Neon signs—how they work, how they perform and are there alternatives?

This page will cover some technical aspects of neon signs.

  • How traditional neon works
  • How flexible can they be regarding functionality – can they change color or dim?
  • What kind of performance can you expect from neon?

We also discuss alternative neon technologies, such as LED acrylic neon lights (also called “faux-neon”) This technology is used in NeonPlus.

What is the working principle of neon signs?

  1. If you look closely at any neon sign, you will see that it is made up of glass tubes or tubes, each shaped into a specific design.
  2. An electrode is located at either end of the tube – one negative and one positive.
  3. A small amount of neon is contained within the tube. The noble gas of neon is only capable of chemical reactions when it comes in contact with high-energy energy, such as electricity. It simply drifts along the tube, doing nothing.
  4. An alternating current is applied to the electrodes. The electricity generates enough energy to allow the neon atoms to separate. Some electrons are ejected to form positively charged ions. These ions fly toward the negative electrode.
  5. The electrons that are free have a negative charge, and they are drawn to the positive electrode at one end of the tube.
  6. The energy of the electrons, ions, and neon atoms bouncing around in the tube increases as they collide, increasing their energy.
  7. The ionized atoms that have been ionized release a photon (particles of light) when they recapture their electrons and become neutral again. This is what gives them a colored glow.
    The neon atoms will return to their natural inert state if the electricity supply is cut to the sign.

Can neon signs perform different lighting functions?

Change of color

The traditional neon signs won’t change their color.

Neon can only produce a reddish-orange glow when charged with an electric current. It will not glow blue or green.

Its color will depend on how energetic the neon atoms in the tube are when electricity is passed through it. Learn more about how neon signs work.

You can create signs that glow in different colors by using different gases. These gases react differently to electricity. These gases can be combined with neon to create a glass tube.

Below is a table that shows which gases can produce which colors.

LED neon signs CAN change color

Two main ways LED neon signs such as NeonPlus(r), can change their color are:


An RGB (red-green-blue) LED chip is the first and most common choice. It contains three small diodes, one for each color. An RGB controller can be connected to adjust the intensity of each diode, red, green, or blue to create a variety of colors.

Digital LED

The chip also uses red, green, and blue diodes. The chip also includes a driver chip, which allows each LED to be controlled independently. The controllers can produce complex patterns and designs because they are more sophisticated.


Traditional neon

You can dim traditional neon signs, but it’s impossible without a dimmable neon transformer. It must be sized to your sign’s voltage and current.

To work neon signs, you need low current and high voltage. Make sure that your transformer matches their requirements. Do NOT Use an off-the-shelf lamp dimmer. These regulate voltage, not current. You could end up with serious damage, or worse, a fire.

Keep in mind that the neon light can’t be dimmed completely. The lowest brightness you will likely achieve is around 10%.

LED neon

Two ways to dim an LED neon sign such as NeonPlus(r), are available:

Low-voltage digital or rotary dimmer

These controllers can be wired on the low-voltage side. This reduces the voltage from the PSU to the LED.

Dimmable power supply unit, (PSU).

The voltage inside the PSU is reduced by attaching one of these to a TRIAC rotary dimmer or leading-edge (the same dimmer that you use to dim your dining room and living rooms’ lights) This reduces the output voltage, dimming the lights, and turn lowers it.

This is an option if you need to control the lighting in a specific area, such as a shopping mall or theatre. There are many dimmable PSUs available, each with its own use. However, they all dim the light the same.

These options enable the user to dim the LED to 0%. However, the light will still remain constant and not flicker.

Is there a problem with neon signs?

Are they going to die?

Burnout is quite common with neon signs. The sign may stop glowing completely or be a part of it. This can usually be due to one (or more) of these reasons:

  • Burning wires – Most burnouts involve high-voltage wiring connecting the neon glass tubes. They can become brittle and stop the sign from glowing if they are overheated.
  • Transformers fail – If the transformer is not working properly, the neon sign will stop lighting up.
  • Gas tubes breaking down – If the electrodes at either end of a tube aren’t working properly, some sections might appear dimmed or not lit up at all.

You don’t have to return LED faux-neon signs to the manufacturer for repairs.

Are they hot?

How neon signs work can sometimes produce light and heat from the collision of atoms, electrons, and ions inside tubes.

However, any heat that a neon sign emits–especially signs with narrow glass tubes–should not be so hot it is dangerous to touch. You shouldn’t be concerned about neon signs causing burns or being dangerous.

Rubber caps are often used by neon sign manufacturers to cover the electrodes on either side of the tubing. The caps protect the wires by protecting them from water and keeping people from touching them.

Are they dangerous?


LED Neon signs are associated with the greatest risk:

  • The use of noble gases–it is believed that these can cause harm if they leak into the air through damaged tubes. However, signs can be set to shut off any damage.
  • The glass tubes are heating up – they might emit heat but not enough to cause a fire.

Any neon sign that is not red contains a small amount of mercury, a poisonous substance. This is how custom neon signs get their unique tint of light. There are currently steps to ban mercury from neon signs. This would if enforced limit neon signs to only red, pink, amber, or purple colors.

But neon signs have been around for a while and are still in use today. They are manufactured to all safety standards and can be used safely and responsibly with mercury.

What amount of electricity does each person use?

Because neon signs glow brightly, they are very energy-efficient and use far less electricity than you might think. Modern signs are equipped with a 240v transformer. They consume about the same electricity as a single household light bulb (60W-100W).

An LED neon sign can use only 15%-20% more power than traditional neon signs, while incandescent and fluorescent lights will require significantly more.

What is the average life expectancy of these products?

A traditional neon sign’s lifespan is affected by how often it’s used and how well taken care of. While most custom neon signs will last between 8 and 15 years, some continue to work for longer periods.

A sign left on for too long can reduce its lifespan and expose it to electrical surges.

Are neon signs required to conform to regulations?

Yes. Yes. All neon signs must comply with BS EN50107. This British Standard outlines how luminous tube installations (such as neon lights) should be made.

The requirements for neon signs must also be met by the IET Wiring Regulations (another British Standard, BS 7671) which specify how these types of electrical installations should wire.

Always ensure that you check the sticker and markings on any sign before purchasing it.

Companies are legally required to conduct regular fire safety risk assessments and take steps to minimize potential dangers. An assessment would include a neon sign, which is likely to be deemed low-risk in terms of causing a fire.

Is there a better alternative to neon?

Yes. LED neon sign (also known as “faux neon”) is an alternative that uses LED technology to mimic traditional neon without drawbacks.

Below we compare the pros and cons and look at the differences between LED and neon lighting.

Neon vs. LED neon

The most obvious difference is how they produce light.

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 are used to create signs. They are placed close together so that they produce light in a way similar to neon gas glowing in a tube of glass.

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