The performance of neon signs: an overview

Here are some technical details about neon signs.

  • How traditional neon works
  • You can change the color of the lighting or dimming function.
  • You can expect neon to deliver a variety of performances

We also provide information about alternatives to neon, such as LED acrylic neon lights (also known as “faux neon”) This is NeonPlus.

How do neon signs work

  1. Look closely at any neon sign to see a glass tube (or several tubes) that has been shaped into particular designs.
  2. An electrode is found at each end of the tube. One positive and one negative.
  3. There is a tiny amount of neon gas inside the tube. A noble gas, neon only undergoes a chemical reaction when it comes into direct contact with electricity. Otherwise, it just drifts through a tube without doing anything.
  4. If you apply an alternating voltage to the electrodes, the electricity creates enough power for the neon tubes to separate. Some electrons may be dissolved to create positively charged ions. They then fly towards a negative electrode.
  5. The free electrons have an electric charge and are drawn towards a positive electrode at the end of the tube.
  6. As the electrons, ions, and neon atoms bounce around the tube they collide, increasing energy.
  7. The photon (particle light) is released when the ionized Atoms are able to recapture their electrons, allowing them to return to their original energy level.
    The sign’s electricity supply can be cut off to restore its normal inert status.

Can neon signs perform different lighting functions?

Color changing

Colors can’t be changed by traditional neon signs

A neon lamp is capable of producing only reddish-orange light when charged with an electrical current. It won’t glow green or blue, however.

It depends on how much electricity is running through the tube to make it turn a particular shade of red or orange. Read How neon signs function above.

A sign that glows in multiple colors requires the use of different gases. Different gases react differently to electricity. In a glass tube, you can combine them with neon.

The table below shows the gases that produce what colors.

LED neon signs CAN change color

There are two main methods LED neon signs such NeonPlus(r), like NeonPlus(r), may change color.


First, and most commonly, an RGB (red and green, and blue LED chip) is used. This chip has three small diodes inside, one of each color. To achieve a wide variety of colors, connect an RGB controller.

Digital LED

This uses the same red, green, and blue LED diodes in an LED chip. However, each LED can be controlled individually by the driver chip attached to the chip. Because controllers have more advanced features, they can create complex patterns and designs.


Traditional neon

A traditional neon sign can be dimmed, but you’ll need to use a dimmable transistor that is sized according to the current and voltage.

The neon signs need high voltage and low current to operate, so make sure you get a transformer that matches these requirements. DO NOT USE an off-the-shelf lamp dimmer. These only regulate voltage and not current. These could cause fire or serious damage.

Be aware that you can’t dim the neon light completely. You’ll likely get around 10% brightness.

LED neon

There are two ways to dim the LED neon sign NeonPlus(r),

Low-voltage rotary and digital dimmer

These controllers have a low-voltage wire and reduce voltage coming from power supply units (PSUs) to the LED.

Dimmable power supply Unit (PSU).

A TRIAC rotary dimmer can be attached to one of these leads to reduce the voltage in the PSU. This in turn reduces the PSU’s output voltage and dims lights.

This is a good choice if you wish to run the lighting through a system such as in a shopping center or theatre. There are many options for dimmable PSUs. Their use will vary depending on the circumstance, but they can control the light in the general same way.

Both the above options let you dim the LED down to 0%. The light is still consistent, however, and there’s no flickering.

Are there problems with how neon signs work?

Do they die?

The most common problem with neon signs is burnout. A sign can stop glowing entirely or in part. This is usually due to one (or several) of the following:

  • High-voltage wiring can cause wires to burn out. This is most common with neon glass tubes and high-voltage cables. If they get too hot, they can melt and cause the sign not to glow.
  • Transformers that fail–if the transformer that permits the neon sign to light up is damaged, the sign will not work.
  • Gas tubes fail–if either the electrodes or the glass tube’s end stop functioning properly, the tube can look dimmed/not lit at all.

With an LED neon sign, there is almost no risk that the sign will be returned to the manufacturer for repair work.

Do they get hotter?

How neon signs operate means that the energy from atoms or electrons colliding inside tubes can sometimes be seen as light, but also heat.

However, neon signs that have narrow tubes of glass should not emit heat so dangerously hot they are unsafe to touch. Neon signs shouldn’t cause burns or be considered dangerous.

Many manufacturers of neon signs cover the electrodes with rubber caps at each end of the tubing. These caps protect exposed wires from being damaged by water and also prevent people from touching or possibly burning them.

Are they potentially dangerous?

No. No.

Neon signs pose the most risk.

  • Noble gases – It’s believed they can be dangerous if they leak through damaged tubes. However, signs are made to warn you if this happens.
  • The glass tubes get hot – although they may emit some heat, it is not enough to ignite.

The custom neon signs of any other colour than red contain very little mercury. This poisonous substance is what gives them their unique color. There are measures in place to ban mercury in neon signs. If enforced, this would only apply to signs that are red, pink, or amber.

Neon signs have been around for many years and are now designed and manufactured with safety in mind.

How much electricity do they consume?

A neon sign is very energy efficient and uses far less power than one might think, considering how brightly it glows. Modern signs use as little electricity as 60W to 100W and are equipped with a transformer that can supply 240v power.

A typical LED neon sign will only consume 15%-20% power, while fluorescent and incandescent lamps will use considerably more.

What about their durability?

The life expectancy of traditional neon signs depends on how often they are used and how well they are maintained. The average neon sign will last between eight and fifteen years. However, some signs can continue to function for many more years.

Long-term exposure to an electrical surge can cause damage or shorten the life of a sign.

Does neon signage have to adhere to certain regulations?

Yes. All neon signs must meet BS EN50107. This British Standard outlines how luminous-discharge tube installations (such as neon lights) should be manufactured.

Also, custom neon signs must meet the requirements of IET Wiring regulations. Another British Standard known as BS 7671 sets out specifications for how such types of electrical installations should look.

You should always ensure that the sign you are purchasing has been properly marked and adhered to before you purchase it.

The legal obligation for businesses to perform regular fire-safety risk assessments and to take preventative measures to minimize the risks is a legal requirement. As part of any assessment, a neon sign would likely be checked but not considered to pose any risk in relation to causing a flame.

Are there any alternatives to using neon

Yes. LED neon sign, also known as fake neon, is the main alternative. It uses LED technology and replicates the look of traditional neon without any drawbacks.

Below, we will compare the pros & cons of LED and neon lighting.

Neon vs.LED neon

They generate light differently, which is the most significant difference.

Where neon relies on a chemical reaction between gases and an electrical current, with LEDs (light emitting diodes, in full) the reaction occurs when electrons pass through a semiconductor, which is typically a material known as aluminum-gallium-arsenide.

The LEDs used in signs are placed in close proximity so they produce a steady supply of light that is similar to the glow of neon gas inside a glass tube.

Posted in Blog, Lights, Neon Design Inspirations.

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