Imagine you just bought a spiffy, top-of-the-line laptop. It’s the most elite model on the market, and you’re getting ready to do some serious gaming/photoshopping/online poker.
The thing runs great for a while, then all of a sudden it fizzles out and never turns on again. It’s steaming hot to the touch, like your laptop just ran a marathon in a garbage bag.
The point of this anecdote is that electronics consume electricity to run, and much of that energy is lost as heat. How much heat a product generates may not correlate to how cheap or expensive that device was.
But one thing is for certain—laptops, phones and LED signs can really be murdered by excess heat.
If they aren’t designed properly, that is.
This article sheds light on the challenges LED companies face creating affordable, effective heat management, plus the sign “features” that can sometimes cause major issues with overheating if you don’t know what to look for.
Grab a cold one, and let’s get started.
Heat—Signs and Symptoms
The outward symptoms of terminal heat death manifests through degrading color quality, fading light levels, and overall a weak, lackluster appearance.
Unlike “normal” lights—which radiate heat away from themselves—LEDs have the nasty habit of capturing their own heat, which can lead to an untimely demise.
Excess heat damages vital components, leading to all sorts of issues. Usually, the early warning signs of heat damage are the loss of red LEDs, which burn out faster than other colors.
You can probably tell that LED companies can’t stay in business if their signs are melting down within a few hours of use.
That’s why manufacturers spend countless man hours developing better and better ways to manage heat.
There are 3 major ways LED companies approach thermal management:
- Partitioning: Perhaps the most straightforward and common-sense approach, where LED components are separated from the sign’s circuit board, using increased air flow to convey heat away from from sensitive components.
- Metal Core Printed Circuit Boards: Basically, superior circuit boards that are better at dissipating heat—although their high costs get passed down to consumers.
- Heat Sinks: Specially designed, thermally conductive metal components built to collect heat and allow it to dissipate away from sensitive parts.
Any of these methods (or even a combination of them) is a valid way to draw heat away from your LEDs, each with their own pros and cons. However, the point in every case is to keep your sign running cool for as long as possible, letting you squeeze every drop of value out of it over the years.
3 Fatal Design Flaws
Bearing that in mind, let’s examine 3 of the biggest mistakes manufacturers make when it comes to preventing heat death:
- Totally Enclosed LED Components: While LED modules with rear enclosures might seem like a great idea to keep rain out, what that often means is that your sign potentially has no way to suck heat out into the open air. That’s bad for the life of your LED sign. Imagine putting a lid on a boiling pot and you get the idea.
- LED Circuit Boards with Heavy Silicone Coatings: While silicone coatings are great at wicking away built up water and preventing condensation damage, they can also trap a stifling amount of heat if they’re too thick. That’s why it’s way better to use a lightweight conformal coating for your LED modules, which offers the best of both worlds.
- LEDs without Louvers: Louver is just a fancy way to call an overhang that protects your sign from the heat of direct sunlight (they also prevent signs from looking “washed out” during the day). LEDs without louvers take a beating from the sun. If your hometown ever gets hot enough to cook eggs on the sidewalk, imagine what’s happening in your LED sign.
It’s important to bear these 3 design limitations in mind when shopping around for an LED sign. While many manufacturers may make use of these features and found ingenious ways to work around their flaws, some companies aren’t quite as bright.
Their engineering laziness is going to end up costing you. If they can’t explain exactly how or why their design can dissipate heat effectively, you’ve just bought a ticking time bomb that could go off at any time, melting your investment into a puddle of disappointment.