade. It’s important to confirm eligibility requirements as incentives can depend on the specific lighting used and energy savings achieved.

Grants specifically for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects are offered by state governments and utilities. For example, the NYSERDA RetrofitNY program provides cost-sharing grants to help businesses transition to LED lighting. There are also attractive financing options like on-bill financing where the upgrade costs can be repaid through savings on monthly energy bills.


Upgrading to LED lighting delivers numerous advantages that make retrofitting existing signs well worth the investment for sign companies.

The most significant benefits include major energy and maintenance cost savings from the high efficiency and long lifetime of LED lighting. Studies show LED retrofits can reduce sign lighting electricity usage by 50-70%, with full payback on the upgrade in as little as 2 years.

LED retrofitting also boosts visibility and brightness thanks to the crisp, consistent illumination. This can lead to improved brand awareness and more customers for businesses. LEDs also offer design flexibility with a wide range of color and control options.

While LED retrofitting requires some upfront costs, the ROI is tremendous. Sign companies that upgrade to LED can expect a 30-60% IRR over the 10+ year lifetime of the lighting.

To get a customized quote and plan for updating your signs with energy efficient LEDs, consult a lighting specialist today. The sooner you retrofit, the faster you can start benefiting from the savings.

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